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The (Almost)s

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Friday, January 31, 2014
6:28pm

“I just have a good feeling about this weekend,” Hannah said, thoughtfully twisting a piece of hair around her finger. “Just a really, really good feeling.”

“Oh yeah?” Sam glanced over her shoulder, pausing in hanging up her coat. “Any reason in particular, or just cuz?” She cocked an eyebrow in Hannah’s direction and smiled knowingly—it did feel like it was going to be a good weekend, she had to admit. Winter break hadn’t lasted nearly long enough, and the thought of spending a few days far, far away from textbooks and early morning classes sounded like absolute paradise. But of course, Sam knew Hannah, and so she knew her excitement was hardly from the promise of clear skies and the smell of mountain air.

No, she knew exactly why Hannah had been all but trembling with anticipation since they’d first climbed into the cable car at the base of the mountain. Sam knew her, and that was why her playful smirk lacked a matching, playful laugh.

“Well…I mean…you know…” Hannah’s demeanor suddenly became impassive—an act so obvious that it was almost painful to watch. “Cuz, like…Mike’s coming…” She let her voice trail off, shrugging jerkily in punctuation.

Sam sighed, zipping her coat so that it wouldn’t slip off the hanger. She shut the closet door slowly, considering her words very, very carefully. This was the minefield she’d been trying to avoid the entire trip up to the lodge, and now it seemed she had stepped directly into the blast zone. “Yup,” she agreed, “Mike is definitely coming.” Pausing for a beat, she folded her arms across her chest. “Aaaaand so is Emily.”

The color of Hannah’s face paled and then darkened with embarrassment. She averted her eyes, looking down to the puddles of melting snow gathering around her boots. “But…” A corner of her mouth tucked in, as though in concentration. For a moment, she seemed to consider saying something else, but seemed to think better of it. Instead, she bent down and began painstakingly unlacing her boots.

“But?” Sam prompted, toeing her own boots off, wobbling in an awkward dance to keep her socks from getting wet. When there was no immediate response, she tried again. “But…?”

But Hannah’s attention had been riveted by something else. Eyes wide, boots in hand, she stared at the mat by the door. It was only then, it seemed, she had realized just how many other pairs of shoes sat there, caked with mud and salt. “Oh my God,” she muttered, voice hardly louder than a frantic whisper. She ran the numbers in her head, trying to play a strange matching game between boots and owners. “Who’s already here? Are we the last ones?” And then, even quieter, “Shoot! Is Mike here already?!”

Sam rolled her eyes to the ceiling. And so it begins, she thought to herself, resisting the urge to sigh again. With a soft, albeit very tired, smile, she added her boots to the pile on the mat, reaching over and setting a hand on Hannah’s shoulder. “Han,” she said calmly. “Please chill.” From the other side of the door, almost as if on cue, a gust of wind whistled by, shooting an icy draft through the cracks of the front door. “Oof! Bad choice of words!” she laughed, relieved when Hannah joined in. Sam slid her hand down to Hannah’s elbow, guiding her further into the lodge. “God, I always forget how cold it gets up here…”

“Yeah…I just hope that the storm the weather channel was talking about doesn’t hit until we’re back in class…” Hannah cast one last look out of the entryway’s window before stepping into the warmth of the living area with Sam. “Wouldn’t that be a bummer? If we got totally snowed in?”

“Hmm…getting stuck in a luxury resort instead of going back to class? Yeah, that would definitely be a bummer.” Sam rocked onto the balls of her feet as they paused in front of the coffee table, brow knitting. Save for everyone’s boots on the mat and coats in the closet, there really wasn’t sign of anyone else in the lodge. The shutters were drawn on the windows, barely letting in any of the fading daylight, there was no fire in the grate, there were no cups leaving watery rings on the tables. More to the point, there was no one in the dining room, as far as she could see, no one in the hallway…and even as she strained her ears, there were no voices to be heard. Weird. Could they have been upstairs? Maybe picking out bedrooms for the weekend? They’d find out one way or another, Sam figured, turning back to Hannah as she folded her arms across her chest. “But no more avoiding the question. You were going to say something about Mike and Emily.”

Stepping into the heated room had caused Hannah’s glasses to fog up, but still, Sam could see her eyes dart from one side of the lodge to the other as her own had only a moment ago. Even though there was no one to be seen, she lowered her voice to a tense stage whisper. “I just…I don’t think the whole Mike-and-Emily thing is going to last, that’s all. I don’t think…I don’t think her being here like…necessarily means that nothing’s going to happen. With him, I mean. And me.”

“Because…?”

“Because…I don’t know. They like, fight on Facebook a lot. Not fight-fight, but they get into very stupid, very public arguments. And Mike’s…” Her gaze focused on middle space, becoming more far-off as she thought. “He’s just so much more mature than she is, you know? He’s in college now! He’s probably been figuring himself out and like…” Hannah shrugged, “I don’t know…going on some sort of journey of self-exploration. Maybe he’s realizing that Emily isn’t great for him, and—”

“The only ‘journey of self-exploration’ guys like Michael-Fucking-Munroe ever go on are the kind that involve a pinky up the ass.”

The voice was sudden and unexpected, and close enough behind them that both Hannah and Sam jumped. “Ugh! Josh!!!” Hannah turned around and smacked her brother’s shoulder with a little too much force to be playful. “Don’t do that! And don’t say stuff like that! You’re so gross!”

“Is that the only hello I get? After all I’ve done for you? Ungrateful, that’s what you are,” he turned to Sam, grin wide and self-satisfied. “Sammy!” he said in the same way he had since they had first met—slow, deliberate, and drawling, sounding more like ‘Sam-may’ than anything else. “Girl, how you doing?”

“Get away from us, creep!” Hannah groaned, trying (and failing) to shove him away.

“We were waiting on pins and needles for you ladies!” Josh said, entirely unperturbed as he slid an arm around each of their shoulders, leaning forward to rest all of his weight against them. He smirked good-naturedly as he tightened the arm around Hannah into a joke of a chokehold. “Took you long enough to get up here. We were all starting to worry that you got lost. Or froze to death. Or ran off with a yeti.”

“Hi Josh,” Sam said with a laugh, heart slowing back to its usual rhythm.

“Don’t ‘Hi Josh’ him!” Hannah scowled as she wrestled against Josh’s grip, though she found she was unable to squeeze herself out of it. “Why would you say something like that?”

“What? About the yeti? Look Hannah, you’re my little sister and I love you—dearly—but can you really blame me? Your taste in guys is…well, the polite word is ‘bad.’ The honest word is ‘fucked.’ I think you’d be cute with a yeti.” He chuckled to himself, but feigned confusion when Hannah only glared back at him. “Oh wait, did you mean the pinky thing?” He furrowed his brow in mock concern before leaning in closer to her, almost cheek-to-cheek, knocking her glasses slightly askew. “Oh! Well that’s because, see Hanners, the pinky is the smallest of the fingers—circumference-wise, of course…” as though to illustrate, he held his own pinky up in front of her face, wiggling it slightly. “Which means it’s the easiest to really just…jam right on up your—”

Ugh!” Hannah shoved him again, this time successfully disentangling herself. “Could you not talk like that in front of everyone this weekend, please?” She frowned and folded her arms across herself.

Josh leaned over to Sam, eyes still on Hannah, “Do you think she means that I shouldn’t be dishing out sweet pinky facts? Or do you think she means the whole fingers up the ass thing?”

“Couldn’t tell ya,” Sam joked, picking up Josh’s hand with her own, undraping his arm from her shoulders before letting it drop. “So where’s the rest of the gang?”

“Guess that depends on the gang you’re talking about.”

Reaching up and fixing the clasp of her hairclip, Sam shot him an impatient look. “Uh, you know. The gang. All of them?”

He waved a hand dismissively before folding his arms across his chest and jutting out a hip in a clear mockery of Hannah’s posture. “Gotta be more specific, Sammy. You looking for Friday Night Lights? Or Ferris Bueller’s Day Off?

She would’ve asked for some kind of clarification on that—demanded, really—had there not been a sudden movement from just behind Josh. As if on cue, two figures crested the staircase leading up from the first floor.

Josh frowned for a moment at Sam’s sudden silence, but followed her line of sight, turning to glance over his shoulder. His grin returned immediately and he clapped his hands once. “Cameron, babe! What’s happenin’?”

“Seriously dude? Seriously?” Throwing his arms out to his sides, Chris stopped in the middle of the room. “Why am I always Cameron? I’m funny! I’m charming! I could be Ferris!”

From beside him, Ashley sighed, pursing her lips. “At least you’re not Sloane.”

Sam couldn’t help but snicker quietly to herself as they joined up in their typical triangle formation. The three of them cut a less-than-imposing image together. ‘Awkward’ was the word that occurred most when they were around, and it was ‘awkward’ that made itself comfortable at the forefront of her mind as she watched them riff off of one another.

“Look, I don’t make the rules, you guys,” Josh was saying, holding out a hand in a gesture that seemed nearly parental, “Assigning movie character roles to your friends is a sacred art. Do you have any idea how much effort it takes?” He chuckled to himself, “Speaking of, I thought it was movie time down there. Running away for a little breather? Maybe a little…romantic tête-à-tête?” He quirked a brow and deepened his smirk into what was probably an attempt to look suave.

“Yeah, funny thing about that,” Chris started, covertly checking to make sure Ashley was looking elsewhere before unceremoniously flipping Josh the bird. “Movie time sort of became makeout time.”

Josh reeled back dramatically, spreading his hands wide. “Wait…makeout…oh, oh! Oh congrats! Mazel tov! I’ll keep my eyes peeled for the wedding invite in the mail. And now, what, you’re coming up here to rehydrate? You crazy kids and your hormones. Go, dampen your tongues—the beer should be cold by now.”

It was Ashley’s turn to glare, tucking the corners of her mouth inwards in a show of annoyance. She said nothing, but sucked a breath through her teeth reproachfully.

“Yeah, you can tell cuz my lipstick’s all smudged and shit. Let me just fix that in your mirror real qui—no not us, dingus. Emily and Mike. Like Jesus. It was untenable, the frigging noises they were mak—” The rest of his sentence was lost, though, as the breath was knocked from him with a low ‘oof!’.

Ashley pulled her elbow back from Chris’s side quickly, tensely clearing her throat. “Hi Hannah,” she said pointedly, shooting a lightning-quick glance up at Chris before looking back to the others. “Hi Sam.”

To his credit, Chris had the good sense to appear immediately horrified, and he cast his eyes down toward his shoes. “Oh, yeah, hey guys.” He lifted a hand in a half-hearted wave, still avoiding eye contact. “Did not…see you there…” he muttered under his breath. And then, even quieter, “Behind…Josh…”

Of course, the damage was already done. The moment he had said it, Sam had cringed so hard that she had feared imploding. She looked quickly to Hannah, who had already turned away and bustled herself into the kitchen. Turning back to the others, she drooped her shoulders and mouthed an indignant ‘Really?!’, getting no reply other than three sheepish shrugs. “You could’ve just said everyone was downstairs,” she said to Josh, lowering her voice to a harsh whisper.

“Well, I could’ve. But I think Cochise did a better job, honestly.” He patted Chris on the shoulder in a show of approval.

Dude.”

Helpfully, Josh pointed to the staircase. “Everyone’s downstairs, by the way. Movie room, if you didn’t glean that much.”

“You don’t say.” Sam dropped him one last exasperated look before following after Hannah, stepping into the kitchen. For the time being, the counters were almost suspiciously clean, the room smelling vaguely of lemony cleaning products. It wouldn’t last another couple of hours. She peeked into one of the grocery bags Hannah was rifling through and surreptitiously organizing, stifling a groan as she saw the junky contents. “A weekend of beef jerky and kettlecorn, huh?”

“Oh, that’s just snacks.”

For the second time, Sam startled, yanking her hand away from the bag’s edge. She hadn’t realized Ashley had pulled away from the boys until she had spoken up behind her. It was a special talent of Ashley’s, really, being able to blend into the background so easily.

“Oh, sorry! Did I…shoot, I thought I was making more noise than that.” The apples of her cheeks darkened, and she momentarily bared her lower teeth in a grimace. “My bad, sorry Sam.” Her lips tightened into something resembling a sheepish smile as Sam waved it off, and she briskly walked over to the kitchen island and sat on one of the stools, pulling her feet up to rest against one of its rungs. “We stopped by the store on our way up…the fridge is already packed with stuff so that we can actually cook, but there’s also a bunch of frozen things, too, just in case.” Lazily, she looked over her shoulder to where Hannah had flitted, half in and half out of the refrigerator as she pretended to be entirely riveted by the selection of soda. Ashley’s brow creased, Sam noticed, and there seemed to be a flicker of pity in her expression before she turned back. “Oh, but don’t worry—we made sure to get plenty of vegan-y things, too.”

Sam smiled back, though inwardly shuddering. ‘Vegan-y things,’ in her experience, could mean a lot of stuff. Sometimes it actually meant vegan, sometimes it meant organic, but usually it just meant there was a picture of a tree somewhere on the label. “Thanks,” she said all the same, tapping her fingers against the island. Then, louder, trying to draw Hannah’s attention, “Soooooo. What movie are we watching?”

Shrugging, Ashley slowly dropped one of her legs, letting it swing like a pendulum. “Beats me. Everyone was still arguing over it before Chris and I came up. There are so many to choose from.”

“Please tell me it’s not one of Dad’s.” Hannah finally closed the door to the fridge, cracking open a can of ginger ale. She didn’t quite meet Ashley’s gaze, nor Sam’s, but her expression was nothing short of exhausted. “I don’t think I can like…handle looking at everyone’s faces if we watch one of Dad’s. They don’t…ugh, they don’t need to know what he’s like.”

“What, you think they won’t love watching Blood Monastery?” Sam nudged Hannah with an elbow jovially. “What’s not to love about that?”

“Everything,” Hannah said flatly.

Taking her by the crook of her arm, Sam began leading her back out of the kitchen, nodding towards the staircase. “Then we better get our votes in before Josh and Chris cancel them out.”

“I will never get them,” Ashley sighed from behind them. There was a click, and the lights flicked off, leaving them to navigate the stairs in the half-light. If Ashley took any notice of her mistake, she showed no sign, instead continuing with a sigh, “They’ve watched that stupid movie like…a hundred times, I swear.”

The door to the cinema was wide open as they reached the downstairs landing, and it was then that a murmur of voices could finally be heard, growing louder with each step.

“No! Absolutely not!

“What’s the big deal? It’s a good movie!”

“We said no chick flicks. We’re not watching a chick flick.”

“It’s not a chick flick, Michael.”

“How is The Notebook not a chick flick, Em?!”

With all the lights on, the cinema looked very much like an extremely comfortable rec room of sorts, full of huge, plush bucket seats, overstuffed beanbag chairs, and even a few well coordinated ottomans to use as footrests. To either side, the walls were decorated with full-size movie posters from Mr. Washington’s extensive collection (most featuring bloody and terrifying faces promoting horror titles Sam had grown familiar with, but had never actually sat down and watched). It was the gargantuan screen and speaker system that gave away the room’s true purpose, though currently there was nothing being projected.

As they walked in, one of the earlier voices called out. “Oh thank God, finally some civilized human beings. Sam! Hannah! Will you please inform the class that The Notebook isn’t a chick flick?” From where she was, couched low in one of the rows near the front of the room, Emily was little more than a head floating over the back of the seat. She had all but turned around entirely, fixing both of them with a knowingly contemptuous smile.

Next to her, Mike groaned, his arm still stretched across the back of her seat, despite the fact her shoulders were now entirely out of his reach. He didn’t deign to turn himself at all, instead choosing to let his head loll backwards onto the headrest. “It’s. A. Chick. Flick,” he said, punctuating each word with an emphatic chop of his hand.

“It’s a romantic drama,” Jessica piped in, primly uncrossing and re-crossing her legs. She sat to Emily’s other side, and lifted a hand to finger-wave back to the others. “Just because you don’t understand romance doesn’t mean it’s just some stupid movie.”

“Oh, I understand romance. Don’t I, Em?” he asked, lowering his voice as he turned back to her, waggling his eyebrows suggestively.

A gasp, and Emily turned back to him, playfully smacking his shoulder. “You’re incorrigible!

“I assure you, dear lady, that I don’t know the meaning of the word.”

Sam grit her teeth as Hannah seemed to shrink beside her, looking down to the floor as she cupped a hand around one of her elbows. This, she wanted to say, is why I didn’t want you to get your hopes up. Not that she actually said it aloud (she never did) but the sentiment hung in the air, all the same.

“That’s not a joke. He really doesn’t know what it means.” Beth had since hoisted herself out of one of the giant beanbags, joining them near the entryway. When she caught Sam’s eye, she winked. “They’ve been going at it like this for an hour. Please, kill me now.”

“Nah, Mike’s definitely right.” Matt sat on the floor, flipping through an inordinately huge collection of movies with the concentration of a man trying to defuse a bomb. “It’s definitely a chick flick. My vote’s no on that.”

With the entire group of them talking over each other as they were, the room had the feeling of a hornet’s nest someone had just rudely shaken; there was too much movement, too much chaos, and not a shred of the serenity Sam had been hoping for.

The lights flickered between bright and dim, bright and dim, flashing out a theater’s warning that a show was about to start.

When she turned around, Sam realized the door to the projection room, usually very well camouflaged in the wall, stood open. Chris and Ashley leaned against either side of the doorway like gangly, uncomfortable gargoyles, Chris’s arm hidden as he ostensibly messed with the lights. “Can we make some kind of decision, please?” he called to the rest of the room, cupping his free hand to his mouth to help his voice carry. “Some of us have popcorn to eat."

Whether it was triggered by the lights or the noise, it was difficult to say, but suddenly Hannah stood up a bit straighter, squaring her shoulders. With a surge of determination none of them had expected, she split off from where she’d been standing with Sam and Beth, sidling her way into the row of seats already partially taken up by the others. Before she could think too hard about what she was doing, she took the empty seat to Mike’s right, managing a nervous, excited smile when he turned to her. “Hey Mike,” she said, hoping the dimmed lights would hide most of her flush.

“Hey Hannah,” he smiled back, voice smooth, but not interested so much as entertained. “How you doing?”

Sam felt her stomach drop just slightly as she saw Emily and Jessica pause mid-conversation to watch Hannah take her seat. They turned back to each other with sharp, unreadable smiles—the sort of thing that was immediately recognizable as best-friend-telepathy. Whatever message they had shared, Sam doubted it was of the sweet and understanding variety. She winced as though tasting something sour, hoping that they would keep their snickering to themselves. They were all friends, after all.

But maybe ‘friends’ was a bit of a stretch.

Beside her, Beth sighed quietly. “Looks like another weekend of this, huh?” she asked from the side of her mouth.

“Who knows…maybe…maybe things will work out.” Sam could feel Beth’s disbelief radiating from off of her without having to look at her face. “Hannah said she had a good feeling about this weekend. Maybe she’s right. Stranger things have happened.”

“Mhm,” she hummed noncommittally, dropping her arms to her sides before making her way back to the beanbag she’d been sitting in earlier. “They better watch themselves,” Beth said quietly as she passed Sam. “They know the drill, right? Mess with one twin, the other’ll eat ‘em alive.” She jokingly bared her teeth, flexing her fingers like claws.

Laughing quietly, Sam walked alongside her, opting for the beanbags as well, wanting to let Hannah have her time with Mike. “Sorry I can’t help with that one.”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah, meat is murder, blah blah blah…”

“Well, that, and I’m not too sure anyone here would taste that good.”

“Stringy, probably.”

Before Sam had time to laugh, the projector clicked on at the back of the room, quietly whirring. Everyone grew deathly silent, then, looking to the bright circle of light being projected onto the screen.

“Okay!” Josh called out, immediately riveting the room in that way that he had, holding his hands out to either side. He stood directly in front of the screen, casting a crisp shadow against it. “We are a democracy! We listen to what the people want! And the people have said they do not want chick flicks, so. No chick flicks.” He waved his hands again before anyone could so much as groan, calling for perfect quiet. “We’ve also had recommendations for…” at that, he paused, making a great ordeal of pulling a crumpled piece of paper out of his back pocket and unfolding it. He squinted melodramatically, like an old geezer who’d forgotten their bifocals. “No vampire movies, regardless of how dreamy the main character is! No heartwarming sports movies where the group of loveable misfits wins despite all odds! No movies where the dog dies—oh come on, guys, for real? And lastly…not Frozen.” He folded the paper back over, sucking a breath in through his teeth. “Well, I can, in all honesty, say that I agree with at least one of those.”

There were a few laughs from the crowd at that, and Josh’s smirk only widened. If there was one thing that could be said of Josh Washington, it was that the man enjoyed having a captive audience.

“With this in mind! I would like to make my own suggestion—a suggestion, I will point out, that meets all the requirements you lovely people have set forth already.”

“Not Blood Monastery.”

In the light, his eyes seemed to catch a spark, glinting brightly. “Not sure which of my sisters that was, but they can kindly shut the fuck up. Blood Monastery is a work of genius, and—”

“Isn’t that the one where the nuns start murdering people?” The sneer was evident in Jessica’s voice. “I don’t want to watch anything gory!

There was a general rumble of approval, and Josh threw his arms up. “Firstly, priests. It was priests killing people. Secondly, you people have no culture. No class. Wouldn’t know fine cinema if it came out of the ground and bit you on the ass. I hope you all recognize that.”

“Yeah, we’ll live!” Beth snickered, pulling her knees up to her chest as she sank further into her beanbag.

Finally, he gave in, walking over to the comically thick folder of movies Matt had been flipping through, grabbing a disc at random. “Fast & Furious?” he asked the room, spreading his arms out wide once more, not unlike Russell Crowe in Gladiator. “Will that entertain you peasants?” He waited for roughly half a second, and when there were no immediate protests, he took a few steps forward. “Hey, Cochise, you know what to do.” Flicking his wrist, he sent the disc flying over the rows of seats, spinning towards the projection room like a frisbee.

“I—oh shit oh shit oh shit…” Chris missed the disc by a country mile, reaching for it just a second too late. It bounced off the wall with a small, unimportant sound, and flew another few inches before falling impotently to the ground. There was a smattering of applause as he had to bend down to grab it, but instead of showing any sign of embarrassment, he favored them all with a sweeping bow and a blown kiss before disappearing into the room to load the movie.

Making herself comfortable, Sam let her eyes fall back to Hannah, who was occasionally leaning over and trying to steal a few seconds of Mike’s attention. She released a slow huff of breath, turning her gaze instead to Josh as he sauntered his way to the very last row of seats, making himself comfortable smack dab in the center-most spot. Ashley tentatively stepped over the back of the chairs, plopping down into the one next to him. Though Sam couldn’t hear what they were whispering about as the screen suddenly burst to life showing the movie’s menu, she could guess well enough as Josh gestured towards the backs of the others. He pantomimed yawning widely and stretching his arms out before pretending to subtly drape one across Ashley’s shoulders. Sam watched as Ashley laughed, momentarily pressing one of her hands to her cheek and batting her eyelashes at Josh. An instant later, she was rolling her eyes, both of their shoulders shaking with titters. As soon as the anti-piracy warnings came onscreen, Chris slid from out of the projection room, hopping over the back of the chairs as well, sitting on Ashley’s other side.

She turned back to the screen, grabbing one of the blankets from the floor and wrapping herself in it. In no time at all, they were all reacting as one unit, laughing and groaning and cheering in turn, and her earlier apprehension melted away.


***

11:15pm

By the time the party was in full swing a few hours later, Sam was already exhausted. It was some horrible cocktail of school stress, traveling, and cheap rum, she thought, clouding her brain and making everything in the room feel too…real.

There was a very loud game of flip cup happening in the kitchen, made all the more loud by the tooth-rotting bubblegum pop Jessica was blasting through the Washington’s speakers. Earlier, there had been attempts to get her to play along too, but she’d laughed and shrugged them off until they’d left her alone. It wasn’t that she didn’t want to play, or that she didn’t want to hang out with the others, but there was a numb sort of ache she’d been nursing since the movie ended and Hannah had continued tagging along with Mike. If anything, she just didn’t want to watch Hannah keep trying, knowing how futile it all was. She also didn’t want to keep pretending she didn’t see the way Emily and Jessica kept whispering behind their hands or cups or slices of pizza. It felt like high school cafeteria drama all over again.

Staring down into the remnants of her plastic cup, Sam suddenly felt way too warm. She tightened her lips and decided she was done for the night, walking back into the brightly lit kitchen just long enough to empty the rest of her drink into the sink. If she’d been worried anyone would try and pull her into the game again, those fears were misplaced; everyone seemed to be moving in some way, all blurs of color and loud voices, but no one so much as looked away from the table when she made her appearance. Not one to look a gift horse in the mouth, Sam exited just as quietly, glad for a sliver of alone time.

The rest of the lodge seemed almost unnaturally still as she wandered through it, casually running her fingers along the banisters or pausing to look at family photos. She’d only been to Blackwood Pines a handful of times since meeting Hannah freshman year, and each time it seemed to feel as though the lodge grew bigger and bigger, the vaulted ceiling of the great room higher with each passing visit. She had crossed the entire first floor before too long, walking in a wide, curving path, and once she made it to the staircase, she paused.

Sam wasn’t drunk, not exactly, but the thought of going up or down the polished, shiny, slippery stairs wasn’t terribly appealing, either way. Instead, seized with her earlier dreams of fresh air, she weaved her way back over to the mat where her boots sat, stepping into them gingerly. Her coat was still hanging in the closet, but she was so hot…She stepped outside before thinking too deeply on it.

Almost immediately, her eyes fluttered shut and she took the deepest breath she was capable of, filling her lungs with the cold, crisp mountain air. When she reopened her eyes, she was met with the startling beauty of the woods. Though the sky was completely black, the lack of lights made each star stand out like a white-hot pinprick, freckling her view with constellations. The storm the weather channel had warned about was still some ways away, the horizon beginning to dim with menacing grey clouds, but the faintest flurry had already started, fat snowflakes lazily drifting down to dust the tree branches. This was what she had come out here for—not ridiculous crush drama, not getting shitfaced, and especially not the questionable food choices—the majesty of the mountain, getting closer to nature.

Leaning against a banister, Sam craned her head to get a better look at the surrounding trees, trying to catch a glimpse of any sign of wildlife. But there were no eyes shining in the darkness, nor were there any howls. But if she strained her ears…

Well that was weird.

Furrowing her brow as if it would help her better make out the sound, Sam leaned even farther forward over the rail. It wasn’t the party inside, and it definitely wasn’t the buzz of any electrical generator the lodge might’ve needed, but it was…familiar.

She glanced over her shoulder to the door, and then, likely due to having just one drink too many, made up her mind to investigate. Carefully, she walked down the icy stairs until she landed on solid ground, well aware that only minutes before, she had decided the indoor stairs were too risky to attempt.

Narrowing her eyes and slowly creeping along the side of the lodge, she followed the strange hum. As she walked, she began to hear something else, as well—a voice. There was a moment where her heart sank, suddenly reminded of an offhanded comment Beth had made earlier about ‘some weirdo hanging around the property lately.’ The memory triggered an awful moment of clarity in her. This was how people got murdered in shitty movies! Was she really the moron who died in the first ten minutes? What did she think she was doing out there in the middle of the woods? Why on Earth was she just wandering around, alone, in the dark, following random noises?

Her only answer was that she was tired. And maybe just a little bit tipsy. The combination of those two facts seemed to make it imperative that she figure out what the sound was. With the lightest footsteps she could manage, she continued on, reaching into her pocket for her phone, just in case.

The humming grew louder and louder in the dark, and as she focused, she picked up on a new sound. Splashing? Her brow knit further. Everything on the mountain was frozen solid…there shouldn’t have been any free-running water. Even the ponds near the lodge had been glassed over with ice, so then what…

Her careful steps weren’t careful enough, apparently, as something brittle snapped under her boot.

“Oh shit,” came the voice, whispered and frantic.

“Shut up—shut up!!” came a second.

There was more than one person out there?!

Steeling herself, Sam charged forward, thumb flicking on her phone’s flashlight. She wasn’t sure what she had expected—someone casing the lodge, trying to find a way to break in, maybe—but she was still caught off-guard.

Christ! Could you not shine that directly in my eyes?”

“Oh, phew…it’s just Sam.” Ashley had slid down further into the bubbling water of the hot tub at the intrusion, but sat up a bit straighter as she made the realization. She squinted against the phone’s light, raising a hand to shield her eyes. “Hi Sam,” she added, twiddling the fingers of her lifted hand in a half-wave. Her hair was tied up in a little knot at the back of her head, but a few loose tendrils hung wet behind her ears.

“Yeah, hi Sam—again, light is…directly in my eyes. Am I not blind enough for you people?” Chris had both hands covering his face, and only let them drop once Sam toggled her flashlight function off. In the quick glimpse she’d gotten in the light, the lenses of his glasses had seemed entirely fogged over. “Thank you.”

Josh turned to look over his shoulder, the only one of the three who’d had his back to her. “Busted, huh?” he chuckled, “Well, that sucks.”

Relieved, Sam blew out a deflated raspberry, raking her hands through her hair. She hadn’t even realized the three of them were missing from the kitchen. “Are you guys kidding me? I thought you were like…burglars or something.”

“Burglars,” Josh said, fixing her with a look that was caught somewhere between amusement and disbelief. “Mountaintop burglars.”

“I don’t know!” And then she was laughing, folding her arms across her chest. She could see the hot tub steaming, even in the dark, and the air around them suddenly seemed much, much colder by comparison. “What are you even doing out here?”

“Oh, you know,” Chris said, leaning his head back and closing his eyes as he sank down deeper into the water. “Discussing taxes, considering 401k options, trying to really nail down how to optimize those retirement funds. The usual.”

“We were just trying to get some quiet, that’s all. We figured everyone had, like, forgotten this was out here, so…” Ashley shrugged, shivering at a faint gust of wind, ducking back down until only her head was above the water. “Thought we’d enjoy it before everyone wanted to.”

“Before Mike and Emily started exchanging fluids in it, you mean.” Chris grimaced at the thought.

Sam rolled her eyes, walking up to the edge of the tub and leaning down to test the water with her hand. “They are kind of gross with that, huh?”

“Hey, Shouty McShoutsalot, maybe keep your voice down, huh?” With a flick of his wrist, Josh sent a fine spray of water in Sam’s direction. “The whole plan was not having other people find us. So. If you could join the Whisper Brigade, that’d be…well, it would just be swell.” He smiled wide, spreading his arms out along the edge of the tub. “Looks like you needed a little quiet time, huh? A little Sammy Siesta, if you will.”

True though it was, she wasn’t about to admit it. “Maybe I just thought I’d pop out here and check out the stars. We never get skies this clear at home.” She craned her head back, looking up at the sky, but already those grey clouds had crept in on the wind, obscuring the stars and clearly pregnant with snow. She doubted that the storm would be holding off for much longer. “Aaand apparently we don’t get them too clear up here, either. Not for long, anyway. I swear, just a minute ago, I could see everything.

“Y’know Sammy, if you’re tired of the Peanut Gallery, you’re allowed to say so,” Josh dropped her a knowing wink. “We’re all big boys and girls here, and I think we can all admit that sometimes, uh…sometimes big parties are more fun in theory than they are in practice.”

It was hard to tell over the bubbling of the hot tub, but Sam thought she could almost hear Ashley make a small, contemptuous noise of agreement.

“You wanna join?” Chris asked, mirroring Josh and spreading his arms out over the sides. “Water’s fine. Only downside is…you gotta listen to these two shmucks argue about movies.”

“It’s not arguing if one person is right and the other is wrong,” Josh said, and something about his tone suggested he was picking up the conversation from where Sam had interrupted. “Then it’s just education.”

Across from him, Ashley stuck out her tongue. “For the last time, there’s more to visual storytelling than just shock-value, Josh!”

“If you don’t get a reaction, then it’s not art, Ash!”

“Yelling at a jump scare isn’t even in the same universe as having an actual emotional response!”

“Since when does being scared not count as an emotion?!”

Now who’s shouting?” The two silenced immediately, abruptly turning back to face her, and it was Sam’s turn to smirk. “Seriously, you guys don’t have to worry too much about the noise level. They’re…pretty oblivious, in there.” As though to reassure herself, Sam momentarily glanced in the general direction of the kitchen. It was probably just her imagination, but she could’ve sworn she heard distant cheering. “And I don’t think so. I’m not really dressed for the occasion.” She smiled, “I don’t think I even brought a bathing suit. It’s cold as all getout, out here!”

Josh waved her off. “Bathing suit, schmathing suit. None of us brought suits.” He leaned in towards Sam confidentially. “Between you and me, I’m actually naked in here.”

“No he’s not,” Ashley said firmly, offering Sam a tired look.

“No he’s not,” Chris agreed before leaning forward, moving closer to Sam as well, “But I am.”

“They’re not.”

“Yeah, I think I’ll leave you guys alone now that I know you’re not gonna burgle the place.” Sam paused, “That really is a fun word to say, isn’t it?” It became very hard not to laugh out loud as all three of the others muttered it to themselves in turn. “You guys enjoy your dorky spa treatment, I guess.”

“Ah,” Chris held up a finger admonishingly, “We are not dorks, madam. We are nerds, thank you.”

You’re a nerd,” Ashley mumbled.

“Your mom’s a nerd,” Chris countered without missing a beat.

Josh turned to Chris, “You leave Ash’s mom out of this. She is a fine, upstanding, bangable lady, and I won’t have you besmirching her name.”

Ew! Seriously?”

“Your mom is hot, Ash, this is something you’re going to need to come to terms with. Especially once I am your new step-dad.”

She shoved her arms outward, sending a wave of water splashing into his face. “You’re so sick.”

Chris angled himself more towards Ashley, “Don’t you talk to your father that way, young lady.”

Step-father,” Josh corrected, shaking his head quickly from side to side to get the water out of his eyes.

Sam simply watched them, brow furrowed as the exchange took place. In another strange moment of clarity (not unlike the sort usually triggered by looking into a stranger’s bathroom mirror after a night of drinking), she had the strangest impression that she was seeing them—really seeing them—for the first time. She had known Josh about as well as anyone knew their friend’s siblings, and she’d had a class or two with Chris and Ashley in the past, but up until that very moment, she hadn’t realized how little she actually knew them. They were their own unit, a self-contained group with their own in-jokes and history. Without fully knowing why, the thought warmed the space inside her chest.

“You guys always communicate in skits like that?” she asked, smiling despite herself. “Yeah, well, now I’m definitely gonna say ‘no’ on the joining you thing.” She stood back up, hugging her arms to her chest against the cold. “Oh, but what do you want me to say if anyone asks where you are?” As if on cue, all three looked back to her with matching expressions; You know better than that, those looks said. And she realized she did. For all of their ridiculousness, the three were fairly skilled at not being missed. They did their own thing, and, as she thought about it, none of them really regularly hung out with any of the others at the party. The chances of anyone asking where they’d gone were slim to none. Sighing, she laughed again. “What if. One of you, at least, has two sisters in there who might come looking for you.”

In another strange show of synchronicity, the three answered in almost perfect unison.

“We took a walk,” Ashley offered with a slight shrug.

“Decided to perform a Satanic ritual in the woods,” Chris said, flashing Sam two quick finger-guns before dropping his arms back into the water.

“Orgy,” came Josh’s curt reply.

There was a moment of silence before they all snickered amongst themselves.

“Okay, okay, no, hang on…we gotta get our story straight, guys. So Sammy…if anyone asks…” Josh tilted his head back up to her. “We took a walk into the woods, where we’re having an orgy as part of a Satanic ritual.”

“No we aren’t,” Ashley insisted. When Josh shot her a glance, she raised an eyebrow, “You definitely need four or more people for something to be considered an orgy. I think. That…sounds right, doesn’t it?”

Sam had the impression that Josh had been ready to drag Ashley for being a stick-in-the-mud, but at that, he brightened up considerably. “Aw fuck. Hey Sammy, you sure you don’t wanna get in on this, then? Think about it: you could be our number four.” He dropped another salacious wink.

She narrowed her eyes, letting her head tilt to the side in a mockery of contemplation before she pulled her lips up in a humorless smile. “Yeah…no. You guys go ahead without me.”

“Shit guys, you heard her. No orgy.”

Chris gasped loudly, audibly clapping his hands to his face, dragging his fingers down his cheeks. “But the ritual!!!

There was more laughter and another loud splash, but Sam had already turned around and begun the walk back into the lodge. It had been a nice little break from the chaos inside—if not strange—but she thought she was ready to face the group again. She couldn’t keep from smiling to herself, though. At least there were some people having fun together. Maybe if everyone kept being weird, and if Hannah couldn’t let the Mike thing go…well, maybe she’d take them up on their next offer, and join the nerd table for a while.


***

Saturday, February 1, 2014
12:47am

There was a rumble of laughter from downstairs loud enough that it could be heard even through the closed door. It was the kind of sound that inspired serious FOMO, suggesting that the rest of the group was having a grand ol’ time as they partied it up in the lodge, but the most it inspired in Ashley was a brief glance towards the floor. She marked the line of her book with a finger, craning her head around to check that the bedroom door was still shut.

It was.

She took the interruption as an opportunity to reposition herself, letting out a slight ‘oomph!’ of breath as she dropped onto her stomach. The springs of Josh’s mattress groaned slightly as she propped herself up on her elbows, wriggling this way and that to attain peak comfort levels. Once the guys came back and it was time to crash for the night, she’d be relegated to the futon along the far wall, per the usual; however, left to her own devices as she was, she was able to sprawl out however she pleased across the bed. She planned to take full advantage of that.

In a matter of moments, she had been sucked back into the story, the party below her already long forgotten. It was difficult to say how much time passed like that, the combination of Josh’s thick comforter and her warm pajamas lulling her into the early stages of snoozing, the dark mystery of the novel unfolding before her eyes, but she figured it had to be considerable, given how very sleepy she was when interrupted next.

The door clicked shut behind Chris as he walked in. He was mid-yawn, but did nothing to cover it, instead opting to make as much noise with it as he possibly could. “Oh, sorry, are you trying to concentrate?” he joked, flopping down onto the bed beside her. He rolled over onto his stomach to mimic her, and it was only then that he turned to see the expression she was watching him with. “What, am I unwelcome?

“You’re half on top of me, you lug.”

“So move over.”

“I was here first, Chris,” she protested, making a point to whine as childishly and nasally as possible.

“And it’s a full-sized bed, Ash.”

“Whatever…” Already, though, she was scooting to give him more room, keeping her page marked. “You’re obnoxious…” she muttered as he tossed and turned, purposely making the bed bounce under them. “So much for my me-time, huh? Right out the window.”

Chris laughed, momentarily contorting himself to grab one of Josh’s pillows. “I will be as quiet as a dormouse if you want me to be.” He brought the pillow up to the foot of the bed where they were lying, hugging it under his chest to get more comfortable. “Okay, that’s a lie. I can’t go around making outrageous promises like that.”

“Mhm,” Ashley hummed, leaning over to nudge him affectionately with her shoulder. “Well you better try, because I’m almost done with this chapter, and it’s literally impossible to stop reading mid-chapter.”

Literally? Is it literally impossible?”

“I’m literally going to push you onto the floor.”

He gasped loudly, both of them chuckling afterwards. Pulling his glasses off, he pretended to inspect a smudge on one of his lenses until the exact moment Ashley opened the book and lowered her gaze again. “So, what’re we reading, tonight?”

Making no attempts to hide her groan, she tapped at the book’s cover with her index finger, trying to bury her face in the pages.

“Hmm…Rebecca, by…Daphne du Maurier,” he attempted a French accent as he read the author’s name, and the results were tragic, at best. “I’m gonna make a guess, okay? Gonna test my psychic abilities.”

Quickly realizing that she absolutely was not going to finish the chapter, Ashley lowered the book to the bed again, swiveling her head to meet Chris’s eyes. “Okay,” she sighed expectantly.

He slid his glasses back on and screwed his eyes shut, rubbing at both temples with his fingers. “Hmm…hmm…okay, I think I’m getting a message from the spirit world. The spirits say…”

“Are you supposed to be a psychic or a medium right now?”

“The spirits don’t like being questioned!

She snorted a laugh, rolling her eyes. Ashley remained silent besides that, just watching his little show.

Chris’s brow furrowed and his lips tightened into a thin slash. “The spirits are telling me…that you’re reading…a murder mystery…with…with…wait, hold on…ah, yes, I see it clearly now…a lady protagonist who…who…who…oh come on, spirits, don’t let me down…who ends up being romanced by the culprit!” He opened his eyes again and offered her a shit-eating grin. “How’d I do?”

If it was possible for a human face to look less impressed than Ashley’s did at that precise moment, it would’ve been a sight to see. “I don’t just read mysteries, Chris.”

“Uh, yes you do, Ash.” Moving a bit closer, he peered over her shoulder, trying to make out the print. “You’re not answering, which means I’m right. I am, aren’t I? Here, let me…Jesus Christ that’s a tiny font.” Setting his chin on her shoulder, Chris skimmed a few lines, “Hmm…no one’s talking about a murder. But I’m still willing to put money on it being a murder mystery.”

“It’s not.” She heaved another weary sigh, shoulders slouching. “Okay, not…exactly. It’s more complicated than that.”

Aha! Never doubt the spirits. They know their shit. And, per chance, does the main character get romanced by the culprit?”

“Please stop saying ‘romancing,’” she begged with a laugh. “And again, no. Not…not exactly. It’s…it’s a complicated thing to explain. Like, yeah, okay, there’s a murder, and there’s a mystery, but it’s not really a murder mystery. And there’s a romance, but it’s not…romantic? It’s just…it’s got this foreboding sort of feel to it, and a kind of desperation, almost? And it’s mysterious, yeah, but it’s also really sad, and—” she stopped, feeling Chris’s eyes on her. “What?”

Snickering, he shook his head. “God, you’re a nerd.”

“Because I read? I’m a nerd because I read? That’s what you’re saying to me right now?”

“Did I say that? I don’t think I said that. I may have suggested it, or implied it, but…”

Going entirely boneless, she let her arms flop over the foot of the bed, smashing her face into the mattress in surrender. She felt Chris pull back to keep from falling with her, but he didn’t react otherwise, save to laugh. “You’re like a toddler who needs everyone’s attention.” Ashley turned her head so that she could be heard, though her hair covered most of her face.

“Not everyone’s,” he argued.

“Just mine, then?”

“Now why do you have to say it like that?” The flatness of her stare made him laugh again, and he released the pillow just long enough to raise his hands innocently. “I’m serious—okay, I’m done. For real. I will let you finish your chapter.” Chris watched she blew her hair out of her face to show him how high she had raised both eyebrows. “You want me to pinky promise?” When she said nothing, he put his hand out in front of her face, wiggling his pinky temptingly.

For a long moment, Ashley simply stared at his finger, watching him wave it around. Pushing herself back up onto her elbows, she briefly hooked her own pinky around it, shooting him one last reproachful glance. “Fine. Let’s see if you’re physically capable of silence.” She watched him mime zipping his lips shut before leaning in close again, head not quite on her shoulder, but definitely close enough to read what was on the page. Nestling herself back into the comforter, Ashley smiled, needing only a moment of skimming before she found where she’d left off.

There really wasn’t much of the chapter left, but she found it almost infinitely harder to read like that. She told herself that if Chris was actually reading along with her, it wouldn’t be polite to keep going at her usual pace, but that was bullshit and she knew it. No, what had really happened was that she had gotten about a paragraph in before registering how close the two of them were—she could feel Chris’s shoulder against hers, one of his legs against hers, could feel how warm he was. At that moment, it clicked that there was an inch, maybe two, separating them. If he suddenly decided to, all Chris would have to do was turn the tiniest bit, and he could kiss her.

Or, she realized, she could kiss him.

As soon as that scandalous thought occurred to her, a brilliant heat began to creep into her cheeks and needle at the tips of her ears. She swallowed hard around the lump in her throat, pointedly setting the book down as she turned away from him and towards the bedroom door. “Hang on, I just…uh, I thought you were helping Josh find the SNES? What happened with that?” Suddenly, the image of Josh walking through the door and finding them curled up together in his bed bore down on her like a ton of bricks. Ashley felt her face grow even hotter.

Chris pulled back for a second, jarred out of his own thoughts. If she had been looking his way instead of at the door, Ashley might’ve realized that the train of thought she’d interrupted had been remarkably close to her own. He cleared his throat slightly, his mouth feeling particularly dry. “I couldn’t find anything even close to the box he was talking about. He never showed up to help me look through the storage room, so I guess I figured…” he stopped, eyes scanning the room as though he’d only just remembered what he was supposed to be doing. “He would be…up…here…already…” Chris frowned and hefted himself off of the bed, peering around the corner to the alcove where Josh’s closet was. “And he’s…definitely not.”

“He’s definitely not.” Ashley dog-eared her page before setting the book down, dropping her chin into her hands.

Silently, he stalked around the room, eyes narrowed in contemplation. Finally, he paused back in front of the bed, looking down at Ashley. “Is he under the bed?” he half-mouthed, half-whispered, pointing down towards the floor with dramatic, jerky movements.

There was no fighting her laughter, even as she rolled her eyes. It was always a relief to go back to joking around when things got…well, when things got close like that. Loath as she was to admit it, it was just easier than dealing with the butterflies swarming her stomach. “No,” she stage-whispered back. It didn’t stop him from immediately dropping into a crouch to check, though, and as he flipped the comforter up, he somehow managed to only narrowly miss smacking her in the face with it. “Nice,” Ashley joked, pushing it back to drape over the bed. “Real nice. Did you find him?”

“No.” Chris grunted with the effort of standing back up from his squat, brushing his knees off. “You were right—as always. God, he really needs to vacuum under there. Enough dust to bury a body in.” He leaned down, setting his hands against the footboard of Josh’s bed; he realized a second too late how very close that put him to Ashley’s face. He pretended very, very hard not to notice the proximity, or whether she was noticing the proximity. “So…wanna go make sure he’s not lost?”

She primly lifted an eyebrow as she looked up at him, again trying to tamp down the fluttering in her stomach. “Chris, if Josh got lost in his own family’s vacation home, he doesn’t really deserve to be found.”

He feigned shock, wagging a finger in her face. “You’re mean. I hope you know that, Ash. You’re fucking mean.”

“Mhm.” She pushed herself up from where she’d been lying, situating herself until she came to rest cross-legged atop the bed. “I’m not gonna go wander through the lodge in the middle of the night. He’ll be back.”

“This is what I’m saying—you’re mean. Do you not care for the welfare of your friend at all? He could be dead,” Chris admonished her. “Or worse, he could be playing spin-the-bottle down there. Without us.”

“Wait, wait. Exactly how is that worse than being dead, in your mind?”

“It’s worse, Ash, because without us down there, that means that, uh…hold up.” He stood back up and lifted both of his hands, lips pulling into a strange shape as he counted off names on his fingers. “Emily, Mike, Jess, Matt, Sam, Hannah, Beth…that means two out of the seven potential kissees are related to him, and honestly? Those are not great odds.”

She sighed even as she began to stand up. “Kissees?”

“Would you have preferred kiss-cipients?

Her head lolled back onto her shoulders as she stared up towards the ceiling. No part of her wanted to laugh—laughter only encouraged that sort of terrible behavior—but there was nothing she could do to stop it. “I would prefer that you never say that again.”

“That’s fine, I see how it is. You know, most great artists wander through life unappreciated. Once I’m dead and gone, you’ll regret saying that.” He made a grand show of offering her his hand to help her off the bed, bowing in a manner that was, in his opinion, most gentlemanly, indeed. “You’ll weep over my coffin and be all ‘Oh, I should’ve laughed at Chris’s jokes more! I should’ve told him how funny he was all the time, and also how handsome and charming he was! Now he’s dead, and the light of my life is just gone! Whatever will I do, now that the only interesting person in my life is totally done-zo?’

“Well, for one, I’d get to remember what silence sounded like for the first time in…ever.” Ashley had spent what felt like just a bit too long considering Chris’s hand before she took it, swinging her legs over the bed to stand up. “The second thing I’d do is probably bask in the relief that I wouldn’t have to pity-laugh anymore, honestly.” She paused, “Wait. ‘Light of my life?’

Pity-laugh?! Why don’t you just stab me right in the heart, Ash? Just fucking kill me, right here and now. Bury me in the dust trap under Josh’s bed. It’s where I belong.”

She made for the door, turning around just long enough to point accusingly at him. “If anyone down there makes fun of me for being in my pajamas, I will kill you. And I will hide your body under the bed. So remember that you asked for it.”

“Yeah, you in your super embarrassing t-shirt and sweatpants, I’m sure you’ll be the talk of the town.” Chris left the lights on but tugged the door shut behind them, matching stride with her once they were back out in the hallway. “Trust me, I think you’d have to do a lot more than that to get the Mean Girls’ focus off of Hannah.”

“That’s not funny.”

“I’m not trying to be funny! It’s painful to watch. It’s not just me, right?”

Ashley let her fingers dance along the railing as they reached the top of the staircase. “Definitely not just you.”

“I don’t get it. It’s like none of them have ever had it bad for someone who didn’t like them back.” The sentiment hung between them, making the air feel particularly heavy. “Anyway,” Chris muttered, clearing his throat, “Time for happy faces.”

They descended the stairs onto the second floor, immediately drawn to the noise filling the great room. The entirety of the huge L-shaped sectional was covered with bodies, some sprawling, some sitting, but all laughing. The coffee table was a mess of opened snack bags and red plastic cups, but it was clear that the craziness was beginning to wind down. It looked like there had been a game of Cards Against Humanity going, judging by the scattered piles of black and white cards on the couch and floor, but it had been forgotten somewhere along the line; now the others were swiping through their phones and occasionally showing the screens to someone else, laughing in that high, raucous way that suggested being overtired. Only Hannah and Sam sat away from the group, having their own quiet talk on the piano bench on the far side of the room. Every so often, Hannah would let her fingers crawl across the keys, and a tiny, tinkling melody would undercut the buzz of conversation.

Chris peered across the room for any sign of Josh. When he found none, he folded his arms across his chest and approached the couch. “Oooh, and what’re we doing here?” he gasped in lieu of a greeting. He bent down to the coffee table and grabbed a handful of chocolate candies from a large dish. Without even looking, he reached his hand behind himself, offering some to Ashley before popping a few in his mouth. “From the way you’re laughing, my guess is you’re going through Beth’s class photos from middle school. My personal fav? Sixth grade.” Once he caught her eye, he flashed Beth a particularly horrible open-mouthed smile and looked distantly off to the side.

Beth shot him a glare that was nothing short of withering, taking an unnecessarily loud drink from her soda’s straw. “At least I’m only ugly some of the time, Hartley.” She stuck her tongue out at him, but her tone was more playful than insulted. Still, she took the time to shove Jessica’s shoulder when the other girl leaned over and giggled.

“We were playing cards,” Matt cut in, “But someone kept throwing theirs when they lost…”

Mike lifted his drink into the air in a toast, Emily curled comfortably up against his side. “Guilty as charged!”

“So we stopped.”

Chris snickered and shook his head, letting Ashley pluck a couple more candies from his hand. “Aw man, and here we were, expecting to join in on the world championships of spin-the-bottle. Or I mean, at least truth-or-dare. You guys aren’t very good at sleepovers, huh? Posers.”

At the mere mention of the games, Jessica and Emily whipped their heads around to give each other gleeful looks. At the precise moment they started to laugh, Beth fixed her stare fully on Chris again, lips tight in poorly restrained frustration. She flipped him off, waving her other hand elaborately to draw attention to it as a game show hostess might.

He grinned and popped the last of the chocolate in his mouth before brandishing two finger-guns at Beth in return. “For real though, any of you guys see Josh come through here? He was supposed to be looking for some video game shit, but we’ve been waiting upstairs for like…everrrrrr,” he drawled jokingly.

“Mmm, no Josh, huh?” Emily asked. She leaned herself back against Mike, drumming the fingers of her hand absently against his leg as she gave the both of them a quick once-over. “Sure wonder what you two have been up to, all alone upstairs.” She smirked and lifted her drink to her lips, not breaking eye contact for a moment.

“Reading.” Ashley answered curtly, posture going tense. She had already averted her eyes, feeling the others’ stares like red-hot lasers, and she should only hope that her face wasn’t half as flushed as it felt.

Mike snickered at that, lifting both of his hands so that the group could see the air-quotes he made with his fingers. “Ah yes, reading. I know that one.”

“Yeah, cool, real funny.” Chris, who was in fact twice as red as Ash’s face felt, quickly turned to Hannah instead, eyes plaintive. “Where might he go looking for video game shit?”

“Um…storage room?” she offered, glancing to Sam briefly. She covered her mouth to hide the fact she was eating as she spoke, “You know, at the end of the hall?”

Becoming increasingly aware of the barbed laughter from the others, Chris tried his best to keep from reacting any further. It was hard, though—it was real fucking hard. “That’s where I was earlier. No-go. Anywhere else?”

That time, she glanced at Beth before shrugging. “Basement? Probably. That’s where Mom and Dad put everything that doesn’t fit in storage.”

“Basement it is. Thanks.” He nodded jerkily back towards the stairs, but Ashley was already five steps ahead of him, doing her best to slip away from the group as quickly and quietly as possible. Chris puffed out his cheeks with a huff of a sigh, uncomfortably scratching at the nape of his neck as they made their way down to the first floor. “Ever think we’ll get invited to the popular kids’ table?” he asked humorlessly.

It was difficult to say whether she heard him or not, as Ashley’s only response was a tense, “God, I hate the basement.”

He reached over and lightly patted the back of her shoulder. “Everyone hates basements, Ash.”

“Yeah, but I hate them the most.” They stood framed in the open doorway, looking down the dimly lit stairs, wearing identical expressions of dismay. The lights were already on, from what they could see, suggesting that someone was already down there. Or had been recently. Though she knew it was entirely psychological, Ashley couldn’t help but rub at the chill that had crept its way up her arms. “Josh?” she called down, barely leaning over the threshold. “Josh?” she tried again, louder, straining her ears for any reply.

They exchanged a tired look when the only voice that came back to them was a faint echo of her shout.

“I mean…” Chris sighed, “It is a big fucking basement. Think about how big the lodge is, and it pretty much runs under all of it…stands to reason that it’s huge.”

“Sure is.” She grimaced as Chris started descending the stairs, following very closely after him. Thank God she had worn her thickest, fluffiest Christmas socks to sleep in. The thought of walking barefoot through the frigid, cobwebby basement was almost enough to give her a fit. “Remind me why you guys couldn’t just use the stupid Playstation again? It’s already hooked up to the flat screen.”

“I don’t know, it sounded like a good idea at the time! Sometimes you just wanna play EarthBound.” With one last groan, he shook himself out mentally, paying careful attention to each of the concrete steps as they walked down. “Hey, watch it, one of these things is broken in a few spots…”

“Of course it is…”

“Josh? You down here?” Chris took the lead, coughing as he got a lungful of cold, dusty air. “Motherfuck…gonna need to call one of those mesothelioma hotlines after breathing this shit…Josh, come on, bro! This isn’t…” he stopped and turned back to Ash, laughing through his coughs. “Jesus Christ. I literally just almost said ‘This isn’t funny, man!’ Could you imagine? In a creepy basement? How much more cliché could you get?”

That was when the lights cut out. They didn’t flicker, they didn’t dim, they were simply on one second and off the next, plunging them into immediate darkness. Ashley screamed (a good, solid slasher movie shriek if ever there was one), grabbing hold of Chris’s sweatshirt and burying her face into his back without any trace of her earlier embarrassment. Chris swore under his breath, patting his pockets as he tried to remember where he’d put his phone. He grabbed it and fumbled with the lock screen for only a moment.

He let out a relieved breath once he managed to flip his flashlight app on, filling the space in front of them with a faintly bluish light. “Hey, we’re good,” he said gently, reaching back and jiggling Ashley’s arm from where she had glommed onto him, hoping to get her to look up. Slowly, her grip became less constricting, and she chanced a glance from out of the safety of his sweatshirt; when she looked back up and around at him, blinking owlishly, Chris felt his chest thrum with a wave of sympathy. He should’ve gone down there alone, he realized. Sometimes it was just so easy to write off Ashley’s fear of the dark as a quirk of character and not what it actually was—a full-blown phobia. “See? It’s fine! You got your phone?”

A second later, there were two cones of light scanning the basement instead of just the one. The beam from Ashley’s phone was a little shakier than Chris’s, cutting jagged arcs through the blackness as she quickly searched around them. “Oh, fuck this…” her voice was soft, as though it were caught in her throat. “God. Ugh. I hate the dark. I hate it I hate it I haaaate it.”

“I know.” Chris realized her free hand had found its way down his arm and into his own, gripping his fingers tightly. He gave it a reassuring squeeze, glad for the cover the darkness provided—it meant she couldn’t see the doofy grin he found himself absolutely unable to suppress. “It’s probably just a short…everyone’s got all the lights and shit on upstairs, Jess has the speakers going, they’ve got the tv on, blah blah blah. I bet if we find the fuse box, we can—”

Something clattered to the floor with an ear-shattering bang! and they both jumped, pulling in simultaneous gasps of surprise.

Ashley let out a pathetic moan, hunching herself closer to Chris. “Oh I don’t like this…” Her voice was little more than a breath displacing the dusty air. She kept shuffling forward as Chris walked, but her breathing was quickly becoming ragged. “This is such bullshit…”

“It’s really not a big deal, Ash…shit falls! Look, like I said, we’ll find the fuse box, get the lights back on, and—”

Somewhere in front of them, something bigger and heavier came crashing down. They whirled towards the source of the sound just in time to see a shadow disappear around a corner, oblong and misshapen.

“Can we go back upstairs?” Her knees were shaking badly enough that she felt she might fall if she took another step. “I think I’d really like to go back upstairs.”

Before Chris had time enough to reassure her that the most frightening thing they were likely to come across was a pile of forgotten clothes donation bags, Josh’s voice caught their attention. It sounded distant and slightly muffled, as though he were behind a wall.

“’Ey, Cochise? Ash? What’re you guys doing dow…what the fuck? Oh what the FUCK is that?! Shit!” His voice fell off again, punctuated by a loud crashing sound that seemed to come just to their right—much too close for comfort.

“Josh?!” Ash’s beam of light anxiously flicked from one side of the path to the other, her grip on Chris’s hand becoming nothing short of bone-breaking. Her chest rose and fell shakily as she made futile attempts to slow her breathing. When there was no response from the bowels of the basement, she tried again. “Josh? You better not be messing around! This isn’t—” Frightened as she was, it was obvious she still had enough wherewithal to stop herself before she spat out the words that had been on the tip of her tongue. “Oh my God…I just almost said—”

“See? See?! It’s just…so tempting to say, right?!” Chris directed his own flashlight towards the water heater, brow knitting as a flicker of movement caught his eye.

Oh shit—HELP!

They exchanged a brief, panicked look before bolting towards his voice, the jostling of their phones making the shadows of the basement’s boxes and fixtures warp unnaturally. When they came across the water heater and its casings, they felt their muscles go rigid

There was something standing just behind it, its silhouette dark as a shadow but entirely unmoving. After a moment of hesitation, one of their flashlight beams slid to it, immediately illuminating the scene.

“Oh ha ha, real funny, Josh.” There was relief in Ashley’s voice, but a slow blooming anger, too, as she came to realize it had been another stupid joke. She rolled her eyes when he didn’t answer, sighing loudly as she stared at his back. “Real spooky. You’re a master of your craft.”

Still no response.

Another prickle of uncertainty began to creep its way down their spines as they watched him standing there, unresponsive, unmoving.

It was Chris who took the first tentative step forward. “…Josh?”

He turned from the wall with one sharp motion, giving them less than a second to process what they were seeing: eyes rolled back in his head, blood gushing from his mouth and onto his chest, head cocked unnaturally to the side. He let out an unearthly shout, another disgusting glut of dark blood spilling from over his lower lip, hitting the concrete floor with a sound like vomit.

They both screamed that time.

There was a clatter as Chris dropped his phone onto the ground, its light juddering out and plunging them back into semi-darkness as Ashley instinctively spun around to escape.

The lights clicked back on just as they had started to realize Josh was laughing. As the overhead tubes buzzed back into life, they both watched Josh close the fuse box with a flick of his wrist, shoulders shaking with deep, guffawing laughter. He grinned widely at them, a sight that was grisly, to say the very least. “Fuck me, I wish I had a camera going for that! Oh…oh God…I actually—guys, for real though? For real? You fell for the fucking Blair Witch bullshit? What the fuck. I thought you were better than that. For shame.”

There were tears streaming down Chris’s cheeks before he could do anything about it, his own relieved laughter so intense that his stomach ached. “Holy shit, fuck you. Fuck you, dude. God damn…” He bent down to pick his phone back up, straightening just in time to return Josh’s high-five. “If my screen’s cracked, you’re fronting the bill, you son of a bitch.”

UGH! You guys are such idiots!” Ashley fumed, shoving Chris away from her with one arm, repeatedly smacking Josh’s shoulder with the other.

Still laughing, Chris raised his hands in self-defense. “Wait, wait, what did I do?” he asked, unable to sound even slightly repentant. “I had nothing to do with this, hand to God!” As proof, he lifted the hand Josh had streaked with fake blood as though delivering a spirited sermon.

“Then why are you laughing?!

“Because…because oh my God, that was objectively hilarious.” He guarded himself from another shove, rubbing his phone’s screen against his sweatshirt to clear away some of the dust. “Jeeesus. I thought the whole thing was fucking fishy.”

Ashley groaned again, loudly, before Josh snatched up the hand she’d been batting him with, pulling her close into a bone-crushing bear hug. “Look, Ash, it’s not my fault the two of you dweebs are so easy. And I mean so fuckin’ easy.” He smirked, his teeth streaky with syrupy red goo, “‘Oh nooo, help me! Heeelp! What’s going ooon?’” Mimicking his earlier shouts in a wavery falsetto, he laughed again, “Have I taught you fucking nothing?! You don’t go investigating weird voices in basements, that’s Rule Numero-Fucking-Uno. You turn around and you get help.” He turned to Chris, waving an accusatory finger, “You should’ve listened to Ash. Probably would’ve saved your life.”

Wriggling out of his grasp as best she could, Ashley pressed her lips so tightly together that they were in distinct danger of disappearing completely. “How did you do that? Are you actually bleeding?” She reached over and grabbed Josh’s face with one hand, squeezing his cheeks between her thumb and other fingers to try and get a better look at his teeth.

Taking a moment to cross his eyes and further pucker out his lips, Josh let his laughter taper off. “Nah, found a shit-ton of old blood capsules down here.” As proof, he reached down into his pocket, pulling out what almost looked to be a shiny black bullet. “When I say ‘old,’ though, I mean oooold. These shits are like cement, blood’s like Jell-o. Here, look,” and without giving her any time to respond, he yanked her closer again, smearing his pursed lips against her cheek in a quick, brutal motion that, to Chris at least, gave the momentary illusion that he was tearing into her face like a Romero zombie.

Ashley certainly yelled as if that was what he was doing, releasing her grip on his face and shoving him away again. When she reached up to her cheek and pulled her hand away, her fingers came back covered in thick gobs of tacky goo. “Ewwwwwww,” she sighed, stamping her feet in a decidedly childish manner before giving in and laughing as well. “That’s so gross,” she whined, staring down wistfully at her hand, clearly hesitant to wipe it off on her clothes. “Ugh, and it smells so bad.”

“You think it smells bad? At least you didn’t have a handful of ‘em in your mouth. This blood tastes like ass.”

“Yeah, I’ll take your word on that one,” Chris snickered.

“You’d think the old man would’ve splurged for the good shits,” Josh was saying contemplatively, looking down at the old capsule, turning it over in his fingers. “Unless these fuckers are literally from the 80’s…and don’t get me wrong, they just might be. Nowadays there are gel caps you can get—they melt in your mouth instead of you having to chomp down on them. A lot less work, the actors can actually talk…this is like trying to gnaw through an actual marble.”

“And just how many marbles have you tried to gnaw through, exactly?” Ashley asked.

Holding his hand out, Chris gestured with his fingers. “Lemme see about that, maybe you just have a weak jaw.”

“I have a weak jaw? Uh, have you looked at this face? The Washingtons are known for their strong jaws, Christopher.”

“Just give it, man.”

“These jaws could cut glass and break bones, Christopher.”

“Chris, ew! Don’t put that in your mouth!”

“If I had a nickel for every time someone yelled that at me...” He took the blood capsule from Josh and placed it between his molars, proceeding to bite down. When nothing happened, he pulled a face. “…Holy shit, it’s like the world’s oldest Milk Dud,” he said, voice slurred from the foreign object against his tongue. Josh folded his arms across his chest and nodded his head side to side in a juvenile show of ‘I told you so,’ and Chris tried again, biting down with all his might. There was a sickening squelching noise, and a small stream of gelatinous blood burst from his mouth, running down his chin in a thick gush. “Fuck! This shit does taste like ass!” he said, spitting the empty capsule to the ground like the shell of a sunflower seed. “Why did you let me do that?”

Rolling her eyes, Ashley reminded him jovially, “I told you not to…”

“Yeah, but you say that about everything, sooo…” He stuck his tongue out to get a better look at the damage, letting out a disgusted laugh as another goopy rush of red-stained saliva came with it. “Fucking sick. Man, if this is how much I got out of one, how many did you have to use?"

Josh grinned, his sheepishness clearly feigned, “Like three…or four. God knows the two of you were moving slow enough to give me time to gnaw through a box of them. By the way? That hurt. Next time you think I’m in mortal peril, maybe get the lead out of your boots, huh?” He chuckled. “Still got some more, though, if you want to join the blood club, Ash.” He reached back into his pocket and pulled out a couple more of the capsules, rattling them in his palm enticingly. “Come on, you know you want to. It tastes bad, it looks bad, it feels bad, but can you really go on living without knowing that for yourself?”

As though deep in thought, she set her chin on top of her hand, staring down to the blood caps with laser-like acuity. Her lips pursed from one side to the other, her stance changing as she jutted a hip out and leaned forward to get a closer look. “Hmm…on the one hand…you both told me it’s disgusting. But on the other hand…I could put some dusty old plastic in my mouth and stain my teeth for a week. Oof…decisions, decisions.”

“It’s a hard choice, right?” Chris asked, already in the process of biting through another capsule.

“It’s really not. Now can we go back upstairs, please? I actually almost peed myself. Legitimately.” She dropped her head into her hands, still shaking off her earlier nerves. “Did you even find your video game thing?”

Josh’s laughter tapered off and he turned back to Chris with an expression that clearly read ‘oops.’ “Well…shit. See, I knew there was something I was forgetting.”

***

1:06pm

“Wait!”

Sam glanced over her shoulder in time to see Hannah scurry towards her, eyebrows drawn together anxiously. “What?”

“You’re not…gonna come too?” she asked, nervously pushing at the frames of her glasses. “Out to the hot tub, I mean?”

She stretched her mouth into what might’ve, ostensibly, been called a smile, shaking her head decidedly. “Uhhh no. Not really my scene, Hannah.”

“Oh come on, please?” With a frustrated sigh, Hannah rounded on Sam, taking her by the wrists pleadingly. “I don’t want to be out there alone with everyone—”

“You won’t be alone, if everyone’s there,” she laughed, letting her hands go limp as Hannah shook her wrists. “Beth will be out there with you, and you’ll be fine. Remember: You guys invited everyone for a reason! We’re all friends here.”

Her expression seemed to sour at that, but she turned and pretended brush a piece of dust from off of her glasses. “Yeah…” Hannah said, voice morose.

“Look,” Sam bent forward, forcing herself back into Hannah’s line of view. “Last night turned out to be fun, didn’t it?”

Shoulders heaving once, she nodded, still avoiding Sam’s eyes.

“So you should believe me when I say it’s going to be fine. How can you not get along in a hot tub?” She smiled a warm, comforting grin, wrapping an arm around Hannah’s shoulders in a well practiced side-hug. “And, if nothing else…” she leaned in closer, jokingly scanning her eyes across the great room for any sign of eavesdroppers, “Shirtless Mike, right?”

At that, Hannah did meet her gaze, unable to help but laugh. “Oh my God, Sam.”

“Oh my God, Hannah,” she mimicked, giving her a good squeeze before letting her go. “Go have fun! I’ll want to know all the hot gossip after.” She bumped Hannah with her hip to urge her back towards the door.

“What are you even going to do in here?”

She rolled her eyes comically, giving her a long, pointed look. “What do you think I’m going to do?”

Hannah thought about it for a moment before groaning, looking up to the ceiling with a smile. “If you’re just going to be taking a bath, why can’t you just come soak in the hot tub with us? It’s literally the exact same thing.”

“It’s nothing like that! You know I’m very particular about my baths—”

“I think you mean you’re particularly weird about the lodge’s bathtub.”

There was no arguing with that. Sam beamed as she shrugged. “It’s not a trip to Blackwood if I don’t get a bath in. It’s a tradition! You know that!”

“I do know that. You’re so weird.”

“Look who’s talking.”

Waving her off, Hannah grabbed her towel from where she’d draped it over the back of the couch, wrapping it around her waist protectively as she prepared herself to dash out into the cold. “Whatever. Try not to drown in there.”

“I’ll do my very best.” Sam waited until Hannah disappeared out into the lodge’s yard before she made her own slow ascent on the stairs, humming cheerfully under her breath. She made a quick stop in Hannah’s room, grabbing a fresh change of clothes from the bag she’d stashed under the bed, taking a moment to unravel the knot her earbuds had tangled themselves into overnight.

Like she had mentioned to Josh and the others, there was very little about the whole hot tub thing that appealed to her. Sitting around in people-stew, getting buffeted by water jets…it wasn’t really her style. Now, the sprawling, almost Olympic-sized tub in the lodge’s master bathroom? Yeah, that was her jam.

Sam actually sighed a dreamy little sigh as she walked in, dropping her clothes down onto the dressing bench. She closed and locked the door, and the click of the lock was enough in itself to undo a fair amount of the tension she’d been keeping in her shoulders. The manner in which she set about running the tap, slitting the blinds, and lighting the candles around the bath was positively reverent.

She replaced the box of matches in the cabinet she’d found them in, rummaging around through the bottles and bottles of scented soaps before finding what she was looking for (Peppermint Twist, as a matter of fact), snatching it up with a pleased hum. The foam that appeared as she poured a great gob of the soap under the running water was immediate and luxuriously fluffy—perfect. Making short work of undressing, she popped her earbuds in, selected her relaxation playlist, and slid herself down into the hot, bubbly water. She let the tap run for another minute or two until her entire body was nearly submerged.

Some people found solace in prayer, others in meditation, but Sam found hers in any bathtub deep enough to cover her knees and boobs. It was one of life’s greatest joys.

The smell of the soap mixed with the light scent of the candles, wisps of steam caught the sunbeams leaking in from the blinds; everything intermingled and coalesced until the room had a dream-like quality about it. The peaceful tinkling of piano keys playing in her ears, Sam allowed herself to sink deeper into the water, closing her eyes. She willed her muscles to loosen, willed her mind to go blank, and it wasn’t very long before she teetered into the cottony place between waking and sleep.

It was difficult to say precisely how much time elapsed with her like that, half-dozing to the lilting tune of sonatas, but when she came back to herself, blinking the sleep from her eyes, a cursory glance told her all she needed to know. She was well and fully pruned. Sam smiled, stifling a monstrous yawn as she sat back up. Checking the time on her phone wasn’t as informative as she’d hoped, given that she hadn’t exactly taken note of when she’d started to snooze, but the water had begun to take a turn towards lukewarm, and that was good enough for her.

The drain was whisper-quiet as she delicately stepped back over the edge of the tub, burying her toes in the plush rug on the floor. She dried off and changed into her clothes, stretching out like a contented cat once she was wrapped up in her warm knit sweater.

It was amazing what a good bath could do for the soul.

A whorl of steam filled the hallway as she stepped out of the bathroom, and Sam took a moment to stop and let the cool air hit her face. There was something unspeakably magical about that tub, she thought again, almost mystical in its ability to soothe aches and relax tension. With a quick flick of her wrist, more muscle memory than anything else, she twisted her hair up against the back of her head and secured it with her clip before stretching her arms out. Quickly, she peeked back into Hannah’s bedroom, poking the door with a finger to open it only a sliver.

Empty.

The others must’ve still been out in the hot tub. She felt her lips tighten at the thought, but tried to push it from her mind. No way was she going to kill the chill she had just achieved. She turned back from the bedroom and padded down the hallway, humming quietly. Pushing through the doorway to get back to the main staircase, she found herself thinking mostly about whether there was anything in the fridge she might be able to eat, or if she’d have to resort to the crushed remains of the old granola bar at the bottom of her backpack. So absorbed in her thoughts, she didn’t realize the approaching shadow until it was too late.

A large, cool hand clamped over her mouth, and Sam immediately sucked in a panicked breath through her nose. Without thinking, she reached up, grabbing the hand with both of hers, making an attempt to wrest it off of her, but the only reward for her trouble was a sharp jerk as she was pulled back against a body.

“Oh my God, will you relax?

The whispered voice was familiar. Too familiar. Sam whipped her head to the side to get a better view of her attacker, and was greeted with a shit-eating grin. In a fraction of a second, she went from wide-eyed terror to muted exasperation. Narrowing her eyes and furrowing her brow, she did her best to communicate her anger with only half of her face visible.

Josh snickered, pulling a face of his own before pressing the index finger of his hand—the one not covering her mouth—to his lips. “Wanna see something really and truly pathetic?” he asked, raising one eyebrow, then the other, then waggling both comically.

With no resistance this time, she pulled Josh’s hand off of her face, blowing a tired breath up into her bangs. Of course the dorks would still be lurking around the lodge. They’d already gotten their hot tub time in, after all. The realization made it no less jarring to know that she hadn’t been half as alone as she’d thought. “If that—” Sam rolled her eyes as he shushed her, but complied, lowering her voice to a whisper as well. “If that was an attempt at flirting, I have such bad news for you.”

His laughter tapered off into something a little quieter, but no less amused, and he waved a finger at her like a parent might. “Samantha Marie Giddings, when I flirt with you, you will know it.”

“That’s not my middle name.”

“Do you want to see this or not? It’s precious.” When she didn’t immediately respond, save to continue staring at him with annoyance, Josh clasped both of his hands under his chin and widened his smile to show nearly all of his teeth. “What else do you have going on? All the cool kids are still outside.” Even whispering as he was, she could still hear the mockery in the comment.

Again she rolled her eyes, but waved him along, letting him lead the way. She followed, heart rate slowing back to normal as they crept along the upper landing of the staircase to the other hall, tucking themselves into the alcove that looked over the entirety of the great room below. For a moment she fought against a wave of vertigo; in the handful of times she’d been to the lodge, she’d never quite gotten over how upsettingly high up the third floor was. It didn’t help that they were nearly eye-level with the lodge’s chandelier, not to mention the giant, abstract metal sculpture that hung from the ceiling like some strange ball of tangled yarn. Hoping Josh wouldn’t notice, she braced her hands against the railing, trying to look out into middle space instead of focusing on the ground below. It was a trick she had gotten used to when climbing—don’t look down, don’t look up, just keep looking ahead.

Josh, on the other hand, had bent himself over the railing until he all but hung in the open air, forearms crossed atop the bar as he looked down at the room. Nudging her with an elbow, he glanced up quickly to meet her gaze before winking and nodding down to the couch where Chris and Ashley appeared to be totally passed out.

“Aren’t they just…adorable?” Josh spoke with the tone of a doting grandmother, pressing a hand tightly to his chest before making quiet, dramatic sniffling noises.

When she looked back down, Sam had to admit, there was something adorable about them, asleep as they were. They were near the crook of the L-shaped sectional, Ashley with her head lolling back slightly, open book laying forgotten on her chest, Chris’s legs stretched out along the cushions, a video game controller precariously close to falling out of his half-opened hand as the pause music looped, his head pillowed by Ashley’s shoulder. They were down for the fucking count, it seemed, despite the bright light filtering in through the lodge’s blinds in slits across the length of the room. It was sweet in the way internet videos of baby animals being nursed back to health were sweet. They were adorable, sure, but maybe Josh was right…maybe they were a little pathetic, too.

“Think this is the night?” she asked, letting her own head rest against her shoulder as she mirrored Josh’s posture, leaning against the rails.

He snorted quietly, “What, that one of them grows a pair and makes a move? Please. We got better chances of Mike leaving Emily for Hannah.” After a second of thought, he sucked a breath past his teeth, “Nah, we got better chances of Mike leaving Emily for me, come to think of it.”

“I don’t think you’re really Mike’s type.”

“No? He sure is mine, though. Those muscles? The brooding eyes? The stubble? Please.” He sighed wistfully, resting a cheek atop his fist. “Do you have any idea how ugly those kids are gonna be, Sammy?”

She pulled back, looking up at him with equal parts amusement and disbelief. “Emily’s and Mike’s?”

“What? God no, those babies would be in commercials. Chubby cheeks? Big ol’ eyes? Gorgeous skin? Gerber Babies. Nah, I meant these poor dweebs,” he flicked his hand dismissively towards the couch. “So ugly. So awkward. Like baby giraffes, just wobbling around on legs they don’t know how to use. And pale! God, don’t get me started on pale. Gonna get sunburn from computer screens.”

Sam laughed under her breath, shaking her head. She knew Josh well enough to recognize it was just good-natured ribbing, but it didn’t stop her from asking her next question. “Not rooting for a big, romantic reveal, then? Musical crescendos and doves flying off into the sunset?”

He swiveled his head towards her, looking up at her through half-lowered eyelids. “Sammy. Sam. Samantha. No one on God’s green Earth is more desperate for those two morons to get it on than me. They don’t even have to date! Just, for the love of fuck, they need to like. Makeout a little. Or something. The whole giggly, nervous, sugary sweet, daytime tv, Boy Meets World, back-and-forth bullshit has just got to end, know what I mean?” He popped his eyebrows up and down once, “Pfft, look who I’m talking to. You have to deal with Hanz. You get what I mean.”

“I get what you mean,” she agreed with a nod. There was a moment of silence between them that stretched over the better part of a minute, and then, “They are kind of cute, though.”

“I do know, Sammy. I know, and I hate it,” he said with a grin that proved how very little he actually did. “Because even before their genes absolutely fuck over those poor, poor, hypothetical kiddos in the looks department, one way or another, one of them’s getting fucked over in the name department.”

She raised an eyebrow when there was no further elaboration. “…care to explain that one?”

Holding up both pointer fingers, Josh nodded first to the left, “Okay, so let’s say we have Ash…” A quick nod to the right, “Hartley. Ash Hartley. Ashartley. A-shart-ley. Not ideal.”

“Oh my God.”

“I know! But no, wait, it gets worse. Because I know what you’re thinking. ‘Josh, this is the 21st century! Maybe Chris will take Ash’s name!’ To which I say to you: Yes, he would do that, but also, Chris Brown.” He looked at her with somber, knowing eyes. “Also not ideal. Albeit for markedly different reasons.”

She stared at him for what felt like an eternity, but was likely closer to just a few seconds. Sam blinked in tired exasperation before putting her head in her hands. “You are actually out of your mind, and I hope you know that.”

“I know who I am. I’m living in my truth. But my personal journey isn’t why I accosted you in the hall. Are you a betting woman, Samantha Leigh Giddings?”

“That is also not my middle name, and you know I’m not.”

“Again, yes, I do know, but I was hoping maybe you’d lighten up and humor me.”

It was her turn to nudge him, jamming into his arm with her shoulder. “What’re we betting on?”

He bridged his fingers under his chin like a cartoon super-villain, chuckling lowly. “Why, which one of them is more humiliated when they wake up, obvs. Measured by intensity of facial flushing.” Turning to her again, he pursed his lips arrogantly. “That’s what we, in the psychological field, refer to as operationalizing our measures.”

“We’re going to stand here and watch them, like perverts, until they wake up?”

Josh contorted his face, “Sammy, you act like you don’t know me at all. I am a great many things. An intellectual? Yes. A prodigy? Perhaps. An asshole? Definitely. But a pervert? Never.” Looking back to the couch, he pressed his tongue against the tip of an incisor in contemplation. “Place your bet, please.”

“What’re you going to do?”

“Madam, please place your bet.”

Sam rolled her eyes but laughed all the same, “Okay uh…I go Chris. Looks like he’s the one who fell asleep on herand he’s probably drooling, so he’s gonna freak.”

“Leaving me with Ash. Tsk, tsk, tsk…” he clucked his tongue, “Odds are always on Ash, Sammy.”

“Josh,” she started again, “What’re you going to d—”

But before she had enough time to get the word out, Josh had answered in his own way. Cupping his hands around his mouth, he barked out a sharp, earsplitting “HEY!” at the top of his lungs. Below them, the other two reacted immediately, Ashley sitting up quickly enough to send her book clattering to the floor, Chris startling so badly that he, himself, fell off the couch with a dull thud.

“Majestic, aren’t they?” he asked Sam flatly, before craning his head over the railing further, beaming down sweetly at them. “Good morning, my darlings! And how did we sleep?”

There was a rumble of confused, disoriented anger from below, both Chris and Ashley simultaneously struggling to wake up and swear up at them. The yells were mostly unintelligible, but the sentiment was clear: Fuck you.

“Is this all you do?” Sam asked, turning her head lazily to watch Josh hustle down the stairs. “Jump out and scare each other?”

“Pretty much! Builds character.” He stopped at the base of the stairs, immediately set upon by Ashley, who he effortlessly restrained in a sweeping bear hug. He glanced down at her face, and then over to Chris’s before craning his neck back to call up to Sam. “Hey Sammy? Looks like you were right! Think about what you want your prize to be, yeah? We can settle up later.”

She raised an eyebrow, shaking her head as she watched the three of them, pausing to give a quick wave to Chris as he looked up at her.

“Can we maybe—maybe—go ten minutes without a frigging jump scare?” Ashley asked, her voice muffled as Josh’s hug forced her face against his sweater. He had taken to swaying them gently from side to side as though they were a couple at a middle school dance, but if he had been intending to soothe her ire, he was out of his head.

“How about this. How about you scare me, and then we call it even?” He released his hold on her just slightly, offering a wide, wolfish grin. Josh let go, letting her scamper back to the couch to try and find the page she’d been on before she’d dropped her book. After a moment, he leaned his elbows back against the banister of the stairs, nodding curtly. “All right then, c’mon Hermione, Ron. We got plans, us three.”

There was an accommodating sigh, and then Ashley marked her page and set her book down, zipping her vest up as she went to find her boots. Chris, however, didn’t move from where he’d settled back onto the couch, instead narrowing his eyes and folding his arms over his chest. He looked Josh up and down appraisingly, setting his lips into a harsh line.

Used to this sort of song and dance, Josh returned the stare before setting his hands on his hips. “What? Did you not hear me? Get a move on. Time’s a-wastin’.”

Chris’s eyes narrowed again until they were little more than slits behind the lenses of his glasses. “How…dare you,” he breathed, drumming his fingers against his arm. “How dare you compare me to Ron Fucking Weasley.”

“Actually, I’m pretty sure his middle name is Bilius, you uncultured buffoon. Read a book, Cochise. Tell him, Ash. Tell him to read.”

“No. No! I have sat idly by and taken your abuse for too long, man. Too long! I can handle just about anything you throw at me, but Ron Weasley? That’s just cruel. It’s mean, is what it is. Insulting.”

Josh looked to Ashley, gesturing to Chris. “You believe this shit? Would you have preferred Crabbe and Goyle? Cuz that was my second choice, if I’m being honest.”

It was Ashley’s turn to bristle, turning on Chris, too. “Can we just go? I’d really rather not fight over which of us would be Lug Number One and which would be Lug Number Two. I’m happy with Hermione as it is—”

“Of course you are!” Chris whined as she pushed himself up from the couch, slinking off to get his coat and boots. “Hermione’s great! Gets good grades, solves everyone’s problems, probably kissed Krum…Not like fucking Ron.”

Sam had only just made it to the landing, watching the three of them mill around as she made herself comfortable on the as-of-then unoccupied sectional. “Wait. I’m sorry…would you have wanted to kiss Krum?”

Chris favored her with an exasperated look. “Famous athlete, broody eyes, accent. Who wouldn’t want to kiss Krum?"

No arguing with that logic.

“Fair point. I guess.” She sat back as the others pulled on their winter gear, but took her time folding her legs under herself and finding the most comfortable spot before prying further. “So…off to have that Satanic orgy in the woods after all?”

“Might as well.”

All four of them looked up at the sound of one of the side doors crashing open, a cacophony of distant voices beginning to fill the lodge. With that last jag of motivation, Chris, Ashley, and Josh all managed to lace up their boots, quickly slipping out through the back door. Chris flashed Sam a quick salute through the glass, and then the three of them were disappearing outside, their footsteps fading quickly.

***

4:39pm

There you are!”

“Where have you been?!

Josh slowed his stride, eyes flicking from Beth to Hannah, both somehow managing to look angrier than the other. He could feel Chris and Ashley drop back a few paces more than he could actually see from his periphery, and it was then that the uncomfortable smile began to tug at the corners of his mouth. For a moment, he toyed with the idea of answering with a smartass quip of the usual variety, but there was something in his sisters’ expressions that told him in no uncertain terms that it would be a mistake. “Guest cabin,” he shrugged. “Was just showing these two the weird shit people’ve been writing in the guest book lately.” He watched them carefully, seeing very little change in their stormy moods. Josh glanced over his shoulder briefly, “Hey. So. This looks like it’s gonna be a sibling thing. Maybe you guys should…?”

“Loud and clear,” Chris said, giving him a bracing pat on the shoulder as he walked past him towards the door.

“Oooh, you’re in trooouble…” Ashley sing-songed, skirting past Josh as well. She gave the twins a wide berth as she joined back up with Chris, arcing around them to slip into the warmth of the lodge again.

Once the door clicked shut, he groaned, running both hands through his hair. “All right, I give up. What’d I do this time?” With the cool acceptance of a man walking to his own hanging, Josh marched up onto the landing to join them, sighing quietly through his nose as Hannah and Beth continued to glare coldly up at him. “You know, when you guys do shit like that, you almost look like the twins from The Shining. Can’t say it’s a great look, but—”

“Why does everything have to be a joke, Josh? For real, though!” The embarrassed flushing of Hannah’s face had faded to two dark splotches of color in the pits of her cheeks. “It’s not funny, none of this is funny!

Oh boy. He fought the impulse to roll his eyes, quickly realizing the gravity of…whatever it was he had walked back into. “Okay. I’m sorry. Now, can someone please explain to me what all the anger’s about? I literally just took a walk—didn’t realize I had to ask permission.”

It was Beth’s turn to pipe in, arms folded across her chest, all of her weight resting on one hip so that it jutted out in a clear warning of the verbal smack-down she was preparing to lay on him. “Seriously? We tried calling you like a hundred times, but there’s no service. We tried looking for you but you were just nowhere, and when we asked Sam, she just got this look on her face and said ‘the woods.’ Like…what were we supposed to do with that?”

“Why did you need me?” he asked again, drawing each word out in exasperation. “Did someone die? Did something break? I can’t apologize for fucking up something I’m unaware of.” Something clicked in the back of his mind, and Josh straightened up, serious for a moment. “Was that guy Mom was talking about sneaking around up here again? Did you see him?”

Why did you have to invite them?” Hannah whirled on him, arms flying out to her sides, cheeks still brighter than the cold should’ve made them. “It’s not even fun, do you realize that? None of this is fun, and now I just want to go back to school.”

He opened his mouth before shutting it again, taking in a calming breath and counting slowly to five. They’d put the fear of God in him for a second there, but if it was just more of this bullshit, he could deal with it. “Okay…clearly something happened. If I don’t know what it is…I can’t help. You guys do get that, right?”

The girls exchanged a glance that was difficult for him to read, broken only when Hannah let her arms drop down. She shoved her hands into the pockets of her jacket, casting her gaze down and away. “My suit…caught on something in the hot tub.”

Josh stood there, waiting, and when it again became clear that no direct answer was forthcoming, he waved his hand in a curt, circular gesture to try and goad them on. “Oookay? And?

Beth rolled her eyes. Hannah kept staring at the ground. He could almost literally see the bulge of her throat as she swallowed. “My top almost came off,” Hannah mumbled.

“Oh. Gross.”

Josh,” Beth cut in sharply.

A cloud of fog formed around him as he blew out a frustrated breath. “Yeah, I get it. That would’ve been crazy embarrassing. It really would’ve. But it didn’t come off, so this feels like a whole lotta energy you two are expending on what would’ve been just a really unfortunate accident—"

“It wasn’t an accident.” Beth spoke deliberately, one corner of her lips tucked in angrily.

He blinked. “It wasn…what, it was sabotage? Jesus Christ, you guys! Shit happens! The world is an imperfect place.”

“All we wanted,” Hannah had started again, sounding alarmingly close to tears, “Was a fun weekend where everyone just hung out! But none of this is fun, Josh! They’ve been doing this shit to me since I got here!”

“Hannah. Who is doing what?” He looked between the two of them again, shaking his head. “Is this a Mike thing? Could we…can we maybe just stop with the Mike shit? Is that a thing we can agree on?”

“Why did you have to go and invite Emily?” In the blink of an eye, Beth was in his face, poking an admonishing finger into his chest. “You know what she’s like, you knew she was going to be a problem, and now she and Jess are just—”

Pinching the bridge of his nose, Josh squeezed his eyes shut. “Oh, you are not lecturing a psych major on the ins and outs of group dynamics—I know you’re not doing that. Don’t start conversations you aren’t handled to participate in, Beth.”

You’re the one who invited everyone. You’re the one who asked these idiots to be here, so why—”

He lowered his hands from his face, fixing her with an exasperated stare. “Okay. Here’s the thing. Number one, don’t act like the two of you didn’t give me a very specific guest list for this weekend. Please don’t pretend that you weren’t excitedly scribbling down notes in your journals with cute little hearts and swirlies every time someone RSVP’ed, because I know both of you well enough to know that’s exactly what you did.” Both sisters were glaring at him, but he continued anyway, his tone terse, but clearly more tired than angry. “Number two, I’d like to remind you how social politics work. Hannah, my love, you wanted—nay, needed—Mike to be here. Needed it. Well, if you invite Mike somewhere, you need to invite Emily. Sorry, them’s the breaks.” Turning to Beth, he cocked his head to the side thoughtfully, “But let’s say for a second that’s not the case! Well then, Beth, darling, you wanted Jessica here. Well, guess what? If you invite Jess somewhere, you also have to invite Emily! But wait—there’s more! If you invite Mike, Emily, and Jessica somewhere, you gotta invite Matt too. You can’t just invite part of the group, or people get pissed.”

Hannah seemed to consider responding, but then paused, crossing her arms in a reflection of Beth’s posture instead.

“How absolutely furious would you be, Hannah, if Beth and Sammy got invited to a party and you didn’t?” Josh waited only a second for her to answer. When she didn’t, he swept his hands out in front of him like a magician uncovering something wondrous and surprising. “There you go! When you split the group, people get pissed. And who would they get pissed at? Me. Yeah, see, they’d be pissed at me, because, as you so kindly pointed out, I’m the sap who sent out the invites. Besides, Christ, I thought you were friends with Em, Hannah!”

Her expression darkened noticeably. “I mean…we were, but…”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah. Mike. I get it. Always Mike.”

“Don’t be fucking mean!” Beth aimed one well placed shove at his solar plexus, sending him back a step. “You don’t get it. You haven’t been around at all to watch this shit happening. You have no idea what they’ve been like, because you keep running off and being antisocial!”

He rolled his eyes up towards the eaves of the lodge, watching as the snowfall began to grow heavier. “You’re using that word incorrectly.”

“I’m sure you and Chris and Ashley are having a whole lotta fun playing grab-ass away from everyone else, but don’t stand here and act like we’re the ones being unreasonable when you’ve spent all of ten fucking minutes with everyone else, Josh!”

“Do you want me to go in there and tell everyone to go home? Is that…is that what you want me to do?” Josh cocked his head to the side as he fixed Beth with a pointed stare. “You want me to go climb up on the table, banging some pots and pans together like ‘Hear ye, hear ye! Turns out none of us actually like each other here, so, if everyone could please vacate the fucking premises, that would be most appreciated! Form an orderly queue at the door!’” He bent down slightly to be closer to Beth’s eye level, “What do you want me to do?”

Her eyes narrowed into slits, and she gave him one more good, hard shove. “I want you to spend five minutes thinking about someone other than yourself, for once, you absolute tool.” With a loud, frustrated grunt, she briskly turned and all but tore the door off of its hinges.

Josh watched wordlessly as Beth stormed her way back into the lodge, keeping his face stony all the while. Only once the door slammed behind her did he move, turning away from the lodge and sucking a loud breath through his teeth. “That could’ve gone better.” He held a hand out as Hannah made to leave as well, effectively halting her. “Nope, hang on a sec. I’m not done with you yet.”

She huffed, but the wind had clearly been knocked out of her sails. The anger, the embarrassment, the hurt she’d been feeling seemed to have effectively been replaced by something else. Now she just looked uncomfortable, almost unwilling to meet his gaze. “Josh, just forget it…”

Josh crossed the few steps separating them, cupping her face in his hands before jokingly smooshing her cheeks together. “Hannah,” he said slowly, the usual curve of his mouth still strangely serious, “You know I love you, right?”

Hannah averted her eyes, looking up to the snow-covered roof with a quiet groan. “Gross,” she murmured, but made no immediate attempts to escape.

“I love you. And despite popular opinion, I do not, in fact, want you to be upset. I don’t want you to feel bad, and I don’t want your feelings to be hurt, okay?”

She said nothing.

“Do you really want me to say something to someone?” he asked, not particularly excited at the prospect. “Because if you want me to, I can and will go in there and tell people to pull their shit together. I can be very convincing when I want to be.”

Still nothing.

Sighing, he released his hold on her face, giving her an appraising look. “I’m gonna hit you with some brotherly advice right now, and if you wanna ignore it, then fine, that’s your prerogative. But. Here’s what I know about people. Sometimes…whether you like it or not, you have to just stick to your own kind, you know?” He held up his hand before she could interject, shaking his head brusquely. “I’m not saying this to be a dick, okay? I’m saying it because I’m a little older than you, and I know a thing or two about making seriously shitty life decisions, all right?” At that, she relented, turning her eyes away from him again. “Mike and them? Sure, they’re fine, whatever. They’re all popular and hot and all that teenage dream bullshit, but if you’re more embarrassed around them than you are happy around them, then maybe they’re just…maybe they’re not your people, Han.” He set his hands on her shoulders, giving her one playful shake, “Look, you’re a fucking dork, okay? You didn’t hear that shit from me, but it’s true. The tattoo is cool and all—I mean, who doesn’t like butterflies—but God you’re a freak.”

Josh…”

“But I happen to have it on good authority that freaks tend to be the coolest people to hang with. Yes, even freaks like you, I know, it’s a shocking revelation.”

She rolled her eyes again, but the faintest hint of a smile had appeared, replacing her earlier distress.

“There will always, always, always be freaks like you and like me. And they will always have other freaks who’ll put up with their freaky shit. Here’s what I’m saying. You got Beth, you got me, you got Sammy. All objectively pretty cool people who, for whatever reason, like you. And, special buy one, get two deal here—since you got me, I can tell you right here and now that, whether you believe it or not, Chris and Ash? Definitely like you too. So if you’re sick of feeling like everyone else is being an asshole, then fuck ‘em. We can be your wolf pack, Hanners. Consider it.”

Hannah was quiet for a while, fingers absently picking at the faux-fur lining of her pockets. “Thanks.”

“Of course.” Without warning, he palmed her head with one hand, tugging her close enough for him to plant a loud, dry kiss on her forehead. “Now, unless you want to get in another couple minutes of yelling at me, what say we get back into the warm, huh?”

She nodded, following him to the door. As she rubbed away the spot where he’d kissed her, Hannah laughed, and Josh couldn’t help but smile in return.

***

9:30pm

When the sun had begun to set, someone floated the idea of a bonfire. It was met immediately with unanimous approval and a mad rush to find as many s’mores ingredients as possible. There was a sizeable fire pit smack dab between the lodge and the woods, encircled by rocks and large, rustic benches that were little more than wooden logs split down the middle.

Glad for yet another excuse to separate themselves from the others, Josh, Chris, and Ashley had made it their job to get the fire going; by the time everyone else made it outside and down the path, it was an impressive blaze. Even with the snow falling and the wind really starting to kick up, the fire was big enough to stave off the worst of the cold.

There had been a tenuous moment when Hannah had seemed to be making some attempt to nab the space next to Mike, only for Jessica to swoop in and drop herself onto the bench daintily. It passed as quickly as it happened, though, and before long, the woods were full of laughter and the echoes of embarrassing stories about classmates.

Only when it got dark—or as dark as it could get, given the snow-bright sky—Josh licked one last smear of melted chocolate from off of his fingers. “All right, people, now for the main attraction.”

“Oh boy,” someone muttered, mouth clearly full of marshmallow.

“Here we go,” sighed someone else.

Beth groaned loudly enough to scare a small group of birds from a nearby tree.

“Oh, fucking bite me,” Josh laughed, momentarily standing up from his bench, nearing the fire. “Welcome…” he said, spreading his arms wide in a slow, dramatic gesture, “To a very special meeting of the Midnight Society.” He reached behind him, scooping up a handful of pine needles before throwing them into the bonfire with a flourish; it resulted in a loud, delicate crescendo of popping noises and Josh’s smile faltered for a second. It hadn’t quite had the intended effect, but he thought it would do.

There was a low, tittering collection of chuckles, then a cough, and then Mike’s voice from across the fire, “Uh…dude, it’s like nine thirty.”

Josh’s expression dropped for the barest of moments as he took inventory of the other’s faces. “It’s…oh my God, can any of you watch a show? Enlighten yourselves, take in some culture! Ugh. Anyway.” He hunkered back down onto the bench, elbows on his knees, dangling the bottle in his right hand for emphasis. “Tonight’s story is an oldie but a goodie, kiddies…it’s the story of the Blackwood Sanatorium. Or Sanitarium. Honestly, I don’t know the difference, and I’m not even sure there is one, but I can’t be assed to care.”

Now, instead of laughter, there were groans. From their bench, Hannah and Beth rolled their eyes and Sam dropped her head into her hands. “Not this again,” Beth sighed, rocking herself backwards until she was in danger of falling off entirely. “Let’s not bore everyone to tears, huh?” Though there had been an awkward apology and an even more awkward hug a couple hours back, their earlier argument hadn’t been entirely forgotten, and her voice still carried a bit of an edge.

“Please ignore my sisters, as they have no taste, as can be proven by the company they keep.”

“Or maybe they’re just scaaaared.” Chris’s voice was a strange sing-song, warped by the rim of his drink as he took a swig. He only needed to make momentary eye contact with Josh before the two of them were guffawing to themselves, Chris knocking the knuckles of his empty hand against Josh’s when he extended his fist.

A spark seemed to glint in Emily’s eyes just then, completely removed from the bonfire. “Oooh…scared of what?” she asked, leaning in closer with a smile that seemed anything but well intentioned.

Smirking, Josh looked in the girls’ direction before turning back to Emily. “Ah, ah, ah. While I appreciate your enthusiasm, I really must ask that everyone save their questions until the end.” With another low laugh, he swept an arm out towards the mountain vista, guiding their attention. “Not too far from here, on this very mountain, is the Blackwood Sanatorium-slash-Sanitarium. Or, for those of you who didn’t do so well on the verbal portion of your SATs, the Blackwood Insane Asylum.” He waggled his fingers to emphasize how very, very spooky this was. “Only it didn’t start out that way. See, sanatoriums used to be a big thing, back in the day…they were like spas, sort of. Usually they were built in places with dry air and high altitudes,” another sweeping arm gesture, “With the idea that lots of fresh air and heights would help cure whatever ailed ya, so long as what ailed ya was the good ol’ consumption. Blackwood was built back in 1922 for the fabulously wealthy and beautiful to come and fight off that nasty bout of tuberculosis they caught from Grandmámá…but a quick little history class reminder, the Great Depression was right around the corner, so that whole glamorous rich people thing? Eh, didn’t last.”

“Is the scariest part of this story how boring it is?” Jessica asked, heaving a loud sigh as she twisted a pigtail in her fingers.

Josh let his gaze fall on her. “Madam, you wound me.” He took another drink, bobbling his head in contemplation. “But fine, fine, I’ll fast forward. So like a lot of old health facilities, once the money stopped, shit got rough. Real rough. Now, instead of old fogies coming for fresh air treatments and shit, people have just straight up started dumping their unwanted relatives in Blackwood. Dark shit, right? Essentially, this place goes from being a health retreat to a holding facility for the mentally insane.”

“Not true.”

“Okay, you know what? Do you guys want to tell the story? Because I could just not tell the story, Beth.”

She waved her hand, “No, go on. God knows you’ll whine if we don’t let you.”

“Makes you glad to be an only child, huh?” Chris asked Ashley, leaning in her direction though making absolutely no efforts to shield his voice from the others. When he deemed the response from the rest of the group unacceptable, he sighed, carefully setting his bottle down into a nearby snow bank to chill it. He did lower his voice, then, angling himself closer to her. “While he’s doing this boring shit, I’m gonna run back inside for a sec, gonna grab another bag of marshmallows. Need anything?” She shook her head and he pushed himself up, casually walking back towards the lodge. When his back was to the others, he briefly looked to Josh, raising and lowering his eyebrows in some secret sign.

SO!” Josh continued. “With no funds, the doctors are desperate, right? They need money to keep the place up and running. That’s when the head honcho, one Mister Doctor Professor Jefferson Bragg Esquire, the Fourth, has an idea.”

Emily clucked her tongue loudly, cocking her head to the side. “He was a doctor, a professor, and a lawyer?”

“Yes, Emily, he was a very accomplished man, please don’t insult him by questioning his many accolades and achievements. Also, the next person to interrupt me is going into this fire, so help me God. As I was saying…Jeffy Boy has this big moneymaking idea, so sometime in the late 40s, they start experimenting on the patients. Seems like a good way to get some notoriety, and the more publicity they get, the more they contribute to the medical field, the more cashola they’re gonna be able to get their grubby mitts on.

“Shit starts off basic at first. They’re taking blood from healthy patients, putting it into sick patients, seeing if it does anything. It doesn’t, so they gotta move on to bigger, badder things as the years go on. Lobotomies come next—those were all the rage back then, by the way. You got yourself a wicked case of the epilepsy? Lobotomy. Feeling depressed, chum? Lobotomy. The missus isn’t doing what her hubby tells her to? Ohoho, we have a cure for that, friend—Lobotomy. Those go about as well as expected. Now you got a hospital full of people with scrambled eggs for brains. A lot easier to handle, though, I’d imagine.” With a flick of his wrist, he sent another handful of pine needles into the fire. “Then, when they realize their plan isn’t working all that well…that’s when the real sadistic shit starts going down.

“They’re doing Frankenstein stunts, now. They’re going down into the morgue—because of-fucking-course they got their own morgue in that place—and they’re taking body parts from corpses. In those days, families dumped you there because they were ashamed, so no one was gonna claim you, and no one was gonna complain if they took your eyeballs and tried transplanting them into wolves.”

There was another loud groan, this time from Sam, who narrowed her eyes in disbelief. “Why would they transplant a dead person’s eyes into a wolf?! That’s just disgusting.”

“I don’t know, Sammy. I wasn’t there, Sammy. Maybe it looked really cool, Sammy.”

“Was the idea that the wolves would see…better?” Ashley asked, also squinting as she looked across the fire to Josh. “Because I’m pretty sure wolves…already see better than we do.”

“They don’t see color, though,” came Matt’s voice, slightly muffled by the mostly-burnt marshmallow he was biting into. “So maybe that was it.”

“Why would they need wolves to be able to see color?” Emily sneered, snuggling herself closer into the crook of Mike’s arm. “Like what would the point be?”

“Maybe the government was hoping to use them to attack Nazis on sight.”

“Ah yes, Nazis. Known for their bright, colorful plumage. I’m sure that was it, Michael.

“I mean they had those bright red armbands, Em. Some of ‘em, anyway. Wait, can dogs see red to begin with?”

ENOUGH WITH THE WOLVES!” Everyone fell silent and turned as Josh threw his arms into the air. “Who cares why they needed the eyes—they were putting corpse eyes into animals, and that’s fucking messed up! Jesus, can no one appreciate good storytelling anymore? I swear. May I continue?” He sighed and momentarily hung his head, rubbing the back of his neck before launching back into the story. “They run out of money. Completely.” His tone grew suddenly serious, almost confidential as he bent himself closer to the fire. The light seemed to catch in his eyes, making them all but glow. “But they’ve still got all these patients. Not a lot—not as many as they were used to having…but enough. Enough that they realize they can’t pay to feed these people anymore. So the patients, locked up nice and tight in their little cells…well, they start to starve. All the while, the higher-ups are trying to figure out what to do. They could just let them starve, sure, but the media coverage on that isn’t gonna be great. But they don’t have the funds to keep buying them oatmeal and graham crackers, so what’re they to do?” He licked his lips to wet them, letting his eyes scan from one face to the next to the next before taking a slow, deliberate drink. “That’s when Bragg has an idea. A real gold nugget. See, he realized, they did, in fact, have plenty of meat for them to eat. Downstairs. Stacked neatly in cold, refrigerated drawers.”

A few disgusted noises, but the others quickly went quiet once more.

“That’s when the good folks of Blackwood Sanatorium decided they’d kill three birds with one stone: They’d empty out their overfilled morgue, they’d feed their patients, and they’d study what happened to them. Sounds pretty good on paper, right? Tidy, almost. Only here’s the thing, ladies and gents, the human body isn’t really supposed to eat human flesh. Craziest thing. Go figure. For a little while, it seems to be working out all right. No one’s running from the facility screaming ‘Soylent Green is people!’ so at least in that respect, they’re doing okay. But slowly…slowly, they start to see some real changes in their patients.

“For one, they’re noticing a lot of behavioral weirdness. People are just randomly sobbing or screaming with laughter, or they’re so angry that they’re slamming their heads into the walls just to work out some of the energy. But that’s not too weird…remember, we’re in a mental institution. It’s not until they all stop talking that anyone realizes something really, really wrong is starting to happen. None of them speak, not even a word, not even a grunt. When the nurses and the doctors come around, the patients just stand and stare, wide-eyed, never moving, never opening their mouths. It’s like they’re statues…catatonic. For weeks, it goes on like that. All of them just standing in place, the only part of them to ever move being their eyes…

“And then one night, when doing the usual rounds, one of the nurses, uh…Victoria…Something-Or-Other, she goes in to do a check of her patients. Patient Number One is fine, nothing changed. Patient Number Two is fine. Patient Number Three, though? Oh, Number Three is the problem child that night. She takes their pulse, checks their eyes, and then goes to take their temperature. Puts the thermometer in their mouth. Then, it happens so fast that she doesn’t realize what hit her…or what bit her, I guess…but next thing she knows, Vicky’s missing two fingers.” He lowered the index and middle fingers of his own hand, brandishing it for them all to see. “They’re just gone. She’s got these awful, jagged shards of bone coming out from the stumps where they used to be, and there’s blood everywhere. She starts screaming right about the time she recognizes the strange crunching sound in the room is the patient yummying-down on her fingers. It’s too late though…by the time backup runs into the hall, Patient Number Three is gums-deep in Vicky’s left leg. It’s a mess. Arterial blood spraying, gristle and meat tearing, bone showing through.”

Sam groaned loudly, turning to Hannah and sticking her tongue out in a show of disgust. Hannah returned the gesture, rolling her eyes as Josh kept talking.

“That’s when they realize that the silent wing suddenly isn’t so silent, anymore. No, now the patients—all of them—are screaming this high, horrible wail. Like hungry mountain lions, they’re just howling. And then the banging starts. The doctors, the nurses, the security team, it takes them a second to understand what’s happening, but the patients are literally throwing themselves against the doors. The metal is bending, it’s denting, and then impossibly, it’s giving way. They can hear the straining of it over the terrible, twisting screams. Then…ping! A bolt snaps. Ping! A second. Ping! Ping! Pingpingpingpingping! And then it’s like bullet fire, the sound of the metal hinges and screws bending and breaking and falling to the floor, the doors are crashing down where they had been standing and now…now…the patients are free. All of them. And just like Patient Number Three, they’re so…fucking…hungry.

“Security’s fucked. They’re the first line of defense, and stupid enough to think that they can hold back a small army of bloodthirsty cannibals. So while the big, strong dudes in white coats are getting themselves thoroughly wrecked, some of the docs and nurses—the smarter ones, anyway—well, they take off running. They figure if they can get out of the patient wing, then they’ll be totally fine. They run and run and run, but even as they do, they can hear what’s happening behind them. They can hear the screams, they can hear the sound of meat being torn off of bones, and worst of all, they can fucking hear the footsteps behind them, getting closer and closer. A few nurses get picked off. Those old fashioned high heels get slippy, after all, so some just fall, and once they fall, that’s all she wrote. The patients just descend on them like starving rats. Some of the older docs get got, too. Just too slow. A hand hooks around the back of a jacket or grabs the chain of a pocket watch, and they’re down for the count.”

A few of them, he noticed, were shifting around uncomfortably as they watched him. Ashley, in particular, had scrunched her knees a little closer to her chest, her fingers anxiously tapping against her plastic cup. She wasn’t a big fan of the guts and gore, Ashley Brown. Ah, but the best was yet to come!

“And with that, we got us a small little group of survivors, now. Maybe five or six. Couple nurses, couple doctors, and the big man himself—Jefferson Bragg. They hole themselves up in Bragg’s office, bar the door, and just…wait. Bragg’s got a phone in his office, but this is the 50s, remember, or the late 40s, so a fat lot of good that thing’s gonna do them. The line’s dead, to start with, and then after an hour or two, the lights cut out, too. Maybe someone flipped a switch, maybe someone chewed through the power lines, either way, these poor saps are locked in a tiny, cramped room with no phone, no food, no power, and all they can do is sit and listen to the screams of their fellow employees as they get the skin stripped from them, piece by piece.

“After a long, long time, they start to nod off. It seems ridiculous, doesn’t it—falling asleep in a situation like that? But it happens. Too much stress, too much trauma, and the human brain just sort of needs a reset. Maybe they sleep for a couple minutes, maybe it’s an hour, maybe it’s a whole night, no one’s really sure. What they do know is that all of a sudden, they’re all awake again, and not sure why. But then they hear it.” He paused at that, taking another long, deliberate drink from his bottle.

The air around them fell silent, save for the crackling of the fire. And then, quietly, Jessica’s voice could be heard again. “What did they hear?”

Slow grin returning, Josh leaned in towards the fire. “Hard to say, exactly…At first, it’s just a quiet scratching, almost like hearing rats on the other side of a wall. But then it gets louder; that’s when they realize it’s deliberate. Something…or maybe someone…is on the other side of the office door. The scratching gets louder, and louder, and louder…and then stops. It just…stops.” He held his hands out, fingers fanned out on one, still grasping his bottle in the other. A moment passed, then two, and he had to fight a laugh when he realized how attentively they were all listening to him. “Everything gets very, very, very quiet in the room. No one wants to say anything, no one wants to make a single sound, because whatever’s on the other side of that door…well, it sure isn’t a rat. And more to the point, it sure doesn’t sound like help. They all just freeze, staying as still as they possibly can. These are the survivors, remember, and that’s what they want to continue to be—survivors. Alive.

“They all look at each other, waiting to see who’s going to be brave enough to make the first move. The noise on the other side of the door is getting louder, and it almost sounds like the wood is starting to splinter. No one gets up, at first. Who can blame ‘em? I know I wouldn’t…but eventually, everyone’s eyes fall on Bragg. He’s the boss, after all, and it was his big idea to start feeding the stiffs downstairs to the patients, so it only seems fair that this is his problem to deal with. It takes him a while, but Jeffy Boy finally does the right thing and stands up. Bragg slowly walks forward to the door. He walks so slowly and so softly, trying not to make a single sound, and when he gets close enough, he reaches for the latch covering the peephole. Carefully—so fucking carefully—he touches it with a finger, and he pushes it away. He leans in, moving closer and closer to the door terrified of what he’s going to see. He puts his eye to the peephole, and he—”

RAGH!

There was an almost musical chorus of screams from them all as Chris jumped out from behind Sam and Hannah—who, even though they had been fully expecting that particular breed of ass-hattery, found themselves yelling. Instinctively, Hannah whirled around, blindly lashing out in Chris’s direction. She missed by a good bit, managing to do little more than bop him on the side of the neck, but Chris coughed and spluttered as if she’d stabbed him.

“Jesus fuck, Hannah!” Laughter rang out in Chris’s voice, even as he feigned agony, cupping both hands to his neck and rubbing where she had hit him, “You could’ve knocked my freaking head off, oh my God.”

“Ha ha,” Sam drawled, rolling her eyes in his direction. “Hi-larious, you guys. For real. What are we, fifth graders?”

Entirely unaffected by the angry grumbling coming from the others, Josh and Chris nearly collapsed into a fit of laughter, Josh literally slapping his knee, Chris leaning a hand against Josh’s shoulder to steady himself as he walked back to his spot.

“God, that shouldn’t still be so funny…”

“Fuckin’ right?

From across the fire, Emily managed a sharp, breathless, “That was so stupid.”

“You guys are assholes,” Jessica agreed, and she shared a long-suffering look with Emily that seemed to suggest they’d be having their own story time, later.

Chris took his seat again, picking his bottle back up, and pretended to recoil when Ashley smacked his shoulder. “Shoulda seen your face.” He pantomimed wide-eyed terror, splaying out his empty hand near his face as he silently screamed. “Don’t worry,” he added, lowering his voice conspiratorially as he leaned in closer to her, “It’s all pretend. Promise. Scout’s honor.”

She scowled, one hand still firmly pressed against the front of her jacket. “You’re such a dolt, oh my God.” Once her heart began creeping back down into her chest from her throat, a high-pitched, nervous giggle escaped her. “I think you took ten frigging years off my life with that. God, I hate you guys…”

When Josh was finally able to collect himself, he set his own bottle down, clapping his hands together. “So! I believe earlier, someone asked what it was that scared my dear sisters and my dear Sammy so badly, last time I told this story. That’s its own story. And a funny one, at that. Okay, so it was a night just like tonight…”

Josh…” Hannah said warningly, face still burning hot from the surprise.

“The girly girls over here were having a slumber party on a dark and stormy night, braiding their hair, painting their nails—you know how it goes—anyway, they get bored somewhere between Titanic and The Proposal, and decide they want to be edgy. You know, as you do.”

Beth swung her legs back to right herself on the bench, looking out across the sea of faces with an expression of amused exasperation that only those with siblings could ever understand. “Every word out of his mouth is a lie. I have never in my life watched Titanic.”

“Oh, you should—very romantic,” Chris confided, looking at her from over the frames of his glasses before snickering again, nudging Josh to continue. Under his breath, he hummed a few bars of My Heart Will Go On until Ashley reached up and pinched his nose, causing him to cough out a strange, choked noise.

“And so they come to me like ‘Oh Josh, tell us a scary story, Josh. We want ghost stories, Josh…’ So I—being the primo brother that I am…” at this, he paused to take a long drink, “Of course obliged them. I get to the part with Bragg opening the peephole, and this motherfucker right here—” He slapped Chris’s shoulder good-naturedly, “Just slams himself against the outside of the sliding door and shrieks like a goddamn banshee.”

Proudly posturing, Chris took a drink. “Waited out there for fifteen minutes. Got about ninety mosquito bites. Almost died of blood loss. Probably still nursing a case of Lyme. Worth it.”

“So they don’t like the Blackwood story.”

Folding her arms tightly across her chest, Hannah burrowed down deeper into the fluff of her jacket, dourly looking down into the fire. “We don’t like the story because it’s stupid and that’s definitely not what happened there.”

Josh shrugged noncommittally, craning his head back to let the chilly air cool him off again. “Prove it. Go up there and ask all the zombie ghosts, yourself, if you don’t believe me.”

“So wait…are they zombies? Or are they ghosts?”

“I thought they were just cannibals?”

“You didn’t say anything about ghosts in that story.”

“Besides,” Josh continued, ignoring the backchat, “It’s not like any of you chumps have anything scarier.”

***

11:43pm

“Okay…you can do this.” Ashley straightened up from the sink, getting a good look at herself in the mirror, and realized with a sinking sensation that she was significantly drunker than she had anticipated. “Oh crap…ugh…you can…still do this.” She took in a deep breath, watching her shoulders rise and fall in the reflection. After a moment, she attempted to find a halfway decent angle at which she could hold her head, trying different smiles along with it. “Not like it’s brain surgery…you just…sit back down, and say…something. Just like…‘Hey!’”

“Hey?”

With a shuddering gasp, she whirled around, the earth tilting on its axis and tumbling around her as she tried to keep her balance. She stared goggle-eyed at the door (which she had apparently left open), where Sam and Beth were peeking in, watching her with equal parts amusement and confusion. Immediately her face lit up with brilliant heat, and she wondered how likely it was that the floor would split in two and swallow her up whole. “Oh. Um. Hi.”

“If you’re talking-to-yourself-in-a-bathroom-mirror drunk, you should probably consider moving to the downstairs bathroom,” Beth suggested, disappearing around the doorframe again.

“Um…yeah. Yeah, maybe…” Painfully aware of Sam’s gaze, she looked down to the floor, making her way to the door as quickly as she was able to.

Sam leaned over as she approached, nudging Ashley’s arm gently with her elbow. “You doing okay?”

“Fine,” she said quickly, cheeks burning as she joined them out in the hallway. “It’s nothing. Are, uh…are you guys…having fun?” Ashley winced as it came out of her mouth. It seemed like the right thing to say at a party, but then again, she was never really entirely sure. She reached up and rubbed at the side of her face, hoping against hope that she could get rid of some of the flushing before rejoining the guys.

“Oh, a blast.” Rolling her eyes in Sam’s direction, Beth made her way down the stairs, stopping one she’d reached the first landing, putting them smack-dab between the third and second floors of the lodge. “Watch it, watch it…” she said, spotting Ashley about to slip a solid second before she did, reaching out and grabbing one of her wrists to keep her on her feet. “We should’ve roped the stairs off, I swear to God…”

“Drunk people and freshly-polished wooden stairs—what could possibly go wrong?” Sam laughed, taking hold of Ashley’s other arm and guiding her to the landing as well.

The three of them leaned against the railing, clearly in no real rush to get back to the chaos in the great room; the landing allowed them to look out over nearly all of the second floor of the lodge, and though it was difficult to hear the others’ voices from over the music blasting through the speakers, there was no missing the reek of cheap alcohol in the air. Tomorrow, of course, they would all begin the arduous trip back home, whether that be a university campus or their parents’ houses, and as party law dictated, it was only expected that they go all out before that.

“Uh oh,” Beth said, craning her body until she was almost doubled-over the banister. “Lost visuals on Hannah. This can only spell trouble.”

Sam rolled her eyes but laughed all the same, grabbing a fistful of Beth’s sweater to keep her from losing her footing. “If you fall from up here, you’re going to break your neck and die.”

“Well at least you’ll all have a very exciting story to tell, back at school.” She wriggled a bit, hands clutching at the rail as she scanned the party. “Ah! There she is. Who would’ve guessed—orbiting Mike like a tiny, sweaty comet.” Beth let Sam pull her back onto her heels, shaking her head with a sister’s weary sigh. “She’s so predictable.”

“I don’t get it.” Ashley rested with her cheek against a hand, her other arm folded underneath. She watched the group in the living room with a detached sort of interest that felt much more appropriate for a bio classroom than a party.

“Don’t get what?” Beth poked her head out over the railing to look around Sam, “Spending the night flitting around your crush?” She hooked her thumbs together and waved her fingers in what was probably supposed to be some imitation of a bird (or, God help her, a butterfly), but ended up just looking like tentacles.

Ashley sighed as she swiveled her gaze to Beth, a crease appearing in her forehead as she ostensibly tried to figure out what she was doing with her hands. “No, I get that—” She froze, mouth still open in a contemplative ‘o’ as she realized what she had just said. Her eyes flicked to Beth’s, and then to Sam’s, and she pursed her lips in resignation when she saw the same knowing, teasing look there. “You know what I meant,” she added, lowering her voice but offering no denials. “What I was going to say,” she began again, “Is I don’t get how Hannah can like Mike, of all people.”

“Wow Ashley, judgy much?” Sam turned back to watch the party, appraising Mike as he gestured grandly, saying something to Emily that was just too hard to make out over the music. Whatever it was, it must’ve been hilarious, given her reaction. “I don’t know, does it really not make sense? I mean,” she shrugged, “Look at him.”

“Yeah, that’s just it, though—look at him.” She had wrinkled up her face as though smelling something unpleasant, shifting her weight to her other foot. “The big, bad, macho deal is just…not what I thought Hannah would be into, I guess.”

As though she could hear them, Hannah happened to glance up, managing a small, perplexed smile. She offered a tentative finger-wave, and the three returned it. “Yeah,” Beth said, blowing her sister an exuberant air-kiss, “I gotta admit, I don’t get what she sees in him. But hey, who’m I to say?”

“She’s just so…smart,” Ashley continued, aware on some level that this was not a conversation she’d normally have with anyone, much less the two people in the world closest to Hannah, but absolutely and utterly incapable of stopping the words from coming out of her mouth. “And athletic! And pretty. She can do so much better than…” She trailed off, waving dismissively in Mike’s direction.

Sam laughed, “Drunk Ashley has some opinions about Mike, huh?”

“Drunk Ashley doesn’t like jerks,” she sniffed. “Neither does Sober Ashley, in case you were wondering. Can’t stand the whole…‘alpha male’ thing. It’s gross.”

Yeah,” Beth interrupted, waving an arm grandly towards the kitchen. “Trust me, we caught on to that.”

They turned just in time to witness Chris dramatically throw an arm across his forehead and fall back against a stool, narrowly avoiding falling to the floor in the process. “Oh Edward,” he said in an extremely loud, strangely quavering falsetto. “Hold me.”

To which Josh, stoic and unblinking, raised both hands from behind his back, clinking together the empty bottles he’d stuck each of his fingers into. For a moment, he made a show of tenderly caressing Chris’s face, knocking his glasses askew with an errant tap, before broodingly responding, “I can’t.”

Chris made a noise of feminine distress high-pitched enough to be a real threat to the glass in the lodge as he pretended to swoon again, and both Sam and Beth turned back to Ashley with obvious contempt. She bared her teeth in what could’ve been a smile, before dropping her head into her hands.

Realizing they had an audience, Chris and Josh waved up to them, Josh’s fingers still clinking. “It’s Edward Fortyhands!” he called up to them, voice slurred terribly, entirely oblivious to Chris clumsily ducking out of the way of his hand. “Get it?”

Beth cupped her hands around her mouth, yelling over the music, “That’s not even how the scene goes, you morons!” Sighing, she dropped her arms back to her sides, “That’s not even how the scene goes.”

There was a loud sigh from Ashley as she pushed herself back up from the railing. “I should make sure they don’t—”

“Do anything stupid?” Sam offered.

She snorted out a tiny laugh. “Think we’re a few years late for that…” Ashley started down the stairs, clutching onto the banister for dear life as she slowly made her way back down towards the others.

It wasn’t long before Sam and Beth saw her reappear, tucking herself comfortably into the stool Chris has only just nearly knocked over. She glanced up to them briefly, raising her plastic cup in their direction before turning back to Chris and Josh, joining in on their animated conversation.

“Oh, they’re drunk,” Sam commented breezily, fighting back a snort of laughter as Josh went to sit down and missed his stool entirely, tumbling to the floor with all the grace of a newborn giraffe.

“Good. Maybe they’ll be bearable, for once.” Unlike Sam, Beth felt no need to keep from laughing, but was interrupted mid-chuckle by a wide, unavoidable yawn. “Mmm…I think I’m down for the count, though.”

She caught the yawn, covering her mouth with a hand before standing up straighter. “Already?”

“Yeah…think I might just like…go hole up in the screening room for a little. Catch some Z’s in one of those beanbags.” A placid smile spread across her face at the thought. “Yeah, okay, no, that’s definitely what I’m doing. Come get me if anything interesting happens?”

Sam flashed her a double thumbs-up, “You got it.”

They made their way to the second floor before splitting up, Beth rounding the corner to head down to the first floor, Sam instead opting to join up with Hannah.

It was hard for Sam to describe the music Jessica liked. When she really got down to it and tried, the words that seemed to come to her most quickly were ‘loud,’ and ‘shrill,’ and ‘bad.’ The others didn’t seem to mind as much, everyone eating and dancing and climbing up onto furniture they had no business standing on.

She picked up her cup from earlier—the one with a bold, curly S on it—tentatively sniffing its contents before taking a sip to wet her mouth. “Think she takes requests?” Sam asked, leaning in so Hannah could better hear her over the music.

“What, do you not like this song?”

There was no hiding her grimace. “Ugh, does that mean you like it?”

Hannah laughed, saying nothing to confirm or deny the accusation. She held her hands up as if to say ‘What can you do?’ and kept half-swaying to the music, looking around. “I’m so not ready to go back to classes on Monday,” she groaned, letting Sam lean against her as they moved along with the music.

“I hear that.”

“Do you think—” It happened quickly enough that Sam was confused for a solid few seconds, simply staring and blinking as Hannah’s eyes widened in shocked surprise, her mouth opening indignantly.

It was when Matt piped in from behind her with an “Oh! Shit, Sam, Hannah…Fuck guys, I’m sorry! My bad, oh man…” that it started to piece together.

She blinked down at her now-empty cup, eyes moving immediately to Hannah’s wet top, realizing belatedly that Matt must’ve bumped into her arm and jostled her. Sam fought the groan threatening to escape her, her eyebrows drawing up and together in concern as she looked apologetically up at Hannah.

Matt, to his credit, appeared genuinely distressed about the spill, apologizing to Hannah profusely. He wasn’t the sort to be antagonistic, so Sam had no doubt that it really had been an accident, but it didn’t do much to lessen the impact.

“It’s fine, it’s fine…” Hannah said, quickly turning away from them and towards the stairs. “Don’t worry about it, I’m just…” her voice was tense. “I’m just gonna go dry off…”

“Do you want me to come with you?” Sam asked, but Hannah was already halfway to the stairs, rushing away before anyone else could see what had happened. She sighed loudly, setting her empty cup down on the table, waving off another of Matt’s apologies with a tired smile.

She made a mental note to pop a couple aspirin before going to bed. Already, she could feel the menacing fingers of a headache beginning to tap at her temples. Sam craned her head back to watch as Hannah disappeared in the direction of her room upstairs. The threat of a headache became more pronounced.

Not unlike the night before, suddenly the music felt too loud, her head felt too swimmy, and it was all just too much. Sam decisively made her way back out of the great room and into the hall, making a beeline for the half-bathroom near the main entrance. There was very little she wanted to do more than tuck herself into a small, quiet space for a moment or two—maybe splash some water on her face or rinse her mouth out.

“Okay, y’got this. You got this. Yougot…this.

So much for finding a quiet space.

But oh, wasn’t this a familiar scene? Sam leaned herself against the open door of the bathroom, folding her arms across her chest as she looked in, watching Chris talking to himself in the mirror. What would Josh have called it? Cinematic parallels? She remained silent, drumming her fingers absently against her sleeve, wondering how long it would take him to notice her.

“Just…say something,” he was mumbling, lifting one hand from the edge of the sink to run through his hair, making it stand up in strange patches. “Cuz you got this, you deeeefinitely got this…”

“Whatcha got?” she asked, letting her head rest against the door as she grinned into the bathroom.

She had expected to startle him like she had Ashley, but on the contrary, Chris turned to face her with a nonchalance she wasn’t sure she had ever seen in him before. He leaned further against the sink, body nearly at a 90° angle, and it became immediately apparent why he appeared so calm—the boy was drunk out of his mind. “Ohey, Sam,” he said, words noticeably running into each other, “Having fun?”

Nodding, she pushed the door open the rest of the way with her foot. “Something like that,” she smiled, standing back up straight. “Are you having fun, Chris?”

“Eh, I’m pretty drunk.”

“I had noticed.” Still, she laughed, unable to remember a time she had ever seen him as inebriated as he was. Tipsy? Sure, she’d seen Chris and Josh tipsy plenty of times, stumbling over themselves and shushing the girls as they snuck back into the Washington house long after they’d been expected, but drunk? Wasted? Fucking sloshed? No, no she couldn’t seem to remember any instances like that. And Chris seemed to be gone, in that regard, leaning against the sink for stability, talking to his reflection, his usual dopey grin somehow even wider. “Whatcha got?”

A crease appeared between his eyebrows, “Huh?”

“A second ago, you were saying you ‘got this,’” she said, nodding towards the mirror. “So…whatcha got?”

He continued to stare for a second, uncomprehending, and then suddenly realization dawned across his face. “Oh, that. Yeah. I’m, uh…” he cleared his throat and stood up straighter, making a point of tugging his sweater down to smooth out the wrinkles. “I’m gonna talk to Ash.”

Sam raised her eyebrows, “Oh yeah?”

Chris nodded, then seemed to think better of it, pausing and narrowing his eyes to fight back what Sam assumed was a wave of dizziness. “Yeah,” he finally said, though he made no move to leave the sink’s relative safety. “Been thinking ‘bout it. Gonna do it. Gonna…gonna say something.”

Oh, she’d believe that when she saw it, but she just kept smiling.

***

Sunday, February 2, 2014
1:00am

The three of them had had…way too much to drink.

It was the reason Josh and Chris were both passed out, dead to the world, hunched over the kitchen island as they snored into their arms; it was the reason Ashley had found herself in the great room with everyone else, laughing and stumbling through a horrible attempt at dancing.

Her saving grace had been that she had never been able to drink on the same level as the guys, and always made sure to stay two or three drinks behind them. Still, she was probably as drunk as she’d ever been, her entire body pleasantly warm, her thoughts pleasantly muffled, her mouth tasting like absolute death.

“Hey Ashley!”

She turned away from Matt, her impromptu but wonderful dance partner, expecting that one of the twins or maybe Sam needed her for something. That wasn’t the case. Ashley stopped swaying, nearly having to suppress a gasp when she found herself eye-to-eye with Jessica, instead. “Hi Jess,” she said, unable to keep the uncertainty from out of her voice. Almost instinctively, she glanced quickly around the room to see whether Emily was anywhere nearby, watching them.

Jessica’s smile was huge and charming, full of perfectly white, perfectly straight teeth, and Ashley could already feel herself beginning to regret feeling any sort of suspicion about her motives. “Hey, so…you guys are like…super into pranks, right?”

Briefly, she looked to Matt, as though for some sort of confirmation. When she turned back to Jessica, she found herself returning the smile. “Oh, yeah! It’s…kind of our thing,” she laughed, punctuating the thought with a weak shrug. “I mean…Josh is the one who’s the best at them, but like…you know.”

Nodding, Jessica reached down and took Ashley’s hands in hers. “You wanna be a part of one of ours?

There was another blip of uncertainty, made dull by the buzzing in her head. For a moment, Ashley just looked at Jess, running the math in her head. If they wanted her to be a part of the prank…that meant they weren’t going to pull it on her, right? Jessica wouldn’t tell her about a prank if it was going to be at her expense, would she? Ashley’s brow furrowed as she thought, dimly remembering how many times that weekend she’d been startled or spooked or scared in the name of a good joke.

She squeezed Jessica’s hands in return. “Definitely!”

Jessica beamed.

***

1:45am

“Hang on, hang on…”

“Shut up!

“Oh my God, will you chill? You’re gonna love this!

“Mmm?”

“Guess who I got?”

“Oh, fun, a guessing game. I can’t wait…wait…seriously? No you did not!

Mhm!!!

“You got the almosts to go along with this?”

Sam paused as she heard the whispering, turning just in time to watch Emily and Jessica walk around the corner.

Jessica beamed, all of her teeth on display. “Well, like…one of them, at least.” She glanced up and caught Sam’s eye, quickly turning back to Emily and giggling before the two of them rushed past her.

She watched them go, narrowing her eyes in confusion before shrugging it off. Sam had made it halfway up the stairs before she realized how eerily quiet the lodge had grown. The music had been turned off, there were no heavy footsteps on the floor, and only the sound of the storm whistling outside broke the silence. A part of her wanted to ignore it and just go to bed; she glanced up towards the third floor landing, having been thinking of nothing besides getting into her pjs and burrowing deep into Hannah’s covers since things had begun to wind down. Still…as much as she had wanted to play it off as though it had been nothing, something about Emily and Jessica’s giggling had set her teeth on edge. She couldn’t say she had ever been fantastic friends with Jessica, but she knew Emily well enough, and when the two of them were grinning like that, usually it meant someone’s feelings were about to get hurt. Badly.

And with the way they had looked at her before scurrying off…well, she hadn’t totally understood what they had meant, but she couldn’t help the uncomfortable suspicion that they had been talking about her in some way.

Shooting another uncertain look up the stairs, Sam bounced on the balls of her feet. She didn’t know why she was pretending—there was no way she was going to be able to go to sleep. Instead, she turned on her heel and descended the stairs again, peering into the kitchen to find a mass of bodies hunched over the island. “What’s, uh…what’s going on here?” she asked.

Three pairs of eyes quickly snapped up to her, and then lowered back to the island. “Hiii Sam…” Jessica said musically, faintly wiggling her hips from side to side as she watched Mike doing…something. She lowered her voice, but not nearly enough for Sam to not catch what she said next. “Watch out guys, the Fun Police just arrived…”

She pretended not to hear as she walked up to them, realizing very quickly that, whatever was going on, it was only Mike, Jessica, and Emily who were participating. On either side of the island, Chris and Josh lay snoring, decidedly not part of the planning committee. Neither showed any sign of waking, despite the others’ laughter and proximity, and she had a pretty good inkling that when they did manage to wake up, they would be nursing monstrous hangovers.

“Seriously,” she tried again, “What’s happening?”

“Oh…nothing,” Emily smiled, offering Sam a fetching smile.

“Nothing…at…all…” Mike added dramatically, making a few flourishes with the pen before setting it down to admire his handiwork. As soon as he finished, Jessica and Emily erupted into another fit of laughter, Emily picking up the paper he’d been writing on.

Sam eyed them warily. “Sure doesn’t sound like nothing.”

Rolling her eyes, Emily looked back to her. “Sam, really. It’s nothing big. Just a funny little prank.”

“A funny little prank, huh? As in jumping out and scaring someone? Or something more…” she pursed her lips, “Involved?

“Oh, jumping out and scaring, definitely.” Jessica bobbled her head up and down as she took the paper from Emily, her grin widening. She reached over and patted Mike’s shoulder proudly, and it was at that precise moment Sam realized something bad was happening.

She held out her hand expectantly. “Can I see?”

The three exchanged secretive looks before Emily nodded, gesturing for Jessica to hand it over.

Cautiously, giving each of their grinning faces a studious once-over, Sam picked up the piece of paper and read it.

Hannah—

You look so damn hot in that shirt…but I bet you’re even better out of it. Come to the guest room at 2:00am ;-)

Mike

XXX

Oh.

Oh.

Sam’s brow furrowed, feeling her stomach clench with secondhand embarrassment. Before she could open her mouth to say anything, Jessica had snatched the note back from her, setting it down on the island in as conspicuous a place as she could. “And now…” she said, giving a playful little curtsey. “We wait! Come on!”

“Oh my God…” Emily whispered, her voice filled with laughter. “I can’t believe you actually did this!” Her eyes said something else, though, and she and Jess shared the sort of quick look and momentary giggle that suggested some old in-joke, or at least the strange breed of telepathy bred between friends. She covered her mouth with a hand as Jess shushed her, but it was still evident that her smile faltered for a moment when Sam cut in.

“Don’t you guys think this is a little bit cruel?” she had lowered her voice as well, but hers was a more parental tone—disappointed. “Can’t you just…leave her alone for five minutes?”

“Oh, come on…She deserves it!” Jessica was hardly dissuaded, setting a hand on her hip as she offered Sam a petulant look.

“It’s not her fault she has a huge crush on Mike.” Whatever humor she might’ve felt that night ago was gone, now. Sam looked quickly to Emily and Mike, her stare withering enough that they both stopped their silent laughter—until she turned back to Jessica, at least.

She shook her head, pigtails bobbing, “Nuh-uh. Hannah’s been making the moves on him all weekend. I’m just looking out for my girl Em.” Jessica flashed Emily a wink, Emily blew her a kiss, and the two began giggling again.

Sam watched the three of them sauntering off towards the staircase, mouth set in a firm line. Jessica and Emily skipped off in front of Mike, turning to go down to the first floor; when she saw Matt and Ashley join up with them, she literally stopped in her tracks, looking at both of them in cool disbelief. “Seriously?” she asked through grit teeth, “You guys too?

Turning to each other, Matt shrugged noncommittally. Ashley looked back to Sam, spreading her arms out, “It’s just a prank, Sam,” she said with a smile, still more than a little wobbly on her feet.

Sam scoffed and stormed her way up the stairs, shaking her head all the while. “This is just mean,” she muttered. It was the sort of thing she could—and frankly did—expect from Mike. She could see Jessica doing it, too, and Emily happily going along with it, but Matt and Ashley? Was everyone really so anxious to see Hannah humiliated?

Ashley took a few steps towards her before the room lurched underneath her and she grabbed onto the railing of the staircase. “Sam!” she called, her voice much too loud to be a whisper. “It’s just a joke! It’ll be funny! Come on!"

But Sam was hearing none of it.

She took the stairs two at a time, her socks slipping against the wood once, causing her to grip onto the railings to balance back out. “Hannah?” Sam called once she reached the top of the staircase. “Hannah?” There was no way in Hell she was going to let them spoil all the time and energy she had spent keeping Hannah from getting her feelings hurt too badly this weekend. She turned the corner, pushing her way into Hannah’s room. “Han—” she started, only to cut herself short when she realized how empty the room was. “Shit. Shit.” Sam whirled back around, sticking her head into the bathroom before going back to the hall, peering over the edge of the railings to make sure she couldn’t see Hannah approaching the kitchen below.

Nothing.

She pulled out her cell phone, meaning to text her a warning, but was immediately reminded of the storm.

NO SERVICE, read the spot where her bars usually were.

Nothing, nothing.

Shoving it back into her pocket, she walked to the other side of the hall, making her way towards the other bedrooms. “Hannah?” Sam called, hearing the echo of her own voice and nothing else.

Nothing, nothing, nothing.

The way she saw it, there were two options: Go back downstairs and look for Hannah there, or double-check the rooms lining the corridor. Inwardly, she groaned—either way, she’d have a lot of ground to cover in a short amount of time—but no matter how hard she tried to wrack her memory, she could not remember Hannah coming back downstairs after she’d gone to dry herself off. So she had to be up on the third floor, right? She spent another second agonizing over it before she made her first real mistake of the weekend. Sam entered the hallway and started opening doors to check for Hannah.

Had she been a little less tipsy, maybe Sam would’ve remembered the smaller staircase leading down from the library. Had she decided to go downstairs, she would’ve almost literally bumped into Hannah as she entered the great room from the foyer. Had she not been so angry, she might’ve been able to stop what was about to happen.

***

1:57am

“Hey Han, have you seen—” Beth stumbled as Hannah rushed out of the kitchen past her, accidentally knocking their shoulders. “Wow, where you off to, Speed Racer?”

“Uh, tell you later!”

Beth craned her head over her shoulder, watching Hannah disappear towards the staircase. “Whatever, weirdo…” she laughed, stretching out with a wide yawn. The party had officially worn out its welcome in her book, and truth be told, and while her catnap in the cinema had been exactly what the doctor ordered, it had also been a cruel tease. Now, there was nothing she wanted more than to get into bed and sleep like the dead. As her eyes fell on Chris and Josh’s slumped figures, it became apparent that she hadn’t been the only one thinking along those lines.

“How cute…” she cooed mockingly, picking up one of the bottles by Josh and giving it a quick once-over before setting it back down. “Man, I’ll say this for you dorks…you do know how to go all-out.” She made her way over to the counter, trying to determine whether there were any leftovers worth snacking on before crashing for the night.

That was when the note caught Beth’s eye.

She looked over the paper, turning it over once before puffing out a breath that could’ve been a laugh. Beth rolled her eyes as she let the paper flutter back to the counter. “Oh Jesus. Come on, Hannah…” Turning over her shoulder, she gave Josh another look. “You really asleep?” In a few quick steps, she had walked back around the island to Josh, prodding him none-too-gently in the shoulder with her fingers. “Josh,” she tried again, louder, “Are you sleeping?” When there was no response, she bent over, grabbing one of his hands by the index finger, lifting it up off the table a few inches before releasing it. It fell back down with a slap, but Josh didn’t move—and neither did Chris, she noticed, looking back up. With a hefty sigh, she patted Josh’s shoulder. “Gotta hand it to you, brother…you’ve outdone us all once again. Per the usual.”

There was a sudden noise from below her—something like a burst of voices—and Beth jumped, looking down at the floor as though she might suddenly be able to see through it. Had she not been staring so intently at the paneling, she might’ve noticed the sudden pattering of footsteps coming down the stairs. Sam had heard the noise too; even through the floors, it had carried through the vents well enough, cutting through the silence of the lodge like a gunshot.

Then, from the corner of her eye, Beth noticed a flicker of movement. Still startled, she turned just in time to watching something vaguely human-shaped disappear outside one of the lodge’s windows, fading into the snow. “What the…” she started, heart hammering in her chest. The noise from downstairs suddenly became louder, more frantic, and then there were footsteps slamming on the staircase. In the confusion of it all, Beth connected the two, figuring the others had seen the same strange silhouette outside. That was when Hannah ran past the window, cutting through the snow like a bullet. “Oh shit,” she breathed, “Shit shit shit…Josh, Josh come on.” She tried rousing him again, grabbing his arm by the elbow, shaking him with all the force she could muster. “You’re still sleeping?! Ugh! Fuck!” Hurrying from out of the kitchen, she grabbed her coat from off one of the nearby pegs, tugging it over one arm.

When she crossed the threshold and saw all of the others rushing out into the snow, she was seized with the innate sense that something very bad was happening—or had already happened.

Hannah?” Sam called, hands cupped around her mouth. She had been the first to run after Hannah, the first to watch her burst through the doors, and had only had time enough to pull her boots on before following out into the night. Even then, the pause had set her back just a moment too late. Wherever Hannah had run off to, she couldn’t be seen. She turned to see Beth shoulder her way past Mike and Matt, eyes wide with confusion, but face already beginning to twist with anger.

“What’s going on? Where’s Hannah going?” she directed the questions at Sam, but her eyes were over her shoulder, scanning the ground for any sign of footprints.

From behind them, there was an impatient sigh. “Ugh…Beth, it’s fine. Hannah just can’t take a joke…” Jessica said.

“It was just a prank, Han!” Emily called out into the snow, voice full of the sort of malice usually kept quarantined to middle school playgrounds.

At that, Sam watched as Beth’s head snapped around. She fixed an icy stare on Emily, before whirling back around and settling her eyes on each of them, in turn. “What. Did. You. Do?” She didn’t need to ask the question—she’d seen the note, she’d seen the guilt on their faces, she’d told Josh that inviting these fucks had been a bad call. Beth knew, and when she met Sam’s eyes, she knew she wasn’t the only one.

“We were just…messing around, Beth…” Mike had started to say, reaching for her arm, “It wasn’t serious or anything…”

She twisted her arm away from his brutally, brandishing a finger in his face before turning again, eyes flitting somewhere between Sam and Ashley, face alight with fury and blame. “You let this happen?” she asked, brow furrowed. Whirling again so that she was facing the entire group, she began moving backwards, almost jogging, as she spat, “You’re all jerks, you know that?!” Beth turned for the woods, and then began to run in earnest, zipping her jacket up against the brewing storm. “Hannah!” she yelled, voice barely carrying above the wind. “Hannah!

Sam watched until Beth disappeared entirely, reaching up and pressing her palms against her temples. So much for avoiding a scene. She sucked her lower lip into her mouth and gnawed on it anxiously, throat and chest churning with guilt. Hannah had been sobbing when she’d run past her; Beth had been so angry. The worst, though, was the sharp echo of her voice replaying in her head: You let this happen?!

“Should we, uh…should we go after them?” Mike asked.

“Y’know…I’m pretty sure you’re the last person she wants to see right now, Mike,” Sam spat, not so much as turning her head to face him.

In the back of the group, Ashley was finding herself sobering up with a horrible speed. She had felt her stomach drop and clench the second Hannah had seen them all, but it was only then, after being frozen by Beth’s furious glare, as she stared down the fading trail of prints the twins had left, that everything fell into place in her head. The woods immediately ceased being the calm, peaceful vista she’d looked out over for the past couple days. Now, they seemed every inch the haunted, hungry forest of a storybook. From off in the distance, something howled. Her head snapped in that direction, her vision wavering with a wave of vertigo, and it felt as though she might simply collapse.

The next moment, she was back in the lodge. She couldn’t remember turning around, couldn’t remember slipping away from the others, but she was already in the great room, stumbling around the railing she’d leaned against earlier. Why had she drank so much? Why had she thought that would be a good idea? Why had she gone along with the others?! Ashley pushed herself off from the railing and staggered into the kitchen, blinking hard as Chris and Josh took shape right where she’d left them, passed the fuck out on the island.

Outside, Jessica was the next to give in. “Ugh, whatever. Let them wander around out there, I’m freezing my ass off…Hey Matt? You’re gonna send us that video, right?” She turned on her heel, nose in the air, and Emily followed close after her, the two flouncing back into the lodge, whispering all the while.

“Video?” Sam asked, watching disappear back into the lodge. “Wait, video? What video?” When she turned back around, it was only Mike and Matt that remained. They looked to her, then to each other, and shrugged before returning inside as well. “Cool, guys…” Sam muttered under her breath, looking out to the woods one last time. “Really cool.” Rubbing her arms against the cold, she stepped back into the house behind the others, taking a moment to flick the switch for the exterior lights. Hannah and Beth would need all the help they could get to find their way back in the dark, after all. Sam paused for a moment as she crossed the threshold into the kitchen, where she found Josh slumped onto the table, still snoring, and Ashley rousing a very bleary, very confused, very drunk Chris from a similar state.

Wrong move, Ashley, she thought to herself. Wrong move.

Not that she was surprised—not by a long shot. Ashley having Chris on her side would help soften the blow of explaining the situation to Josh. But of course that wasn’t the real reason she went to Chris first, or the obvious one. And that’s why Sam sighed and kept walking, beginning her journey of turning the lodge into a bright beacon of light the girls would be able to find through the snow. She had actually tried to stop them all from their mean little prank, while Ashley had more than happily gone along with it, so Sam could let her deal with the guys’ reactions, let her explain why it had seemed so funny to torment Hannah at the time.

“It was just supposed to be a joke,” Ashley was saying, frantic words spilling out of her like vomit, mouth numb and stomach churning. “But then Hannah started running, and Beth went after her, and now—”

“Ash. AshAshAsh…” Still blinking hard and trying to wake himself up, Chris sat with his elbows on the table and his head in his hands. The world was spinning around him his and chair, and he had a lingering suspicion if he shifted even the slightest bit, he’d be swallowed by the vortex and spat out somewhere near the cable car station. “Just…one sec, okay? One sec.” He rubbed his eyes before tentatively chancing a glance around the room, perplexed at his inability to see. His eyes just would not focus on anything, turning the fridge and cupboards and Ashley into little more than muted smudges of color, and…when he rubbed his eyes again, he realized he was not, in fact, wearing his glasses. Ah. That would do it. Feeling around the table like Velma Dinkley, he managed to find them through his haze, putting them on and breathing a heavy sigh of relief as the world grew sharp and defined again. “What about Hannah?”

With his glasses on, it was clear to see that Ashley looked just about as sick as he felt in that moment, eyes wide and worried, face the color of curdled milk. She opened and closed her mouth a couple times before burying her face in her hands, trying to take steadying breaths. “They said it was just going to be a joke…but she was so upset…”

The gravity of the situation had begun to settle in around him, driven home by Ashley’s distress, obvious even in the darkened room. “Hey, hey…” He reached for her arm, missing and swiping at open air once before finding the fabric of her sleeve and gently tugging her closer to the table. “Sit, okay? Sit down and breathe, Ash.”

But she just shook her head, pressing her lips together in a tight line. “Josh is going to be so mad,” she said quietly, looking to the other side of the table, where he was still out cold.

“Ash,” he tried again, words still heavy on his tongue, “Okay, you gotta…you gotta tell me what happened. But slow, all right? Slow. I feel like aliens are trying to eat their way out of my brain through my eyes, ugh…” Had he been more in his right mind, Chris would’ve been mortified to find his hand had found Ashley’s; moreover, had he been more in his right mind, he would’ve noticed how tightly she was squeezing his fingers.

Still, she wouldn’t sit. If she sat, she’d surely puke—or worse, start sobbing. “I don’t know what they told her, they just said it would be a joke, so we went and we hid in the back room—”

“Wait, wait…who’s they? Who’s we?” Chris was trying to wake himself up, trying to follow the story, but he still felt sleep tugging at the back of his brain, making his thoughts soupy. When he watched Ashley’s eyes flick back towards the living room, it only muddled things further. “Like, Jess and Emily? What were you doing with them?” he asked, wincing against another stab of pain in his head. It was creeping threateningly close to his migraine spot, and even through the garbled mess of his thoughts, he couldn’t fight the innate sense of knowing that one way or another, tomorrow was going to suck.

“Hannah came into the room, and I guess she thought she was meeting Mike? To talk? Or something? And she…” The hand that wasn’t holding Chris’s immediately flew to her face again and she covered her eyes as though trying to shield herself from the thought. Her cheeks and ears and neck felt hot, burning with shame and, sickeningly, secondhand humiliation. “She just…” her hand moved down, gesturing to the front of her vest in a gesture that Chris absolutely could not begin to translate. “And then Emily and Jess started laughing, and Matt had a camera, and Sam was so mad…”

“What?”

“And then she ran into the woods, Chris! Without a coat!

“Sam’s in the woods?”

“No! Hannah!” There was a hitch in Ashley’s voice, a tiny crack threatening to become a break, “And Beth went after her, but it’s really starting to snow, and…” She swallowed hard, looking towards the door the girls had run out of. “They should be back by now, don’t you think? They should be back. Why would they still be out there when it’s so cold?”

He straightened up as best he could, groaning inwardly at a stab of pain from falling asleep in such a strained position. Josh was farther from him than he had expected, and as he reached to smack at his arm, he ended up slapping the table instead. It was enough to send one of the bottles spinning on its side before rolling. Chris and Ashley both winced as it fell to the floor, thick glass cracking, but not shattering. Still, Josh remained asleep. “Aw come on, dude…” Chris sighed. “Josh. Josh!” He futilely hit the table again, lolling his head back onto his stiff shoulders. “Christ in a canoe…” Easing himself up onto his feet, he leaned further across the table, shaking Josh’s shoulder. “Josh!

What?” From where he lay, arms wrapped around his head, Josh’s muffled voice came through. He sounded groggy, he sounded disoriented, but mostly, he sounded angry. Slowly, very slowly, Josh lifted his head, eyes little more than slits as he fought to keep them open. “What the fuck, Cochise? Can’t a lady some fuckin’ beauty rest?” His mouth wasn’t making the right shapes for his words, and it all tumbled from him in a nearly unintelligible tangle of syllables. “Fuck sake.”

“It was just supposed to be a joke.” It came out in a furious rush, and Ashley felt her entire body begin to burn with shame again. She had been practicing what she’d say in her head, had been trying to find the words, the details that would’ve explained the most while saying the least; she was a writer, after all, it was supposed to be the one thing she was good at. Instead, her mouth was numb, running of its own accord. “I’m so, so sorry, Josh, it was just supposed to be a joke, they said it was just a joke…”

“Oh my God, Ash, shut the f—” Without warning, he sat bolt upright, eyes wide. Josh had precisely five seconds to realize what a grave mistake he’d made that night before he found himself on his feet, lurching to the kitchen sink. The other two stumbled back out of his way, clearing a path to the double-basined sink, and just in time! His body, apparently, had realized something that his mind was not yet capable of processing. He retched once, twice, three times, and proceeded to barf his fucking guts out.

A sympathetic puker by nature, Chris leaned back against the countertop and looked up to the ceiling, trying to take steadying breaths and ignore the terrible, wet sounds from the sink. He felt himself fighting with his own gorge and closed his eyes.

Arms shaking, Josh kept his head hanging over the sink, spitting repeatedly to try and clear his mouth of the awful taste. “Yeah. Thanks…for the wakeup call, guys. Real fine shootin’ there, Tex,” he said, voice tight and shaky in his throat. He felt another warning clench in his lower stomach, and spat again. A few seconds passed, then a few more, and when he felt it safe enough, he swiveled his head to look at them again. “Why. The everloving fuck. Did you wake me.” There was a strange, detached quality to his voice that Ashley did not entirely like, and which Chris did not entirely recognize.

Chris looked back to Ashley, eyes imploring, mouth curled in a grimace. “It’s, uh…”

“It was just a joke,” she said again, feeling the tears rising once more. “I swear, I didn’t think that they would do that! I thought…I don’t know, we were gonna like…jump out and scare her, or just surprise her, or something, because Jess said it was just going to be a funny prank, but…” Then she was crying, from fear, from exhaustion, from dejection. This was not how the weekend was supposed to go…it wasn’t how the night was supposed to go. Chris’s thumb rubbed soothingly back and forth across her knuckles, but she didn’t notice.

Josh’s eyes moved from one to the other jerkily, almost disjointedly, his confusion palpably evident. Had they not just seen him spring up, Chris and Ashley might’ve thought he was sleepwalking. He opened and closed his mouth as though he had thought better of whatever he’d wanted to say, and continued to simply stare at them for a long moment. When he did finally speak, it was to yell “Sammy!

As though on cue, the lights in the kitchen snapped on above them. Chris swore loudly and shielded his eyes like the world’s dorkiest vampire; Ashley jumped at the suddenness of it, casting an anxious glance from one side of the room to the other; Josh flinched and covered his face as well, though his movements were clearly delayed.

Sam stood leaning against the wall, hand still resting near the light switch. “You rang?” she asked, setting her head against the wall as well. She had wanted to be angry, had wanted to return wielding her righteous disappointment like a weighty baseball bat, but as she stood there looking over the three of them, drunk and confused and uncertain, she found she couldn’t quite manage it. Now there was only concern—for the twins, mostly, but for the rest of them as well.

Steadying himself against the countertop, Josh blinked heavily. “Ah yes…good evening, Clarice,” he smirked, his horrendous Hannibal Lecter impression made somehow miraculously better by his slurring. “Would you mind…” he swayed, as though about to fall, “Kindly telling me what in the blue fuck is going on?”

She exhaled a deep, whooshing sigh. “Why don’t you ask Ashley? She was there. I was just supposed to be damage control—like always.” Sam regretted it as soon as it was out of her mouth. Across the way, Ashley had flinched like Sam had slapped her before dropping her eyes back to the floor. The rational part of her knew the accusation hadn’t been entirely fair…but her stomach was knotted with dread and frustration.

Josh continued to watch her, expression inscrutable. “I don’t want to ask Ash,” he said slowly, words thick and clumsy on his tongue. “She’s busy holding hands with Chris.” His speech took on a juvenile, matter-of-fact tone.

Off to the side, Chris and Ashley sprang apart, both immediately finding something innocuous to occupy their hands with.

Not for the first time that night, Sam noted, they also made it a point to avoid each other’s line of sight. An hour ago, she would’ve found it endearing, but just then, she wanted to grab them by the shoulders and shake them until their stupid heads fell off. She wet her lips with a sliver of her tongue, realizing Josh wasn’t going to be understanding much until he managed to sober up. “Hannah and Beth ran into the woods, Josh. And the storm’s coming in.”

Silence.

Slowly, Josh pointed to the window. “Those woods?”

“Those woods,” Sam nodded.

“The ones…outside?

“Yes, Josh. The ones outside.”

With a loud, phlegmatic sound that was probably meant to be a laugh, Josh waved it off. “Aw, c’mon. They’re fine.”

From where she’d been absently fiddling with the coffee machine, Ashley exhaled a silent breath of relief, every muscle in her body immediately relaxing.

Sam’s brow furrowed. “No,” she said slowly, suddenly a teacher lecturing oblivious children, “No. It’s dark out—”

“So turn on some lights.”

“I did,” she continued patiently. “But the storm—”

Repeating his curt wave, Josh shook his head. “We…grew up here, Sammy. They’re fine. No Washington has ever gotten lost out there in those woods.”

“They should’ve come back by now.” She paused, turning her gaze from Josh to Chris, instead. “They should be back.”

He shrugged helplessly, hands opened wide. “Josh is right—they’ll be here. They’ll get cold. Or hungry. Or something. It’s not like the lodge is hard to find.”

She went to say something else, to argue with them, to suggest they head outside and start looking for them, but in a flash, Josh had his head in the sink again, vomiting loudly and violently. Slumping against the wall, she watched Ashley turn the tap on before placing a hand on his back, rubbing slow, comforting circles through his sweater. “Can you go talk to the others?” Sam asked Chris in a low voice as he removed himself from the scene, looking nauseous, himself. “If Hannah and Beth aren’t back in ten, we’re going out there.”

Me?” He was quickly becoming sober, he realized, and the thought of having to go out into the other room and deal with the others was…well, that was not a task for Sober Chris. Not that he currently was Sober Chris. Really, he had turned a corner and was approaching Sober Chris, but there was still a bit of work ahead of him before he quite got there. But even then, Drunk Chris would’ve had some hang-ups with the order, in all honesty. “Why not you? They like you better,” he said, though he meant something more along the lines of ‘They like everyone better than me.

But there would be no arguing with Samantha Giddings in that moment. Still looking just beyond him to Ashley and Josh, she shook her head. “Because I just might kill them, Chris,” she said airily enough, forcing a chilly smile. “I might literally kill them.”

Rubbing some of the soreness from the back of his neck, Chris nodded. Sounded about right. He was still foggy on the details—all of them, really—but he’d known Sam long enough to know that if she was worried, shit was real. More than real. Like fifteen minutes past real o’clock. “And what should I say…” he paused, tongue caught between two very, very different words. “…if they say no?”

The other word, the one that had almost won, was ‘when.’ As in ‘What should I say when they say no?’

Sam seemed to understand, all the same. “Then you remind them that whatever happens out there is on them. See if that changes their minds.” She turned to meet his eyes, raising and dropping her shoulders in a noncommittal shrug. “It was their ‘prank.’ It was a shitty thing to do, and they should feel shitty about it.” Chris flashed her a jaunty little Boy Scout salute before starting for the great room, where the other four were still chattering in loud stage whispers. Before he could get too far, she gently grabbed the shoulder of his sweatshirt, tugging him back. “Hey, uh…” Her eyes traveled back to the other side of the kitchen, where Ashley was trying to get Josh to drink some water. “Should we be worried about how much he drank? He’s acting…weird.” Her voice was low again, almost conspiratorial.

Chris glanced over his shoulder towards the sink as well, “What? Josh? Nah, he’s fine. Just overdid it, I guess.”

Chris.” Sam looked back up at him, lips set in a firm line.

His smile faltered for a second, replaced by an uncomfortable uncertainty. Even though he knew, somewhere deep down, time was of the essence, he couldn’t help but give her a brief, suspicious look. He was still too drunk to try and figure out how much she knew (or didn’t know) about the situation with Josh. Things went blurry again as he removed his glasses and pinched at the bridge of his nose, massaging the spot just under his eyebrow that seemed to throb with the promise of tomorrow’s migraine. “It’s…” he sighed, putting his glasses back on. “It’s probably a good thing he’s puking everything up.”

Vague though it was, it was all the answer Sam needed. She released Chris’s arm, watching him disappear into the next room and around the corner before dropping her head into her hands. She couldn’t remember where she’d left her jacket. She couldn’t remember where the Washingtons kept their flashlights. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d felt so afraid.

***

2:41am

Two by two, they laced their boots and zipped their coats and checked the batteries of their flashlights and phones, setting out into the brewing storm.

The cold seemed to snap Josh back to life, and it was he who gave each pair directions, sending them off into the woods like the silent commander of an old war movie. Mike and Emily, along with Matt and Jessica, were kept to the areas closest to the lodge. Outside of a visit or two apiece, their knowledge of the area was slim and none, and sending them deeper into the tree line would just be asking for more trouble. It was up to the remaining four to creep into the darker, thicker portion of the woods. None knew them so well as Josh, but they had all taken their fair share of walks and adventures over the years.

Of course, those walks had typically happened during the daylight hours and when the weather was nice. In the dark, in the snow, the woods seemed to take on a different ambiance entirely. In turn, each had a moment where they remembered with sudden alarm that animals lived on the mountain. Some large, some with long teeth, some with claws, most hungry.

Even then, they pressed on, the wind carrying their calls of “Hannah!” and “Beth!” like the baleful howling of wolves. For the first fifteen minutes or so, they could hear the others’ shouts as well. Soon after, the trees seemed to absorb all sound. Chris and Ash navigated their way around a mostly frozen pond, Sam and Josh hoisted themselves over the trunk of a newly fallen tree. They walked and walked until their feet were numb and their legs shaking; they shouted until their voices croaked. And still there was no sign of the girls.

Before much longer, their paths crossed again, Chris waving Josh and Sam over to him and Ashley. They agreed, mostly through hand gestures and pointed looks, that they would continue on. Rationally, the twins couldn’t have gotten much farther. There just…there wasn’t anywhere else to go. But by the time they reached the cliff, the storm was raging around them with a ferocity that was almost animalistic, lashing at their skin and freezing their eyes until their only option was to turn back to the lodge’s promise of warmth. Even with hands cupped to their lips, faces close, they could only just barely hear each other’s voices above the furious howling of the wind. Though none wanted to admit it, if the girls could hear them, if they could respond, the four of them would never know.

At least…not until it was far, far too late.

 

Chapter Text

Sunday, February 2, 2014
8:00am

The sun had been up for a couple of hours before anyone started moving again, but that wasn’t to say that there had been any rest. Between the four of them, there had been maybe a combined hour of sleep, and even then, that was being generous.

It had been a trilling alarm from Sam’s phone (accidentally left on from the week prior) that had roused the others, prompting no grumbles, no yawns, but only quiet rustling as they gave up any further attempt at sleep. They had all taken their own posts near the three major entry points of the lodge: Sam nearest the door Hannah had run out of the night before, Ashley nearest the foyer and main entrance, Chris and Josh nearest the side entrance off the kitchen and dining area. The intention had been to have someone close in case the twins appeared in the small hours of the morning and needed to be let in.

But there they were, congregating at the foot of the stairs like the slow, battered zombies of a B-movie, left to accept the reality that neither Beth nor Hannah had returned.

Chris sat on one of the lowest stairs, his hand pressing hard against the left side of his face. His drunken prediction the night before had come to horrible fruition, it seemed; a 5-star migraine blurred his vision as though his glasses were smeared. The headache had long since taken on the gauzy throb of one of his more monstrous ones, but already he could feel it getting chummy with his hangover, promising to become something positively debilitating. As he watched Josh pace across the floor, he tried to remember where he’d left his meds—in his bag, obviously, but where was that? Josh’s room? The coat closet? Had he brought it downstairs last night when they set up watch? Another stab of pain interrupted the thought and he shifted his hand to cover his left eye as best he could, still applying pressure to his head. If Josh kept moving back and forth like that, Chris thought, he might just puke.

Sitting one step above him, Sam anxiously rubbed at her arms, glancing around the empty room. “We should call the police,” she said finally, her voice a cracked croak from all the yelling she’d done last night. She swallowed hard before repeatedly trying to clear her throat to no avail. “If they’re still not here, we need to report it.”

“I don’t know about you, but my phone’s still got nothing,” Josh snapped back, hardly pausing in his frantic pacing to pull his cellphone out and brandish it in their direction. “Storm’s knocked everything out.”

She winced at the dry, whistling quality of his own hoarse voice. “What about the landline?”

“What about the—” Immediately Josh froze, looking at Sam with an expression that suggested she’d just solved one of life’s greatest mysteries. Without another word, he marched into the dining room to frantically try the lodge’s phone.

Ashley, who had up until that moment been leaning against one of the staircase’s railings and staring at her own feet, glanced quickly to the others on the steps. “Oh crap,” she muttered, leaning down to Chris. “Migraine, huh?” When he only nodded in reply, she heaved a sigh through her nose. A person wouldn’t need to be a psychic to see that it was a bad one, and she knew firsthand just how crippling his bad ones could get. “Shoot. I can go—”

All three of them looked up as Josh stormed back into the room, furiously raking both hands through his hair. “Fucking landline’s down too! Of course it is. Of-fucking-course it is! Why wouldn’t it be?!”

Sam felt her stomach clench. “The storm probably knocked a line down…”

“Oh, do you think, Sammy? Do you think that could be what happened?”

Before she could reply, Chris spoke up, his voice a similar rasp. “C’mon, man, she’s just trying to help.”

Josh scoffed loudly and folded his arms across his chest. “Help,” he muttered disbelievingly. “Help.”

“You know, snapping at everyone isn’t going to do anything.” It was uncharacteristically sharp, coming from Ashley, but the way she kept her eyes firmly on the ground was not.

Oh. Oh don’t you start with me, Ashley. Don’t you fucking d—”

Sam didn’t let them continue with their spat. She threw her hands out to her sides, shaking her head dismissively. “We need a plan, okay? We need to figure out where we go from here, and then we can all start yelling.” Her eyebrows moved up and together as she surveyed the room, “That work for everyone else? Good.” Letting her hands fall back onto her knees, she took a long, steadying breath. “If the phones don’t work here, we have to find one that does. That’s gotta be priority number one, finding a way to call people and get them out here.”

No,” Josh started again, voice taut with impatience. “Priority number one is getting out there and finding my sisters.”

Sam sighed, unable to help herself. “I want to find them just as badly as you do, but we need to—”

“Stop talking and get looking. Yeah, I agree,” he interrupted brusquely.

She looked over to Ashley and Chris, not sure whether she expected them to help or hurt her position. Neither met her eyes. Figured.

“We could…” Voice trailing off, Ashley offered the room a weak shrug. “I mean…now that it’s not dark out, we could have everyone split up and start looking again? If they have sunlight, I doubt that the others would—”

Josh shook his head fervently, taking up his pacing once more. “If we have them go out and look, then we’ll have to find six people out in the woods instead of just two! They don’t know where the fuck they’re going—they’ll be lost the second they step off the path!”

“Then we don’t send them to look.” Wincing, Chris looked back up, hand still pressed over his left eye to block out as much light as possible. “They know how to get back to the cable car, don’t they? So…why don’t we just have them go down to the ranger station at the base of the mountain?” He shifted just enough to glance in Ashley’s direction, as though for approval. “They’ve gotta have a working phone. Maybe like a…satellite phone or something? Those are things, right? They go down and explain, get the rangers to come up here too. They’ll know where to look.”

Entirely unaware she’d done it, Sam had pressed her hand against her chest, trying to steady the anxious pounding of her heart. “And while they’re heading down the mountain, we can keep looking.” She exhaled deeply, already drafting a to-do list in her head. “We won’t get lost—especially if we stick together.”

“Only all of you seem to be forgetting one itsy, bitsy detail: We looked everywhere last night!” Josh snapped suddenly, voice tense and harried in a way that neither Chris nor Ashley had ever heard and that Sam didn’t much care for. He seemed utterly unaware that it had been his suggestion to start looking again, only moments ago. “We went the way they ran off, we didn’t see shit, and now that it’s been snowing all fucking night, there won’t be any signs of them for us to follow, so what do you propose we do? Where do we look that we haven’t already covered?

There was a beat of silence between the four of them, Josh watching as each of the other three, in turn, avoided meeting his eyes. It was only after an eternity of discomfort that Ashley looked up from her socks, eyes wide in revelation like one of the heroines from her mystery novels. When she spoke, breaking the palpable tension between them, there was something like victory in her voice. “We didn’t look everywhere.”

Josh was on her like a hawk immediately, eyes narrowed. “Ashley—”

She shook her head, looking over to him for the first time since they’d attempted sleep. “The guest cabin! We didn’t go to the cabin last night, and…think about it! They could get out of the cold, there’s a fireplace, blankets…” Though she wouldn’t let it show, she thought she could feel the slightest hint of a smile tugging at her lips; it was a welcome relief from the tight, worried grimace she’d been wearing for the past few hours.

Sam looked over to her at the revelation, the nervous pit in her chest filling with a low thrum of hope. “Isn’t…isn’t the cabin usually locked, though?” she asked, glancing quickly to Josh.

He stared back at Ashley with an expression that was almost impossible to read, the gears in his mind whirring at a hundred miles an hour. “It is…” Josh started slowly, words quickly gaining speed as he processed the thought. “But even if neither of them had their keys on them, there’s—”

As if on cue, Chris lifted his head from where it’d been hanging, glasses askew. “The spare hidden out back!” He, Josh, and Ashley took a second to exchange a series of looks that wouldn’t have been out of place in an old Scooby Doo cartoon before appearing to sigh in relief all at once, their bodies going noticeably lax. “That’s gotta be it,” Chris said, reaching up and proudly nudging Ashley in the side. “Good thinkin’, kiddo.”

Even as she rolled her eyes in his direction, Ashley let the first sign of her smile show, only just turning up the corners of her mouth. “Well it’s a starting point, at least,” she muttered, attributing most of the heat in her face to the sudden lifting of guilt from her gut. “It’s still snowing pretty hard, so they probably just…crashed for the night where it was safe and warm.”

“All right, all right…” Sam pressed her fingers to her temples, staring off into middle space as she plotted it all out in her head. Her lips moved silently as she thought to herself, running through a checklist none of them could see. “We should pack bags.”

“Huh?”

Eyes focusing on the others once more, Sam nodded once, matter-of-factly. “If we find—when we find them—they’re going to be cold and hungry, you know? So we should stuff a few bags before we head out. Clothes and food and water.”

Josh shook an appreciative finger in her direction. “Sammy, that’s the kinda thinking we need right now! Let’s get on that like five minutes ago, huh people? Come on!

Sam was already on her feet, heading up the stairs. “I know where their clothes are, I’ll pack the bags,” she said, already halfway up.

That meant there was only one other chore to do. Ashley winced as she realized that, between Chris’s head and Josh’s worry, the responsibility of getting the others fell to her. “Aaand I’ll go get everyone else,” she added, voice much less self-assured than Sam’s had been. She skirted around Chris, patting his shoulder once as she passed by.

A strange tension filled the space between Josh and Chris once the girls left, unspoken but drifting through the air like so many dust motes. Chris wanted to write it off as being part of the gnawing discomfort in his head, but found it very difficult to do. Through his hangover, through his headache, he was left with the sinking feeling that he had done something very, very wrong, and that a significant share of Josh’s anger was aimed directly at him. He couldn’t figure out what he’d done, though, and so he did his best to pretend it was all in his head. “We’re gonna find them, man,” he said when he found it impossible to deal with the silence. “You, like…know that, right?”

Josh only hummed in response, already in the process of tugging his boots back on.

The sinking feeling in Chris’s gut only intensified with that, making the minutes between them stretch on like hours. He racked his brain as best he could, but no matter how he ran through the last night’s events, he couldn’t think of a single thing he could’ve done to wrong Josh. The aching behind his eye didn’t help. He settled for occasionally looking back over to him, squinting against the light, hoping against hope that maybe he would just come out and say it. Josh always did say it, eventually—more than ten years’ experience had taught him that much—but only after it had festered into something awful. God, Chris hoped this wouldn’t be one of those times.

From above, there was the faint sound of socks thudding on the stairs. A moment later, Ashley appeared on the middle landing, lips pursed into an anxious shape. “They should be down in a second,” she said to neither of them in particular, easing herself down to sit next to Chris on the step. She pulled a bright pill bottle from the pocket of her hoodie and handed it to him, her concern still evident. “Here, I’ll grab you some water, too. And I can like…I can make breakfast for everyone while we wait.”

Chris grasped the bottle as if it were the Holy Grail. “Ah man, Ash, thanks—”

Breakfast?” The laughter in Josh’s voice was cold with disbelief. “Yeah, let’s just serve ‘em up a continental-style feast. Reward everyone for carrying out an exemplary job of being absolute fuckasses.”

She didn’t look up to him, instead continuing to watch Chris fumble with the childproof lid of the bottle for a moment before attempting to snatch it back up and do it for him. She pulled a face as he angled himself away from her to thwart the effort, leaving her with no option but to face Josh again. “We can’t send them out to walk all the way to the ranger station without eating. It’s freezing cold, and that’s a really long walk. Plus, you know none of them slept, and everyone drank too much last night, so…”

He folded his arms across his chest in a manner that somehow managed to be unspeakably confrontational, considering he made no move to step closer to her. “Cuz my sisters are getting to eat this morning, right? Before being out in the cold, I mean. And wandering around. Running around in the snow. I bet they slept real good, too.”

“Hey, guys…come on.” It was the most Chris could manage between jolts of pain. The lid finally gave with a faint pop beneath his palm, and he breathed a quiet sigh of relief. “Everyone’s right, okay? We gotta get out there ASAP, definitely, but if we’re all hungover and sick, it’s just…nothing’s gonna get done.” He shot a glance Josh’s way, positive he looked the very picture of pathetic and praying it did something to curb his ire. “Food, then we all hit the trail. We’ll only waste more time if we’re queasy and stumbling.”

Sam walked back down the stairs just in time to watch Josh drop his arms to his sides in frustration, stalking off towards the kitchen. “…what?” she asked, directing the question to the others as she unslung the two bags hanging from her shoulders, setting them down against the bottom step.

Neither answered—not really. Chris shrugged dourly as Ashley got back to her feet, apprehensively following after Josh to the kitchen.

“Oh,” she said, watching as the three of them left her alone in the great room. “Helpful. Thanks, guys.”

***

9:27am

Breakfast had been awkward, to say the very least.

Chris had been the only one able to wriggle his way out of it, explaining with a wince that “You know I can’t eat when my head’s like this,” before disappearing to the second floor’s bathroom to stand under the hot shower spray with all the lights turned off.

There had been no escape for anyone else. The first few minutes had passed tensely, most of them picking nonchalantly at the mountain of eggs Ashley had scrambled (Sam, of course, opting to eat the emergency granola bar from the bottom of her own backpack instead). No one had said anything, and no one had pretended that things were okay. Even the quickest glance around the room served as proof positive that things were, in fact, as far from okay as they had ever been.

It was hardly a surprise that the first person to speak had been Josh; what had been a surprise was his curt demand that Matt give him his phone. There had been no arguing. Matt had simply handed him the phone with a nervous, stilted promise that he hadn’t had service all night, and that the video hadn’t been sent to anyone. Not that he would’ve sent the video to anyone. Not after the girls ran off. Not after they didn’t come back.

Everyone had made it a point to drop their eyes when Josh hit play on the video, and no one was shocked when he disappeared into the great room to watch it away from the rest of them, moments later. Everyone had pretended not to notice the look on his face when he returned after what seemed like forever, handing Matt’s phone back to him, the video deleted from his camera roll. Neither Mike nor Emily nor Jessica fought him then, each going along with it silently when he demanded phone after phone to check that the video truly hadn’t been spread.

By the time Chris reemerged from the shower, it had been ascertained that no, none of them had any proof of the night’s prank on their phones.

Pulling up the stool Josh had been sitting in the night before, Chris sat himself down at the island. He watched with bleary eyes as Matt and Mike huddled over a faded park map laid out on the wine counter, Josh tracing out their route with hand motions that were just a little too curt for comfort. He took careful inventory of the others: Sam, sitting on a countertop and nibbling halfheartedly at the sort of granola bar that crumbled into rock-hard shards the second you bit into it; Jessica and Emily at the far end of the island, using their glasses of juice to hide their mouths (and therefore, conversation) from everyone else; and Ashley, stacking dirty dishes in the sink like a Tetris champ. It was quite a difference in atmosphere from the last time they’d all been milling about the kitchen.

As though sensing his eyes, Ashley turned from the sink, pausing only long enough to stand on tiptoe and grab a mug from one of the overhead cupboards. She filled it with coffee from the pot and crossed the expanse of the kitchen. “Think you can eat something yet?” she asked, setting the mug down in front of Chris as she leaned against the island.

His eyes flit to the tray of now room-temperature eggs. There was a warning cramp in his lower stomach, causing him to grimace even as he took the mug appreciatively. “Uh…maybe toast?”

“Got it.”

“You don’t have t—”

She waved it off before he could finish, already setting off on her new task.

Over at the wine rack, Josh kept his elbows on the counter, his body bent nearly 90°. “Think you can manage that?” he asked, still tracing map with his eyes.

“Yeah.” Matt’s tone had been uncharacteristically cowed since Josh had first demanded his phone, and there was no sign of that changing anytime soon. “It’s a pretty straight shot.”

“We got it.” Mike’s voice was significantly more confident as he slid the map off the counter and folded it back up, tucking it away in the back pocket of his jeans. “We’ll be down there in no time flat, grab the rangers, and then…” he exchanged a quick, wordless look with Matt while Josh’s eyes were still downcast. “…then we’ll be right back up.” He didn’t sound particularly pleased with the thought.

“It’s literally the exact same path you took to get up here from the bus, and then maybe half a mile down the road.” It was as if Josh hadn’t heard a word they’d said (and truthfully, he hadn’t), straightening back up once Mike removed the map from in front of him. “Ranger station’s huge. Impossible to miss. As long as you stick to the marked path, and then the road, there’s no way for you to get lost.”

Mike and Matt glanced towards each other again, the former raising an eyebrow, the latter shrugging. “We won’t get off the path,” Mike assured him. “Def, def, def won’t get off the path.” He turned around fully, trying to lock eyes with one of the girls. “Hey, Em! Can you ladies grab the thermoses? We should get a move on.”

From across the kitchen, Emily and Jessica favored him with looks strangely identical in their petulance. No one needed to ask to know that the two of them weren’t too keen on leaving the warmth of the lodge. It was only once Mike subtly nodded in Josh’s direction that Emily sucked a breath through her teeth and got up from her stool, pouring the rest of the coffeepot’s contents into two large thermoses.

Josh rummaged in his pocket before pulling out a handful of keys, lips drawn tight as he flipped through each of them. “Here’s the key to the cable car,” he said finally, handing it over to Mike, “Don’t lose it.”

There was a moment where it looked as if Mike was on the verge of losing his patience, but it passed. He simply took the key with a sagely nod, pocketing it as he had the map. “We’ll be back ASAP. Good luck out there.”

Raising his mug in a slight salute, Chris muttered a tired, “You too,” before going back to picking at his dry piece of toast.

The sound of boots clomping through the great room grew quieter and quieter, punctuated by the front entrance clicking shut. Without the other four, the lodge suddenly felt much bigger, much emptier; the air seemed to thicken around them, becoming stale with the smell of cooked eggs and coffee grounds.

It was too much for Sam to handle. She slid off the counter, unclipping her hair from her head anxiously. She caught a whiff of herself then, realizing how badly she reeked of last night’s bonfire. “I’ll be ready to go in a sec,” she said to the room, resisting the urge to stick her tongue out at the smell. “I really gotta get out of these clothes…” Sam was halfway up the stairs before it occurred to her that neither Chris nor Josh had made any sort of smartass wisecrack at the comment. For some reason, that filled her with another icy wave of dread.

Ashley waited until Chris had finished his measly piece of toast before collecting the rest of the dishes scattered on the island, stacking them up neatly and depositing them into the sink. There was nothing she wanted more than to fill the other side of the basin with hot, soapy water, roll up her sleeves, and just get to work. When things felt insurmountable, when her anxiety was at its worst, she needed to do things. The mountain of plates, the piles of silverware…they were just calling her name. She would’ve given her right arm to just stay in the lodge and clean, instead of being faced with the looming challenge of trekking back out into the snow.

“Ashley.”

She bristled slightly, feeling the fine hairs at the nape of her neck tingle unpleasantly. It was a small, childish sort of sensation—most people called her Ashley all the time, after all, but not Chris and not Josh. She was just Ash to them. Deflated, she realized Josh had been using her full name all day, not unlike a displeased parent. It rankled her in a way she couldn’t fully articulate. “Mhm?” she hummed, trying to keep the worry out of her tone as she absently rearranged the dirty dishes.

“Give me your phone.”

Well that was…that was unexpected. Blinking in surprise, she turned from the sink to find Josh standing behind her, hand open and waiting. “Uh…what?”

“Give. Me,” he said again, parsing each word with painstaking deliberateness, “Your. Phone.”

She blinked again, clearly not comprehending. Almost too quickly to be seen, her eyes flicked to Chris, finding no explanation and certainly no help. Ashley looked back to Josh with her brow wrinkled and hands at her sides. “Why?” she finally asked, her stomach giving the same fearful jolt it had the night before.

Josh sucked in a breath through a grit jaw, still impatiently holding his hand out to her. “Oh nonono, we’re past that. The whole deer-in-headlights thing isn’t gonna cut the mustard here. You saw me look at everyone else’s, you heard why I was doing it, so cut the shit. Give me your fucking phone.”

Her throat felt impossibly tight as the implication of his demand set in. “You…you think I would’ve recorded that?” And oh, she hated how small, how weak, how hurt her voice sounded, but she was finding it hard enough to pull in air as she looked up into Josh’s accusatory stare. “How could you think I—”

He didn’t give her time enough to finish. “How could I? Oh, that is…that is just rich, Ashley. How could I think you might have done something as shitty as that? Well, honestly, if you had asked me—mmm, let’s say six hours ago—whether I thought you, of all people, were capable of doing something that shitty, I gotta say my answer would probably be a resounding ‘no’. However! In light of recent events, my answer’s a little different. Now it’s a little less ‘no,’ and a little more ‘give me your fucking phone before I take it from you.’”

None of them saw Sam walk in from the adjoining room, but that was just fine by her. Her eyes widened slightly as she read the tone of the room, shrinking herself against one of the walls to hang back in the periphery of the argument.

From where he sat at the island, head in his hands, Chris muttered a low, “Josh…”

“Shut up,” he snapped, turning his head towards him only slightly, keeping his eyes solidly on Ashley’s.

In a scene eerily reminiscent of the night before, Chris groaned before setting his head down onto the table, using his arms to block out the ambient morning light shining through the kitchen window.

Sam looked on, feeling oddly caught between three warring factions. (Or maybe it was really just two—but God, it was so hard to tell.) She said nothing, making a point of avoiding looking at any of them for too long, sliding her hands into her pockets idly as she leaned against the wall and its ugly red painting.

The windowpanes rattled in the frame as the storm continued to scream around them. It seemed to spur Ashley into action one way or another, as she reached into her pocket, pulled out her phone, and slammed it down into Josh’s palm in one decisive motion. She held his eyes for another second before brusquely stalking around him, heading out of the kitchen and towards the staircase.

Josh did turn then, watching her with an expression that was difficult to read. “Uh, and where are we off to?”

Chris had managed to sit up halfway once more, still resting the majority of his weight against one arm. He reached out, managing to catch one of Ashley’s too-long sleeves before she could pass by. “Ash…” he started, only to be cut off when she pulled away, pace never slowing.

“Hey!”

“I’m changing my clothes,” she answered tersely, already disappearing around the corner. “Not gonna sit here and watch you go through my stuff.” And then she was gone, taking the stairs just quickly enough to make it clear that she had no intention of hanging around to hear whatever else might be flung her way. A few moments later, there was the distant sound of a door slamming from above.

Chris grimaced as though it had slammed in his face.

The clock on the wall ticked out another handful of seconds before Sam puffed out her cheeks in an uncomfortable huff, pushing herself away from the wall. “I’m just…going to go bundle up,” she mumbled, knowing full well neither of them was listening to her. “I guess,” she added under her breath.

Once the room fell silent around them again, save for the ticking of the clock, Chris let out a quiet groan and let his head fall back onto the tabletop. “Josh, bro, I know you’re upset—”

If Josh heard him, he gave no sign. He leaned himself back against the island as he opened Ashley’s phone and navigated to her camera roll, pointedly scrolling through the entire length of it. There hadn’t been any video from the night before—at least it seemed Matt was telling the truth about not being able to send it out—but he was already too deep in his own head to call it quits. He’d been in Ashley’s phone countless times before, so he’d known what to expect, but as he flicked through her photos, he found himself seized with a mightily powerful urge to delete every last one he was in. He stared for a moment longer before reining that particular feeling back in, setting the phone down on the table a bit harder than was entirely necessary. Without thinking about it, he pulled out the stool Chris had passed out in the night before, letting his legs drop out from under him as he sat.

“Josh—”

“Don’t.” He turned Ashley’s phone over so that its screen lay hidden against the tabletop.

“We’re gonna find them, man, and it’s gonna be fine, we just—”

“I said don’t.”

He fell silent for a moment, removing his glasses before dropping his head into his hands. His head hurt too badly, his eyes were throbbing, his jaw was tight, and the slice of toast in his gut was settling like liquid cement. It would’ve been easier to stay quiet, to let Josh fume, but he seemed helpless to keep his mouth closed. “Did you really have to take Ash’s phone, though?”

Scoffing, Josh shook his head. If Chris had been looking up, he would’ve seen the incredulous sneer twisting its way around his features. “If we’re getting rangers and cops involved, it’s only a matter of time before this shit’s on the internet. Pardon me if I don’t want to run the risk of those fucks humiliating Hannah to go viral while we’re working on fucking finding her and Beth.”

“No I get it. I really do. I would’ve done that too, but…Ash, Josh? Come on.”

“She was part of it.”

“Not…not really, not like the others—”

He resisted the urge to pick up the phone and slam it back down on the table. “Don’t you dare side with her, Cochise. Don’t even fucking think about it. Not fucking today, man. Not after what she went and did.”

“I’m not siding with anyone! I’m just saying—”

“Well I’m saying that I don’t want to hear it.” Josh looked across the table, staring patiently until Chris looked up, meeting his eyes pointedly. “And I mean it. Do not try me on this.”

“Okay,” Chris said, holding his hands palms-out in surrender. “Okay.”

***

12:19pm

They were not in the guest cabin, as it turned out.

The path from the lodge to the cabin was a veritable obstacle course of snowy slopes dipping down before rising up, spiraling around copses of trees. Last night’s storm had dumped a ridiculous amount of snow onto the trail; the heavy, wet sort of snow that clung to boots and pants, making movement ten times more difficult than it needed to be. And when one considered the way the wind was still whipping great gobs of snow and ice into their faces, it was almost impressive that they had made it all the way to the cabin’s porch before they’d needed to rest.

The porch was piled high with snow, the spare key lay untouched in the fake rock the Washingtons kept out back, and the only sign of Beth or Hannah were the family photos decorating the interior.

None of them spoke as they caught their breath.

Sam took the initiative to light a small fire in the grate, only feeding it a single log since it seemed likely they’d be on their way out again before too long. She plopped herself down on the hardwood floor, legs stretched out in front of her so that her pants wouldn’t get wet from the dripping of her thawing boots. Her eyes felt heavy, as though they were made of rock instead of tissue, but try as she might, she couldn’t figure out if it was due to the cold they’d just trudged their way through, or the desire to sob rearing its ugly head. She feared it was the second option. The last thing any of them needed was for any one of them to lose it. Already in her head, she could see the implications—the moment one of them broke down, the other three would collapse like a house of cards in a windstorm. It was inevitable. She couldn’t imagine that Chris, Ashley, or Josh were particularly gifted in terms of emotional fortitude. So she stared into her puny fire and kept her mouth shut.

On his third sweep of the cabin, Josh all but tore the shower curtain from the rod, pushing it aside like the hero of one of his shitty horror movies. But there was no deranged psycho in the tub, nor was there any hint of his sisters, and so he let out a furious grunt before turning back around, throwing open the doors to the bedroom closet again.

Chris and Ashley watched him like silent gargoyles from the bed. After their hike up to the cabin, he’d been able to make it through one extremely thorough look around the cabin before needing to lie down, but now it was hard for Chris to so much as lift his head up from the pile of decorative throw pillows. There wasn’t any way in the great blue fuck he was about to try telling Josh to calm down or give it a rest…or much of anything else, for that matter. The exertion of the trip had left him completely at the mercy of his headache. Likewise, Ashley hadn’t said a single word since she’d come back down from changing her clothes earlier, the rims of her eyes raw and red. She just watched Josh storm around the rooms, entirely unmoving but for her gaze tracking his erratic arcs.

“This is pointless.” The closet door slammed shut with enough force to knock a few icicles from the cabin’s gutters, not that any of them were able to see. Josh pressed his forehead against the door for a second or two, brow furrowed as he thought. “This is pointless,” he repeated. And then, “This is pointless!” There was another resounding bang! when he slammed his forehead against the door, startling the other three so badly that Chris sat up, Ashley sprang to her feet, and Sam appeared in the doorway.

Her eyes were wide with confusion, only growing wider when she noticed the angry mark blooming on Josh’s head. “Whuh?” Considering the kind of day she was having, Sam figured that was probably as good as she was going to do.

“They’re not fucking here, we’re wasting time, let’s fucking go.” The snap was back in Josh’s voice, doing an excellent job of covering up the waver it had been threatening to take on. He didn’t bother to look over his shoulder as he skulked his way towards the front door. “Now.”

Sam turned her attention back to Ashley and Chris, clearly still perplexed. She held her hands out at her sides, palms up, gesturing vaguely in hopes of any kind of explanation; Ashley just mirrored the motion, shrugging her shoulders tiredly. Wetting her lower lip, Sam looked between them. She lowered her voice to a conspiratorial whisper as she asked, “Where else are we supposed to go?

Ashley shrugged again, zipping her jacket back up. “I don’t know…the path ends behind the cabin, so…”

There was no staunching the zombie-like groan that escaped him as he stood up from the bed, wincing at the movement. “There’s the sanitarium. Sanatorium. Whatever. There’s that.” Chris rubbed his forehead as though he’d been the one to headbutt the door in frustration. “That’s…probably where we’re headed next.”

Before Sam could reply, Ashley goggled at him. “There’s no way we can get there! We’d have to cross the valley, and—”

“Oh, I’m sorry, am I interrupting tea time?” Josh was in the doorway again, eyes narrowed incredulously. “Let’s. Fucking. Go.”

That time, Sam followed after him immediately. “Okay,” she said, keeping her tone as even as she was capable of. “Where were you thinking we should go from here?” She made a point to fuss with the straps of the bag she’d slung over her back, trying to appear non-confrontational.

“There’s a fire watch station east of the lodge.” Josh pulled his hat down over his ears, glaring in the general direction they’d be going. “Not a chance they would’ve climbed that sonuvabitch, but it’s high enough that we can at least get a view of everything else. If…” he paused. ‘If they’re not up there’ was what he had been about to say, what he had almost said, but found he couldn’t get those words out. He didn’t want to put that possibility out into the universe. He wanted to keep it safe, locked up in his own head where no one else could hear it, think it, or even consider it. “If the others are back with the rangers, that’s probably where some of ‘em are headed anyway.”

She nodded silently before turning her gaze to follow his. “I think that’s a really good idea.” Sam swallowed hard, trying to restrain the shiver beginning to creep up her spine. The ‘if’ had occurred to her, too.

Once Josh and Sam had stepped out, Ashley grabbed Chris by the sleeve, signaling with a gentle tug that he should hang back. She peered around the doorway briefly before tucking the two of them just out of the others’ view, not quite in the kitchenette, but not quite in the bedroom. “You should really go back to the lodge and lie down.” A deep crease had appeared between her eyebrows, speaking volumes of her worry. “We can keep looking, the three of us—”

“Ash, I’m not going back to the lodge.”

Her concern melted into frustration, the flushing of her freezing face making it seem as though she was going red with rage. “You look like you’re going to pass out. Don’t stand there and act like you can fake your way out of this—I’ve seen your migraines, and you should be in bed. If he wants us to go all the way to the sanatorium…”

As though in response, the spot just under his eyebrow gave an agonizing throb. Chris groaned and gave in, reaching up to press his fingers up against the angry nerve, trying to find some modicum of relief. “I know.”

“Getting here was hard enough!” she hissed. “Getting back to the lodge will suck serious dong. Going all the way across the mountain? Chris. You can’t.”

“Did you just say ‘suck some serious dong?’” Aw shit, it literally hurt to smile. Chris did his best to refrain, sounding perfectly dejected as he sighed, instead. “I’m not saying bailing isn’t an appealing offer…but I can’t just…” he exhaled and lowered his voice further. “I can’t just leave Josh like this right now, okay?”

From outside, Josh’s voice rang out, “Are you guys coming or what?

Ashley glanced in the direction he’d spoken from as though she could see through the wall of the guest cabin. She reached up and pressed her hand to her temple almost like if it was she who was contending with a headache, rolling her eyes up to the ceiling. “You aren’t going to be much help if you’re dying,” she said bitterly.

He blew out another heavy breath, leaning backwards so the others could see him in the doorway, offering a brief wave to acknowledge they were coming. “I appreciate the thought Ash, really, I do, but uh…I’m not the one we need to worry about…well…” A pause, “Dying.”

Her eyes snapped back to him, the corners of her mouth tightening with something akin to shame. Ashley gave the interior of the guest cabin one last look before nodding, gesturing for Chris to leave before her.

Before he could think too heavily on it, Chris reached out and gave her a reassuring pat between her shoulders, his hand lingering for maybe a little too long as they exchanged rigid, worried smiles.

“Anything you wanna share with the class?” Josh asked as they emerged, stepping around the two of them to lock the cabin door. His displeasure was evident; he spoke with the tone of a teacher plucking a note from a student’s hand.

Hunching her shoulders, Ashley shook her head and walked past him, carefully making her way down the porch’s stairs to where Sam was waiting.

***

2:45pm

Apparently, despite the vehemence of Josh’s plan, they just weren’t meant to get to the watchtower. They’d had to double back, retracing their steps to get back to the lodge, first. It was a lot like the old song—only instead of going over the river and through the woods to Grandmother’s house, it was more like they went over the river, through the woods, over the river again, past the overlook, through the woods again, over the river again, and through the woods again. There had only been one time where they’d stopped to rest for all of two minutes, and that was because Sam had noticed something they’d missed on the way there.

“Could they have gone in there?” she’d asked, staring uncertainly at the wooden planks crisscrossing what appeared to be a hole in the mountain itself.

Josh hadn’t even followed her eyes before he’d shaken his head. “That’s the mine. No one goes in the mine. Shit’s a deathtrap. The girls wouldn’t even think about it.”

And they’d been back on their way. After all, the entrance was boarded up, and it would’ve taken a hell of a contortionist to squeeze between the planks.

By the time they neared the lodge, even Sam’s legs were shaking with exertion. Honestly, she wasn’t entirely sure how the other three, significantly less physically capable than she was, were managing to still stand upright. She slowed her pace only slightly to check on them, but found her eyes momentarily caught by a path rubbed raw on a nearby tree. It was a welcome excuse to stop for another second, and she cocked her head to the side as she checked it out. When she realized what it was, she couldn’t help but blow an exhausted raspberry in lieu of a laugh. “Welp. Doesn’t that just figure.”

“Huh?” In a flash, Josh was beside her, expecting some sort of clue as to the girls’ whereabouts. When he saw that it was just a carving in the bark, a childishly angular heart with ‘E & M’ etched into it, he rolled his eyes and kept walking.

“Hmm,” Ashley hummed, peeking over Sam’s shoulder as she passed by, never breaking her stride.

“For real?” Chris added, rolling his eyes in much the same way Josh had. “That kind of thing is so stupid—nothing says ‘I love you’ quite like stabbing a tree repeatedly.” He scoffed loudly, his breath pluming out in frantic puffs in front of him, constantly fogging his glasses. “Is there anyone on Earth who still thinks that’s some big, romantic gesture?”

Beside him, Ashley shrugged slightly, tugging her scarf up to cover a little more of her face. “I mean…it’s kind of sweet, isn’t it?”

“Oh, well, uh…” Looking helplessly to Sam, and then to the back of Josh’s head, Chris found no aid, no pity. It was what he got, letting his mouth run like it did. “I mean, yeah, it can be. I guess. Just.” He grimaced to himself, glaring up at the sky as the gears of his brain whirred. “Just not when it’s Mike and Emily, y’know? I find it hard to think of anything Mike does as ‘romantic,’” he added, hooking his fingers in scathing air-quotes for emphasis.

Josh rolled his eyes again, this time so intensely that he very nearly stepped off the path. “Nice save, Cochise,” he said under his breath, not without a fair amount of disdain. His eyes narrowed as the relative silence of the woods was broken by muted, far-off voices. Pushing ahead, he was left to contend with the leaden weight of fear settling down on his shoulders, making each of his footsteps feel as though the snow had turned to quicksand. They exited the copse of trees back to the clearing of the lodge, greeted by a row of three ranger vehicles parked just past the picnic table. In that moment, the world around him snapped into horrible clarity, everything feeling much too real: Josh was immediately aware of each snowflake landing on his face, the heavy thumping of blood in his neck and wrists, the weight of his tongue against his teeth.

Without really noticing it, all four of them had stopped at the sight, standing in something of a haphazard line in the snow. They gawked as if they had never seen cars before, as if they feared crossing the threshold from the woods into the clearing and into the line of darkened headlights would send them tumbling to their death.

It felt like they stood out there for another hour or two, though in reality it was much closer to a minute before Josh took the lead again, making his way up the steep stairs to the side entrance of the great room. The other three hustled after him, silent specters caked with snow.

Coming back in from the cold was more than just a little jarring; the heat of the lodge felt almost oppressive by comparison, not so much thawing them as melting. Chris’s glasses fogged up instantly, Ashley’s face grew painfully red, Sam’s entire body broke out in a hot sweat underneath her jacket, and Josh found himself uncomfortably close to vomiting again.

The desire to puke only grew stronger when the first ranger approached them, her face serious and her pace brisk. “Oh!” she said as she spotted them, “Is one of you Josh Washington?” Her accent was more Quebec than Calgary, Josh noticed as he flicked two fingers upwards in a halfhearted salute to indicate that he was, indeed, himself. Lips curling into a tight, pitying smile, the ranger stuck out her hand and introduced herself

Josh didn’t hear her. Not really. The world had taken on a peculiar sort of hum, making it difficult to hear or understand much of anything over the rhythmic whooshing of his own blood in his ears. It didn’t matter. She had a nametag he could read, after all (Josie Défago). Distantly, he realized she was ushering him towards the relative privacy of the dining room. His feet followed, but it felt as though he left his stomach on the floor of the great room, entrails dragging after him. He wasn’t much of a lip reader, but he thought he could recognize a few of the words she was saying well enough: Beth, and Hannah, and sisters, and parents. Behind him, the dining room’s door swung shut.

***

4:23pm

By the time Ashley had made her way through the majority of the weekend’s dishes, the worried voice in the back of her head—usually a quiet, petty little thing—had revved itself up to a panicked scream. Through the kitchen window, she could see the beginnings of the sunset, and knew implicitly that once the sun went down and the sky went dark, none of them would be able to convince themselves that the girls had just ‘gotten turned around.’ Soon, and far too soon for her comfort, they would have to admit that twins were lost.

She scrubbed harder at a spot of melted-on cheese.

It didn’t help that Josh was doing the thing he did when he was mad. The ‘refuse-to-respond-to-anyone-except-to-glare’ thing. The ‘using-full-names-despite-being-a-nicknamer’ thing. The Josh thing.

And it was her fault—of course it was her fault. She’d been the one stupid enough and desperate enough for attention to go along with the prank, she’d been the one who hid in the guest room and giggled along with the others. She was the one who’d made the mistake of dancing across those invisible social lines, leaving the safety and well-outlined expectations of their triad to try and be a part of the others’ game. She should’ve known better. Fuck, she had known better! But no. She’d had to go and—

Not that it was entirely her fault—because of course it wasn’t entirely her fault. She hadn’t been the one who’d run out into the snow, and she hadn’t been the one who overreacted so badly. Hell, people were always playing pranks like that on her! Josh had only the night before, with all the blood in the basement, and had she responded by throwing herself out into the wilderness? No! No she hadn’t, because she was a rational human being who knew how to take a joke. There had been no need for Hannah to freak out the way she did. There were a million things Hannah could’ve done other than run out into a snowstorm in the middle of the night, and no one made Beth run after her, so really, the fact of the matter was—

There was a clink from behind her, and she spun around with a gasp only to find Sam setting an empty glass down on the island.

“Ohmygod,” she exhaled, shaking the water from one of her hands before pressing it against her own heart, trying to will it to slow back down. “I didn’t hear you walk in."

“Yeah,” Sam said, her tone uncharacteristically glum. “Sorry about that.” She had spent the better part of the evening sitting at the foot of Hannah’s bed, her head in her hands, staring at the floor through her knees. Every hour that ticked by without any news of the twins felt a little more surreal. It had just been…well, ‘easier’ wasn’t the right word, because there was nothing easy about sitting in that silent room, surrounded by butterflies and the smell of Hannah’s perfume; it hadn’t been easier, per se, but it had simply felt like the thing to do, sit around in Hannah’s room and pretend she was hiding downstairs somewhere.

It hadn’t really worked, though. Sam still felt seven different kinds of miserable.

“Thinking?” she asked Ashley, folding her arms across her chest before leaning back against the wine rack.

She furrowed and unfurrowed her brow, looking back down to her pruny fingers. “Yeah.” Ashley was suddenly acutely aware of how exhausted she was. Using her forearm instead of her hand, she rubbed at the bridge of her nose, sighing weakly. “Yeah. Lots of thinking.”

Sam nodded. Her head fell gently back against one of the cupboards as she angled her eyes up towards the ceiling. “I hear that.” She blinked hard, disappointed but not surprised when her eyes continued to ache. It was difficult not to think of the scene she’d walked in on earlier that morning, Ashley in front of the sink, Josh standing where Sam was now. Suspecting that maybe it wasn’t the wisest thing to do, Sam couldn’t help herself but to ask, “Anything you wanna talk about?”

Shrugging, Ashley piled another few handfuls of silverware into the drying rack. “Just…thinking about Hannah, I guess.”

Her chest tightened. “Yeah…yeah, me too,” Sam admitted.

Ashley shook her head and began scrubbing a butter knife. “I just…can’t believe any of this.”

“Meeee neither.”

“It wasn’t even that big of a deal. Like, come on.”

Her gaze snapped back to Ashley’s profile with the same sort of quickness antelope showed in nature documentaries, sensing an oncoming lion attack. She narrowed her eyes slightly—just slightly—but said nothing.

Mouth wrinkling into a tiny pout, Ashley continued, more to herself than to Sam. “Was she even thinking? She knew how bad the storm was going to be…and it’s not even like it was that bad. Josh did way worse to me and Chris the other night, and you didn’t see us like. Jumping out of windows or running into the snow…”

Up until that precise moment in her life, Sam had always thought the phrase ‘biting one’s tongue’ was only meant as a metaphor. As she chomped down on her own, refraining from responding, she realized that perhaps it could be used literally as well.

Unfortunately, there was no way for Ashley to see what Sam’s bicuspids were or were not up to. No, she was already back in her own head, her mouth moving of its own accord, turning her nervous energy and roiling guilt into a breathless tirade. “It’s just so stupid, and it doesn’t make any sense. This is a huge freaking mansion! She could’ve run upstairs! She could’ve locked herself in any of the seven thousand rooms here! But no! Instead, she just…” struggling to find the words, Ashley threw her arms out to her sides, “Flings herself out into the middle of the woods! During a snowstorm! It was the stupidest thing she could’ve done, and she went ahead and did it anyway!”

Something inside of Sam didn’t snap so much as explode. It had been a long day. A long day of hiking up and down the mountain, of breathing icy air, of being blasted in the face with snow. A long day of not finding Hannah and Beth. A long day of trying to tamp down the burgeoning horror that they would never find them. A long day of doing everything in her power to keep her emotions in check. What had been a crack in her cool façade split into a gaping chasm, and into it fell the last of her patience. “And what if it had been you, Ashley?” She rounded on her, shoulders taut and lips pressed so hard against her teeth that she began to taste copper. “What if the four of them had pulled that little ‘prank’ on you? What would you do?”

In the blink of an eye, Ashley had recoiled as if Sam had raised a hand to her, eyes wide at the sudden shift in emotional dynamics between them. For a second, she had all but forgotten she’d been speaking aloud. “Wh…they…they wouldn’t have.” Her face was very hot, her tongue feeling too heavy and clumsy to push out the words she wanted. It became imperative that she look anywhere but directly at Sam, but already she could feel the cold fingers of dread forcing their way down her throat and through her chest, reaching for her stomach. This was what she did—what she always did—she just kept talking and talking until it was too late to dig herself out of the hole she’d dug. And this was a deep one.

“Oh no?” Sam asked, dimly aware of an urge to reach out and shove Ashley into the sink or punch her right in her face. The feeling was fleeting, alien and terrible in its intensity, but its ghost remained tingling in her fingertips. “Why wouldn’t they, Ashley? Because you think they only make fun of Hannah? Because you think they don’t make fun of you?” It was unfair, and she knew it the second she said it, but she found she didn’t much care, just then. What had happened to the girls had been unfair too, and Ashley didn’t seem to care very much about that.

Cheeks growing redder and redder, Ashley slowly shook her head, knotting her fingers in the too-long sleeves of her sweatshirt. “They don’t. Not…not to my face…” she managed to mutter, wincing inwardly at both the ease of her own pathetic admission and the fury radiating off of Sam. “They wouldn’t…they…” She squirmed and tried to will herself to dissolve into the floor. “I don’t…I don’t like Mike. So they—”

“Okay.” Like a crack of thunder, Sam clapped her hands once, causing Ashley to flinch away again. “Let’s say that this had nothing to do with Mike! Let’s say one of them had a crush on Chris, huh? How about that? Let’s say that, instead.”

She did look up, then, eyes wide with more surprise than fear. As uncomfortable as the situation was, the hypothetical was almost ridiculous enough to tear through the horrendous tension between them. Ashley found herself meeting Sam’s gaze again, her expression a strange mix of incredulity and discomfort; it was the sort of face, Sam would think later, that people might make if told to consider their grandparents’ sex lives.

“What do you think would’ve happened then?

At her sides, her fingers tightened into further into fists around the fabric of her sleeves. Backed into the corner as she was, Ashley felt a flare of something impossibly hotter than her shame begin to spike its way up from her gut. “They never would have!” she snapped, body so wracked with adrenaline that Sam could see her literally shaking where she stood. “And even if they did, I wouldn’t have fallen for it!”

“You wouldn’t, huh? You wouldn’t?” Sam narrowed her eyes and closed the space between them, feeling Ashley shrink away from her. “So you pick up a note on the table and see it’s from Chris,” she started, grabbing the sponge from off of the counter as though in example, “And it says something like ‘Hurr durr, hey Ash, you looked really hot tonight, come meet me in the guest room,’ you want me to believe for one second—for one second!—that you’re not hightailing it to the guest room?” She slammed the sponge back down and it made a sickening squelch. “That’s what you’re telling me?”

Despite her very best efforts, Ashley’s lower lip had started trembling. She managed to keep her gaze angrily fixed on Sam’s for another instant before it dropped again, her vision beginning to double with welling tears. “I wouldn’t.” Her voice was caustic, but there was no hiding the waver it had taken on. “I wouldn’t, because I would know someone was setting me up! People don’t just say stuff like that! I wouldn’t have done anything!

Sam set a hand on her hip. “So you don’t just do whatever Chris and Josh say, then? You don’t just follow them around? Because that’s sort of the impression I’ve been getting ever since I met you. It’s definitely been the impression I’ve been getting all weekend, I can tell you that much.”

There was no furious retort that time—even Ashley knew there was no arguing the point. She kept her eyes wrought to the floor, trying to blink back the angry tears threatening to spill hot over her cheeks. “I wouldn’t have taken my top off,” she said sharply, the disdain in her voice scratching at the back of Sam’s mind like nails on a chalkboard. It had clearly been meant as some sort of affront, an insult, but if its mark was meant to be Sam, it didn’t even come close to landing.

Her response was immediate. “You sure about that, Ashley?”

Head snapping back up, Ashley fixed her with a withering glare. “Chris would never—”

“Mmm, that’s not answering the question I asked, actually.” She raised both of her eyebrows appraisingly, watching her reaction. Sam was a pacifist by nature, but that didn’t mean she couldn’t hold her own when it was needed. Ashley wasn’t the only one who could fling barbed insults around.

That time, something did land.

Ashley watched her for a second longer before huffing out a furious, childish sound of defeat. She stormed her way out of the kitchen and into the hall. To her credit, she stayed true to her word, grabbing hold of the banister as she took the stairs two at a time instead of running out the back door into the snow. Even blinded by the tears that had finally overtaken her, she wove through the third floor with practiced ease, following the path she’d taken hundreds of times before.

The lodge’s upper library was silent, the air thick with dust and the vague vanilla smell of old books. Usually, it was the place she went when she needed a moment to collect herself or detox from too much socializing or even just to pass the time while the guys entertained themselves with whatever stupid obsession they had at the moment. It was the one place in Blackwood Pines that didn’t see many visitors (if any at all), and simply being there, surrounded by bookshelves, was typically all that she needed to find some sort of comfort. But just then, there was no comfort to be found.

Her shaking legs got her as far as the table before she outright collapsed into a chair. Ashley crumpled over the table, burying her head in her arms as the dam broke. She wept openly, her breath making the air around her hot, her face sticky with sweat and tears.

Sam had been right—because of course she’d been right—and in that moment, Ashley hated her for it. She hated herself for it, too.

***

4:26pm

“Look, I’m not trying to say it’s a good thing, cuz like…obviously it’s not. I just think—hey, will you just hang on a sec? I just think it’s better that we have a bunch of people looking now, that’s all.” If he had to guess, Chris thought Josh had heard maybe a third of what he’d been trying to say for the past ten minutes. Maybe. He’d been following him close on his heels as he made a strange loop around the lodge, picking shit up and throwing shit out—not entirely unlike the frantic cleaning Ashley had just been interrupted from, upstairs.

The difference was clear, though: Josh was fucking pissed. Not pissed in a way most other people would’ve recognized, had anyone been near enough to witness the two of them, but pissed in the very particular way Josh had refined over the years. It was a quiet sort of fury, made obvious by jerking hand motions and wrinkling at the corners of his eyes. Each time he lifted a balled napkin or stained paper plate from the ground and put it into the large trash bag he was dragging, the action somehow carried the same weight as a punch.

“The rangers know this place as well as we do—probably better, even!” Chris stopped trying to follow him then, realizing how futile the effort was, and instead stood leaning against the door to the projection room. It was bizarre to think that it had only been a day ago that they’d all been sitting down there, throwing popcorn at each other and groaning each time Vin Diesel delivered some gruff, edgy line about cars and racing and…whatever the fuck else the Fast & Furious movies were about. “And they probably have infrared cameras and shit…they at least probably know something about tracking, don’t you think? Even with the snow. I bet they get called up to help find people all the time! It’s a big mountain, and—”

“Stop. Talking.”

He stopped immediately, snapping his mouth shut before breathing a sigh through his nose. For a minute, he just watched Josh make his deliberate back-and-forth through the seats of the screening room. When it became apparent that no, he was neither going to look Chris’s way or say anything else, he dropped into one of the seats and let his head loll back. The combination of his meds, the hot shower, the freezing walk, and time had lessened the agony of his migraine, but it was still thrumming warningly behind his eyeball. He took his glasses off and closed his eyes, scrubbing at his face with a hand as he listened to the rustling of Josh and his trash bag.

Josh kicked one of the beanbags back into shape as he threw another can into the trash, keeping his eyes low and his jaw grit tightly. The uncomfortable worry that had been itching at the back of his mind all day had blossomed into something bigger, badder, and toothier. It had never once occurred to him that they wouldn’t be able to find the girls. Hell, it hadn’t occurred to him that the girls wouldn’t come back on their own.

Those sisters of his—those wild and crazy sisters—well it sure looked like they were just chock full of surprises, weren’t they?

And that was to say nothing of all their friends. All their so-called friends, really. They were full of surprises too, it seemed.

Surprises, surprises, surprises.

For someone who loved jumpscares and twist endings as much as he did, Josh was coming to realize that he really, truly despised surprises.

There was something else bothering him, though, something he couldn’t quite put a name to yet, something that had been dancing on the very edge of his consciousness all day long, just out of reach. It hadn’t quite taken shape, but if Chris kept yapping, as he was so prone to do, Josh worried he might hit on it first. The thought made him grimace even further.

At about the same time Ashley was banging through the library’s door upstairs, Josh shouldered open the door leading to the hallway, staring straight ahead into the darkened corridor as he let the trash bag trail behind him.

Chris cracked an eye at the noise, immediately back on his feet. If there was one room in the lodge Josh didn’t need to be spending any time in alone…he figured it was the guest room. “Josh, come on, man—"

“I said stop talking,” he replied tonelessly, walking into the room and casting a look around. He hesitated turning the lights on, instead taking it in as Hannah would’ve. His eyes narrowed at the thought as his gaze flicked to each of the others’ hiding spots. Emily and Jessica under the bed, Matt in the armoire, and Ashley in the alcove. The corner of his mouth tightened against his teeth.

Unaware that he was ruining some sort of moment, Chris flipped the light switch and the room immediately filled with warm yellow light. “No one was really…in here. I don’t think there’s gonna be any trash to—”

Josh turned to look at him, and Chris fell silent again, eyes plaintive.

“Do you…” he began, each word slow and measured and precise, “Have any idea…what is about to go down, here?” When Chris didn’t answer, save to let his shoulders drop another inch or so, Josh continued. “My parents are being contacted as we fucking speak. You get that, right? You gotta get that much.” His free hand moved up to rake through his hair. “And you know who gets to deal with them, Cochise? Eh? Tell me. Who gets to deal with them?”

He let his gaze drop as he realized Josh was actually waiting for an answer. “You,” he nodded. “I get that, but we’re—”

“Mom is going to…lose it,” Josh said, eyes going glassy as it played out in his head. “And I mean in that the classical sense—think hysterics, think fainting couches, think wailing ‘My babies, my babies, my babies!’ over and over and over.” He punctuated each ‘over’ with a jerk of the bag. “Then there’s good old Bob. Know what Bob’s gonna do? I sure do. First of all, he’s not gonna show, not when he’s ‘on schedule,’ so at least I don’t have to worry about watching his fat fucking face turn five different shades of purple while he’s screaming at me. And honestly, thank God for that, because I get so tired of watching those jowls jiggle like they do when he’s mad. At least I can hold the phone away from my face when he gets too loud, this way…so I guess that’s a silver lining. Ooh, but see the thing is, I get two lectures from him—a pincer attack! Because not only will I have failed at ‘protecting my sisters like older brothers are supposed to do,’” he said, doing a startlingly good impression of his father in the process, “But hoo boy, this is not the kind of publicity that Washington Pictures, Incorporated needs.”

Without any warning, Josh turned on his heel and heaved the bag along with him, storming back out of the guest room, through the hall, and out of the cinema again. The move was so unexpected that Chris was left to flounder for a second before snapping the lights back off and scurrying after him.

He had already reached the second floor by the time Chris had been able to catch up with him. Josh tossed the bag to one side of the staircase, oblivious to both the way it ricocheted off of one of Emily’s faux leopard skin bags (she and Jessica both had been packed up and ready to go since they’d gotten back) and how badly he’d startled Sam (still buzzing as angrily as a shaken up hornet’s nest in front of the kitchen sink). In an unintentional show of subconscious synchronicity, he stormed up the stairs in much the same way Ashley had only minutes before, following roughly the same path as well.

“Dude, it’s not…they’re going to find them!” Chris stumbled for a moment on the stairs, remembering in that split-second that he had, in fact, been hiking all day, and compensated for the shaky muscles of his legs by grabbing hold of the railing. “This is shit! And it sucks, and it’s fucked up, and it-it’s scary! But people don’t just disappear from the world. There are only so many places they could’ve gone, and—”

“And we went to all of them!” Whirling back around, Josh banged the heel of his hand against his bedroom’s doorframe, sending a loud thud ringing through the silent hallway. “Where the fuck else could they look? Where the fuck else could they possibly find them?!”

“I don’t…the—there’s still the sanatorium! And the mines—”

No one goes in the mines! They’ve been boarded up for fucking decades!

“Okay, but…still the sanatorium, and like…we didn’t get to the watchtower! And…” His hands were moving of their own accord as he scrabbled for any sort of metaphorical purchase. “I jus—look, the rangers know everything there is to know, up here!” He stuttered over his words, nothing coming out half as persuasive or as comforting as he’d hoped. “Josh,” Chris finally managed, shoulders slouching with exhaustion. “I know shit’s bad right now, but bro, it’s gonna turn out fine. I know it.”

“Yeah, well. Got some news for you, bro.” Josh opened the door to his bedroom before turning around to face Chris again, face caught somewhere between rage and terror. “Shit’s already pretty fucked.”

Chris made a move to follow him into the room, but Josh shut the door before he could, the fragile click of the lock echoing throughout the space like a thunderclap.

***

6:15pm

For the rest of the night, time passed like cold syrup. The rangers were out setting up a perimeter—whatever that meant—beginning to mark off the most likely paths the girls might’ve taken, leaving the rest of them stewing in the lodge. Josh hadn’t left his room in hours, and the resulting vibe of the place was just…bad. No one wanted to eat. No one wanted to talk. Even Jessica and Emily, known for their hushed asides, had made a point to remain almost stonily silent. There were only murmurs once it was discovered that the lodge’s phone line was back up again, and even then, discussion was kept to figuring out who was going to call their parents first.

No one was going to be going to class, tomorrow, it seemed.

When all the others had taken their turns on the landline and retreated back upstairs under the pretense of packing up their things (again), it was just the three of them sitting on the sectional, hesitant to meet each others’ eyes.

“Guess I’ll go next…” Sam heaved herself up from the couch with a grunt of effort, her legs unbearably sore from all the searching. She walked into the dining room and shut the door behind her, leaving Chris and Ashley alone in the great room. She knew she’d be glad for the privacy, but outwardly she was still bristling with frustration. With hurt. It had been years since she’d had to do anything well and truly alone. Hannah had always been right there, right next to her, Beth none too far off. But now? Now it was just her. Just Sam. The thought of picking up that phone alone, dialing her dad’s number alone, and then explaining to him what was going on alone…it was torturous.

In the great room, they weren’t faring much better. Unable to help himself, Chris’s eyes kept flicking up the stairs to the landing as though expecting Josh to have emerged from his room. Ashley had leaned herself against the back of the couch, chin on her arm, staring vacantly through the slats of the windows at the lights flashing through the snow. They didn’t talk, they didn’t move, and really they didn’t do much except pretend they couldn’t hear Sam’s voice begin to crack through the dining room door. Sam didn’t seem the sort, they thought, who would want other people to acknowledge her moments of vulnerability.

Ashley sighed quietly.

In return, Chris glanced her way, but was met only with the back of her head as she continued to stare out the windows.

And that’s how they stayed for the better part of ten minutes, looking like some anachronistic Renaissance painting, remaining perfectly still for all the time it took Sam to tell her dad that Beth and Hannah were lost, she wouldn’t be coming home for a few days at least, and also, if he was able to get some time off, she would really, really like it if he could come up to the lodge. They only moved again when the door to the dining room opened, turning to watch Sam slide out and gesture vaguely towards the doorway before she too disappeared up the stairs.

“And then there were two.” Ashley let her head roll onto her other arm as she looked out the window one last time.

Chris let out another long sigh before he stood, nodding towards the dining room. “Whaddya think? You want to go first?”

Slowly, she unfolded her legs out from under her, looking to the door as if it were full of revving chainsaws. “Mmm…your parents are probably more freaked out. Maybe you should go first.”

“Yeah, but you have school in the morning. Gonna need to be called out. So you should probably go first.”

“Your dad had that thing with his heart last summer, though. You shouldn’t freak him out more than necessary.” She looked up at him, he looked down at her, and for the briefest moment, they shared a sad, tired smile. “We’re also assuming that they’re not all together, calling the police right now.”

“A good point. A real good point.” Taking the initiative, Chris headed for the door first, pleasantly relieved but hardly surprised but when he glanced over his shoulder to find Ashley still right behind him.

She shrugged. “I got your back if you got mine.”

He snorted a muted laugh. “You know I do.” Picking up the phone from its dock, he stared down at the buttons, cringing slightly. “Can you like…I don’t know, avert your gaze for a sec while I do something embarrassing?”

Ashley raised an eyebrow, sitting herself down on one of the cushioned chairs at the table. She was silent for a moment. “‘Avert my gaze?’ What co…oh my God.”

“Ash please, today has already been bad enough.”

“Chris, holy cow. Are you actually about to look up your own parents’ phone numbers?”

“I haven’t used a landline since I was like…five! Speed dial was invented for a reason, and…” he groaned in defeat, pulling his cellphone out and scrolling through his contacts before finding his dad’s number and dialing it. “If you tell anyone you saw me do that, I’ll deny it.”

She rolled her eyes but said nothing, looking up at the disconcerting chandelier hanging from the ceiling. It was made of antlers, which had never sat particularly well with her for a whole list of reasons, really. Between it and the huge, twisted ball of metal hanging in the great room, she couldn’t help but wonder what kind of decorator the Washingtons had hired. Or how much they’d been paid for their work.

He leaned against the table next to her, breath coming out in quiet, rhythmic little whistles as he waited for someone on the other line to pick up. “Hey Dad, I—”

Ashley looked up, leaning her cheek against her hand as she watched Chris’s face briefly flash through every emotion known to man.

“Hi Mom. Yeah, I—no I’m fine. Yeah, I—Ash is fine too,” he added, awkwardly making a move to angle his face away from her, if only slightly. “Josh is, uh…Josh is fine. But look, we—oh, hi Jamie.”

And there it was. She waited until Chris glanced back at her from over his shoulder, and she mouthed a silent ‘I told you so.’

“Is Linda there too? Oh.” His lips tightened, signaling to Ashley that the answer was ‘no.’ “It’s, um…it’s a long story, Mom. I think I’m gonna…I’m gonna put you guys on speakerphone for a sec, actually. Hang on.”

***

Monday, February 3, 2014
8:11am

First thing in the morning, Melinda Washington and Colleen Hartley arrived at the lodge, both bundled up in their coats and pale with worry.

The strangest thing to see was how very quickly the group—all eight of them—gave up any pretense of maturity for the familiar comfort of parents taking control. As if a switch had been flipped, attitudes were gone, squabbles were pushed onto the back burner, and everything became a chorus of ‘yes’es and ‘no’s and ‘please’s.

Josh’s prediction of Melinda’s hysterics didn’t quite pan out: Though it was impossible to tell what she’d done on the long trip up, she maintained a quiet, stoic sort of dignity once she was in the lodge. He couldn’t bring himself to be alone with her for too long, though, and was unspeakably grateful that Colleen had come along to serve as a sort of buffer.

Melinda spent the majority of the day talking with the rangers and, once they arrived, police. Colleen took charge in helping the others make their travel arrangements, making call after call to the bus service and rent-a-cars and other parents.

In some upsetting way, it felt almost like a school field trip gone bad. Real bad.

There was a renewed sense of hope in the lodge, though, now that there were real adults handling the situation. Now that the authorities were there, now that there were parents among them, now that pictures of Hannah and Beth had been handed out and the Washington property had been encircled, it seemed so much more likely that they would be found and brought back.

And while they weren’t brought back that day, everyone felt sure the twins would be back the next day.

***

Tuesday, February 4, 2014
10:45am

Matt and Jessica were the first to leave, climbing into the bus at the base of the mountain shortly after the sun rose. Along with Ashley, they were the only ones of the group still in high school, where absences from class actually meant something.

Mike and Emily stayed a few hours later, helping with another sweep of the property into the mid-afternoon. They left after lunch, Mike offering Josh an encouraging, if slightly uncomfortable, pat on the shoulder with promises of coming back up if they needed more help. “Not that you will,” he added with a nervous cough. “Cuz there’s no way they’re not finding them today.”

With everyone else gone, the lodge felt more like a mausoleum than a resort—footsteps echoed too loudly, floorboards creaked without anyone walking over them, and they were left to tend to their own wounds, throbbing with anxiety and insult.

Jamie Brown arrived sometime after dinner, eyes rimmed preemptively red. She, Colleen, and Melinda spent a lot of time in the sitting room just off of the kitchen, talking in low voices and holding warm mugs, if only to have something to occupy their hands.

Sam wanted nothing more than for her dad to walk through the door next. She wanted her dad, she wanted Beth, she wanted Hannah, she wanted anyone who was a part of her normal life. Chris and Josh and Ashley had their moms and their best friends (hurt as their feelings were), and some childish little part of her ached with despair, knowing that she could have neither. All she could do was insert herself into their circles, now, and hope for the best.

Really, all any of them could do was hope for the best.

Not that it would do much good. The search party did not find the girls that day.

***

Wednesday, February 5, 2014
9:24pm

Or the next day.

***

Thursday, February 6, 2014
11:19pm

Or the next.

***

Friday, February 7, 2014
8:53pm

By Friday, no one was talking to anyone else. The only real exceptions were Chris and Ashley, who seemed to be having their own confidential conferences anytime there was no one else around to hear; the second another person walked too close, they would immediately grow quiet, looking down at their hands or phones with hooded eyes.

Sam’s feelings were still raw and throbbing from Sunday. It was the weirdest thing—even though her problem was absolutely with Ashley, she found it impossible to talk to Chris. In a way, they almost felt like the same person. Two sides of one unit. Irrational or not, she realized she was pissed at both of them. She felt hurt by both of them. She missed Hannah so badly.

Josh was too angry to be around any of the other three for too long, much less any of the parents. While he’d been wrong about Melinda losing her shit, he had been absolutely clairvoyant when it came to Bob’s reaction. He’d gotten his ass handed to him in all sorts of new and exciting ways over the phone, and the combination of that and everything else going on in the lodge had been rubbing and rubbing and rubbing at him, eating away layers of skin like sandpaper.

Everyone was sucking down the same cocktail of sleep deprivation, physical exhaustion, and worry—and it was not a good mix.

The sun had only begun to set when Scott Giddings arrived at the lodge; it was full dark by the time Al Hartley was able to join them all.

It was decided that everyone would be going home the next day, regardless of whether or not the girls were found.

“I’m not going anywhere until we know where they are,” Sam said, the most measured and calm of them.

“We can’t just let Josh deal with this alone,” Chris agreed, petulant and tired and snappish. “That would—that’s not right!

“We can’t. We have to help.” Ashley had started crying again—she’d been crying a lot, that week—making most of her words all but unintelligible. “I have to help! It’s my fault—I should’ve known better!” She let Colleen pull her into a tight hug, too tired to fight it.

Jamie sighed, hands on her hips. “I’m pretty sure everyone should’ve known better.”

***

Saturday, February 8, 2014
12:05pm

Trying to sleep in the guest room had been a mistake. Not just because of the prank, but for a whole host of other reasons: the sounds of people walking overhead, the draft from the hallway, the shadows that played across the walls…

Still, it had seemed a better option than bunking in Hannah’s room.

Sam suspected it was going to be another night of pretending to sleep. She’d read on the internet somewhere that it was the next best thing to actually sleeping, and while she trusted its veracity about as much as she doubted every conspiracy theory her Aunt Connie posted on Facebook, it was all she had just then. The thought of the long trip back home, the bus ride, the driving…already it was enough to make her carsick. Maybe she’d be able to sleep through most of it.

If she was ever able to sleep again.

By some miracle, she had managed to find herself lost in the cottony space between waking and sleep, still terribly aware of the room around her, but beginning to doze. Her breath had evened out, her heart had slowed, and at the exact moment where she thought she might actually fall asleep…there was a quiet knock on the guest room’s door.

She opened one eye at first, trying to make sense of the shadows on the ceiling. Sam grimaced slightly as she turned to look at the door, trying to figure out whether she had actually heard something, and who might need her at that time of night. “…yeah?” she called, sitting up in bed and tugging the blankets to cover her pajamas as she did so. There was a pause that stretched on long enough to make her think she had imagined the knock after all, and then the door slowly opened from the other side.

“Um…hey,” Ashley said, her silhouette only just visible against the dim light creeping down the stairwell from the great room.

Sam eyed her uncertainly for a time, slowly leaning back to rest against the headboard. “Hey.”

It was almost impossible to make out Ashley’s expression given the lack of light, but her body language spoke volumes of her anxiety. She lifted a ghostly arm and adjusted her hair, if only to give her hand something to do. “I thought…uh…” A small, deflated sigh. “Can we talk, maybe?”

An uncomfortable weight settled into Sam’s stomach at the question; had someone actually taken the time to sit her down and ask what could’ve possibly made her feel even worse that week, her answer likely would’ve been something along the lines of ‘Ashley Brown could ask me to jam about my feelings with her.’ Still, she reached over to the bedside table and clicked the lamp on, illuminating the room with a warm, yellowish glow. “Sure,” she said, realizing the second she said it that her voice had held more bite than was perhaps fair. Even though she hadn’t been looking directly at Ashley as she said it, she had seen her fold into herself a bit in her periphery.

After watching her earlier with the others, Sam couldn’t help but feel a little sorry for Ashley. But it was just that—a little.

“Okay…” Ashley finally stepped over the threshold, going to great pains to close the door as silently as possible behind her. Once it clicked, she turned back to Sam, finding it particularly difficult to hold her gaze for more than a moment or two. “I really…I really wanted to say I’m sorry.” She paused, eyes downcast as she nervously licked her lips. “And I get it if it’s like…too late for me to say it, or if you don’t even want to hear it from me, or whatever…but I just…I know I need to apologize, and I wanted you to know that.” She chanced a quick look at her, the corners of her mouth tightening into a sad, nervous shape that could’ve been a smile in a past life.

From the bed, Sam continued to watch her, keeping her face as neutral as she could manage. She wasn’t sure what she had expected, but this…wasn’t it.

“Um.” The waver was back in Ashley’s voice, making her sound vaguely like a little kid with a stuffy nose. “I’m really sorry…for everything I said. About…about Hannah. It wasn’t fair. Not even a little. I was…really tired, and really mad, and really scared, and…really guilty. Like, incredibly guilty. And I just snapped. I shouldn’t have.” She looked back up at Sam even though it was very much the hardest thing she’d ever willed herself to do. “And…I shouldn’t have needed you to say…all of the stuff you said for me to really get how shitty I was being. It shouldn’t have taken you telling me to imagine myself in the situation to get it—it really shouldn’t have. And I kind of…seriously hate that it’s what made me see it.” She sighed, a small, watery sound, before letting her hands drop to her sides. “I’m just…really sorry, Sam. For everything.”

As much as she had wanted to hold out, grasping her righteous anger like a life preserver, Sam felt her resolve dissolve. Something in Ashley’s voice had caused her throat to tighten, her eyes to sting. She cleared her throat as passively as she was able to manage, nodding all the while. “Thanks.” There were other things she had wanted to say, but she was so scared her voice would crack.

“I’ve been crazy worried about like…Josh being mad at me and whether people were going to blame me that I just…I didn’t even like…stop to think about other people, and…” She reached up, rubbing at her raw eyes with the heels of her hands. “It just hit me that they were your best friends, and I don’t…I don’t know how I’d still be sane if I lost the guys, even though they’re morons, and the more I thought about it, Sam, the more I just…” Ashley dropped her hands again, her motions feverish. “I’m just so, so sorry, Sam. You don’t deserve any of this, and I…I needed you to know that I’m sorry. I don’t…” she struggled to find her words, unused to grasping for them. “I don’t want to add to your hurt.”

It wasn’t quite right, grammatically or syntactically, but it turned out to be precisely what Sam needed to hear.

Any anger she’d still been nursing disappeared in a puff of smoke, the space it left in her chest quickly filling with something unnamed. Sam watched Ashley’s profile for a moment before making her decision, suddenly very sure of what she needed to do. “Hey, do you…maybe wanna just crash in here tonight?”

Ashley turned to her quickly enough to make herself dizzy, examining Sam’s face for any sign of a joke. When she realized there was no joke, she blinked in obvious surprise. “You…want me to? After…everything?” she asked tentatively, eyebrows drawing close together.

Scooting over to one side of the bed, Sam reached over and turned the comforter down before patting the mattress. “I think…both of us could use a little company, after the week we’ve been having, don’t you?”

An actual smile tugged at one side of Ashley’s mouth. She breathed out a tiny, relieved sound through her nose before sliding into the bed next to Sam, pulling the covers back up and over her. “Yeah, I do.” Without needing to be asked, she stretched her arm back out and turned the lamp off, nestling herself deeper into the covers once the room darkened again, lit by the soft blue-grey light of the snow-filled sky outside.

There was the usual sleepover brand of discomfort while the two tossed and turned to find their most comfortable spots, and had they not been so tired, both might’ve actually laughed at the ridiculousness of the whole surreal ordeal. Of course they wouldn’t be able to sleep—they hadn’t been able to sleep since the prank had happened. There was no reason to believe that night would be any different. Still, they both fell quiet after a few minutes.

The tightness in Sam’s throat didn’t lessen with that time. Knowing full well Ashley was still awake, she tried to clear her throat again, still to no avail, and said quietly, “You know what, uh…you know what really sucks about all of this?”

The apprehension was obvious in Ashley’s voice. “What?”

Smiling bitterly, she turned onto her back, flopping her arms up over top of the comforter. “Uh. I could’ve stopped it.”

Ashley was silent.

Sam stared up at the ceiling, her eyes feeling dry and scratchy the longer she looked. It had been on the forefront of her mind for days, weighing her down like an executioner’s knot. “I could’ve taken the note away,” She said finally, her voice a low whisper. “I could’ve thrown it away or torn it up or I don’t know…I could’ve eaten it before Hannah saw it.” When she inhaled next, she was surprised to feel a hitch in her breath. The sort that served as a harbinger of tears.

There was a beat of silence before the sheets rustled and the mattress bobbed slightly. Ashley rolled onto her side, looking to her with an expression that was best hidden by the low light of the room. “Oh Sam…don’t…don’t do that to yourself.”

“I could’ve,” she reasserted, suddenly aware of how tight her skin felt, how scratchy the thick blanket was. “I could’ve gotten rid of that stupid note the second y—” she caught herself, “—everyone went downstairs, and I could’ve just convinced Hannah to go to bed for the night.”

Ashley’s brow knit and she shifted uncomfortably between the sheets. “You know they would’ve found another way to do it…” she said quietly. “Even if you did get rid of it.” She sighed, letting her eyes flutter shut. “But I’ve been…thinking a lot about that night, too. I should’ve listened to you…I shouldn’t have gone along with them…I could’ve hung back and…” Her lips tightened into a tired slash. “I don’t know. Helped you look for her.”

One of Sam’s arms came up to drape over her face, blocking out the cool light and hiding the tears that had begun to gather at the corners of her eyes. “She wouldn’t have listened to you. Or me. Or Beth. Or anyone. She just…”

Even knowing she couldn’t see her, Ashley nodded anyway. “Really wanted there to be something with Mike.”

“Yeah.”

“Yeah…” She rolled onto her back again, folding her hands over her stomach as she lay staring at nothing. “Yeah. It’s…hard to be rational when you’re in that deep.” And she should know—hell, she could’ve written the book on that one. “But Sam, that doesn’t—”

“I could’ve stood outside the guest room door. I could’ve told her not to go in. Shit, Ashley, I could’ve gone in with her and ruined it.” Her lips began to pull back with a sob, and she fought it back as best she could, clamping her arm down even tighter over her face. “I could’ve stopped it.”

“Sam,” she said softly, turning to look at her.

“I could’ve done a hundred different things to stop it. And even if I couldn’t, I could’ve run after them and maybe I could’ve gotten them back to the lodge, or I could’ve kept them from getting lost, or—”

Sam,” Ashley said again, rolling onto her side once more as she reached over and gingerly touched the arm covering her face. “You can’t…it’s…if you keep playing through all all of that, it’s going to drive you out of your mind. None of us…no one could’ve…” she blew out a long breath, swallowing hard. “We can’t change what happened. All we can do is just…hope things turn out.” Her eyes widened to the size of dessert plates when she registered that Sam—Sam Giddings—was actually crying beside her. “Oh crap—Sam I didn’t, I mean, I’m sorry, I—”

Dropping her arm back down to her side, Sam looked to Ashley, trying and failing to restrain the trembling of her lower lip. “Can you hug me?” she asked, shrugging helplessly. “I just…I really, really, really need one.”

Without wasting a moment of thought on it, Ashley reached out, meeting Sam halfway in an embrace made awkward only by their positions on the bed. Sam’s grip was tight and desperate, and Ashley scrambled to shift so she could better return the squeeze. The next moment, Sam had tucked her face against Ashley’s shoulder, her body wracking with silent sobs; Ashley rested her chin atop Sam’s head, hugging her as firmly as she was able. On some level, Sam knew it wasn’t fair—Ashley wasn’t Hannah, wasn’t even close, but just then, in the half-light, she almost could’ve been. That was enough for her.

They fell asleep like that, with tear-stained cheeks and tangled limbs, the spaces between their ribs scooped out and throbbing raw, their bodies forming one unified lump under the covers. All the while, their minds buzzed with the things they should’ve done to prevent the prank, all the things they could’ve done, all the things they would’ve done…but none hurt half so bad as the things they’d almost done. And when they finally gave into the exhaustion of the week, those were the things that haunted them the worst:

The almosts.

***

1:45pm

Their parents had agreed to let them do one more sweep with the search party before heading down the mountain and beginning their long trips home. It had gone about as well as expected—Sam following after Josh, Ashley following after Sam, Chris following after Ashley. Though the storm had lessened, it was still snowing enough to dull the shape of their footprints as they walked.

Josh had, by all accounts, wanted to go alone. He was talked out. Socialized out. Emotioned out. He was a thunderhead turned human, and he had felt the first real prickles of static at the base of his skull when the others had insisted on going along with him. He had led them down the path they’d taken that first night, when the girls had only been missing for a handful of hours, the trip so much quicker in the full light of day. His throat was raw from calling out their names, his legs shaking from a week’s-worth of maneuvering in the heavy snow, but honestly, he thought he had been doing an excellent job of keeping himself reined in.

They reached the imposing drop off the cliff, and he couldn’t help but feel a flare of irritation when he was the only one with the balls enough to go right up to the edge and look out over the rest of the mountain. “BETH!” he yelled, both hands cupped around his mouth. Josh paused, listening closely through the echoes of his own voice for any hint of a reply. When there was none, he tried again. “HANNAH!” He narrowed his eyes as though it would help him to hear more acutely, straining to make out any sort of sound below his call.

Nothing.

Just like every day before, just like every search before…

Nothing.

He could hear the others behind him, catching their breath, talking in hushed tones, and another flare of indignation heated his face. None of them—not a one of them—was taking this half as seriously as he was, and fuck was it beginning to show.

Misinterpreting his sudden silence as sadness (and understandably so), Chris made the final mistake. With a tone that wasn’t sympathetic so much as it was simpering, he took a step forward, putting himself closer to Josh, but still safely away from the cliff’s edge. “Hey, this was just stop number one, right? We got this. With everyone looking, we’re gonna find the girls in no time, and—”

It was exactly the wrong thing to say.

“Do you know,” Josh began, voice oddly calm, oddly steady, as he looked out at the expanse of mountains before them, “The likelihood…of finding missing people…after a week?” He didn’t turn to them, didn’t want to see their faces. “How about after just forty eight hours? Any ideas? Anyone? Bueller? Bueller?” He shook his head, suddenly very aware of the hot, heavy, angry tears beginning to well in his eyes, and did his best to scowl them away. “It’s not a fucking rescue mission anymore, you get that, right? It’s a goddamn recovery job. Have you seen any EMTs the past couple days? I sure haven’t! I have, though, seen those neat little vinyl bags everyone’s carrying around, and gee whiz, I sure wonder what those are for, don’t you guys?!” Then he did turn around, all but whirling to face them, arms spread wide, “They’re dead. They’re fucking dead. My sisters. Are dead.”

The three of them painted quite the picture: Ashley with her knuckles pressed hard to her mouth as she stared fixedly at her boots, Chris with his brow furrowed and lips tight in a show of concern that Josh was rapidly coming to despise, and Sam with her shoulders slumped and head cocked just to the side as though anticipating a blow. It was one of those rare, terrible moments where the reality of their adulthood throbbed and ached like an open wound, indisputable and undeniable.

They had been kids when the week had begun—granted, kids taking their first tentative steps towards independence—but whatever naivety they’d been clinging to was gone now, lost in the snowstorm, lost amid the trees, lost somewhere cold and dark and hidden in the mountains.

Sam stepped forward first, hand outstretched. “Josh…we don’t know that. They could still—”

He batted her hand away before it could reach him, and he brandished an accusatory finger her way. “We do know. We do, actually. Do you know how we know that, Samantha?” Eyes wide with righteous, burning fury, he stared her down until she averted her gaze. And so, in turn, he looked to the others, “Ashley? Christopher?” His voice was cloying, wavering, and just a bit too loud. “Oh come on now, people! I thought you were the smart ones!” There was an itching in his hands that was making them feel almost alien to him, and he quickly folded his arms and tucked his fingers away before he could lash out again. “Let’s go ahead and pretend it’s not freezing out here. Let’s go ahead and pretend Hannah had a fucking jacket when she ran out. Let’s go ahead and fucking pretend these woods weren’t full of mother…fucking…wolves. It’s been. A week since they’ve eaten. They’ve fucking starved, and they’re out there, somewhere, dead. My sisters are fucking DEAD!

For a moment, there was nothing but the sound of the wind screaming around them, serving as a ghastly sort of punctuation. When it quieted again, there was another sound, a new sound, soft and squeaky, but much too measured to be an animal.

Josh narrowed his eyes to little more than slits, taking a step towards the lot of them. “What? What did you just say?” Anger spiked in his stomach, tasting like old metal on the back of his tongue; he stormed forward until only a step or two from Ashley, openly shoving Chris’s shoulder when he made an attempt to hold him back. Looming over her, Josh put himself right up in Ashley’s face, angling his head to try and force her to look at him. “What. Did you. Just say. Ash?

Had she not been wearing gloves, they all would’ve seen the whiteness of her knuckles as she pressed them to her mouth, trying desperately to control the quivering of her lower lip. Ashley kept her eyes riveted on the ground, furiously blinking back tears as she avoided Josh’s gaze. “Three weeks…” she said, voice little more than a whisper over the wind. She wondered, somewhere in a deep, detached part of her mind, precisely how much of her shaking was due to the cold. “People can live…for closer to three weeks without food. So it’s…” she pulled her lower lip between her teeth. “It’s possible…”

“Yeah, see?” Chris finally spoke up, smile tentative and desperate. “We could still absolutely find them, Josh! They could definitely still be there, and with all the ground we’re covering, we’ll find them way before then.” The tension between them was choking, and he scrambled, trying to deescalate the situation the only way he’d ever known how. “For once, a writer’s questionable Google searching pays off!”

As though his head was on a swivel, Josh turned to Chris, incensed. “Do you think this is funny?

He seemed to crumple, if only slightly. “Josh…no, of course not. I just…” Chris opened his mouth and then shut it again, trying and failing to find the words. “I don’t think we should just throw in the towel and write them off as dead, man. Ash and Sam are right, the girls could still be fine, they could still be waiting for help, it’s totally possible.” Supplicating, he held his hands out, “And we’re here, and the search party’s here, and no one’s going to stop until they’re found.”

“Oh, good, what a relief. Here I was, starting to worry that maybe two underweight suburban girls lost in the bear-ridden mountains might be up shit creek without a paddle. But oh, we’ve got volunteers here, poking at the ground with sticks, so no, no, you’re right. They’re probably totally fine.”

“Bro, I just—”

“I’m not your bro!” Josh snapped, flinging his arms out to his sides. “Okay?! I’m not your fucking bro!

Chris’s face fell, but he said nothing.

“You know what? If you care so much about all this, if you care so much about my sisters, then like…where the fuck were you when everyone was pulling their shitty little prank, huh?” His anger was palpable, seeming to warm the air between them all. “What the fuck were you doing that was so important that you couldn’t stop that bullshit, huh?!”

Mouth opening and closing as he struggled for his words, Chris blinked in disbelief. “I was…dude I was out cold!”

“Yeah. Yeah you fucking were. A fat lot of help you are. What a good fucking friend.”

Chris gaped, absolutely unable to formulate any sort of response. It was Ashley who stepped in, surprising even herself. “So were you!” she said, voice growing nasally and high with stress. “Don’t yell at him for being knocked out, because you were too! And you’re their brother!” She noticeably gulped, but didn’t stop, when Josh angled himself back towards her. “If you can blame Chris, then you have to—”

“Oh, and now you’re going to start in on the blame game, huh? You sure you wanna do this right now, Ashley? You wanna do this like this? Okay. Okay, fine, let’s do it like this then.” Jaw clenched, Josh grimaced around the words. “Why the fuck are you even here, Ashley?” He cocked his head to the side as he moved in closer. “You didn’t even hang out with the girls. You weren’t even friends with them. Beth couldn’t fucking stand you, and honestly? I’m not sure even Hannah knew you were alive. And that’s fucking saying something.”

Her cheeks were bright with humiliation, but something had changed in Ashley. Whether it was Josh’s volume, his proximity, or his accusation, it was impossible to tell, but the anxious fear in her eyes was suddenly gone. Instead, her stare was almost as cold as the wind whipping their faces raw. To Sam, it was almost startlingly foreign, seeing that sort of firmness on Ashley’s face; the boys seemed much less surprised. It was just a bout of Ash Anger™—a cool fury that accompanied only the most serious of personal affronts. “I’m here to help you find them. Same as everyone else.” Her voice was clipped.

“Don’t pretend like you fucking give a shit—did you even like the girls?” He rounded on her again, all but screaming into her face. “God knows you were the only one here happy enough to join in on the reindeer games, so I’m gonna go with ‘no.’”

Chris cringed hard enough that he had a full-body reaction, subconsciously leaning himself away from the conflict. His eyes flicked from Josh to Ashley and back again but remained quiet. Years of experience had taught him there was no good way to intervene, not when the two of them really got down to brass tacks. It didn’t happen often, but when it did…Briefly, he glanced in Sam’s direction, trying to communicate with his eyes that this was decidedly not worth sticking her neck into.

Had Sam met his gaze, she probably wouldn’t have understood half of what he was trying to convey—it didn’t matter, though, as she found herself wrought to the spot where she stood, staring at Josh and Ashley with stunned silence. In all the time she’d known them, never once had she heard either of them raise their voice in anger, much less seen them posture as if they were going to start throwing punches. True, they had always been in the periphery of her social circle, more acquaintances than full-blown friends, but this? This was…startling, to say the very least.

For a moment, it seemed that Ashley had nothing to say. She just kept glaring up into Josh’s eyes, her lower lip beginning to push out into a childish moue, her hands tight fists at her sides. When she opened her mouth again, her tone was so sharp that Sam felt herself recoil, though it hadn’t been aimed at her. “What do you want me to say? I’m sorry? I’m sorry I was in the room, I’m sorry that I was there, I’ve told you that. I’ve told you that over, and over, and over again since that night, Josh.”

“‘Sorry’ doesn’t bring my fucking sisters back, Ashley.”

Something in her posture shifted, and she became all angles, poised and brittle like a shard of glass masquerading as ice. “No,” she agreed, voice threateningly low. “It won’t. But I can help look for them. I can help try to bring them back.”

Where Ashley’s fury was cold and solid, Josh’s seemed molten, the color rising in his face until his cheeks were nearly purple. “Maybe I don’t fucking want you here,” he spat, fingers trembling as he threw his arms out to his sides again. “Maybe I’d rather not look at your fucking face, did you think of that one? Did that little possibility ever fucking occur to you, Ashley?!”

“You know what? I am done with getting yelled at.” The words were spilling from her like vomit, her mouth numb from the freezing wind and her own overwhelming surge of emotion, and she found herself powerless to staunch the flow. “I told you I was sorry, but I know that doesn’t matter—know why it doesn’t matter? Because there was literally—literally!—nothing I could’ve done that night that would’ve been right, in your eyes. Nothing! If I built a freaking time machine and went back to that night, what would I do, Josh, what would I do? Would you want me to pass out shitfaced like you and Chris? Probably not, huh, since you’re pissed at him, too!” One of her arms shot out in Chris’s direction, but her eyes never left Josh’s. “Would you want me to run around the lodge, trying to find Hannah and warn her not to go downstairs? Because that’s what Sam did, and you’re just as mad at her!” She gestured towards Sam that time, each of her movements jerkier than the last. “Should I have run after them, Josh? Should I have run into the frigging storm with them? Would I have done the right thing then? Because I’d like to remind you, you could’ve done that once we woke you up, but you didn’t. You were the one who said they’d be fine, and that we should wait until morning. So you tell me, Josh, what should I have done?!

Sam did look to Chris then, searching for some kind of explanation or solace or assurance, but his eyes were firmly riveted to the ground, lest he accidentally make prolonged eye contact with either of the others.

The mountain was almost painfully quiet.

Josh’s eyes had narrowed to the point where he was all but squinting at her. He sucked a breath through his teeth, adam’s apple working furiously as he tamped down the tirade threatening to burst out of him. “You shouldn’t have come to the fucking party in the first place, is what you should’ve done. You should’ve stayed home, where you belong, away from other human beings, just the way you like it. Did I even invite you, Ashley, or did you just assume you were invited because Chris was coming?” He matched his tone to hers, punctuating the thought by curtly cocking his head to one side. “God knows no one else there was your friend. Not Jessica, not Matt, not Emily, not Mike, not Beth, not Hannah, not Sammy, none of them. So why the fuck did you even come?

The unflinching veneer she’d been fighting so hard to keep up finally cracked around her as he said it, her eyes red-rimmed and glassy with freshly welling tears she tried to blink back. “No,” she said softly, almost inaudible above the wind. “I wasn’t friends with them. But I’m friends with you.”

He bent down, putting his face close enough to hers that a passerby might’ve thought they were about to kiss. “Then. Fucking. Act. Like. It.”

A single, fat tear dropped from Ashley’s left eye, rolling down her cheek. A moment later, its twin fell from her right. Still, she didn’t break her gaze from Josh’s. They were both hurt, both angry—hell, furious—but it quickly became obvious that the scales were tipped differently between them. Swallowing hard, Ashley brought a balled fist up, scrubbing at her icy cheek before abruptly turning on her heel and heading back for the lodge. As she retreated, her shoulders seemed to pull impossibly inwards, as though she were willing her skeleton to collapse into itself.

Chris watched her walk away with his brows drawn up and together in concern. He squeezed his eyes shut and pushed his glasses up towards his forehead, pinching the bridge of his nose with his fingers before dropping both hands to his sides with a heavy breath.

Well?

He turned back, chest tightening at the expectant look on Josh’s face. “Well what?

Josh swept an arm out in Ashley’s direction, swiveling to lean in towards Chris. “Aren’t you gonna go chase after her?” There was another long, tenuous moment of silence as the wind whipped snowflakes in their faces. “You want to. And you always do. So what’re you even waiting for?” He put himself in Chris’s face in much the same way he had closed in on Ashley, and Sam was shocked when Chris actually took a step back.

Unlike Ashley, Chris found he wasn’t able to maintain eye contact for too long; he looked up and away, though his view couldn’t have been more than the unforgiving, grey expanse of sky above them. “Josh…” he said finally, shaking his head almost imperceptibly.

In response, he simply jerked his arm in the direction of the lodge again, “Running out of time, Cochise. At this rate, you’re gonna have to jog to catch up, and that’s not a great look, is it? How often do you see the valiant hero scuttle after his distressed lady love, huh?”

Chris heaved a heavy, silent sigh, but said nothing, opting instead to continue staring pointedly at the sky. Sam had the strangest, most inappropriate feeling that this was as close as she would get in her lifetime to witnessing a public execution. Something in Chris’s expression hinted at the desperation of a man standing at the gallows, ticking down the seconds until his own beheading.

“What are you waiting for?” Josh continued, cocking his head to the side again as he kept his eyes directly on Chris, the gesture somehow strangely confrontational. “I’m sure it’s eating you up inside, knowing poor, sad lil’ Ash is crying. Again. Like always.” He jutted his lower lip out in a mockery of her earlier pout, gaze still frigid as he made loud, dramatic blubbering noises. “So go on. Go on. Go run after her like you always do. Be the big man and comfort your not-girlfriend, and reassure her that it’s no big deal that she helped get my little sisters fucking killed, because hey, we all have bad days, right? We all make bad judgment calls sometimes! We all kill our friends’ siblings on occasion, don’t we?”

More silence. The seconds seemed to stretch on like hours between them, made syrupy and thick by the cold.

But slowly, just as Ashley had, Chris let his eyes drop back to the ground, and he followed after her. He kept his pace even and measured, if not particularly brisk, to save himself the indignity of actually running after her, but he could still feel Josh’s gaze drilling holes into the back of his skull. Chris shoved his hands into his pockets and hunched himself against the cold, calling after her only once.

Sam hugged her arms around herself, palms cupping her elbows as she watched them disappear down the snowy path. While his back was to her, she couldn’t help but turn her attention to Josh, watching him carefully. This was the sort of situation she usually excelled at—offering the right words at the right time, sympathetically smiling or frowning when it was most needed—but when he swiveled and his attention was on her, she found herself at a loss. She continued to watch him appraisingly, lips slightly parted as she tried to find something, anything, to say. Her mouth was dry and her throat was tight; she had just seen Josh decimate his two best friends, and she knew perfectly well that whatever he launched at her, she would not be half so prepared for.

He narrowed his eyes, giving her a quick, almost uninterested once-over before his upper lip curled in a grimace. “The fuck are you still doing here?” he asked. Most of the venom was gone, leaving his tone bizarrely flat. Sam wasn’t the only one surprised by that, but Josh didn’t let it show. Instead, he flicked his wrist again in the direction of the lodge. “Get out of my face.”

There was a sudden spark of something (not anger, not really, but close), maybe indignation, at his flippant dismissal. Sam felt a spike of it in her gut, fraught with the sudden urge to scream at him: Do you think you’re the only one? Do you think you’re the only person who’s been devastated by this? Are you going to stand there and act like you’re the only one who lost two people who meant everything to them?

But she didn’t. Sam didn’t say a word. Instead, she regarded him for a long moment, trying to keep her breath even against the pounding of her heart. And then she turned and started for the lodge. She shot one last look over her shoulder, watching as Josh disappeared behind a particularly large tree, feeling her eyes prickle with cold and tears. Sucking her upper lip into her mouth, Sam bit down, trying to concentrate on anything other than the black hole in her chest. Everything sucked, everything hurt, and while she understood implicitly that Josh’s loss was unspeakable, it wasn’t fair that he was acting as though she didn’t care. Hannah had been her best friend since they’d met, freshman year. Beth too. It was like someone had punched their way into her ribs, grabbed hold, and torn all of her insides out…it was like she was suddenly trying to breathe water that had started to freeze over. How Josh, of all people, couldn’t see that, she wasn’t sure.

She was so absorbed in her own thoughts that she almost didn’t notice she had gained on the other two. Chris and Ashley, it seemed, had been waiting for her. Sam paused a few yards from them, the realization taking her aback for a moment. When she matched stride with them, it was Chris who spoke first.

“You okay?” Her expression must’ve been more severe than she’d intended, because he immediately backpedaled. “I mean…considering.” As a distraction, he flipped the hood of his jacket up, angling his path just enough to afford Sam space to walk between him and Ashley.

Under their feet, the snow crunched loudly.

***

Monday, February 10, 2014
11:30pm

Josh had been turning his phone over in his hands for the better part of the past two hours, staring blankly at his ceiling. There was a restless energy in his legs that he’d been growing accustomed to over the past few months. It was a side effect of upping his dose, and one of the more palatable ones, but at that moment it made it very difficult for him to parse out how much of the thrumming in his extremities was due to medication and how much was due to feeling like a complete and utter fuckwit.

He had to imagine that it was mostly the latter. Mostly. He had, after all, been something of a colossal dick.

Had the others had it coming? Maybe. Had he been distressed? Definitely. Had he been justified in blowing his top like that? Mmm…jury was still out on that one, but things were looking like they’d probably be voting ‘no.’

When the lodge had been full of everyone and their mothers (quite literally), it had somehow been easier for him to isolate himself. Now that he was, for all intents and purposes, actually on his own, the others back in school and out of the snow, Josh was finding it almost impossible to stop thinking about that last conversation. It was impossible to stop thinking about a lot of things, really. His worry over the girls had turned into full-blown nauseous terror, and every time his mind brushed against that particular line of thought, he realized there was nothing he wanted more than to reach out to someone—anyone—who wasn’t his mother. Now that they were gone, he just wanted to sit with Chris and Ashley, he wanted to talk to Sam, he wanted to hear them reassure him it would be all right and shit would work out and that he wasn’t alone in this. There was nothing he hated more than feeling like he was alone.

It didn’t help that his phone had buzzed once every eight hours or so with a new message from Chris. Each time he checked to see what the newest message said, he felt his stomach clench with a sick combination of discomfort and guilt.

The first flurry had come only a few hours after he’d exploded at the three of them, likely once they’d reached the base of the mountain or gotten onto their bus.

cochise

hey so i just wanted to say sorry about earlier. and like everything else. i really hope you guys find beth and hannah soon cuz like you WILL find them but idk this isn’t coming out how i wanted

uh just really hope you’re ok and i know you’re pissed and you have every right to be but i'm here whenev ok?

It was his modus operandi: Responding to being wronged by trying harder to be a better friend. One of these days, Josh thought, that particular brand of loyalty was going to get Chris in trouble.

The second had come later that night:

cochise

back home and heading to campus

i'll take econ notes for you no worries there and lmk if you won’t be making it to bio lab on fri so i can get you that stuff too

phone’s gonna be on all night

 And then even later:

cochise

sorry for all the spam but fr are you ok?

He sighed and tossed his phone a few inches into the air, watching it tumble down before he caught it. He always had such grand plans when he was on his bullshit. Usually they amounted to ‘give everyone the cold shoulder until they realize how much they miss me,’ and usually he ended up feeling like an ass about it after a day. Or in this case, two days. A day and a half? He had lasted longer than he usually did, that much was for sure.

For what felt like the millionth time that night, he swiped to unlock his phone screen, opening up his texts. The words still weren’t coming to him…not in the way he wanted them to, at least. Short of writing out a play-by-play of everything he’d said and done wrong, followed by a stomach-turning description of each and every sordid emotion he’d been dealing with during that week, he wasn’t sure he was going to be able to provide a satisfactory apology.

Ugh. But he needed to. And wanted to. And that was the most frustrating part of it all.

He tapped out of Chris’s text thread, and instead opened the group text with him and Ashley. The cursor in the message box blinked mockingly up at him and he stared back at it.

He tapped out of the group text again.

Letting his phone drop onto his chest, he reached up to cover his face with his hands, groaning loudly into the chilly air of his bedroom. They still hadn’t found the girls. He’d been forced to start coming to terms with the horrible, impossible, devastating possibility that they might never find the girls. It didn’t make sense, and it seemed as though that sort of thing didn’t happen in the 21st century, and yet there he was, realizing that he had begun referring to Hannah and Beth in past tense over the last two days.

How did one explain that to their friends? How did one find the words to describe the complexities of sibling dynamics and attachments to a bunch of only children? How?

Josh picked his phone up with a new resoluteness, creating a new conversation entirely. He typed in three contact names before starting to type, refusing to let himself back down again.

3 People

hey so…sorry about all that before

i know i said some unfair shit to all of u and that wasnt cool at all

and i know u guys have been trying to help and i appreciate that

really

obviously shit sucks

and i was…fucking pissed

still am tbh…but not AT u guys

just in general

if that makes sense

i hope everyones back home and idk thawed out lol

fr tho im sorry about the other day and linda and i really appreciate u stickin around for as long as u did to help

cant speak for bob but…no one speaks for that bald fuck lol

Staring at the screen, he tried to think of something else to say, but came up dry. He flipped the phone over so he wouldn’t have to see their replies right away, setting it down on his mattress. This was the worst part of any apology: waiting for the reaction.

Unsurprisingly, he didn’t have to wait too long before the space next to him began buzzing. Josh continued to stare at his ceiling for another minute or two, counting out a fair number of Mississippi’s in his head before picking it back up to see what had been said.

3 People

cochise
dude omg it’s fine
this is hard shit man
emotions are high
ashley

He watched warily as Ashley’s name popped up on screen, looming over the ticking ellipsis that signified she was typing something. It disappeared. It came back. It disappeared again. It came back again. Josh took in a deep, apprehensive breath.

3 People

sammy
Josh…everyones going thru a lot
Things were bound to get tense after all that time cooped up in the lodge together
We just want you and Hannah and Beth and your parents to be ok thats all
ashley

Ashley and her dots were back again, and gone again, and back again. He knew implicitly that one of two things was happening: Either she was writing a fucking twenty page novel of a response, or she was pissed enough that she kept deleting whatever she had been planning on saying.

Honestly, he wasn’t sure which he’d prefer.

3 People

cochise
yeah we totally get it bro
also uh hi i'm assuming that was just sam
sammy
Yup its me
I’m gonna go ahead and assume from all the bros that youre chris and not ashley
cochise
hey ash can bro it up w the best of em
you should hear her when she’s on a roll
but yeah like sam said we just wanna know you’re ok
ashley
Yeah, what Sam said.
cochise
you ok? ok-ish?

He sighed and rolled his eyes back into his head before collecting himself, rolling his shoulders out to exorcise some of the tension he’d been holding there.

3 People

i feel like a fucking asshole
cochise
yeah ok but like how is that different from any other day
ooooh
need some ice for that sick burn?????
nah son im frosty the snowman up on this mountain
gonna have to do better than that
cochise
challenge accepted
sammy
Phew glad we were able to escape talking about human feelings for more than ten seconds there
That was awful close
Nice save boys

It was a start. And he’d take it.


***

Tuesday, February 11, 2014
4:05am

Josh woke from an uneasy sleep with sweat dripping down his face and a song stuck in his head. Some stupid, childish nursery rhyme…It had been part of a video he couldn’t quite remember the name of, but which he and the girls must’ve watched hundreds of times growing up; the sort of sing-along dreck that parents threw on during long car rides or rainy days to keep the kids out of their hair. It clicked into place after a second—it was the song that the girls’ music boxes played, the ones he’d gotten them for Christmas a million years ago. As he lay in bed, eyes screwed shut, raking his fingers up into his hair, Josh strained to remember the words that accompanied the melody.

But as hard as he tried, his sleep-addled brain could only produce a detached snippet: Morning bells are ringing…morning bells are ringing…It was stuck on a loop, like an old CD with a scratch repeating over and over and over until he thought his head might burst open. And though he couldn’t remember the rest, something about those morning bells immediately set off warning bells.

Jolting bolt upright, he tore free of his sheets and heavy comforter, the sweat from his dreams now icy in the morning air. Bizarre dreams were a side effect of his meds, so it was nothing new. That was one of the pitfalls with antidepressants, he’d learned…no one told you about the weird side effects until you woke up in the middle of the night, positive that there were millipedes in your pillow. He groaned, shuddering the nervous energy out of his arms and shoulders.

Morning bells are ringing, morning bells are ringing…

For a moment, and only just a moment, an image had occurred to him. It had come from the fuzzy place between sleep and waking, where everything felt at once too real and not at all solid, but the details were too vivid for him to write off as some sort of nightmarish hallucination.

His vision had been obscured by…something. He’d only been able to see a sliver of whatever was happening, and there had been a voice…

Josh swung his legs over the side of the bed, dropping his head into his hands as he screwed his eyes shut tightly. This wasn’t happening. It was just a nightmare—just a stupid nightmare brought on by the stress of everything going on. He just needed to lie back down and go back to sleep. Maybe take one of his mom’s sleeping pills, drape a heavy blanket over the window, or…God, what he really needed to do was get that fucking song out of his head.

Morning bells are ringing, morning bells are ringing…

He blinked hard, the shapes in his room coming into clearer focus. With a jerky motion, he flipped his pillow over, feeling childish as he did it. It had either been his mom or Colleen who had always said nightmares could be fended off by the cool side of the pillow, but he couldn’t remember which. A lot of his Mom-memories were like that, split evenly between the two. It didn’t matter. He laid his head back down on the pillow, exhaling deeply as he attempted to find a comfortable spot again. Just a few more hours of sleep…he just needed a few more hours of sleep…

The first line of the song came to him then with sudden, horrible clarity.

Are you sleeping? Are you sleeping?

His eyes snapped open. All at once, everything came crashing into place: He was in the kitchen, lying flat on the table, head buried in his arms, only something…someone was yanking at his shoulder hard enough to stir him. The cold sweat was back with a vengeance, serving as a nauseating counterpoint to the brutal heat flaring in his stomach and the base of his throat. He didn’t want to remember anymore, didn’t want to think on it, but he had already opened the floodgates, and the images just kept pouring out. It was the table he had seen, mostly, but also a pair of black leggings and the hemline of an oversized, fuzzy grey sweater. He had been dizzy even in his burgeoning consciousness, but even so, the panic in the other’s voice rang out clearly.

“Shit shit shit…Josh, Josh come on .”

No. Nonononono, he didn’t want this. He didn’t want any part of this—he wanted to lie down and drift back to sleep, he wanted to wake up in the morning and convince himself that this was just another dream, he wanted the song out of his head.

Are you sleeping? Are you sleeping?

It played over and over again, repeating onto itself until it may as well have been a chorus of voices singing it. Each time it began again, the words became a little more frantic, a little more high-pitched, and each time, they sounded a little more like Beth.

“You’re still sleeping?! Ugh! Fuck!”

Josh tried to breathe, but the air he pulled into his lungs felt like scratchy pink insulation clogging his lungs and throat. This was it. This was what he had been trying so hard to ignore, as though pretending it away would mean that it hadn’t happened or that it wasn’t real or that it was just some shitty Silent Hill knockoff manifestation of his guilt.

He’d heard her. He’d heard her, and seen her, and felt her, but he had been so fucking sloshed—more to the point, he’d been fucking drinking on his meds, and he knew he wasn’t supposed to do that shit. He had known they didn’t mix, but he had still just gone whole hog with it, not realizing until he was already lying on top of the table that it had been a mistake, and then…

Fuck.

Fuck.

The song kept winding its way around his brain, quieting only as he woke up all the way. The words had turned and warped in on themselves until all he could hear was Beth’s panicked voice above the infantile melody.

You’re still sleeping, you’re still sleeping…

Chapter Text

Friday, February 14, 2014
4:25pm

“Well shoot. What’s a pretty young thang like you doing in a place like this?”

Sam felt her entire body cringe at the comment. She found herself sorely wishing that she had put both of her earbuds in while she waited for the bus, if only so she could pretend she hadn’t heard that travesty of a pickup line. Instinctively, her lips tightened into a defensive grimace, but when she actually glanced up from her phone, she groaned audibly. “Is this how you get your kicks? Huh? Antagonizing women at bus stops?”

There was a heavy thunk as Chris unceremoniously dropped his bag next to her on the bench. “I mean…I also like to code and stuff. Maybe play some Mario Kart. Definitely enjoy going hogwild on some Taco Bell from time to time…but actually…now that you mention it…I guess pickin’ up hot babes on public transportation does rank pretty high up on my kicks list, yeah.” He flashed her a grin before sitting down on the other side of his bag. “Not that like, you’re hot or anything,” he added, making a grand show of pretending to be flustered, fingers curling around imaginary pigtails as he avoided meeting her eyes.

“Eh, don’t worry about it.” Sam primly crossed one leg over the other as she looked back down at her phone, scrolling through her music. Quirking an eyebrow, she offered him a sly sidelong glance, “You’re not really my type, anyway.”

“Tell me honestly…is it the nose?”

“Mmm…it’s the nerd, actually.”

“You would not believe how many people tell me that. Usually while I’m trying to pick them up at bus stops, no less.” Chris chuckled to himself before checking his watch. “How long you been waiting all by your lonesome?”

She snickered, finally turning her music off to give him her full attention. “Not too long,” she said as she stowed her earbuds in the front zipper of her bag. “Maybe an hour? Hour and a half? I don’t have Friday classes, so it wasn’t a huge deal.”

“Ah,” he nodded sagely. He had eased himself down into a comfortable slouch atop the bench, but every few seconds, he would crane his head this way or that to try and get a better view of the bus station. To Sam, he didn’t look entirely unlike one of those anxious meerkats from the Animal Planet specials—scanning, scanning, scanning for any sign of movement.

Not one to deprive herself of such entertainment, Sam sat back comfortably, watching Chris become increasingly more agitated. She nestled herself into the divot of her own bag, setting her cheek against her hand like an enraptured moviegoer. Just as the thought God I wish I had some popcorn occurred to her, Chris seemed to realize he was being watched; his brow creased when he took in her shit-eating grin.

“What’s that look about?”

Still slyly smiling, Sam shrugged and averted her eyes. “Nothin’,” she said, voice just a skosh too bubbly to be genuine. Examining her nails with all the subtlety of a Saturday morning cartoon villain, she added, “You uh…you looking for someone?”

Chris opened his mouth to answer her before it clicked. Sam watched with nothing short of juvenile glee as his confusion morphed into exasperation—it was like watching his face go through all seven stages of grief in the blink of an eye. “Oh. Oh great. Now I have to worry about you pulling that shit too, huh?”

“Hey,” she started defensively, still laughing to herself. “I think it’s cute.”

“Mhm. I’m sure you do.” He rolled his eyes, turning to look around the bus station again before catching himself. As though to spite Sam, he kept himself from the compulsion. Despite his best efforts, he felt his face growing hotter the longer she stared back at him with that look on her face. “Okay, know what, maybe I’ll just catch the next bus and meet up with you guys later tonight, instead.”

That only made her smile wider. She didn’t think she had the words to explain it just then, but there was something about being able to laugh at all, after what the past two weeks had been like. Exhilarating wasn’t quite the right word, but it was close. Refreshing, maybe. Either way, it had the same effect of taking a sip of water and realizing you’d been parched for as long as you could remember—it was good. It was good and she needed it. “No, really, I’m being serious. You two are very, very cute together. I’d even go so far as to say you’re adorable.”

“Cool. Great. Sweet. Okay, so like I said, thinkin’ real hard about just catching that next bus, so if you’ll excuse me…”

Though she knew it was all for show, she pinched Chris’s sleeve between her fingers as he made to stand up, tugging him back down. “Message received. I’ll drop it, I promise!” When his eyebrows shot up in doubt, she snorted, “I promise! Look, I’ll do you one better, actually, and I won’t even bring up the point that it’s Valentine’s Day.”

It was the sort of teasing he was used to, and admittedly it was much easier to stomach than the perpetual gut-punch of discomfort that had been hanging over their heads; for that reason, Chris did his best to pretend it was the cold (and not the prickles of embarrassment) that made him zip his jacket up another few inches. “Gee, thanks,” he jokingly sneered, flinging his arm around wildly until she released his sleeve. “What a pal you are.” Sam laughed again, and he couldn’t help but chuckle quietly as well. It was fucking contagious, is what it was, even if it was at his expense. “But you like…you get that we’re not…we’re…I mean…” He resisted the urge to bite his own tongue. “We’re just friends.”

“Uh huh.” Sam’s smile was wide with amused disbelief.

“This is the last time I try picking up chicks at the bus stop, Mary Mother of God—”

“Nonono, I hear you! I hear you.” She reached out and placed a comforting hand on Chris’s shoulder. Looking up at him, she nodded with a mock seriousness. “Definitely just friends.”

“Who’s friends?”

They both turned to the sound of the voice, but not before Chris physically felt about ten years drain from his life.

Face flushed from the cold, clearly harried, Ashley braced her hands against the back of their bench, smiling tightly as she caught her breath. “Sorry I’m late—Mom got stuck in traffic.” She breathed a sigh of relief when a cursory glance showed her the bus wasn’t even close yet. “Who’re we talking about?”

“No one,” Chris said, maybe just a second too quickly. He momentarily shot Sam an appraising look, trying to determine whether or not she’d set him up for that, if she’d spotted Ashley from out of the corner of her eye or something. Her secret little smile suggested she had been caught just as off her guard as he’d been, though. “God, did you run here?”

“I wasn’t sure if I was gonna make it! Ugh…” She perked up suddenly, holding a finger up in the universal sign for ‘hold up just a sec,’ flipping the top of her messenger bag open and rummaging around inside. “Uh, I feel like…I should provide some context for this,” she muttered, looking down at something neither Sam nor Chris could see. “Okay, so my mom’s department sometimes gets stuff from textbook publishers to try and get more business, and sometimes they get, uh, creative, so…” There was a rustle as she pulled a sizeable paper sack out from her bag, holding it out to the both of them. “Happy Valentine’s Day? I guess?”

Sam suspiciously looked up at her, then to Chris—who was, she noted, back to being perfectly mortified—then slowly lowered her hand into the bag. She pulled out a heart-shaped lollipop, wrapped in an obnoxiously bright green square of plastic. “Oooh, going old school on us, huh?”

Happy Valentine’s to the World’s Best Professor,” Chris read aloud from the back of the wrapper. He raised an eyebrow quizzically. “Why, Sam…I had no idea.”

“That’s Doctor Sam to you,” she joked, quickly (and surreptitiously) glancing over the ingredients before tearing the wrapper open. “Thanks, Ash! I’m sure we’ll make short work of these.”

I’m not,” Ashley sighed, looking down into the bag. “There’re like…a hundred. She insisted I bring them, so…”

“Okay, well…this is embarrassing. I had been planning on waiting until we got to the lodge, but…” Chris sighed and unzipped his own bag, reaching in and pulling out what appeared to be a large dome of tinfoil.

The sucker rolled in her mouth as she twisted her fingers around its stick, watching Chris with a furrowed brow. Her eyes zipped over to Ashley’s, searching for some kind of answer there. “If that’s full of World’s Best Professor candy too, I need you to know I’m genuinely going to lose my shit.”

“I’d appreciate it if you could keep it contained, actually. Honestly, I think I speak for all of us when I say you should probably keep your shit to yourself.” He peeled back a corner of the tinfoil, revealing a plate stacked high with thick cookies. “Stopped by my parents’ place on the way up here, and surprise, Ma had these waiting.”

There was a happy gasp from behind them as Ashley immediately took a cookie, biting into it with the sort of rapture usually only seen in third graders on pizza day. “You win,” she said through a mouthful, “You absolutely win.”

“I wasn’t aware Valentine’s Day was a competitive holiday, but I mean…I’ll take it, I guess.”

A loud chug signaled the arrival of the bus, as well as the rustling of Valentine’s goodies being wrapped up again. Nearly in unison, the three moaned like zombies, heaving their weighty bags up onto their shoulders, preparing to climb in. The hydraulic hiss of the doors sounded, the panel folding inwards to let them on, and they exchanged quick, hesitant glances before Sam took the initiative and marched forward first. Something about the bus felt menacing this time around; they all knew why, of course, but it was still jarring how very quickly they had gone from palling around to staring in grim resignation. They had allowed themselves a bubble of normalcy, a fleeting moment where they could relax and breathe and pretend everything was as it had always been.

That bubble had sprung a leak the moment the bus had arrived—it popped entirely when Sam paused in front of the driver to say, “We’ll be needing to get off at Blackwood Pines.” She smiled a tight-lipped wince over her shoulder to the others before making her way down the narrow aisle of the bus. She tossed her bag into a seat about two-thirds of the way back, predicting (correctly) that Chris and Ashley would take their own row. “So…” she started, making herself a comfortable little nest out of her jacket as she settled into her window seat. “I take it your mom’s a holiday baker then, Chris?”

“Huh? Oh. Pfft, hardly.” Letting Ashley wriggle into the row before him, Chris turning around to face Sam. “She’s more of a ‘day-ends-in-y’ baker.” He rolled his eyes. “An emotional baker, if you will. A bored baker. Some people clean when they’re stressed, some people smoke, some people jog—”

Directly in front of Sam, Ashley clucked her tongue. “Yes, please list everything people do when stressed out. It’s like…super enlightening.”

“Well, if you hadn’t interrupted me…anyway. Some people write angsty poetry, some—” Mid-sentence, Ashley reached over and zipped his jacket up the rest of the way, the collar obscuring the lower half of his face and muffling his words. Chris was undeterred, though, and continued listing things off, using his fingers to count all the different activities he mumbled through. He laughed before unzipping himself, “She bakes a lot, is the moral of the story. A lot.”

“I’m not complaining.” Ashley was already bent over double, digging around in Chris’s bag on the floor. When she sat back up, she had a second cookie at the ready. “Seriously, she could sell her stuff.”

“Hey, do you mind, Snoop-lock Holmes? Maybe I got private shit in there that I don’t want you poking around.”

“Oh, I’m sorry, are you worried I’m gonna get fingerprints on your Yu-Gi-Oh cards?”

“Maybe I am.”

To Sam, it sounded like an old conversation—the sort played through hundreds of times in hundreds of slightly different ways, the sort she’d shared with Hannah. As far as she could tell, her smile didn’t flinch even as that hollow spot in her chest cramped up, but she knew it was time for her to phase into the background. She took her earphones out of her front zipper again, plugging them into her phone and popping the buds into her ears. Her finger was hovering over her screen when she realized she was being looked at, and she glanced back up to find Chris offering her the plate. “Oh—I’m good, thanks.”

“For real?” he asked, waving it back and forth in a tantalizing way. “It’s a long driiiiive…”

Ashley made a small sound of surprise as the bus lurched under them, beginning their trek up to the mountains. “Vegan,” she annunciated the word very carefully, clearly teasing him. “Remember?”

His forehead wrinkled for a second. “Okay, obviously there’s not meat in—oh. Eggs. Shit. Aw man, I’m sorry Sam.”

She laughed and pulled her sucker out of her mouth to brandish it. “It’s cool. World’s Best Professor, remember? I’m all set.” Part of her wanted to go into the whole spiel she always had at the ready, the one meant to reassure everyone that no, it was totally cool that they forgot, not everyone understood what was or wasn’t vegan, blah-blah-blah…and found she didn’t have the energy for it. Not even a little. She’d been okay for a few minutes, there, and then she’d remembered why they were all meeting up, and suddenly she was plunged back into the existential dread she’d been contending with since the night of the prank. Well…it had been fun while it lasted. Sam glanced back down at her phone, scrolled through her considerable collection of music, and then decided against it. Instead, she leaned back against the headrest and closed her eyes, hoping that simply having her earbuds in would be enough of a social cue to keep Chris or Ashley from trying to engage her again until she’d managed to shake off the funk she was feeling.

The trip up to the mountains was a long one. In the good old days, it was the sort of ‘long’ jam-packed with Christmas morning excitement, everyone ready to see the sights, catch some skiing, maybe get cozy in front of one of the lodge’s gorgeous fireplaces. This, however, was not one of the good old days, and accordingly, every minute spent being jostled by the bus felt like twenty years spent in a dentist’s chair.

Tired as they were, none of them could even come close to napping. Sam remained curled up to herself, absently listening to the inconsequential small-talk going on in front of her. She could only understand so much of it, really, and that sent another pang of sadness aching through her gut; it was friend-language, made up of shared experience and inside jokes, referencing contexts she’d never be fully aware of. She’d had one of those too, once. Now it was as dead as Latin. Candy long-since melted away, she gnawed at the papery stick of her lollipop, trying desperately to find another train of thought.

If Sam had thought that things were better in the row ahead of her, she was wrong. An uncomfortable silence had fallen between Chris and Ashley once they’d run out of stories about what so-and-so had done during study hall, or the mystery objects found in the dorm bathroom that week. The closer they got to the mountains, the steeper the incline of the road beneath them became, the more agitated the two seemed to grow. Apropos of nothing, Chris took a heavy breath. “I just…” he muttered, only barely loud enough that Ashley could hear him from over the rumbling of the bus’s motor. “I can’t shake this feeling that like…he doesn’t want us there. Here. You know.” He dropped his head into his hands, pressing the pads of his fingers hard into his forehead as he thought.

Ashley did know. It had been the only thing they’d been talking about for days, leading up to the return trip. She leaned her temple against the window, her vision jittering with the bus’s vibrations while she mulled over her words. Broaching the topic of Josh was always a risky venture with Chris. The past few months, maybe even the past year, if she was being entirely honest with herself, it seemed like there were increasingly fewer things she could say about Josh (or even related to Josh) that wouldn’t make Chris exceedingly uncomfortable. Maybe that was what divorcing parents felt like when talking to their kids. She didn’t like that particular line of thought. “It’ll probably be less awkward when everyone else comes on Saturday.”

He blew a derisive puff of breath through his teeth, shaking his head. “Yeah, I’m sure things will get way better when they show. If they show.” Straightening back up, he hunched himself down into his seat more comfortably. “Funerals are always better when someone’s blasting Katy Perry’s entire discography from their phone on an endless loop.”

Managing a tired smile, she swiveled her head back from the window. “It’s not a funeral.”

“Not officially.” But it was. It was and they all knew that, somewhere deep inside of themselves. Every day spent up at the lodge was a day spent in some degree of mourning. The forestry service had already announced that finding the girls was no longer a matter of rescue, but of recovery, and there was no denying what that meant. They’d be returning to the lodge to help search the grounds, sure, but mostly they’d be doing everything in their power to keep Josh’s mind off of the royal clusterfuck enveloping his family. No rescue. Just recovery. “I wish they weren’t coming, you know? It’s going to be hard enough with just us. I don’t get why they’re coming back at all—if I pulled something like that, I’d do my best to drop off the face of the planet for the next decade or so.”

Ashley rolled her eyes and looked up at him, expression positively dripping distaste. “Oh, I’m sure that Emily’s doing it out of the goodness of her heart.” She paused, pulling her lower lip into her mouth for a moment. “That wasn’t fair,” she sighed, squeezing her eyes shut. “Ugh. That was…that was bitchy.”

So bitchy.” The mockery in Chris’s tone was obvious, but when Ashley glared over at him, he stuck his tongue out at her for good measure. “Look, you’re preaching to the choir here. My professional opinion? Fuck Emily, and fuck Jessica. They’re the ones who caused this. They’re the ones who had to go and pick on Hannah, and now we’re the ones getting saddled with the emotional fallout. So yeah, fuck them.”

It was a conversation they’d had a few times before (usually in the dead of night when neither could sleep, squinting against the too-bright light of their phones as their fingers tapped away), but something about the repetition felt almost comforting. “Jess really isn’t that bad, you know…” she muttered, branching off from their well-practiced dialogue. “She can be pretty nice—”

“Uh huh,” Chris interjected. “Real nice.”

She felt a slight spike of defensiveness despite knowing full well that, were the shoe on the other foot, chances were…slim that Jessica would stick up for her. Ashley had already decided to let it go before she opened her mouth again, one corner of her lips tightening ever so slightly as she added, “She’s at least the lesser of two evils.”

Evil!” The clap was muted by Chris’s gloves, but Ashley jumped all the same. “That’s the word I was looking for: Evil. They’re evil. Thank you, Ash.” It was a joke, of course, but only just. In high school, Emily and Jessica had been in different years than him—had been in different circles than him, more importantly—yet there was no escaping social osmosis. He had known all he’d needed to know about them before the prank, and now? Yeah, they hadn’t precisely proven him wrong. Chris turned back to Ashley just in time to watch as, without warning, her eyes widened to the size of dessert plates. “What?” he asked, and then, for no real reason he could place, he lowered his voice and tried again. “What?

Moving as casually as she was able, Ashley turned to steal a peek through the gap between their chairs to the row behind them, where Sam was sitting. Thankfully, she was just staring intently out the window towards the mountain, her earbuds in. Ashley shot Chris a brief, relieved look, gesturing to Sam with only her eyes before righting herself in her seat. “I keep forgetting,” she said, voice only just above a whisper. “She’s like…friends with Emily. Right?”

Once the dread of realization passed, Chris’s lip curled. “I don’t get how anyone could be friends with Emily, but…”

She sighed quietly, nudging his arm with her elbow. “People say the same thing about you.”

“No they don’t.”

“They do,” she stated matter-of-factly, plucking one of the cookies from the plate balanced on the top of his bag. “All the time, actually.”

“Pfft. Yeah. Sure. Okay.” He took a cookie as well, gesturing with it like a professor with a laser pointer. “The fact remains, though. Emily Davis does not have friends. She has accessories.” Taking a dramatic bite out of his cookie, Chris shrugged. “Man, how Mike puts up with her, I don’t even know.”

In response, Ashley simply made a low sound of disgust. She let her eyes move back to the scenery zipping past the bus in an attempt to hide her scowl.

It didn’t work (with Chris, it very rarely did), and he spread his arms as wide as the aisle would let him. “Oh come on, what did Mike ever do to you? He’s…” he struggled for a moment, “…okay. He’s okay. Maybe kind of—”

“Full of himself?” she offered, “Arrogant? Self-obsessed? He thinks he’s God’s gift to women, and let me tell you, if that’s the case, I’d really appreciate a gift receipt.”

“Wow. Just…wow.”

She sank lower into her seat, setting her cheek against one of her shoulders. “He knew how much Hannah liked him, Chris. He knew. And he knew what the others wanted to do, and he knew how mean it was, and he did it anyway.” Her brow creased bitterly, and she couldn’t help the shiver of discomfort that danced its way up her spine and down the backs of her arms. Absently, she reached up to rub at them, hoping she just looked cold to him. “Can you imagine knowing there was someone who thought the world of you, and then you just…turn around and betray them like that?”

The shudder, it seemed, was contagious. Chris readjusted himself awkwardly in his seat, pointedly looking straight ahead towards the front of the bus, lest he risk catching her eye. “No,” he said quietly, after a time. “I can’t.”

Ashley tugged her hood up, if only to give her hands something to do. “At least Matt’s not too bad.”

“Ugh.”

“What? Matt’s a sweetie.”

“Yeah, he’s real sweet. I’m sure Hannah thinks so too.”

She cast her eyes down to the ground and folded her hands in her lap, tangling and untangling her fingers in anxious knots. “You know, I was part of it too,” she muttered. “I was there, same as them.”

“It’s not the same. Don’t lump yourself in with them. That was completely different, Ash.”

For a long moment, she just kept staring down at her hands. She blinked slowly before speaking again. “How?

Chris clapped his hands together again, “Okay, know what I just realized we need to talk about? Literally anything other than this.”

Though she’d missed some of it due to the muting of her earbuds, Sam had heard enough to bristle. Not that she blamed them. She didn’t approve, either, of course, but it would’ve been a lie to say she hadn’t entertained a fair number of similar thoughts, of late. Every time she saw a phone notification or a post on her feed, or anything relating to any of the Blackwood gang, it had been accompanied by a churning in her stomach. The rational part of her brain knew that what had happened had just been an unfortunate series of events leading to a horrible accident…

But unfortunately for everyone involved, the rational part of her brain wasn’t really behind the steering wheel anymore. Now it was the emotional part holding the reins, laying blame on everyone between episodes of flogging itself with regrets. That included Chris and Ashley. And, though she was loathe to admit it, maybe Josh, too. Definitely herself. Her best friends were dead, and there was more than enough blame to go around. She knew it wasn’t fair. She knew it wasn’t right. Everyone was hurting, everyone felt bad, there were no winners in this situation.

Yet she kept finding herself hearing snatches of these conversations, kept getting saddled with the preposterous feelings that she was standing on the sidelines and waiting to see whether she’d get pulled onto the team or not. It was a sad reminder that she was the outsider, now. She might’ve been on the bus with them, and she might’ve had a new group text with them, but Josh and Chris and Ashley? They weren’t her unit, not her inner circle—her inner circle was likely stuck in some mountain crevice, skin black with frostbite, buried under a foot of unforgiving snow.

Nope.

No.

Those were not helpful thoughts.

She blinked hard, trying to wipe her traitorous mind of the awful images it had just conjured up, finding it harder than expected. Swiping her phone screen, she pulled up the local news radio’s stream. Radio From the Pines. It had more or less been the backing track of her life for the past two weeks; it had replaced her usual shower playlist, workout playlist, and (God knew her grades on her most recent exams showed it) study playlist. For Sam, it was the aural equivalent of passing by a car wreck: She didn’t want to listen to it, didn’t want to know whether they’d found any remains, but at the same time, she found she couldn’t bear not to listen. She tried to focus on the more trivial aspects of the program. It was, for example, surreal to hear the Washingtons’ names interspersed with reports on bear sightings and weather forecasts, stranger still to know that she was one of the people the broadcasters were talking about whenever they reminded their listeners that ‘the girls were last seen by a group of their friends outside the Blackwood Pines lodge.’ She’d recently gotten to the point where she could recognize each broadcaster by voice—a neat little shortcut her brain was able to take whenever she opened the stream in the middle of a report, but ultimately useless.

Sam upped the volume until the last of Chris and Ashley’s conversation was lost to her. Taken in by the rhythmic jostling of the bus and the droning voices of the reporters, she thought she had started to doze. Really, she had to have, because it seemed very much as though they reached their stop only minutes later.

The three of them slowly made their way down the bus’s aisle, doing their best to keep their bulky bags from smacking into one another. Stepping out into the snowy wind was at once bracing and horrible. It woke them all up from the uncomfortable fugue of the long trip, sure, but it felt very much like a slap in the face—a reminder meant to bring them back to Earth and drive home what their purpose was.

They stood just outside the Blackwood property as the bus rumbled away, filling the air with an acrid belch of exhaust. There was a long minute where none of them spoke or moved or did much of anything besides breathe. As though in the grips of some strange folie à deux (or folie à trois, as it were), the three found themselves each weighted down by a leaden ball of dread, making it seem as though the mountain itself had sprung to life and had begun slowly eating them from the boots up. The icy air felt suffocating in their lungs, cutting their throats like glass; the promise of sunset felt more like the threat of an unknown beast preparing to plunge them into the Halloweenish terror of full dark.

It was so strange—so terrible—how very quickly things had changed. When they had stood in that very spot two weeks ago, they had been thrumming with excited anticipation. And now?

Now they all shared an expression that suggested they were trying their best not to puke.

“Are you…gonna be okay?”

Sam all but literally jumped out of her own skin when she felt the light pressure of Chris’s hand on her shoulder. With an embarrassed grimace, she glanced from him to Ashley, struck by the eerie similarity of their expressions. After a beat, it clicked, and she swallowed down the uncomfortable suspicion that they’d probably been privately discussing this (and her) at length, over the past few days, just as they’d clearly been discussing the others. “Yeah…yeah, I’m good.” Her tongue felt numb as she said it, though, like she’d just gotten out of a particularly rigorous dentist appointment. Sam looked back up to Chris, and then to Ashley, attempting a more natural smile. “Really, guys. I’m fine.”

The silence that fell between them again suggested very heavily that neither quite believed her. She wondered for a moment if she even believed herself.

“You know, the sooner we get up there, the sooner we can get warm, so…maybe we should do that, huh?” Taking the lead as always, Sam crossed the threshold from the street onto the path leading to the cable car.

Ashley and Chris hung back for a second, watching her crunch her way through the thick snow. Looking up to him, Ashley blew a puff of breath that ruffled her hair from out of her face. Chris shrugged uncertainly in response before nodding in Sam’s direction. Wordlessly, they followed, beginning the familiar path up to the lodge.

***

10:43pm

Tense.

That was the only word that came close to describing the uncomfortable atmosphere of the lodge. When they’d arrived, there’d been a fair amount of tiptoeing around the sorest spots. Saying hello to Mrs. Washington had been difficult, avoiding the constant in-and-out of rangers and law enforcement had been a task in and of itself, but mostly everyone (Josh especially) seemed intent on pretending that their last visit, and more specifically their last conversation out on the mountain, had never happened.

As if the lodge were suddenly a haunted house, there was a shared realization that none of them wanted to be in certain areas. No one, for example, wanted to spend any prolonged period of time sitting around the kitchen island. The guest room was strictly off-limits. Even the cinema lost its luster. Everything just felt off.

Some of that discomfort had melted away as they warmed up and got more comfortable, leaving their coats to drip off thin layers of snow on the entrance mat. Eating a full meal had improved their moods as well, but no one would go so far as to say things were good. Better, maybe. Not good.

The girls—and oh, it was weird to realize that Ashley and Sam were ‘the girls’, now, when ‘the girls’ had always been the twins, before—had gone upstairs to situate their things, leaving Josh and Chris alone for the time being. A small fire was crackling away in the grate situated in the middle of the sitting room just off the kitchen, giving the area a deceptively cozy feel. From where he lay half-sprawled on the couch, Josh reached out and let his cellphone clatter onto the coffee table. “Down for a game while the ladies powder their noses, Cochise?”

Chris glanced up from his own phone before shrugging, setting it down on the table on top of Josh’s. “If you’re ready to lose.” He said it with a smirk, but internally, he couldn’t shake the idea that he had just stepped onto a minefield and heard a click. This was dangerous territory, he thought. “Uh, before that, though…”

There was a sigh from Josh. “Mhm. I figured. Go on. Get it over with.”

“Don’t…don’t do that, okay? I just want to make sure you’re—”

“I’m fine. See? Totally fine. Five by five.” Josh gestured to himself with a curt wave.

His shoulders sagged. Before he could will himself out of it, Chris got up from the floor, pushing Josh’s legs out of the way so that he could sit on the other end of the couch. “I’m being serious.”

“Oh, and I’m not?”

Anxiously, his eyes flicked overhead, in the general vicinity of the staircase’s landing. There were no telltale signs of the girls coming back down yet, so he probably a good minute or two. “Uh, no. No one should be okay with all this going on. Especially not—” That time, he cut himself off, watching as Josh leveled his gaze at him and cocked his head to the side expectantly. “I just mean,” Chris tried again, “That this is…a really shitty situation. And no one’s expecting you to be okay if you’re not.”

“But I am.”

“Dude. Come on.”

And just like that, they were at an impasse. Chris dropped his hands onto his lap with a drawn-out sigh. Josh kept watching him, lips pursed to one side as he waited for the next salvo of reassurances.

“Look.” When Josh spoke up again, his tone wasn’t half as firm as he’d intended for it to be. “I get it, Cochise, really and for truly my dude, I do. And I thank you for the concern, but for real? Let it go. Just like the song says, yeah? Let it go, let it go…” he spread his hands out in front of him, fluttering them like bird wings as he half-sung the words. “If I wanted to talk about it, I’d talk about it.” He raised his eyebrows, making pointed eye contact with Chris. “Okay?”

“Okay.”

“Capisce?”

“Capase.”

Josh brushed his hands together twice as if to say ‘that’s that!’ and gestured back to the table. “Great! Now that we’ve got that Dr. Phil shit out of the way—you going first or am I?”

He attempted a smile in return, doing his best to ignore the apprehensive tightening in his throat. Josh was not one to talk about his emotions, that much he knew, but that last conversation on the cliff still stung like a fresh paper cut. Already, Chris felt himself dreading a potential reprise. “Eh, you go ahead. It’ll give me more time to think of mine."

“A foolish first move, man. I’ve already got the home field advantage.”

“That sounds way too close to sports-talk to be coming from either of you.” Sam poked her head around the corner first, leaning against the wall while giving them a brief once-over. “Now, maybe I’m behind on the times, but I’m not really familiar with any sports that take place on a couch.”

As if he’d been expecting her, Josh waved her over. “No sports here. The great American pastime? Sure! The game of games. The game of kings!”

Ashley appeared next to Sam, folding her arms across her chest. “The great American pastime is baseball.”

“Details, details.”

“And I’m fairly sure the game of kings is golf.”

“Hey, Encyclopedia Brown, literally no one asked you.” Josh turned his gaze back to Sam, “Come on and pull up a seat, ladies. Or, lady and Ash, at least.” Using one of his feet, he pulled one of the nearby chairs closer to the couch, patting the cushion absently with one hand. “Always room for more. In fact…” he shot a quick, worrying smirk Chris’s way, “…the more the merrier.”

The girls exchanged a quick look before Ashley shrugged and dropped herself down on the couch between the two of them, leaning herself over the table expectantly. “Sure, why not. Beats flipping through all the cooking channels.” She drummed her fingers absently as she waited for one of them to explain. “Sooooo…” she drawled, playfully nudging her shoulder against Chris’s, “What’re we playing, team?”

Chris waved to the coffee table as a game show hostess might’ve, raising an eyebrow in an obvious mockery of suaveness. “What do you think we’re playing?”

“My first guess, knowing you two, was Seven Minutes in Heaven, but…I’m not seeing any closets around so…I’m beginning to have my doubts,” Sam joked, taking the open seat to Josh’s side.

Josh gasped theatrically, rearing back in feigned disappointment. “Aw shit—I didn’t even think of that. Hey, any chance we can scrap this and try Sammy’s idea instead?”

“Overruled,” came Ashley’s curt reply.

“Fuck. Fuckity fuck. Now I don’t think I even want to play,” Chris sighed. He pouted dramatically for a moment longer before laughing, “Social Suicide. C’mon, you know the rules. Uh, well, Ash does, anyway. Phones in the center of the table.”

Before he’d had a chance to finish his sentence, Ashley’s expression had morphed into something notably less chipper. Her eyes dropped to the table for only the briefest of instants, noticing that Chris’s and Josh’s phones were already laid out. Her arms were folded the next second, her lips pressed tightly together in what might’ve been contemplation, but could have very well been insult instead. The ball of her foot bounced against the floor as she tried to decide whether she was going to stay in her seat or bail entirely. “Hmm. Actually…I think I’m going to go take a shower.”

Sam and Chris looked up, almost in unison. Josh did not. He looked back down to his own phone, lying impotently atop the table, next to his half-finished soda. There were a million things he could’ve said in that moment (not that they would occur to him until hours later, as he stared at his ceiling while trying to fall asleep), but all he did was suck in a quiet breath through his teeth.

She had meant to leave in a slow, dignified sort of way. What actually happened was that Ashley sprang up as though she’d been stabbed, making her egress towards the bathroom quickly enough to suggest she was being chased. “More tired than I thought, I guess. You guys have fun,” she said simply, waving a hand dismissively in their direction.

“You o…kay?” Chris had begun to ask, but Ashley was long gone by the time he managed to finish the thought. “Uh…huh.” His mouth tightened as a worried crease appeared between his eyebrows.

Equal parts intrigued and uncomfortable, Sam leaned her arms against the table, leaning in towards the center. “Mk, I’ll bite…” she said with a laugh, hoping it covered up some of the awkwardness Ashley had left in her wake. “What’s Social Suicide?”

“Well, why don’t you put your phone on the table so you can find out?”

She eyed them warily, eyes moving from Josh to Chris before she obliged. From the pocket of her hoodie, she produced her cellphone, brandishing it in their direction before setting it down next to theirs. “Okay…now what?”

“Social Suicide,” Josh interrupted, swiveling in his seat just far enough to be able to extend his arms out to his sides in a grandiose sweeping motion without smacking either of them. “Is the premier in what the kids these days are calling ‘info-tainment.’ One part challenge, one part psychological intrigue, three parts trust exercise. Buckle in, little lady. We’ll show you how it’s done.”

“Uh…” she shot a quick glance over her shoulder to where Ashley had disappeared off to. Clearly she knew something Sam did not. “So what is it?”

“It’s a quality bonding exercise.” Josh let his arms drop back down to the table, his earlier grin resurfacing. “You learn while you play! What’s not to love?”

Seeing she had hit a wall, she looked to Chris plaintively. “What am I getting into, here?”

“It’s truth or dare.” He laughed even as Josh groaned, shrugging his shoulders helplessly. “There’s no use lying to her, bro."

Turning back to Sam, Josh shook his head in a manner that seemed almost confidential. “Don’t listen to Ol’ Four-Eyes, there. Social Suicide is not truth or dare.”

From the other side of the couch, there was a low hum of uncertainty. “I mean…it’s…” Chris clucked his tongue, “It’s pretty much truth or dare.”

“Okay, fine, whatever, it’s truth or dare, but it’s better.” The concession was accompanied by a frustrated eye-roll. “None of you fuckers have any flair for the dramatic, I swear to Christ…okay, here’s what it is. In Social Suicide, you go around the table, one by one, and ask one person—of your choice—a question.”

Or you ask them to do something. Usually something embarrassing.” Chris rested his hand against his cheek as he looked up at Sam from over the frames of his glasses, “Or at the very least, really, really stupid.”

Without missing a beat, Josh continued, “Any time someone wusses out, then the asker gets to do whatever they want with the chicken’s phone.” He picked his own phone up from the table for emphasis, swiping the lock screen before waggling it in her direction. “Anything. Send out a text, send an email, fuck with any social media they were stupid enough to be logged into, delete all their contact names…any shit you can come up with. If you’re an uncreative dunce like Ash, you can turn the screen brightness up to max and call it a day. Or…and this is where it gets good, so stick with me here…or…you can just pretend you did some shit on their phone, hand it back to them, and let them shit themselves for a week trying to figure out what you changed.” Flicking his phone back onto the table, he spread his hands out in welcome, “So whaddya say, Miss Giddings? Up to the challenge?”

Oh fuck. Chris bit back a grimace as he was slapped upside the head with an unfortunate realization. He knew why Ashley had run off. The memory of the three of them clustered together in the kitchen came back to him, unbidden, as he fixed his gaze on the fire popping and crackling across from them. Josh demanding Ashley’s phone. Ashley slamming it into Josh’s hand. Josh poking through everything to make sure she hadn’t recorded the prank. Fuck.

“I…don’t think I trust either of you with my phone,” Sam said, pausing to examine them carefully.

“That’s the point, duh.” Chris chuckled stiffly and leaned back in his seat. He did his best to keep the grief from his face, making a mental note to pull Ashley aside and apologize later. “You think I trust anyone with mine? Much less that one?” He waved in Josh’s direction, and to his credit, Josh had the decency to flash his best and toothiest grin, refraining from feigning ignorance. “Yeah, no."

“I thought we were friends, Cochise.”

“Friends or not, man, you’re a fucking sadist sometimes.” Some part of him was angry at how jokingly it had come out. Some other part was sad that he had wanted it to be accusatory at all. In that moment, Chris regretted agreeing to play in the first place.

Josh, unaware of the internal struggle raging next to him, pretended to bow. “I like to think of it as just…being a little more creative than most.”

“Uh huh. ‘Creative.’ Okay.”

Sam couldn’t help but laugh, shaking her head. Well, she was in for it—no going back now. “If you mess with each other so bad, then why do you do it?”

“Like I said—bonding,” Josh chuckled.

“More like blackmail,” Chris mumbled. Forcing another smile, he reached over and knocked his knuckles against Josh’s.

“Oookay…I’ll just ask that you gents take it easy on me since I’m new here.” She grimaced when they both turned to look at her, beaming innocently. It had been a long shot. “Or don’t. Whatever, see if I care. So. Who’s going first?”

Chris pointed to Josh, who immediately shook his head. “Nu-uh, Sammy’s the initiate. Howsabout you go? Just dive in headfirst.”

“Oh no. No way. I’m not about to put myself at you guys’ mercy like that. I’ll go second.”

“God, you just painted such a big target on your head.” Shaking his head, Chris nestled himself deeper into the couch cushions. “You heard the lady, el presidente. Take it away.”

Josh, clearly in his element, cleared his throat and cracked his knuckles out. He pretended to appraise the both of them before setting his sights on Sam, nodding to himself. “All righty then…if you insist. If you would, Sammy, please share with the class the worst person you’ve ever had a sex dream about.”

She watched him for a long moment before slowly blinking. “What if I’ve never had a sex dream about anyone, Josh?

“Ah ah ah, I’m sorry Sammy, that kind of deflection is strictly not allowed. Now please, share.”

A sliver of her tongue poked out and wet her lower lip as she thought, still watching him with equal parts amusement and resignation. “Okay. Okay, I think I’m getting it now. It’s a lose-lose game. Either I embarrass myself in front of you guys, or you embarrass me by like…sexting my dad.”

“Still deflecting. Interesting…interesting…”

“Sam,” Chris said, holding a hand out to her in a show of compassion, “I need to make you a solemn promise right now that I will never sext your dad. Your granddad, maybe. Absolutely any of your aunts. Not your dad, though. That’s messed up.”

Sam let out a groan that tapered into a laugh. Throwing her arms into the air, she sighed in defeat. “Oh God…” She shook her head before rolling her eyes to the ceiling in an attempt to keep from watching their expressions as she dug her own grave. “Skrillex.”

The room fell deathly silent. Over on the couch, time seemed to have stopped entirely—it was the proverbial record-screech moment where everything stopped and everyone just turned to stare.

“Hang on. Hang on. Hang…Skrillex.” Josh had gone strangely rigid, gaze fixed somewhere in the middle-distance. For all intents and purposes, he looked very much like someone trying to decipher an unexpectedly difficult math equation. “Skrillex.”

D-d-d-d-d-drop your pants,” Chris added helpfully, before devolving into what Sam could only assume was his attempt at replicating dubstep noises. It was a lot of ‘bwa’s and a lot of ‘untz’s, and quite frankly, didn’t do much to improve the situation.

“You asked!” She laughed, covering her face and laughing. “I’m not saying it was a good dream, I was just answering your question!”

“No, no, wait. Just…just wait a second. Rewind. Let’s roll the tapes back here. Is this…Sammy.”

She shook her head almost frantically, lungs starting to ache from laughing. “No! No follow-up questions. No one said anything about follow-up questions! I answered, so your turn is done.”

Josh sighed but let it drop, elbowing Chris when he wouldn’t stop his shitty beatboxing. “Upsetting. So upsetting, Sammy. Thank you for your contribution.” He picked up a soda from the table, winking at her from over its rim. “Your turn, pilgrim. Take a spin, and we’ll tell ya if you’re doing it wrong.”

“How encouraging. Okay…well…” Sam thought it over, tapping her fingers rhythmically against her chin. She looked between the two of them, dramatically narrowing her eyes before it came to her. “Chris…”

“Yeees?” He set his chin against his fists, offering her a cheesy smile.

“So…I get to ask a question or order you to do something, right?”

“That’s the gist of it, yeah. Thought we already covered that. Good to see that today’s youth are such good listeners. You know, back in my day—”

Sam leaned in closer to the coffee table, fixing Chris with a flat stare. “Then I choose question.”

“I choose to wonder why you phrased it like that, but okay I guess.”

Narrowing her eyes, Sam mulled over her question for only a second. “Why aren’t you and Ashley like…dating?”

There was a choked sound to her side as Josh literally spat his soda out, slamming his palms against the table before taking a deep gulp of air. “You got the hang of this game so fast!!” he wheezed, voice still strained and strange from swallowing the wrong way. “I am so proud of you!” He turned and coughed a few times to clear his throat out, but it was obvious from the reddening of his face that he was mostly just laughing.

Across the couch, Chris’s face was turning red too—for markedly different reasons. “Can you…I…Jesus Christ! Will you guys shut the fuck up? She’s just in the next room, holy—shut up! Oh my God.” He craned his head to try and see around to the hall, all to no avail. For the life of him, he couldn’t remember if she’d said she was using the bathroom on this floor, or the third floor. “Oh my God,” he repeated, much quieter the second time around.

Gathering his composure, Josh reached over to squeeze Sam in an appreciative side-hug. “Oh, stuff it. She can’t hear a fucking thing with the water running. Stop being a baby and answer.”

Or you could give me your phone…” Sam beamed, trying her best to not laugh outright at Chris’s discomfort.

He turned back to them both, bright roses of humiliation burning in the centers of his cheeks. “It’s not funny! Why are you guys laughing like that?”

“I mean…it’s…kind of funny?” Sam raised her hands in defense, “In a cute way! In a cute way. Like I said before!”

Josh shoved her hands back down. “Nonono, oh no. You either answer the question or you forfeit your phone, man, you know the rules. Sammy did it! And hers was bad, dude. I mean…I’m sorry Sam, but I am absolutely never going to let you live that shit down.”

“Come on!

“Do you want me to answer her?” Josh asked, leaning in closer to Chris. “Because I’ll tell ya, man, I am ready and willing to answer this question for you. It’s not strictly against the rules, but…still probably a dick move, huh?” He quirked an eyebrow in Sam’s direction before snickering again. “Man, I didn’t think this was going to be so fun. Fuck, we should’ve invited you to play with us ages ago…”

Sam shot Chris another apologetic, but no less entertained grin. “I mean…it…it is Valentine’s Day.”

Josh’s eyes widened until they seemed to take up half of his face. “Ho. Ly. Shit.” He turned back to Chris quickly enough to give himself whiplash. “It is Valentine’s Day. It’s the perfect time, Cochise. The stage has been set, the stars are in alignment, and now’s the time!

Chris glowered as he looked between the two of them. “This is bullshit and you guys are assholes.”

“Oh my God, stop being such a baby. She went way easier on you than I would’ve.” Josh leaned forward, still staring at Chris as he let his fingers creep their way towards the phones on the table. “Is that a forfeiture, my good man?”

Sam waved her hands again. “Forget it! I’ll ask something else, it’s no big deal.”

“Ah, ah, ah…no do-overs.”

She rolled her eyes over to Josh, “I’m starting to think you might just be making up the rules as you go along.”

“Ugh. Just.” Heaving a beleaguered sigh through his nose, Chris folded his arms and looked back into the fireplace, making a deliberate point to avoid making eye contact with either of them. For all of thirty seconds, it really did appear as though he was thinking it over…and then he reached into the middle of the coffee table, picked up his phone, and tossed it to Sam. “Go nuts.”

Josh’s disappointment was immediately apparent, “Aw come on!”

It had been too easy of a choice, really: Chris doubted wholly that Sam would do anything nefarious with his phone (honestly, he doubted she was capable of doing much of anything mean-spirited, even on her worst days), and God knew with his luck being what it was, Ashley would’ve walked in halfway through any explanation he could’ve given. “Nah, it’s cool, it’s cool. Go on, keep makin’ fun of me. I can take it. Just remember it’s my turn next,” he warned Josh, quirking an eyebrow menacingly.

“I’m trembling, man. Really, I am.”

Sam stared at Chris’s home screen uncertainly as she tried to decide what to do. This was very much not the sort of game she was used to playing. “Uh…hmm…” she furrowed her brow and flipped through his phone settings. “Am I allowed to ask for help coming up with ideas, here?”

“Absolutely not—” Chris began, just as Josh cut him off.

“Hey Sammy. I’m not like. Here to give you ideas or anything. But maybe you should…I don’t know, open his photo roll.”

Chris was confused for all of half a second, and then he realized exactly what Josh was angling at. “Shut up,” he said, trying to cover Josh’s mouth with his hand. “Shut your face! Don’t you tell her about that—”

Fighting him off valiantly, Josh wriggled as far out of Chris’s reach as he could, speaking very quickly to Sam. “Open the photos open the photos open the photos and scroll until you find the Twilight picture.”

Josh!” There was a grunt as Chris yanked him back down off the arm off the couch. “You’re such a jackass!

Sam watched them tussle, even as she absently flicked through his photo rolls. “Yeah, no, I’m…I’m gonna need to know what the Twilight picture is, actually.”

“God, I hate you guys.”

***

Saturday, February 15, 2014
1:24am

Josh woke up suddenly, ripped out of his deep sleep by the singular sensation that he was being choked. He inhaled sharply through his nose, startling very badly when he saw the pale shape on his chest. It stood out against the grainy grey-green of the room’s darkness, white and spindly and—

He made no effort to resist groaning out loud. Josh let his eyes fall closed again (half in relief, half in exhaustion) before he grabbed Chris’s wrist, thoughtlessly flopping his arm back over to his side of the bed. He heard the muted thwump of contact, but Chris’s only response was a disgruntled snore and the rustle of sheets as he readjusted himself. Figured.

Raking his fingers through his hair, Josh was forced to confront the fact that he was awake, now, for realzies, no fooling. With the uncoordinated movements of the recently awoken, he grabbed his phone from the bedside table, tapping the home button and wincing against the light of his lock screen. He hadn’t been out for long, that much was sure, but clearly it had been more than enough time for everyone else to sink into REM-Land. Some small part of him was almost thankful that he had been woken up before he had the opportunity to start dreaming. Lately, they hadn’t been…the best. In the handful of phone and text conversations they’d had in the past couple weeks, Hill had offered him a wide variety of explanations for that—most of them began with “Well, Josh, why do you think you’re having nightmares?” and ended with something along the lines of “We’ll talk more about this at your next appointment.”

Fat lot of good that was. The sheer absurdity of thinking he would leave the lodge, leave the search, to go sit in Hill’s stuffy office and waste his time answering hypotheticals or identifying new-age Rorschach squiggles was enough to make his stomach churn. They were going to have to drag him from Blackwood Pines kicking and screaming, and if Hill wasn’t able to deal with the long-distance, then…

He set his phone down on his chest and took to scrubbing his face with his hands again, releasing a long, slow, pent-up breath. It was the middle of the night, and there was no use in getting worked up over that. Not again. Not when there wasn’t anything he could do about it.

The carpet of his room was coarse under his bare feet as he rolled out of bed, ignoring the resulting mumble from the Chris-shaped lump that seemed to immediately absorb both shares of the blankets. He did his best to remain at least somewhat soft-stepped until he left the bedroom, shutting the door behind him.

There was something undeniably spooky about the lodge in the middle of the night, when everyone was asleep. All old houses were like that, Josh figured, moaning and groaning like the elderly and invalid as their bones settled. But there was something particularly unsettling about the lodge when it grew quiet. Blackwood was a place meant for voices and laughter, made up of rooms built to be entertained in, hallways designed to allow for people to mill about. When the voices and bodies disappeared, it had the same effect as a forest clearing going silent. It felt eerie. It felt wrong.

Of course, he’d been fighting against the dawning possibility that the lodge would just…always feel wrong to him, now. It was slowly becoming less of a vacation home and more a vacant grave.

Just as he made up his mind to make the long journey down to the kitchen to get something to drink, Josh heard something clatter to the ground in the room next-door. His head snapped in the direction of the sound while he stood wide-eyed and suspicious in the darkened hallway. As though he’d misheard it, he narrowed his eyes, straining to hear anything else. He remained there in the hall for the better part of a minute, listening to the blood rushing in his ears. It was pointless—there was zero doubt that he was going to go investigate—but there was no ignoring the disquieting spike of adrenaline filling his throat with the sour taste of fear.

The noise had come from Beth’s bedroom.

Of course it had.

It felt to him like each of his footsteps was heavy enough to rattle the framed pictures on the walls, loud enough to wake the entire property, but as he peeked into Beth’s room, the door left slightly ajar, it was obvious at once that he hadn’t been noticed at all. His chest seized up with a terrible moment of fear before he recognized the shadowy silhouette in front of Beth’s bed. Josh cleared his throat softly as he pushed the door open the rest of the way, leaning himself against the jamb. “Um…?”

There was a surprised gasp as Sam sprung up from where she’d squatted down to pick up the fallen picture frame; she hugged it tightly (and unintentionally) to her chest as she spun around, shoulders slumping with relief when she spotted Josh. She made a choked sound caught somewhere between a sigh and a grumble, waving the frame guiltily. “Yeah…busted, huh? Shit, I’m…I’m sorry, I didn’t want…I didn’t mean to wake anyone up.”

There were no lights on in the room, save for the bright rectangle of Sam’s phone lying face-up on Beth’s dresser, but even without being able to clearly see her face, it was at once obvious to Josh that something was up. He tried to recall a time he’d ever heard that tight, strained quality in her voice and came up empty-handed. “You didn’t,” he said in what he hoped was a reassuring manner, joining her in the room, closing the door most of the way for good measure. Sam didn’t reply, so he took the opportunity to wander over to the window, adjusting the blinds to let in a little more of the silvery winter light.

Sam glanced down at the picture in her hands, rubbing a thumb against the butterfly-shaped engraving before setting it back on the dresser she’d accidentally knocked it off of. She thought she could feel Josh watching her, but when she glanced over her shoulder, found him staring intently through the slats of the blinds. “So…if I didn’t wake you up, what did?” she asked, swiping both of her cheeks with her hands in a lightning-quick attempt to hide the evidence of any tear-tracks.

His shoulders rose and fell in a jerky shrug. “Oh, you know, Cochise was gettin’ a little handsy,” he said lightly, turning back to face her. “Can you blame the guy?” He tried to smirk, but realized he didn’t much feel like it, after all. Another quick shrug, and he was immensely grateful for the accommodating half-smile Sam offered. “How about you?” Josh asked, raising an eyebrow as he nodded towards her. “Was it Ash’s requisite nightlight? I keep telling that girl, she’s gotta get over the dark thing one of these days.”

She shook her head, “Nah, that’s not…no. I couldn’t sleep at all.” Her lips tightened against throb of fatigue behind her eyes. It was almost as though saying it had made it truer, somehow—more real. Sam blinked a few times to try and lessen the burn, all to no avail.

“Hmm…did you try counting sheep?”

“I think I was at about…seven hundred and fifty two when I gave up.”

“What about that thing where you press your tongue to the roof of your mouth and breathe weird?”

“I never remember if I’m supposed to hold my breath for four seconds or seven. It gets very confusing.”

Josh nodded while she spoke. “So you thought you’d take a spooky little nighttime tour instead.” It wasn’t a question, not quite—he thought he likely knew the gist of why he’d found her in there, but left room enough for her to fill in the blanks for him.

“Sort of. I mean…I don’t know.” Sam suddenly felt very, very ridiculous, standing there in the middle of Beth’s bedroom in her candy cane print pajamas and cabin socks. In one fell swoop, she was just a little kid trespassing in a house that didn’t belong to her, snooping through other people’s things. She thought she’d gotten her tears out already, thought she’d lodged herself firmly in Denial Land’s comforting embrace, but another wave seemed close on their heels, her nose prickling warningly. “I just, uh…” she felt her voice catch and quickly cleared her throat to try and cover it up. “I just really…wanted to be in one of their rooms.” It sounded so much stupider, so much more childish than it had sounded in her own head. She couldn’t help but cough out a nervous laugh at the surreal nature of it all. “And I, um…I couldn’t…” she swallowed hard, realizing there was no way to hide the strain in her voice anymore. She turned away from the picture on the dresser and looked up at Josh, trying not to be ashamed of the hot tears welling in her eyes. “I couldn’t go into Hannah’s room,” she admitted, giving him a watery smile, “I couldn’t even…I couldn’t even open the door, you know?” Another tight laugh, and she sat down on the very edge of Beth’s bed, letting her legs go weak. “It was just too much. Too, too much.”

An unexpected pang of empathy zinged its way along each of Josh’s ribs. He found himself dropping his gaze to the floor, watching Sam drop her face into her hands in his periphery. Of all the things he thought he’d be doing tonight, this…suffice it to say, this hadn’t been very high on the list. He sucked his upper lip into his mouth, worrying it incessantly between his front teeth until he tasted copper. When he finally found his voice again, he was disappointed with how very unprepared he was for the conversation. It wasn’t like him to not have a snappy one-liner at the ready, but as he slid his hands into the pockets of his pajama pants, he found the best he could manage was a dry, “Yeah. Yeah, I know.”

Sam took a tired, shuddery breath through the spaces of her fingers, sniffling just loudly enough to make it impossible to hide the fact she was crying. She opened her mouth to say something, but was mortified when the only sound she made was a sob, at once muffled and amplified by the cup of her palms. And that was all it took. She was down for the count. “I’m sorry,” she managed, screwing her eyes shut tight as she breathed the hot, salty air inside her hands. “I don’t…I just…haven’t slept, and I’m so tired, and I can’t…can’t keep pretending that I’m huh-holding it together…”

The mattress dipped as Josh sat next to her, clasping his hands contemplatively between his knees. “You don’t have to pretend that you’re holding it together, Sam,” he said, tone lacking all of its usual, playful affectation.

“I do.” She let her head fall back against her shoulders, pulling in a quavering breath of cooler air. “I do,” she repeated, more firmly the second time around, sounding very much like she was trying to convince herself of it. “If I lose it, it’s like…like…”

“Admitting it’s real.” When she turned to look at him, face glistening in the low light, Josh met her gaze steadily. “Yeah. Yeah, I…I get that.”

She swallowed hard, pulling the sleeve of her pajamas over her hand before just sopping up as much of her face as she could, still feeling almost inhumanly foolish. “I’m sorry—I know…of everyone I could be doing this in front of…”

Clucking his tongue, Josh heaved a sigh of his own. “You don’t have to be sorry.” He could see she was about to argue it, and he shook his head to nip it in the bud. “It’s…” But then his own throat was tightening, his chest full of glass, and he let the thought trail off into nothingness.

“Yeah.” She nodded, scooping her hair out of her face with a hand. It was hard to say how long they sat there, blankly staring towards Beth’s bedroom door, Sam’s legs dangling over the side of the bed, Josh’s feet firmly on the ground. She was glad for the dim lighting, not only because it meant Josh couldn’t see how puffy her face had gotten, but also because it saved her from clearly seeing his expression. “I miss them so much.” The words escaped her long before she could run them through her mental filter. She pursed her lips to try and keep them from quivering.

“Me too.” He slung an arm around her, pleasantly surprised when he felt the pressure of her head resting against his shoulder. “Meeee too, Sam.” Suddenly acutely aware of his own exhaustion, Josh set his head atop hers, rubbing a comforting stripe up and down her arm with his hand. “Every goddamn day.”

There was a strange, syrupy moment where Sam was fairly certain she was closer to sleep than she had been in days, her insides scraped raw and sinuses throbbing. There was a soothing familiarity about the smell of Beth’s room, a soothing regularity to the hum of the lodge’s heating system kicking on, a soothing warmth with Josh next to her. It was almost enough to make things feel…okay again.

‘Almost’ being the operative word.

She sat up straight once more, turning her head to look over the expanse of the bedroom. “She’d be so mad if she knew we were touching her stuff.” When she met Josh’s eyes again, she was surprised to realize she was smiling.

“Oh, believe me, I know.” Josh exhaled a quiet chuckle before letting his arm drop. With a grunt, he stood back up, picking up the picture Sam had been looking at earlier. “I can actually hear her yelling at me, you know? ‘Josh-uh! Oh my God-uh! Get out of my room!’” he snickered, his impression of Beth way too high to even come close to registering. He crossed the room to Beth’s vanity, running a finger along the baubles and notebooks piled on it. It wasn’t long before his hand had brushed over her polished music box. His thumb popped it open, and he absently lifted the lid until the tiny dancer inside began to twirl. Beth had never been much of a jewelry collector, so there wasn’t much inside: an old silver ring, a few long-forgotten hair ties, a ticket stub from a Harry Potter movie…He was about to shut it again when the tinny music caught his attention.

Sam looked up at the sound as well, punctuating a sleepy laugh with a sniffle. “Oh man, I didn’t realize Beth’s was the same as Han’s.”

It took Josh a second to be able to answer her. His tongue felt stuck to the roof of his mouth as the song finished and started up again. Though his memories of it were blurry with time, he had the singular sensation that the song was bad juju. Capital-B Bad. “Y…yeah,” he said, hoping that the pause hadn’t been long enough to be awkward. Without really thinking, he picked the music box up, leaving a perfect rectangle of the vanity clean of dust. “You know how it goes…they always got the twin treatment. One of them gets something, the other does too…” When he tore his eyes away from the box, his gaze flicked apprehensively to Sam.

Unsurprisingly, she didn’t seem to share his feelings about the melody dimly filling the room; instead, she watched from the bed as the dancer spun around, the faintest trace of a smile smoothing out the sadness in her eyes.

Josh slowly walked back to sit on the foot of the bed with her, both of them looking down into the mostly empty velvet lining of the box, wordless with strange shades of grief. Only once the song finished again, did Josh find his voice. “Do you, uh…do you know the song?”

Sam exhaled a weak laugh through her nose before reaching up and swiping at her cheek with her thumb. “Yeah, we learned it in French class. Frère Jacques. Old nursery rhyme.” She looked back up at him curiously, “You…don’t know it? You’re the one who got them these.” To her point, she tapped at the metal plate behind the dancer, emphasizing the curlicue ‘From Josh’ at the bottom.

He tried to smile, doubting entirely that it even came close to looking genuine. “We had a tape—a video, or some shit—with it when we were kids. But fuck me sideways if I remember the words.”

Again, Sam laughed softly, pulling her legs up to sit crisscross on the mattress. “God, it’s been a long time since French class. And I’m not singing it, so don’t even get that in your head.”

Good, Josh thought to himself, suppressing a shudder for reasons he couldn’t quite remember. No singing, please. He didn’t trust himself not to say it out loud, just then, so he simply smiled back at her.

“Frère Jacques, frère Jacques, um…dormez-vous, dormez-vous.” She stared down at the dancer in concentration, a deep crease appearing between her eyebrows as she mechanically recited what she could remember. “…oh no…um…something-something les…matines…something-something les matines, ding dang dong, ding dang dong?” Sam turned her eyes back up to Josh with a grimace that smacked of embarrassment. “I think. But ‘ding dang dong’ can’t be right…right? That doesn’t…that doesn’t sound…right…” She leaned back, setting her weight against her hands as she stared out into middle-space, mouth still tracing the shapes of the words in an attempt to jog her memory.

The lid of the box shut with a dusty click. As childish as it made him feel, Josh just couldn’t listen to it again. Something about it set his teeth on edge, and the darkness of Beth’s room didn’t exactly help. It had all the makings of a C-list horror movie. Dead twins? Check. Grieving friends poking around their bedrooms? Check. Spooky fucking music box, complete with dancing ballerina? Check. All they needed was a Ouija board, a few beers, a little more romantic tension, and then they’d be off to the races. He felt his mouth tighten into what was probably the general shape of a smile again, but there was still no trace of humor behind it. Josh drummed the pads of his fingers slowly against the top of the box.

“Ugh, this is going to bug me,” Sam said with a sigh, rolling her head on her shoulders to ease the stiffness of her neck. “Are you sleeping…Brother Jacques. Or. John. I guess. Whichever. …morning bells are ringing…ding dang dong…oh no, it really is ‘ding dang dong.’ Oh, that’s bad.”

That time, he covered up the shudder a bit better, pushing himself off the bed to replace the music box on the vanity. Almost reverently, Josh set it back down on the spot he’d taken it from, covering the spotless rectangle once again. “Bad songwriting,” he agreed tiredly before lowering himself back onto the mattress next to her. “Leave it to the French.”

“Yeah.”

“Yeah.” He scratched at the back of his neck, rolling his shoulders in an attempt to shrug off the last lingering tendrils of concern the song had sent slithering through his nerves. When he thought he had it (mostly) under control, he lolled his head to the side at an uncomfortable angle, offering Sam a smirk that was much more tired than teasing. “Whaddya say? Think we should give catching some z’s another shot?”

She blew a deflated raspberry, ruffling a few loose pieces of her hair. “Probably. We should at least try to be functional when everyone else comes to help search, tomorrow.”

“Today.”

“Whatever.”

He took to his feet again, offering her his hand with a grand, sweeping gesture. “Well then, by all means, after you, Miss Samantha Lynne Giddings.”

She took his hand but rolled her eyes. “Still not my middle name.”

“I’ll get it one of these days.”

***

Wednesday, February 26, 2014
8:36pm

 

3 People

hey

lindas heading into town tomorrow for groceries

u guys coming up again or nah

It was absolutely freezing out on the deck, but the air inside the lodge had grown stifling over the past few hours since his father had arrived. Josh had made the executive decision not to mention that in the text, not wanting to skew the odds of the gang returning. He wondered if that was a psych major thing—all the overthinking, the planning what words to use, which to omit. But no, the more he thought about it, the more it seemed to him that those were all screenwriter things.

The psych major part of it was more likely the roil of anticipation low in his gut and high in his throat as he waited to see someone (anyone) start to type out a reply. He was reading too much into it, that much he knew. Chris had a late class on Mondays and Wednesdays. Sam liked to hit the gym in the evenings, just like Hannah had. Ashley was still doing her brooding thing since they’d fought. The time it was taking them to respond didn’t mean they were ignoring him, it didn’t mean their answers would be ‘no,’ it just meant that they were doing other things. They were otherwise occupied.

And fuck, didn’t he miss the days when he had been able to let his mind be occupied by things other than the goddamn news reports.

He reached up to tug his hat a bit lower, covering his ears against the chill. It hadn’t been a great day. Hell, it hadn’t been a great week, or a great couple of weeks, but today had just really taken the cake. The cake, the icing, and shit, the ice cream, too.

It had been his own fault, of course, because when it came to things relating to the girls, things were always his own damn fault. He’d been the one to insist on hanging around as Bob relentlessly questioned the officers at the lodge, he’d been the one listening obsessively to that fucking Radio From the Pines show. So it only stood to reason that he’d be the one who heard the shit he hadn’t wanted to hear; he’d heard all about how difficult it was to locate bodies when the snow was this high, how they’d probably have more luck after the first thaw in the spring, how even then it was a gamble because of all the lively and varied wildlife on the mountain. He’d gotten to listen to the theories about crazy old man Filcher or Flidder or whatever his name was—the local nutjob his parents had been considerate enough to only mention in passing to any of them as ‘that weird guy who’s been hanging around the property’ until suddenly two of their kids had up and vanished.

Oh, he’d gotten to hear it all.

His phone buzzed in his hand.

3 People

sammy
Im absolutely coming up
Dont worry about shopping for me though I can bring my own stuff for the weekend like last week
remind me

cheeseburgers are def vegan right

sammy
Har de har har
Anyone ever tell you to consider a career in comedy
They lied to you
ashley
Yeah, Chris and I are planning on coming too.
But like Sam said, don’t worry about a shopping list, we’ll bring some stuff.
sammy
For real you guys dont need to be spending money on us
Well be fine :)

He furrowed his brow, looking over Ashley’s message. This was the psych major shit rearing its ugly head again. His fingers hovered over his screen, but everything he drafted in his own head came out too confrontational.

Well.

Too confrontational for Ashley, anyway, he was sure.

3 People

what he in class or smth
ashley
Migraine. :/
We were talking earlier though, and we’re definitely planning on it. He’s going to pick me up once class is out on Friday, and then we figured we’d meet you as the bus stop again Sam, same as the last couple times?
sammy
Definitely
:)
cool cool cool
just gonna be us 4 fyi
ashley
No one else can make it this week?
no one else is INVITED
vip party up in here
ashley
Oh, well that makes sense. We won’t have to worry about splitting up and one of us taking them around, at least. If we all know the area, it’ll be easier to cover the grounds.
sammy
Oh absolutely

He clucked his tongue and thought very carefully about what he was about to say. When he exhaled, his breath plumed out in front of him in a great, amorphous cloud of steam that was quickly carried off by the wind. This was the part he’d been dreading. This was the part he had really, really hoped everyone would’ve been around for.

3 People

yeah about that
were not covering any ground
ashley
???
sammy
Wait what
Am I missing something
no more ground to cover ladies
it has all been covered
by us
by the rangers
and mostly by snow
thats the problem actually
SO
were closing up shop
search is being “suspended until further notice”
this weekends gonna be it and then were heading home

That time, he set his phone facedown on his lap before he could see what either of them had to say. Josh pressed the side of his head against one of the deck’s railings, squeezing his eyes shut until bright speckles of color filled his field of vision. If he started crying out there, his face would freeze. He sure as shit did not have time for that. So instead, he reached up and rubbed at his face with both gloved hands, finding some measure of comfort in the rush of blood it brought to his cold skin.

On paper it all made sense. They had covered every nook and cranny of the property. They had scoured the woods. Sherriff Cline had sworn up and down that her people had even checked the old sanatorium. There was nowhere else to look, there was nothing else to do, and logically…logically, it stood to reason that if there wasn’t anything they could do to aid in the search efforts, then there was no reason for the Washingtons to stay up there in Blackwood Pines. They could listen to the radio just as easily from home. They could check in with the rangers just as easily from home. They could stare out the windows just as easily at home.

And of course, there was another issue. Josh had missed nearly a month of school—not such a big deal in the grand scheme of things, he thought, but a pretty big fuckin’ deal to Bob Washington, payer of tuition. There were always university loopholes and bylaws for cases like this; there would be ways for him to pick up where he left off and finish the semester, even if it took a little extra time. Josh suspected he would not be returning to school, though. Not for a good, long while. Not after this.

Ah, and there it was, the first spillover. Shit. Josh tiredly sucked a breath through his teeth as he felt his cheeks go hot and then very, very cold. Shit, shit, shit.

There was no point in prolonging the ordeal, so he flipped his phone over again to check the group text. His screen was full of notifications. No surprises there.

3 People

ashley
Josh, I’m so sorry. That’s…of course we’ll be there.
sammy
Wait theyre calling off the search
Can they do that
They havent found them
cochise
hey i'm here i'm here
shit
fuck that noise man
look maybe they’ll find them before we leave
that’s still a few days
ashley
They absolutely could! The storming up there’s stopped, right? The worst of it, at least. That’s got to make it easier. It was so much easier for us to get around last weekend…it’ll be like that again, I’m sure!
cochise
and idk about you guys but i'm still down to do another sweep or two
like we know the pines we can take another go at it
ash already said it
if its just us four we can kick some serious ass
no worries on any of US getting lost
ashley
For real!

He sighed again, watching his breath swirl away from him. He didn’t need the psych major shit to know that Chris’s sudden appearance wasn’t an accident. Maybe Ashley wasn’t as mad at him as he’d suspected.

Sam’s abrupt absence from the text hadn’t gone unnoticed, either. His chest tightened uncomfortably at the implication. The news would be just as hard for her as it was for him. Distantly, he wondered if he should’ve called her first. Maybe that would’ve been the right thing to do. Too late now.

Too late for a lot of things, really.

3 People

yeah i mean if u guys want
point is its just gonna be us
and shits gonna suck
not about to sugar coat that cuz like how even do u do that
but
id just really really really appreciate not being alone for it
so like
yeah
thats it
i guess
cochise
no chance we’d let you do this alone dude
zero
ashley
You know, I’m almost positive I can have my mom call me out on Friday, if you guys are able to meet earlier and head up?
cochise
done
fuck class i'll come and pick you up whenev
thanks guys
fr

Still no Sam.

Josh tapped out of the group text, opening a direct thread with her, instead. Again he felt his insides cringe with regret, realizing only too late that yeah…yeah, this is probably what he should’ve done, in the first place.

sammy

hey
u ok

He didn’t have to wait for nearly as long as he’d expected for a response.

sammy

hey
u ok
No

He hit the call button.

***

Saturday, March 1, 2014
2:15pm

There had been a concerted effort to make the weekend as normal as possible. In a twist of fate literally none of them had expected…it had actually sort of worked.

Thursday night, the three had arrived at the lodge, much in the same way they had every weekend for the past month. There had been a few hours where it was rough, where they had been forced to come to grips with the reality that this would be the last such weekend, but it had only been temporary. They’d spent a considerable stretch of that time standing on the welcome mat in their dripping boots and snow-crusted jackets, exchanging hugs that were just too tight and lasted just too long, no one saying anything, and knowing that they didn’t need to.

They’d filled the hours with movies and video games and snacks, and when they’d gotten too tired to keep their eyes open, they had all piled into Josh’s room, dragging in a second futon so they could all sleep comfortably.

It wasn’t denial guiding their actions anymore—if anything, it was a terrible kind of acceptance. Josh and Sam were miserable, Chris and Ashley were wracked with guilt. They all knew it, they all saw it, and that was what drove them to crack jokes, make faces, let bygones be bygones. The past month had been hard. Once the thaw came and the girls’ bodies were recovered, things would only get worse. They needed normalcy. They needed a break. So they took it.

They had just finished eating lunch Saturday afternoon when Sam felt a wave of grief threatening to bubble up again. She spun her empty bottle of water on the table and tightened her lips into something vaguely resembling a smile, trying to force the errant thought back down.

It was Ashley who noticed first, a worried line appearing between her eyebrows as she watched Sam. “How you doing, Sam?” she asked, folding her hands in front of her, atop the table.

She shrugged, all at once very aware of everyone’s eyes on her. “Okay.” Her lips pursed slightly, a telltale warning. “I was just thinking."

“A dangerous pastime,” Chris tutted, shaking his head.

Her smile was a little more genuine that time. Sam raised and lowered her shoulders in a jerky shrug. “It’s stupid.”

“Stupid is like…kind of our specialty, if you hadn’t noticed.”

She hadn’t wanted to go into it, not really. But as if her muscles weren’t her own, her lips were moving of their own accord. “I always had…this dumb tradition, whenever we’d come up here, you know?” With a flick of her finger, she sent the bottle spinning again. “Hannah thought it was so stupid. But it was like. My thing.” The others were quiet, and she felt the nagging burn of their eyes on her again. “I’d just go and soak in the tub upstairs for a while. Just chill. Clear my mind, zen out, just relax.” There was no reason for her to be thinking about it with such nostalgia, given that she’d only done it a few weeks ago, but just then it felt like some faded memory on the periphery of her mind. The tub was as distant as the smell of her grandmother’s perfume or Christmas morning when she was eight, or the first concert she’d attended. “It’s…it’s just weird to think that…” her shoulders managed another half-shrug, “I might not get to do it again.”

Silence.

“Why don’t you go take a bath now, then?” Ashley resisted the urge to reach out and set her hands over Sam’s, if only to make her stop fidgeting as badly as she was. It was (and had been) disquieting to see Sam, of all people, so shaken, of late. “I mean, it might be nice, right?”

It was Sam’s turn to go quiet, staring pointedly at the bottle as she spun it.

And in all honesty, she didn’t need to say it. It had been on all of their minds since they’d arrived. It was the reason they were all sleeping in Josh’s room at night. None of them wanted to be alone. The lodge was too big and their thoughts were too loud. There was safety in numbers.

There was a loud squeal as Josh pushed his stool away from the kitchen island, smacking both of his palms against the tabletop. “Easy solution. We all go take a bath. Come on.” He nodded towards the staircase, leaving the others to stare after him.

“Uh, excuse me?” Chris asked, getting to his feet nonetheless.

“Yeah no offense, but I’m not really sure any of our relationships are prepared to weather that particular sentence,” Ashley added.

Rolling his eyes, Josh turned to walk backwards, opening his arms to them all. “Tub’s big enough for like eight people. It’s technically a spa. A hot tub. No one has to get naked. I mean, unless you want to, in which case, far be it from me to tell you how to live your lives. Life is only as sexual as you make it, my friends.”

“Can I print that on a t-shirt?”

Ashley and Sam exchanged a look, their expressions matching masks of incredulity. “I didn’t bring a swimsuit,” Ashley deadpanned as she turned her attention back to Josh.

“You got underwear, don’t you, Ash?” He dropped her a lascivious wink before disappearing around the corner.

The girls looked at each other for a second longer before Ashley dropped her head into her hands, shaking her head in obvious disbelief. “I guess I do.” She got up from her stool, waiting until Sam joined her to head for the stairs. “So much for ‘just soaking’ and getting to ‘clear your mind,’ huh?” she asked.

Surprising herself, Sam managed an exhausted chuckle. “Yeah, this isn’t exactly the way I pictured this unfolding.”

“Get used to that.” Ashley was already tying her hair back into a loose ponytail. “Never a dull moment with those two.”

“I’m definitely coming to realize that.”

It wasn’t until a few minutes later when the tub was full and everyone had started awkwardly slipping themselves into the water that it happened. Sam was halfway through lowering herself into the tub when she was struck with a wave of déjà vu so strong and so solid that she nearly lost her balance. It took her a moment to place it, but then it snapped back to her like an overstretched rubber band. Despite herself, she couldn’t help but laugh aloud, tipping her head back against the edge of the tub as she sank her body further into the water.

The three other corners of the tub went silent again, everyone momentarily forgetting the strange, bizarrely intimate atmosphere of a shared bath.

“Well, looks like it’s happened, kids,” Chris sighed, the sound of his voice bringing another burst of giggles from Sam. “She’s spent too much time around us. She’s lost it. I knew this would happen. So sad.”

“You hate to see that happen,” Josh agreed.

Ashley turned to her again, both of her arms crossed anxiously over her chest. “You uh…you doing okay?”

She felt so stupid, but she couldn’t stop, waving a hand to try and signal that she only needed a second to collect herself. That second became two, became three, and she realized that whoops, this was a real fucker of a laughing jag she’d hit. “Looks like you finally got your fourth, huh? Only took a month.” She giggled again, actually reaching up and covering her face as she laughed.

There was another stretch of silence from the other side of the tub before Josh spoke up. “Oh my God, literally what are you talking about, Sammy?”

“The orgy!

The water in the tub crested in a wave as Chris physically reeled back. “What?

“The…the…” And now there were tears—real, literal tears—streaming down her face as she fought to catch her breath. “In the…woods! The ritual…the ritual!” When she managed to pull her hands away and steal a peek at the others through her hands, she was met with three identical looks of shocked confusion, everyone’s eyes wide and mouths open, and shit that just made it worse. Sam gasped for breath, trying desperately to explain. “In the…the hot tub that night! When I found you guys outside!”

“Oh Jesus Christ.” Finally, it clicked, and Chris pressed a hand to his heart, exhaling a heavy breath of relief. “Holy balls, I had…no idea what you were talking about. Thought we were gonna have to get your head checked, Sam, oh my God.”

Slowly it dawned on Josh and Ashley, both of them remembering the night as well. Then, they were all laughing. Once they got started, they found it was nearly impossible to stop.

***

9:05pm

“No. Say it again, but slower this time.”

“Why do I have to say it again? Clearly you heard me the first time.”

“Oh, I heard you. I heard you loud and clear, Sammy. The issue is that I’ve never heard a human being string those words together in that order before, so I’m gonna need you to give it one more go-around.”

“You’re so weird.”

“Noted.”

“This will be the first time I watch The Shining.”

Ashley leaned against the wine rack, staring blankly out the kitchen window as she listened to Sam and Josh in the great room, voices muffled by the wall. “This is a bad idea,” she intoned flatly, glancing over her shoulder just in time to watch Chris pour a frankly disgusting amount of melted butter onto the popcorn. “…that’s a bad idea, too.”

“What? It’s margarine. Sam can eat margarine. It’s fine.” He spun the metal bowl with a dramatic cascade of ‘oooh’s and ‘ahhh’s before chuckling, walking around the island to drop the buttery measuring cup into the sink’s basin.

“I meant the movie, mostly.” She looked back out the window before turning around entirely, pressing the small of her back against the countertop. “Do you think it’s gonna be…all right?”

In response, Chris mirrored her stance, leaning back against the sink. He propped his arms back against the counter, letting his gaze slide upwards to the ceiling. “Aw c’mon, Ash. You know the spooky movies make him feel better. One more isn’t gonna hurt.”

Her palms cupped her elbows self-consciously. As it so often was so often those days, her mind was a messy whirl of disconnected thoughts and unfounded anxieties. There she was, Ashley Brown, she of the million-or-so practiced conversations, and yet she found herself at a loss. Of all the discussions she imagined in her head at night, trying to fall asleep, she had to admit she’d never quite imagined this one. She realized Chris was staring and snapped herself out of her cloud of thought, shaking herself out mentally. “Oh, no, trust me, I’m not…It’s not that I’m worried about Josh. I mean. I am. But he knows what he’s getting into. I’m just not sure it’s a great idea for Sam.”

“You know what I think?” Chris sighed and shifted his stance, jokingly setting one of his elbows on Ashley’s shoulder, using her as an armrest. “I think…that it’s some hilarious twist of fate that two of the biggest, scardiest, chickeniest weenies in the world ended up being friends with the horror movie buff. That’s what I think.”

She looked up at him with an unimpressed sneer. “I’m not scared.”

“Oho! Methinks the lady doth protesteth too much.”

Her lips tightened into a taut line. “Look, I can deal with horror movies—I can! And I have been! That’s not the point.” She huffily shrugged her shoulder, pretending to try and shake him off of her as she continued, “Why does it have to be the specific horror movie about people stuck in a ski resort in the mountains during a snowstorm, where…” Momentarily, her eyes flicked to the doorway, the shape of her mouth becoming something marginally more apologetic. “…where a pair of twin sisters get murdered?

There was a moment of silence as Chris felt some of the color drain from his face. “…huh. Well…” he seemed at a loss, bottom teeth bared in a rictus of discomfort. “I mean…when you put it that way…”

“Mhm,” Ashley hummed curtly. Her gaze was riveted back on Chris, her expression a matronly ‘I told you so’ scowl. “Maybe not the best movie to facilitate emotional healing, huh?”

His cheeks puffed out in a sigh. She was right. Ashley was always right. Not that there was anything to be done about it just then. “I think he’s made up his mind.”

She rolled her eyes but said nothing, simply shaking her head.

Before either of them could say anything further, Sam and Josh both appeared in the doorway, Josh popping in only long enough to grab the bowl of popcorn from the island. “Yo, Shaggy, Velma, get the lead out, let’s do this.”

Ashley raised an eyebrow. “Velma?” she muttered, shooting Chris another reproachful glance.

“Zoinks, you heard the man.” He laughed when she poked a finger into his side, letting his arm drop from her shoulder as they made their way down the stairs to the cinema. Doing his best to seem casual, Chris hung back for a second as Josh popped open the projector room’s door. “Hey, you sure it’s a Kubrick kinda night? Movie’s fuckin’ long.”

Josh smirked as he loaded the movie up into the projector, flipping the switch that filled the screen with light. “Wow, so…so you’re choosing now to become a huge wuss? Is that it? Is that what I’m hearing?”

Wuss? You insult me, good sir.”

“Come on, it’s a fuckin’ classic—a timeless masterpiece. Hardly even scary.” And with that, he hit play, and the flat screen burst to life, showing the dizzying opening scene of a tiny yellow car zigzagging its way up a narrow mountain road. “Besides, what else are we gonna watch?”

Chris tapped his chin, pretending to think. “Hmmm…well, if you’re insisting on scary, we could always go Revenge of the Sith.”

“Ugh. Dude. In this house, we don’t watch bad films.”

“But it’s so bad the argument could be made for its scariness. Huh? Huh?” Snickering, he let Josh push past him; quickly, Chris turned back around, offering Ashley a hapless shrug as if to say ‘Hey, I tried.’

Josh dropped himself down into one of the cushy seats in the back row, settling in as Sam and Chris took the seats to either side of him, Ashley taking her usual spot next to Chris. “Now I will admit…” he began, grabbing a handful of popcorn and unceremoniously throwing it into his mouth, talking around his crunching and munching. “The opening is unnecessarily long. Builds some real nice dramatic tension, though. Just bear with it.”

They made it about twenty minutes in—all the while making comments about the horrendous fashion of the day, the ridiculousness of the nearly-Transatlantic accent some (and only some) of the characters spoke with, and the peculiar triangularity of Jack Nicholson’s eyebrows—when Ashley got up and headed for the stairs.

“Hey!” Josh called after her, turning himself around in his seat. “You’re gonna miss—”

She waved it off, “I’ve seen it before. I’m just grabbing a drink. Anyone want anything else?” Waiting only long enough for their chorus of ‘no’s, she disappeared entirely, the quiet padding of her footsteps on the stairs drowned out by the movie’s soundtrack.

Chris had turned around as well, and only looked back to the movie once she was gone, reaching over to the popcorn bowl absently. His fingers missed it once, twice, and then he looked up to find Josh staring very pointedly at him. Oh, they’d known each other more than long enough for Chris to recognize it for what it was: some kind of ass-hattery was afoot. “What?” he mouthed, not wanting to interrupt Sam as she watched the Torrances driving up to the Overlook for the first time.

Josh held up an index finger, signaling for him to wait. He set the bowl down on Chris’s lap before brandishing his left arm, pointing with his right index finger again.

Chris raised his eyebrows and shoveled a handful of popcorn into his mouth.

As though leading a child in a game of Simon Says, Josh extended his left arm slowly, never breaking eye contact with Chris. He draped it across Sam’s shoulders, making sure that Chris was watching as he then jerked his chin towards Ashley’s empty seat.

Groaning, Chris rolled his eyes up to the ceiling. He extended a finger of his own in Josh’s direction.

From Josh’s other side, Sam’s head appeared. She looked from Josh to Chris and back again, her brow furrowed. “So…” she said, gesturing vaguely to Josh’s arm. “What’s this?

In front of them, the picture on the screen switched to a tight shot of the family inside their little car. “They got snow-bound in the mountains,” Jack Nicholson’s jeering voice drawled from the screen. “They had to resort to cannibalism in order to stay alive.

Josh met Sam’s gaze before pointedly jerking his chin in the direction of Ashley’s seat again. He looked back down at her, popping his eyebrows up and down knowingly, a corner of his mouth twisting up into his usual smirk

Sam followed his line of sight, still obviously confused. She looked at Chris again, and then it seemed the penny dropped; her eyes widened and she grinned widely up at Josh, stifling a laugh. Turning back to Chris, she nodded frantically, pressing both of her hands jokingly to her cheeks before pantomiming a swoon, leaning more fully against Josh.

Chris groaned again, trying to disappear down into the cushion of his seat.

You mean…they ate each other up?” Projected from the stereo system, the little boy’s voice was twice as grating, emphasizing his macabre intrigue in the subject.

There was a rustling as Ashley reappeared, pulling the cinema door shut behind her. She scooted herself back into his seat, scrunching her face in concern when she noticed the mortified expression on Chris’s face. “Uh…did I miss something?” she asked.

“Nope!” Sam answered cheerfully, reaching over and playfully flicking Josh’s hand from off of her shoulder.

And still the movie rolled on. “Well, they had to,” Jack continued, speaking with the sort of calm disinterest that suggested he was explaining to his son that bananas were yellow. “In order to survive.”

***

Sunday, March 2, 2014
Early

The sky was pregnant with the promise of another doozy of a snowstorm…probably the last of the season. He could see it from where he sat at the base of the stairs, staring through the great room’s towering windows. Despite not being able to see the moon, the wintry sky seemed to illuminate the room almost as well as the sun, bringing his attention to the fat dust motes floating in and out of the light like lazy butterflies. But no, that wasn’t right…butterflies only came out during the day. Moths came out at night. This idea struck Josh, and he shuddered at the thought of papery wings and too many legs.

He stared until his eyes felt dry, and then he stood from the staircase, folding his arms across his chest. Someone—one of the bumbling rangers popping in and out of the lodge, no doubt—must’ve knocked into the thermostat or something, because it was absolutely freezing all of a sudden. It was odd, some part of him thought distantly, that he had only noticed it then, as his skin broke out into goosebumps. His breath plumed out in front of him as he exhaled, forming a cloud almost eerily identical to the great, looming monstrosities hanging just over the lodge’s roof. Josh furrowed his brow and continued rubbing his arms to try and warm them up, scrunching his face in thought when his foggy breath obscured his vision again.

“Fuckin’-a, man…” he mumbled, his voice little more than a harsh sigh in the pale cast of the room. The thermostat was in the hall just off the main entrance, so it wouldn’t be too big of a deal to go fix it, but what sort of moron wouldn’t check to see what they’d bumped into? It was rude, is what it was, and more to the point—Josh froze, quite literally, as he took the first step towards the front door and something under his bare foot crunched. For a moment, he gripped onto his arms tighter, fingers leaving deep divots in his flesh. It was confusion more than concern that brought him to look down; that confusion only grew when his brain made sense of what he was looking at.

Snow.

Josh narrowed his eyes at the realization. Had that snow been there a second ago? How…how had it gotten into the lodge, in the first place? His head swam with questions, filling him with the uneasy sensation of vertigo. Despite all of this, his gaze was slowly drawn forwards, following the strange, icy drift.

It led to the front door. Not in the sense that perhaps someone had left it open and the snow had blown in on the wind, but more like this was some warped version of Oz where the bricks were white and translucent. It looked like a path someone had made. It looked like a path someone had made for him.

The snow crunched quietly under his feet as he walked along it, a small voice in the very back of his head thinking dimly that boy oh boy, Dad’s gonna have a field day when this fucks up the hardwood. He reached the front door, paying no mind to the stacks of boots and coats on the bench nearby. In for a penny, in for a pound, and he was already beginning to grow numb to the cold anyway, so it didn’t much matter either way, right? Josh took the doorknob in hand, jerking back with a sharp intake of breath when it pulsed in his palm like something living.

“What the…” he bent down to get a better look, fingers already moving inquisitively closer.

“Josh?”

The pads of his fingertips were maybe a hair’s breadth away from the knob when he heard it. Each and every muscle in his body locked up, turning to cement under his skin; the fine hairs on his arms and neck stood on end. Around him, the air grew impossibly colder, almost as though the storm was starting inside of the lodge instead of outside. His body burned at once too hot and too cold with the first pinpricks of terror. The voice had been quiet, really just a whisper, but it had been spoken directly into his ear.

There was someone—something—behind him.

Cold-laced exhaustion slowed his mind to an effortful chug. Josh kept staring at the doorknob even as his eyes widened, even as he caught sight of the reflection in its burnished metal. He could see the blurry, amorphous shape standing just behind his right shoulder. It towered over him like one of his father’s grotesque movie creations, its limbs too long and its head too small for its shoulders. His stomach lurched when he saw one of its arms move, the shape of the doorknob warping the reflection almost beyond the point of him being able to understand what he was seeing. It was reaching for him…the thing was reaching for him.

Before he could think himself out of it, he spun around with wide-eyed panic, backing himself up until his shoulder blades pressed against the door. He might’ve shouted, but he wasn’t sure. Not for the first time, he felt his mouth grow dry at what he saw.

There was no creature (horrible or otherwise) standing in the hallway behind him. Mostly because there was no hallway behind him. Where the great room had been only seconds ago, now there was nothing but the snow-covered ground of the woods. The walls of the lodge had fallen away to be replaced by thickets of trees, their bare branches reaching up and up and up towards the stormy sky like skeletal fingers begging for help. It went without saying that the roof was gone, too: the only thing above him was a mass of dark clouds heavy with snow.

“What…the actual…fuck?” Josh asked, painfully aware of how tight his voice had grown. Over the wind, he wondered if he had made any sound at all, or if his breaths had been vaguely word-shaped. He glanced over his shoulder and recoiled with something like disgust when he saw the front door, same as it ever was. It wasn’t attached to anything anymore, not like a door was supposed to be, and instead just…it just stood in the middle of the forest. He took a step away from it, then two, then three, wandering back to where the great room was supposed to be.

“Josh?”

His head whipped around as he heard the voice again, but it was all but impossible to discern what direction it was coming from. The wind had begun to pick up, whistling through the trees with a sound that seemed to him more like a scream than anything else. He turned in a slow circle, trying to figure out where he was or what was going on. As far as he could see, there were only trees. Trees and snow.

Snow-bright as the woods were, he couldn’t make out any sort of path to follow. All of the snow beneath his feet (still bare, now beginning to turn a dusky shade of purple) looked fresh—Virgin, he thought to himself, ha ha ha.

“Josh!”

The voice was growing more insistent, more panicked, and just as he opened his mouth to try and shout a reply above the howling wind, there was a click of recognition. There was a second where the world blurred around him, made only of white and brown smears, then he was running faster than he’d ever run before. Twigs snapped under the soles of his feet yet he was too numb to feel a thing. Surrounded by trees as he was, branches thwapped his chest and shoulders as he pushed through them, tearing at his shirt and bruising his skin. He had no way of knowing if he was going the right way, if he was getting any closer to the voice, but something in his gut told him to press on, run faster, push through the cold.

“Josh!”

Beth!” he called back at the top of his lungs, all but feeling the wind suck the sound from his throat. “Beth! I’m—” Without warning, he was sprawling on the ground, chin grinding into the snow beneath him. And fuck, he must’ve been really cold, because it didn’t so much as register on his pain radar. He scrambled back to his feet, blinking in confusion when he saw what he had tripped over.

It was one of the big, overstuffed beanbags from the cinema room. He stared, bewildered, half expecting it to roll away in the wind or lunge towards him or…something. But it just sat there on the ground behind him, unmarred except for the divot his leg had made when he fell over it. After giving the beanbag another suspicious glance, he picked up his pace, quickly falling back into his run.

Beth!” he tried again, squinting against a fresh burst of snow blowing into his face. When there was no immediate reply, he changed tack. “Hannah!” He passed a tall pine tree, feeling a distant sense of dread as he realized there was something hanging from one of its branches. Just over his head, dangling fifty or sixty-some feet in the air, was the antler chandelier from the dining room. He passed it in a moment, leaving it in his wake, swinging frantically in the wind.

Something red shot past his periphery, and he turned only long enough to see that the forest was suddenly full of the horrible art his mother had decorated the lodge with—the strange abstract color paintings, the tapestries, the portraits, all nailed to tree trunks at eye-level. He didn’t have the time or the wherewithal to puzzle over who would do such a thing or why, and instead just kept sprinting.

“Josh?”

“Josh!”

“Josh.”

“Josh?”

The wind carried his sisters’ voices until the sound of his name meant nothing to him, but all he could see were trees. Twice he slipped and stumbled, but caught himself before he could fall again. The voices never seemed to get any closer, and that was the maddening part of it all. He could hear them, he could hear them! They had to be close, didn’t they? But he couldn’t see the forest for the trees, and wasn’t that the damnedest thing because suddenly that old saying made some sort of fucking sense.

Just as he had that thought—literally the precise moment it crossed his mind—he stepped out into a clearing. The change was so jarringly instantaneous that his vision spun. One second he had been in the middle of the goddamn woods, the next he was at the fire pit, staring straight into a crackling bonfire. His throat tightened. “H-Hannah?” he called out weakly, his voice hoarse, his mouth tasting like copper. “Beth?”

No response.

Suddenly, his exhaustion came crashing down around him, sending him staggering to the nearest bench. Josh sat, easing his unsteady descent with one of his hands. The fire was so bright against the snow that he could feel his eyes beginning to water from the intensity of it, yet be it from the cold or his fear, he swore there was no real heat to it. Part of him ached to test that theory, to reach out and stick his hand into the tantalizing flames, but his body felt very leaden just then. His legs felt as if they were made of stone, their muscles cramped and gnarled as the ancient roots he’d had to avoid tripping over. “Beth?” he tried again. “Hannah?” They came out as sighs, and all at once his tongue felt too heavy for his mouth.

It was the sound of metal on metal, that horrible high-pitched screech of rust, that caught his attention again. Though he didn’t know why, Josh glanced upwards, feeling his stomach lurch down into his feet. Dangling from the sky, not unlike the chandelier of antlers he’d spotted earlier, was the massive sculpture from the great room. Its chain rose up into the clouds, far past his line of vision, the twisted ball of metal hanging maybe fifteen feet above his head. It rocked back and forth and back again, each time filling the air with that terrible nails-on-a-chalkboard whine. But that wasn’t the upsetting part.

“Hannah?” He tried to stand only to find he physically couldn’t. Josh craned his head back, watching the shape inside the sculpture. “Hannah, holy fuck, get down from there!”

If she heard him, she didn’t immediately show any sign of it. Content as could be, Hannah sat inside the sculpture, supported by one of the many twisting beams. She held a beam in each hand, her legs poking out and dangling below her; she looked every inch a child on a swing, rocking herself to and fro. Finally, she looked down to Josh, smiling in the serene, reserved way she had. It was the sort of smile that suggested she was anxious about what she was going to say next. It was also the sort of smile, he thought, that suggested she had a secret. “Do you know the story of the Blackwood Sanatorium?” she asked him, cocking her head to one side. Her legs continued to pinwheel lazily in the air above his head. “Stop me if you’ve heard this one before…it’s an oldie, but a goodie!”

Josh blinked up at her. “What?”

Hannah giggled quietly before returning to her swinging, pivoting her hips just slightly, as to make the ball twist on its chain. “Oh what?” she laughed. “Do you have something scarier?

He looked back down, realizing belatedly that she was hanging directly over the bonfire. Josh couldn’t remember too much from his science classes, but he had a pretty good grasp on the basic principle of ‘Fire Bad.’ Even if that weird, ghostly chain held her weight, the sculpture was metal, and metal heated up pretty damn fast. If she didn’t get down from there, she’d roast like that butch cop from the shitty Silent Hill movie, and—

Entirely unaware of his panic, Hannah began to hum a song to herself, the wind carrying only snippets back to Josh.

“Hannah,” he said, trying to force his throat to handle his ‘concerned older brother’ voice. “You need to come down. You’re going to fall into the fire.”

“All we wanted was a fun weekend,” she replied, her smile gone, her voice frighteningly toneless. “Where everyone just hung out. None of this is fun, Josh.” And then, as if nothing had happened, she back rocking herself back and forth again, humming that same soft melody.

He tried to stand up again, still finding it impossible. Josh reached up with both arms, straining against his own body’s weight as he tried to grasp one of Hannah’s legs. She was too high up, but only just. If he could manage to stand, if he could get up onto the bench, then maybe…

His spine threatened to judder its way out of his skin when the wind died. The sudden lack of noise brought on a crippling wave of tinnitus, both of his ears ringing with such an intensity that he thought he might go mad. Josh flattened his hands against his ears until the ringing passed, but it was only tentatively that he removed them. Without the backdrop of the screaming storm, the only competition for Hannah’s voice was the popping of the fire and the rhythmic squeaking of the sculpture-turned-swing on its chain. He could make out her song then, in perfect, horrible clarity.

Oh shit. He had meant to say it, but had only managed to think it. The muscles in his jaw felt overly loose.

“Are you sleeping…are you sleeping…”

Josh jumped at how close the second voice was. He stared wide-eyed at the spot next to him on the bench. The spot that had been empty, up until a second ago. The spot that was now occupied by Beth. Unable to process this development, he gawked at her, Hannah’s humming serving as a discomforting soundtrack to the reunion. Beth sat hunched over with her elbows on her knees, her head hanging in such a way that her hair hid her face from his view.

Above them, Hannah’s humming gave way to words, the sound floating on the air like so many snowflakes. “Frère Jacques…Frère Jacques…”

Beth’s voice came again from behind the unmoving curtain of her hair. “Are you sleeping…are you sleeping…” She was off-tempo from Hannah, almost as though the two of them had decided to sing in a round. It was disquieting to say the very least.

“Beth,” Josh began, trying to keep the waver from out of his voice. “Tell Hannah to get down before she hurts herself.”

“Are you sleeping…” It was the only answer she gave him, voice stilted and droning, her body never moving. Another screech rang out between them as Hannah continued to swing.

He looked up from one sister to watch the other, feeling his eyes begin to grow dry from the fire’s light. “Hannah!” he called again, “We need to go home. Both of you need to come home!

From beside him, Beth spoke up again. “You’re still sleeping…”

“Han—that’s not even how the song goes!” He whirled back to Beth mid-plea, hands tightening to grip the wooden bench with a crushing pressure. “You guys need to come home! Stop fucking around and let’s just go before something bad—”

Never flinching, Beth’s voice suddenly became shockingly louder. “You’re still sleeping you’re still sleeping you’re still sleeping you’re still sleeping you’re still sleeping you’re still sleeping you’re still sleeping…” She spoke faster and faster, her words still wrong. Had they not been out in the middle of the woods, lost and cold as they were, Josh might’ve thought it was just one of those sibling things; he said she was screwing the lyrics up, so of course she’d keep doing it, but there was something frantic in her voice that he didn’t like, something that filled him with crepitant waves of panic.

Stop it!” he snapped, finally grabbing hold of her shoulder and shaking her. “Both of you, just…stop it! We need to go home!

Under his hand, Beth was unspeakably pliant. She may as well have been a sack of meat, sloshing around without any bones to speak of. Her form moved gelatinously as he shook her. “You’re still sleeping you’re still sleeping you’re STILL SLEEPING WHY WON’T YOU WAKE UP?!” As she shouted (screamed, really), her head finally rolled towards him, her hair falling away to reveal what was left of her face. Her skin had gone the motley grey-purple color of a bruise, her lips peeling back and away from her skull in such a way that her teeth seemed to be grinning at him. Her eyes were nothing more than the sunken black pits of a Halloween decoration, the lids and flesh plucked away by ravenous wildlife, no doubt.

Before he could react to the gruesome remains of her, the sound of the sculpture again filled the air: this time with a shuddering whine. He looked up just in time to see one of the links of the chain begin to warp and stretch under Hannah’s weight. He could see it coming apart, already picturing in his mind’s eye how quickly the structure would fall into the fire, how Hannah would be trapped in it like some kind of cage. He tried to stand again, but Beth’s hands had grabbed onto his arm with a vise-grip, keeping him wrought helplessly to the bench. All the while Hannah kept singing, Beth kept singing, the wind started screaming again, and the sculpture began to fall from the sky.

Josh sat up with a quiet gasp, the air filling his lungs like the first breath of a drowning man breaching the surface. Immediately he squeezed his eyes shut against what felt like a blinding amount of light (The fire, his brain struggled to remind him, it’s the fucking fire!), his hands flying up to cover his face. He could feel his heart in his throat, banging away like a freight engine, but already the nightmare was beginning to slip away from him. He could remember the cold, could remember Hannah and Beth’s faces, but…everything else was already growing dim and faint. After what could’ve been a minute, could’ve been less, he lowered his hands. Still squinting against the light, his vision started to return to him.

And it was then that he realized he was being stared at.

He jolted in an aftershock of fear when he blearily made out the two girls at the foot of his bed, mouths hanging open; his forehead creased in confused relief when, after blinking a few times, Ashley and Sam came into view (not his sisters, of course it wasn’t his sisters), both watching him with unguarded looks of shock. “Uhh…” Josh said, voice still husky with sleep. “So what’s…” he turned slightly to find Chris sitting up in bed next to him, his hand still wrapped around the pull-cord of the bedside lamp. The combination of the startled expression and lack of glasses made Chris nearly unrecognizable to his tired mind. “What’s, uh…all this?” He looked back to the girls, realizing belatedly that they weren’t just staring from their futons against the opposite wall, but they were literally on the foot of the bed, half-kneeling, half-leaning. Something about it…wasn’t right. His heart continued to hammer in his chest, and he tried to ignore it. “Are we all…having second thoughts about that orgy idea after all? Is that what this is?” He forced a corner of his mouth to turn upwards, but it felt unnatural.

None of them said anything. They all just kept watching him like he was a bug under a piece of glass. All the while their expressions remained the same: surprised, concerned, and maybe, just maybe…he thought he saw some fear in there, too.

What?” he said again, a little more forcefully. He looked between the three of them again, his face heating up with the burn of humiliation. Clearly, he had done something. Not knowing what, though…well that was making it ten times worse.

He was looking at Chris when Ashley spoke up from the foot of the bed, her own voice very small in the relative silence of the bedroom. “You were screaming.” She said it with a strange inflection that he couldn’t quite place, and when he met her eyes he didn’t care for the pity he saw gathering there. “You just…started screaming.”

Josh opened his mouth to reply, only to find he didn’t know what to say. Mechanically, he made himself smile again, snorting out a breath meant to sound like a laugh. “No I wasn’t,” he said, flashing the group a ‘you gotta be kidding me’ leer before realizing how serious she was being. “No, I…I wasn’t,” he repeated, the statement sounding a bit more like a plea, the second time around. He turned to Chris again, searching his face for any sign of humor that could suggest they were just joking around. No such luck. He stared back at Chris disbelievingly, feeling his face fall. “I…wasn’t.” Third time was usually the charm, but in that particular case, it was impossible to keep the shame from out of his voice.

“Josh…” Sam said quietly, but he couldn’t bring himself to turn her way again. He didn’t want to see how she was looking at him.

To save himself the indignity of feeling the others’ pitying stares, he covered his face with his hands once more, flopping back down atop his pillow. The nightmare was gone, leaving nothing but the faint imprint of his sister’s voices and their music box melody in the back of his mind, but this? This was inescapable. This wasn’t going to fade away just because he woke up or went back to sleep or blinked really hard. Josh didn’t need to see the others to know the sorts of looks they were exchanging at that very moment, and he definitely didn’t want to hear whatever soft assurances they were preparing to placate him with.

But no one said a word. Not a single word.

With his eyes screwed shut and his hands firmly planted over his face, he had no idea which of the girls moved first, but he felt the dip of the mattress and the rustling of the blankets as one of them crawled into the space between him and Chris. Not even a moment later, there was a second dip, a second rustle, and the bedsprings groaned with the weight of four people. The bed was not made for four adults, that much was sure, but Chris clicked the lamp off again and somehow they found a way to pile themselves in. It was cramped, it was warm, but it was…nice. They would all wake up to find at least one arm or leg had fallen asleep under the weight of someone else, but that would be hours and hours later. Just then, in the safety of the dark, arms tangled and legs readjusted and breaths evened back into the slow tattoo of sleep.

Thankfully for him (and the other three), the rest of the night passed dreamlessly for Josh.

***

3:45pm

There was very little talking as they set about closing up the lodge. It was equal parts solemnity and sleepiness that kept them quiet, the lodge full of the same oppressive air as a funeral home. And it did feel like a funeral in a way—at least a wake. It was a final viewing of a well-loved extension of themselves, an opportunity to say their goodbyes not to Beth or Hannah, but to the memories of them. Their feet had walked along the floors, their fingers had grasped the doors, they had laughed into the air, they had slept in the beds and on the couches and in the chairs.

Each sheet they laid over each piece of furniture felt like a burial shroud, transforming the great room into a joke of a haunted house attraction, packed to the brim with strangely shaped ghosts. They were ghosts too, in a sense, grey and listless versions of themselves, haunting the spaces they used to occupy in what felt like a past life.

They went about wrapping the furniture and emptying the kitchen of perishables, wiping down the bathrooms and packing up clothes; everything else was closed up as it was, the girls’ rooms becoming hermetically sealed tombs. No one could bring themselves to step foot into either of the twins’ bedrooms, much less consider touching anything that belonged (had belonged) to them.

And that was how the Washington Estate became the Washington Mausoleum, left to gather dust and snow until such a time that the curse could be lifted or, at the very least, bodies could be found.

The snow underfoot was watery with the promise of spring, giving them glimpses to the dead grass and mud trampled down by so many officers’ boots. There was still a chill in the air, but it was clear that winter was on its way out, much in the same way they were. With the sun overhead, casting deep shadows across the grounds, the lodge looked like a very different place than it had a month ago.

To be entirely fair, all four of them had separately been entertaining the sickening notion that they probably looked like very different people than they had been a month ago, as well.

They had made it about as far as the edge of the yard, packs heavy on their backs, when Sam stopped. Without warning, she turned back around, snow and mud squishing noisily under her boots as she cast one last, long look towards Blackwood Pines. Her arms were folded tightly across her chest in a gesture that had nothing to do with how cold she was, the rims of her eyes uncharacteristically red. Her mouth had pulled itself into a shape none of them had seen on her before, save for maybe Ashley, that night the two of them had spent in the guest room. It was Chris who stopped next, hesitantly facing the lodge as well, his hands anxiously toying with the straps of his backpack. His shoulders rose and fell with a sigh that escaped silently into the air, and he couldn’t help but feel that the lodge had swallowed up each and every happy memory he’d had of the Washingtons; that he’d left them there, wrapped up tightly under a dust sheet, hidden away in one of the doors under lock and key. Ashley stopped too, but it was a struggle for her to turn her gaze back to the lodge. Every time her eyes so much as brushed past one of the windows, she found herself horrified that she find a ghost staring back, mouth open wide in an accusatory scream. There were no tears though, she was surprised to find, as though the lodge had already taken its tithe of her.

Josh was the last to stop, and the last to stare, and the last to trace the shape of the lodge’s eaves with his eyes. He was shocked to find that he didn’t feel much of anything about the moment. He didn’t really feel much of anything about anything. Maybe it was acceptance, maybe it was denial, maybe it was how troubled his sleep had been, maybe it was another shitty side effect of his meds, maybe it was some impossible combination of everything. He couldn’t tell. He had no real desire to parse it out, either.

For as long as their family had owned the lodge, Josh couldn’t remember one single time where his parents hadn’t been forced to drag him (and the girls, a nasty voice in the back of his skull reminded him) back down the mountain. When they were at Blackwood, they never wanted to leave. Except right now, where he did in fact, want to leave. He wanted to leave very, very badly, in fact. He wanted to take off sprinting down to the cable car, wanted to fucking zipline down the wires instead of waiting for the old beast to chug its way to the base of the mountain. He wanted to run home, wanted to throw open the doors to their house, wanted to burst into the girls’ rooms and find them waiting there, sitting on their beds with confusion and laughter in their eyes. He wanted. He wanted.

Sam had made herself look away after a time, the shadow of the lodge against the sun tattooed on her retinas. Her gaze fell on Josh, instead, and the bizarre, absent expression of his face. Sidestepping closer, she laid her hand on his forearm, her brow creasing with worry as she tipped her face up to try and lessen their difference in height. “Are you gonna be okay?” She waited to ask it until he looked down towards her, keeping her voice as even as she was able.

Josh turned his eyes from her back to the darkening shape of the lodge, acutely aware of Chris and Ashley in his periphery, watching him and Sam. He took a deep breath in, wetting his lips as he tried to find something to say. With no small measure of wonder, he realized that he had no answer to that particular question—he couldn’t even begin to guess. A faint plume of fog escaped him as he exhaled, its wisps and whirls slowly rising up into the trees. Looking back to Sam, he momentarily put his hand over hers, offering a squeeze that wasn’t half as reassuring as either of them had hoped it would be. “Well…guess we’re gonna find out, aren’t we?” He watched as her carefully maintained expression faltered, knowing full well that it wasn’t what she had wanted him to say.

But it was the only answer he had, so it would have to do.

It would just have to do.

Chapter Text

Saturday, March 29, 2014
10:35am

“Last year, maybe like…three weeks after first semester started and we had just gotten settled into our dorm, I got a call from one of our friends, Zach. And as soon as I heard his voice, I just like…I just knew that something bad was up. I even remember saying ‘Dude you’re freaking me out, what’s wrong?’ after he’d only said like ‘Hey what’re you doing?’ because it was so noticeable. And he asked if I was alone and I told him no, that Josh was there too, and he told me to put him on speaker and I did, and that’s when I really knew that shit was fucked, because who does that, right?”

Ashley’s hands were folded on her lap. She stared down at them, silent as a specter, not wanting to interrupt. They’d been sitting in the parking lot for the better part of fifteen minutes, listening to the engine click as it cooled down. She’d been startled when Chris broke the silence as suddenly as he had, his story seemingly apropos of nothing, but there was a taut quality to his voice that suggested it was something he needed to purge himself of. So she listened.

“And he told us that he’d been on the phone with the Colemans all morning, that Nate had been in a car wreck, and that he’d died on the way to the hospital. I—you probably don’t remember Nate, I mean, he was in the year above me so he was already a senior when you were a freshman, but maybe you do? He was the one who got his arm stuck in the vending machine in the science wing that one time?”

Even though she only barely remembered anyone by that name (admittedly, the questionable claim to high school notoriety felt a little more familiar), she finally lifted her eyes from her hands to watch as he spoke. He didn’t look towards her, his own gaze fixed on the grill of the green Jeep parked in front of them; all the same, she undid her seatbelt and swiveled to better face him, pulling both of her legs up under herself.

“We hadn’t hung out in a while because of school and just that like…natural, shitty drift where you fall out of touch with high school people. I mean really, it had been almost a year because he went and moved to go to school a few hours away, and the last time we really did anything together was at his grad party the summer before that, so…I don’t know. I guess I thought…I thought maybe it wouldn’t be that hard. I thought maybe it would be sad and uncomfortable and it would suck, but it wasn’t like we were as tight as we used to be. He pretty much wasn’t in our lives at all, at that point, so how would this be any different?” For the first time since they’d gotten into the car, Chris dropped his hands from the steering wheel. His head bumped against the headrest as he leaned back and closed his eyes. He’d thought he’d had a point when he started the story, but now it felt as though he was mid-puke, trying to force himself through the dry heaves before he could straighten back up and get on with his day. “That sounds. Incredibly fucking shitty. I know.”

Ashley reached over to wordlessly set her hand on his forearm. She gave it a tiny, reassuring squeeze, and though she knew it was probably only her imagination, she could’ve sworn she felt the hammering of his pulse through the fabric of his suit jacket.

“So we all planned to meet up and drive to the funeral together—just us, the guys, the old gang. Or at least what was left of us. Me and Josh and Zach and Manny and Brody. And it was so…weird, because it was like…it was like we were all getting together for a reunion or some shit, you know? We hadn’t seen each other in months, hadn’t really hung out in months, we were all so busy with our own lives and all that…but there we were! All meeting up at the Washingtons’ first because…well, because obviously, right? I just remember all of us in the rec room. We said we didn’t want to be the first ones there, since that would be awkward, but really that wasn’t it, I don’t think. I think we just needed to…I don’t know what we needed to do. But we were all just like, sitting around in our shitty funeral clothes, looking like extras from The Room, and we were kind of…nervously existing. No one wanted to say anything, but no one wanted it to be quiet either, so—I don’t even remember which of us it was—someone started telling stories about when we were younger, the stupid shit we did in class, that kind of stuff. Obviously it turned into stories about Nate. And stories about all of us. Now, you gotta believe me when I say that some of that stuff was funny. Like. Hilarious.”

She smiled cautiously when he turned to meet her eyes, but still didn’t say anything. Maybe it was irrational, but the last thing on Earth she wanted to do in that moment was disrupt his momentum. A nasty little part of her wondered how much of that was rooted in a desire to stay in the car as long as possible.

“We start laughing, right? Because…because shit’s funny! But then in this weird, creepy moment, we all kind of realize at the same time that aw fuck, this is not time to laugh. Our buddy is dead, really honestly dead, and we’re sitting around Josh’s pool table laughing our asses off. It felt…bad? Wrong. It felt wrong, I think. Because it wasn’t what we were supposed to be doing. We all sort of stop at the same time, too, and everything gets real serious again, so we decide to just bite the bullet and head over to the funeral. Wake? Whatever. We get there, to the funeral home, and before we even walk in, we’re just like…nervous. And none of us wanna say it, because we’re all a bunch of dudes, but we’re pretty fuckin’ scared, too. It was everyone’s first funeral for someone who wasn’t a grandparent, or at least super old. This was one of our boys, one of the gang, not great great aunt Judith, you know? But Zach reminds us that the Colemans told him it was going to be a closed casket, that at least we wouldn’t have to see anything, and that helped. So we went in.”

There was a short lull in the story as Chris grabbed the water bottle from one of the cup holders and took a drink. Ashley let her eyes wander for a second, following the path of a small cluster of people as they walked by the driver’s-side window. They were vaguely familiar, likely faces she’d passed in the halls a couple hundred times over the past four years, but she couldn’t put names to any of them. She looked back to Chris when he cleared his throat.

“The place was…muffled? If that makes sense? There was sad church-y music playing from another room, but it sort of sounded like we were listening to it from underwater the whole time. There were flowers everywhere, and everything smelled like air freshener, and all the furniture was this weird…mint green color that made it feel like you were sitting in a grandma’s house. We see some people we know, so we head into that viewing room, and lo and behold, like five fucking deer in headlights, we all freeze at the same time. Have you ever felt that bullshit? Like in health class, they tell you all about your adrenaline and how it can trigger fight or flight, but they never tell you that there’s a third option. That like, sometimes, when you’re the most freaked out, the most overloaded, you freeze. Just fuckin’…stop moving. Can’t move. We look to the front of the room, and there’s the casket, but that shit isn’t closed, not even a little. It’s wide open, and we can see him. We can see Nate, even from the back of the room, just…lying there. And no one moves. No one moves a fucking muscle.”

She squeezed his arm again.

He stopped just long enough to reach up and pull his glasses off, setting them down on the dashboard. “And I know that…objectively, I have to go up there. I have to, that’s what you do. You gotta go up there, and you gotta look at the body. Only I can’t make my feet do that because I’m fucking terrified. In movies and books and shit, you always hear people say something like ‘Oh they look so peaceful, it’s like they could wake up and be fine,’ but I mean even from the back of the room, that was not the case. And even if it was, I mean, how is that supposed to be better? Who wants to look down at a dead body and go ‘Aw snap, look at them! I wonder if they’re gonna sit up!’ That’s fucking horrifying! And just…”

His voice trailed off, carried on the wind of a frustrated sigh. Implicitly, Ashley knew he wasn’t done, that the story wasn’t over; she had a tendency to cry whenever she was well and truly freaked out, Josh usually clammed up and got distant, but Chris’s mouth ran and ran and ran. This wasn’t the first time they’d done this—she doubted wholly it would be the last.

“Eventually, I went up. Me, leading the pack. Can you believe that shit? Like…since when do I take the lead, huh?” He punctuated it with a derisive laugh, the sound jut a little too high-pitched to be genuine. “Do you know how I finally convinced myself to go up there?”

She shook her head, entirely oblivious to the soothing circles her thumb was rubbing into his arm.

Chris rolled his eyes to the roof of the car. “I kept telling myself over and over again, ‘This is the hardest fucking thing you’re ever gonna have to do. So walk up there. Fifteen seconds and it’s over, and you’ll never have to do anything this bad ever again.’” He swallowed hard, letting his head roll onto his shoulder to look in Ashley’s direction again. It was easier to look at her that way, when she was mostly just blurred shapes and colors. “I believed it, too. Believed it enough to walk up to that coffin.” Sucking a breath through his teeth, he kneaded the heel of his hand into his temple. “But it wasn’t. It was not the hardest thing I was ever gonna have to do. Going in there?” he waved more than pointed, hand jerking towards the windshield and what lay beyond it, “That is the hardest thing. That right there. Yeah. Yeah, here I was, thinking that an open casket was the worst thing I could deal with, when surprise! Sometimes there’s fucking no casket, and no body, and nothing. Sometimes it’s just…just, just, just dead fuckin’ air and a bunch of people sobbing into it.”

“Back then, it was the worst thing.” Her voice sounded strange after such a long silence. “That day, that time? It absolutely was the hardest thing you could do. And you did it. You made it through that, you’re going to make it through this.”

How?” Fixing her with a stare that likely would’ve been more potent had he actually been able to see, Chris furrowed his brow. “How do I do that, exactly? Going in there and seeing the Washingtons? Seeing Josh? Fuck, Ash, seeing Sam? How? How precisely do we do that?

It was a fair question. More to the point, it was a question she, herself, had been grappling with for the past forty-eight hours (if nothing else, the raw patches on her lips, gnawed and red, were a clear testament to that).

Ashley took a deep breath in. She took a deep breath out. Her other hand found its way to Chris’s arm as she squared her shoulders. “We do it,” she began, “By telling ourselves over and over again that this is the hardest frigging thing we’re ever going to have to do.” It clearly wasn’t what he wanted to hear, but she pressed on anyway. “And we’ll get through this just like you got through that. We’ll get through it, and then we will never, ever have to do it again.” A pause, then, for good measure, “Ever.”

He looked down to her hands, his mouth still a tight line. “Yeah. That worked out so well when I said it last time.”

Last time,” Ashley said, leaning over just far enough to pluck Chris’s glasses off of the dashboard. “I wasn’t there.” She held the frames out, waiting until he slid them on to level her gaze at him. “Hey.” When his eyes met hers, she tightened her lips. “I got your back. You know that, right?”

The urge was strong to drop his eyes again, or suck in a disbelieving scoff, or stick the keys back in the ignition and screech out of the parking lot to leave tire tracks in their wake…but Ashley had said it so earnestly that he felt himself immediately rendered defenseless. “I—of course I do.” He attempted a smile, knowing full well that it was probably a horribly shoddy simulacrum at best. It struck him in that moment that there was likely another host of concerns and fears she was dealing with, entirely separate from his own. Suddenly he wanted nothing more than to reach over and brush her hair out of her face, to cup her cheek in his hand. But that would’ve been no different than sitting around the Washingtons’ pool table and laughing about study hall. He didn’t deserve that moment, not when Josh and his parents were inside wishing for something as humane as an open casket service. He set his hand on top of hers instead, offering her the same squeeze she’d given him earlier. “I got yours, too. Always.”

She returned the smile, hers just as uncomfortable and just as tight. Given the circumstances, she thought she would’ve understood if he hadn’t had her back just then. It was a relief she hadn’t realized she’d needed until he said it.

There was another flicker of activity as a grimy sedan pulled up next to them and a couple people got out. The slamming of car doors very effectively shattered whatever atmosphere they’d been cultivating, their eyes immediately drawn to the movement. Almost in unison, they both took in a long breath.

“Think we should…head in?"

“Yeah.” Chris’s hand found the door’s handle before hesitating. “…maybe in like. Two more minutes.”

“Two minutes,” Ashley agreed. “Then we go in.”

“Then we go in.”

***

12:17pm

Sam twisted her bracelet back and forth, back and forth, back and forth.

Everything felt to be moving in slow motion: Life was an old movie playing on a rusty reel, the colors tearing and edges blurred. An uncomfortable numbness had risen from the pit of her stomach to replace the raw ache despair had left behind. She realized she was fighting back a yawn—another one—and was immediately reminded of every crying fit she’d had as a child.

“Hey, hey, yikes, watch it!”

Much slower than she would’ve liked, she came back to herself, eyes flicking up to the source of the voice. Sam blinked tiredly as she took in the shocked, worried expression on Emily’s face. When she registered the touch, she glanced down to where Emily had grabbed both of her hands; the skin under the bracelet was red with agitation, a few tiny red specks warning of friction burn. “Oh—uh, shit.” She let go of the bracelet, fanning her fingers out briefly to show Emily that she’d realized her mistake. “Zoned out, I guess. Um. Thanks.”

Zoned out?” Emily asked her incredulously, having the good graces enough to keep her voice lowered. “You were sawing through your own hand, Sam, oh my God.”

She tried to find the right words to string together to make a plausible excuse, but a dull buzzing from further down the bench caught everyone’s attention and saved her the trouble. Her eyes briefly flicked back to Emily’s face to ensure she had turned to watch Mike return the buzzer to the hostess. In a flash, Sam had pulled out her phone, making every attempt to appear completely consumed by whatever was on her screen. “Oh, you guys go ahead,” she said, barely looking up as the others stood to follow the hostess to their table. “I’ll be right there, just gotta…” she waved her hand vaguely, letting her voice trail off. It took what was left of her mental wherewithal to pretend she didn’t notice Chris and Ashley apprehensively hanging back for a couple seconds.

Once they disappeared from her periphery, she pulled her legs up onto the waiting area’s bench, crunching herself into a protective little ball. She just needed a minute—that was all. Just a minute to think without having to worry about other people’s eyes on her.

Her nail clicked quietly against her phone’s screen as she opened the text thread. It was beginning to feel like second nature by then, and she only briefly skimmed the last conversation with her eyes before typing.

Josh

Hey
Chris said he told you where we were headed but I wanted to make sure I guess
Everyones here
Well I mean
Us and Em Mike Jess and Matt
The blackwood gang huh hahaha
Its weird
Like really really super weird
And I totally understand if youre not up to it believe me
Honestly im not totally sure im up for it :\
But were going to be here for at least a little so if you want to stop by you should
If you let me know I can tell you where were sitting

She stared down at the flurry of texts, feeling her lips press hard against her teeth. Her thumbs rubbed anxiously up and down the ridges of her phone’s case. There was no sign of a response on Josh’s end, not that she had expected one, and of course he didn’t have his read receipts on…

Josh

I hope youre hanging in there

Sam forced herself to shove her phone back into the pocket of her hoodie once it sent. She got to her feet, setting about smoothing her clothes out before trying to locate the rest of the group.

It wasn’t a difficult task—there were, after all, a lot of them—and she managed a tired smile as she came up on them.

“Everything okay?”

Her lips tightened into something vaguely resembling a smile as she slid into one of the open seats on Chris and Ashley’s side of the table. In the old days, she and Hannah would’ve been across from them, sitting with Emily and Mike and the others. But Hannah wasn’t there (Hannah wasn’t even at the funeral home, really), and somehow Sam had found herself on the other side of some social line she’d never noticed before. “Huh?” she realized belatedly that she’d sunk back into her own head, completely missing Ashley’s question.

Leaning forward to be seen around Chris, Ashley’s forehead creased with sympathy. “You doing okay?”

“Oh, yeah. Mhm, it’s fine.” She’d no sooner flipped her menu open than the server appeared, her chipper greeting silencing the others’ quiet talking with surprising efficiency.

“Ooh, you’re all dressed to the nines,” chirped the waitress, a girl about their age with bright eyes and her hair bobbling in a loose bun on top of her head. “What’re we celebrating today?”

Defying the staggering odds against it, all seven of them managed to grimace at precisely the same instant. An uncomfortable ripple passed through both sides of the table, each of them trying to avoid eye contact while simultaneously (and silently) begging for someone else to answer.

The silence lasted for maybe a fraction of a second, but it felt like a year.

Tired as she was, miserable as she was, it was Sam who spoke up. It was always Sam who spoke up. “We’re…” she began, struggling to find an answer that felt appropriate. “…celebrating the lives of two of our friends.”

“…Oh.”

As it turned out, no one felt like eating much. A few plates of appetizers were ordered and spread across the table in a rare show of solidarity between them all, everyone just picking at what seemed most appealing. Mostly they found themselves talking—not about anything in particular at first, but then slowly, inevitably, about the girls.

Halfway through some ridiculous story about how Beth and Jessica had royally pissed off the yearbook teacher (Sam had only half-remembered it, herself, until Jessica had started giggling, recounting all the school club photos the two of them had snuck into), she noticed a particularly significant look passing between Chris and Ashley. She didn’t ask. The others were laughing, adding the details they remembered, Emily scrolling through her phone’s photo roll to see if she could find one of the pictures in question, and Sam was suddenly very sure she was going to throw up.

There wasn’t a particularly delicate way for her to push her bowl away, and the jerkiness of the movement caught the attention of a few of the group.

“Y’okay there, bud?” Mike asked, his indifference clearly feigned as he took a drink from his glass, one arm slung lazily around Emily’s shoulders. “Find a bug in there?”

She shrugged noncommittally as she stood from the table. “I’m just…gonna check and see if I can get ahold of Josh. I’ll be back in a sec.” And with that, she grabbed her hoodie from the back of her chair, zipped it up, and strode out of the restaurant with a deliberateness meant more to hide her distress than anything else.

Sam only let herself exhale once she was outside, gritting her back teeth against the wave of emotion gurgling its way to the surface. It was too weird—too fucking weird—for everyone to just be sitting there, eating mozzarella sticks, talking about what they’d gotten up to for Spring Break, and pointedly ignoring the ghosts of the Washington siblings looming over them like cigarette smoke. She leaned a hand against one of the benches wrought to the ground and began the comforting routine of stretching her quads.

Right heel towards right hip, hold, breathe.

Switch hands, left heel towards left hip, hold, breathe.

Switch hands, right heel towards right hip…

There was too much buzzing around in her head, in her chest, in her gut. It wasn’t exactly anxiety, but it was something akin to anxious energy, making her feel like she was just a swarm of bees in a person suit. Desperately, she found herself wishing she was back on campus so she could jog to the gym, hang on the climbing wall for a while, maybe do some laps in the pool. Something (anything) to stop the ceaseless tingling in her extremities.

Or at the very least, stop the whirlwind of thoughts in her head.

A couple passed by her, pausing long enough to stare strangely, and Sam slowly lowered her foot back to the ground. Whoops.

As far as she’d been able to tell, her phone hadn’t buzzed once while she’d been inside, but there was still a disappointed lurch in her stomach when her home screen didn’t show any new notifications. She opened the text thread again, looking over it as though she’d be able to tell through some psychic link whether Josh had or hadn’t opened her last messages. Perching herself against the armrest of the bench, she stared down at the screen, trying to will him to respond. She thought about calling him, decided against it, reconsidered, decided against it again. Realistically, she doubted any of them would see him again that day. He’d looked wrecked at the service, and though he certainly hadn’t pushed her away, something about having the whole group together again felt…

Bad. It felt bad.

And didn’t that suck? How many selfies had she taken with Emily and Mike, over the years? How many football games had she gone to, cheering Matt on from the stands with everyone else? How many scandalous slumber parties had she and Hannah and Beth gone to where Jessica and Emily made them laugh until they cried? How many Homecoming dances, how many Prom after-parties, how many holiday shindigs, how many field trips, lunch periods, summer vacations—and now seeing everyone together made her want to puke her guts out.

She could only imagine how Josh would feel, surrounded by them on all sides.

Her phone went back into her pocket. Sam took a long, steadying breath before reaching up and removing her hairclip, instead tying her hair back into a ponytail with a few flicks of her wrist. It felt better to not have to worry about it coming loose. She began a mental countdown to the moment she’d be able to change into her pjs and cram the remains of today into the bottom of her laundry hamper.

There was a moment of disorientation when she reentered the restaurant, her distracted brain absolutely at a loss as to where their table had been. Sam stood in the waiting area, same as before, taking a few seconds to center herself again. It had been a long day, so it only stood to reason that she’d keep tripping up like that. Understanding that made it no less frustrating. She thought she had a handle on the situation, the memory of finding the group earlier flickering back into her mind, but the sound of familiar voices kept her where she was.

Just a few feet ahead, tucked away in a slightly recessed alcove, were the restrooms. The women’s room was closest to the waiting area, the door left ajar thanks to an old stopper. While she couldn’t hear everything, Sam could make out just enough from where she was standing. Just enough.

“—ou think they—”

Sure. If tha—e stop you.”

“—ight? I know!

The voices became a bit clearer, presumably as their owners moved closer to the door.

“Right. Because this is exactly how I wanted to spend the entire day. Dealing with the almosts and their scintillating small talk.” Emily groaned loudly, punctuated by what sounded to be a paper towel dispenser being used. “Do you think they have any idea how awkward they are? I mean, for real?”

There was a high, tittering laugh from Jessica. “Right?! It’s like…sad.”

“I think I figured it out, too. What’s so upsetting about them. They’re literally what would happen if social anxiety turned into people. They are the human embodiments of awkwardness.”

“Oh. My. God. That’s exactly it. That’s exactly it!” She laughed again, and Sam startled as the door swung open, both girls walking out. “We’ll bail ASAP.”

“Sooner than ASAP would be preferable, honestly…” Emily muttered, and then the two of them were past her, leaving Sam alone in the waiting area again.

She watched them until they disappeared into the crowded dining room, fingers still absently running up and down the shape of her phone tucked away in her pocket. In their wake, Sam blinked; she knew without really knowing that she had overheard something not at all meant for her. An unpleasant cringe crawled its way up her spine, tip-tapping its way up each individual vertebra as she realized she’d heard them say something similar before.

God, she wished Josh would answer her texts.

By the time she made it back to the table, Emily and Jessica had taken their seats again, already enveloped in an animated conversation with Matt and Mike. She pulled her chair out quietly, sitting down to her mostly untouched salad, again overcome with the sensation that she was suddenly a foreigner in an unfamiliar land. A gentle nudge against her side made her glance over, and the sensation was flipped on its head.

“Any luck?”

She shrugged and lowered her eyes from the looks of concern on Chris and Ashley’s faces, something about the earnestness of their expressions making her feel at once relieved and closer to tears than she had been all day. “Not really,” she conceded, taking a long drink in the hope it would keep them from asking anything else.

One of them sighed so quietly that she couldn’t quite tell which it had been.

“We’ll give it some time. He’s probably got, you know…family stuff holding him up, that’s all.” Ashley didn’t sound terribly confident, but then again, she never really did.

“Yeah,” Chris agreed, nudging Sam’s arm again, decidedly more reassuringly the second time around. “Look, I’ve known Josh forever. He’ll show up eventually. The only thing he hates more than being alone with his parents is being alone, so.” He shrugged, “I’m positive he’ll come around.”

***

3:49pm

But Josh did not show up.

The three of them sat on their side of the table long after Emily and Mike said their goodbyes, after Jessica finger-waved and ducked out, after Matt flashed an apologetic smile and said he’d catch Ashley in Bio on Monday. They sat, perfectly aware of Josh’s empty seat, their eyes occasionally sliding to it in much the same way a tongue prods at the bloodied space left by a pulled tooth. Even as they ordered dessert, they didn’t move to fill in the row the others had left—they just stayed where they were, surrounded by empty chairs.

Chris’s spoon made an unimportant little clink as it was set down on the plate in front of him. “I think we should call it.”

Neither Sam nor Ashley looked up from what they were doing. Sam kept swirling her drink with her straw, watching the ice cubes clink about in the resulting cyclone; Ashley continued to poke at what was left of the brownie sundae on Chris’s plate with her fork, making strange designs in the hot fudge.

“You’re probably right,” Sam sighed, reversing the direction of her straw. “They’re gonna wanna wipe this table down before the dinner rush.”

“That’s not really what I meant, Sam. I—”

“I know what you meant.” She said it softly, without any hint of malice, but she still winced at the sound of her own voice.

Ashley took one last bite of the brownie before setting her fork down. “It’s been a long day. Like. Too long.”

“You can say that again.”

“For real.” Chris rummaged around in his wallet, setting down money enough for the three of them, holding up a hand to stop either from protesting. “I got this one.”

“And they say chivalry is dead.”

Arms folding on top of the table, Ashley let her head droop, supported only by one of her shoulders. “I could go for…just the longest nap.” The other two made low, zombie-like sounds of approval, but she only half-noticed. She’d sucked her lower lip into her mouth, her front teeth gnawing at the already raw skin until she faintly tasted salt. “So I’m gonna float an idea…and like…feel free to say no if you think it’s stupid, but…” She gave her lip a soothing lick before sighing. “I don’t know about you guys, but I seriously feel like I might go bananas if I just have to sit with my thoughts all night, so like…do you guys wanna just go to someone’s house and…” she paused, too tired to dwell on whether or not it sounded childish, “Just…lay around? Or sleep? Or watch tv, or something?

“Yes.” She’d said it so quickly that both Ashley and Chris sat up a little straighter as they turned to her. “There is literally—literally—nothing I would rather do right now,” Sam added, fingers again anxiously tracing the outline of her phone in her pocket as she stood from the table.

“Hey, you already know I’m game,” Chris agreed, letting Ashley get up before he stood. “You know, uh, given the time—”

“Oh, duh. Sorry Sam, this is like. A regular thing for us. I figured we’d do my place, since Mom’s out ‘til tomorrow, and you guys can definitely stay the night. I mean, if that’s something you want to do.” She shouldered the door open, the three of them moving into the parking lot. “There’s plenty of room. Again, I mean, if you want.”

“I want.” Her phone was back in her palm even as she said it, frowning down at the text thread. “You sure your mom won’t mind us just…barging in?”

There was a chirp, just a little too cheery for the gray afternoon, as Chris unlocked his car. “Pfft. Jamie’s used to it.”

“She is.”

“We’re always barging in.”

“They are.”

Sam smiled, but it was tight. She glanced up from her phone and managed a tired laugh. “Wow. Nice car. Do we have to pick the kids up from soccer on the way back?” she joked, opening the back door of the SUV, assuming Ashley would be riding shotgun.

“Ha ha, you think you’re so funny. And no, we do not need to pick them up. They’re with their father this weekend, and let me tell you, I cannot wait for some me-time.” Chris snickered, but his tone was strangely flat, as though the joke was more habit than genuine. He glanced over his shoulder as he backed out of the parking space, mouth set in a thin line. “Man, I just…really figured Josh would show.”

In the front seat, Ashley sighed. “I’m sure it’s hard. He looked so…tired there, you know? Probably doesn’t want to deal with people anymore.”

Her eyes were on her phone again, fingers hovering over the keyboard. “Yeah. And I’m positive that him not being able to sleep isn’t helping matters.”

There was a pause as she spoke, but her attention was riveted by her phone screen. She barely noticed the tension—she definitely didn’t notice Chris and Ashley turn to share a look.

“He’s not sleeping?” Chris asked, eyes momentarily flicking to the rearview mirror, managing to briefly lock eyes with Sam.

She shrugged. “Yeah, he’s been having trouble since they locked up the lodge, I mean…you guys remember that night.” Even as she said it, she had to suppress the shuddering memory of being woken by his screaming. “And that was, what? More than three weeks ago? I can’t imagine going that long without a full night’s sleep. It’s like torture.” Glancing up again, she caught sight of both Chris and Ashley looking at her from the rearview. Sam was suddenly positive she had said something she shouldn’t have.

For the life of her, she couldn’t figure out what.

Their gazes were gone a second later, and she tried her darnedest to convince herself it was just another case of not being completely fluent in their friend-language. Maybe it hadn’t meant anything.

But God, if that was the case, why was her stomach so full of knots?

That was all it took to break through her hesitation, making herself look busy by typing another flurry of messages to Josh, hoping against hope that maybe that would be the end of the conversation until they reached Ashley’s place.

Josh

Hey again sorry for being annoying
The three of us are heading over to Ashs for the night
Were at my dads place right now so I can pack but well be heading over soon
Were just gonna bum around in pjs so no pressure or anything
Hope youre okay :\

The three of them worked like a well-oiled machine, in and out of the Giddings house in a matter of minutes, in and out of the Hartley house as soon as they could slip away from Mrs. Hartley’s hugging, and dragging overstuffed bags up the stairs to the Brown apartment shortly after.

“God, I wish your complex had elevators.” Chris adjusted the strap of the pack slung across his shoulder, leaning against the railing as he mimed being out of breath.

Rumming around in her messenger bag for her keys, Ashley scoffed. “Complain about it more. Maybe it’ll help.”

At the sound of voices, a loud, low growling came from the other side of the door, rumbling menacingly.

When neither of the others reacted, Sam raised her eyebrows. “Uh…we’re just…not going to mention the snarling, huh? Just gonna…let that be a thing?”

Leaning in confidentially, Chris cupped a hand between his mouth and her ear. “Guard dog,” he said somberly, giving Sam a slow nod.

“Guard dog,” she repeated.

“Oh shoot! I totally forgot to ask if you were allergic!” Ashley looked over her shoulder as she slid the key into the lock, expression pained. “I can—oh shush,” she said, turning back to the door. The growling stopped just long enough for her to push the door open.

Sam was not allergic to dogs, nor was she typically afraid of dogs; she considered herself something of a dog-person, really, but the timbre of the growling made her uneasy. In her head, she could already picture the stern German shepherd, or the slick rottie, or the drooling pittie…so when the door opened and Ashley was greeted by an obese pug wearing a bright green harness, there was, understandably, a moment of confusion. She blinked at the dog’s wrinkled face before turning back to Chris. “Guard dog.”

“He. Is. Vicious.”

Ashley groaned, taking the first tentative step into the apartment, trying to shoo him away from the door so the others could get in. “The apartment has size limits for dogs, so…he’s…the best we could do. Charlie, please, just…move.”

“Don’t you talk to Charles like that.” Chris followed after her, bending down to scoop the chubby dog up off the ground. “Oof. Man, you gotta lay off the bacon, pal,” he muttered, squinching his face up as he was immediately attacked by slobbering licks. “See? What did I tell you? Vicious.” He angled himself so that Sam could get a better look.

“Are guard dogs supposed to wag their tails that hard?” Sam asked, smiling widely as she rubbed the pug’s floppy ears. “Hellooo. Oh my God, he’s so wrinkly.”

Chris pivoted, pulling Charlie away from her. “Watch it. He’s sensitive.”

“You’re not allergic, are you Sam?” Having hung her bag up on the back of a chair, Ashley joined them, obviously worried. “I could put him in another room, and—”

No,” she laughed, making a point to pet him again. “However…I have been dreaming about my pajamas since I got out of them this morning, so if you could tell me where your bathroom is, so I could change, that would be splendid.”

Any memory of the strange conversation in Chris’s car was wiped from her mind as she slipped into her sweatpants.

***

7:45pm

The Browns’ apartment was small, cozy, and decorated mostly in warm maroons and creams. In the living area, a large window let in the fading light of sunset, a cool breeze, and the ambient sounds of a nearby street. It was, in a word, perfect.

None of them had actually fallen asleep, per se, but they had all come very close. On the floor, Ashley had curled up under a thick, impressively ornate crocheted afghan (the sort, Sam couldn’t help but notice, that the Hartleys’ couches had been decorated with), making her way through an equally thick, impressively old paperback novel. Close by, Chris lounged in an overstuffed armchair, tapping at his phone screen, the lenses of his glasses reflecting a flashing pattern of images as he switched between the same three phone apps over and over again. Sam had claimed the couch for herself, the chubby pug curled up at her feet while she fell into the meditative comfort of the apartment’s quiet noises.

Had the day not been such a monstrous affair, the silence might’ve been called ‘comfortable.’

Charlie lifted his head from his paws, his harness giving a little jingle. Sam opened her eyes in time to watch Ashley jump out of her skin when an insistent knock came from the front door.

“Jiminy Christmas…” she swore, pressing a hand to the base of her throat and shooting Chris a sour look. “Oh, ha ha, real funny.”

“Just for once, Ash, for once…could you just say the fuck-word like a normal person? Maybe?”

Rolling her eyes, Ashley headed for the door and disappeared out of Sam’s line of view. Aware that she wasn’t going to find her center again so easily, Sam sat up with a groggy yawn. She checked her phone, more out of habit than anything else, trying to blink away the bleariness in her eyes. From behind her, there was a buzz of low voices at the door, and she was suddenly very awake. She stood before Chris could ask her what was up, and when Ashley reappeared, no longer alone, Sam was the first to throw her arms around Josh and pull him into a spine-cracking hug.

“Aw shit—glad to see I made the right call, putting on sweatpants before heading over here. This is a legit sleepover situation, huh?” Josh hugged Sam back, playfully leaning to and fro until he had the both of them swaying side-to-side like middle schoolers at a dance. “Did I miss out on boy talk and mani-pedis? Gonna be super bummed if I did.”

“You definitely missed mani-pedis, but you know we’d never start talking about cuties without you.” Heaving himself out of the chair, Chris crossed the room in a few steps, knocking knuckles with Josh upon realizing Sam wasn’t about to move. “Glad you made it, man."

Josh shrugged with a low laugh. “Oh, you know me, couldn’t pass on the opportunity to be the life of this party.”

“You want something to drink?” Ashley asked. “We’d been talking about ordering a pizza, but then we all sort of just…turned into lumps for a couple hours, I guess.”

“Oh fuck, I totally forgot about that. Let’s do that. Here, I’ll call.”

“No cheese on Sam’s—”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah, I’ve been paying attention, Ash.” Waving her off, Chris pulled out his phone and disappeared into the hall, away from everyone’s talking.

“Drink?” she asked Josh again, doing her best to not draw attention to how hard she was trying to read the scene in front of her.

A shadow of his usual grin appeared as he glanced towards the kitchenette. “Uh…sure. Any chance you guys got a beer or two in there? Or has Jamie gone full Wine Mom?”

“I can check, but you might have to settle for hard lemonade.”

“Ah yes. The drink of champions.” Once Ashley had made her way to the fridge, Josh looked down at Sam, raising his eyebrows. “Y’okay there, Sammy?”

She nodded before finally disconnecting, looking back up to him. “I’m fine,” she said in such a way that made him think she was not. “Just got a little worried when you went all radio silence on us.”

“I won’t do it again. Scout’s honor.” He flashed her a laughably botched Boy Scout salute before reaching over and taking the bottle Ashley offered him. “Hard lemonade it is, then. Excellent.” Twisting the cap off, he dropped himself into the couch divot Sam had been dozing in, shooting Charlie a sidelong glance. “Charles,” he said with a respectful nod in the pug’s direction.

Chris reappeared a moment later, seeming to consider his earlier spot on the armchair before filling the open spot on the couch. “Pizza in forty-five,” he reported. “I said I’d pick it up—so someone remind me.”

“As if you’d forget pizza.”

There was a tiny wave of chuckling at that, and then, just as quickly, the apartment fell into one of the most awkward silences in all of recorded human history. It was obvious on their faces that they were all feeling it, helpless to fight against the wave of skin-crawling discomfort that came with not knowing what to say next.

As was so often the case, Josh was the one to stomp it into the ground. He took a long drink from the bottle, eyes scanning the room contemplatively before he cleared his throat. “Okay, so. Uh, I will be the first to acknowledge that shit’s an itty bitty bit weird right now, and I have done…very little to help that. I’ll go ahead and address the elephant in the room, since I guess I brought that dusty fucker in with me. No, I do not want to talk about today, I’d really rather not have any deep, involved conversations about emotions, and instead, I’d appreciate it if everyone sort of pretended today didn’t happen, and we’re all just chilling out for no reason in particular.” He set his drink down on the floor in front of him, resting his elbows on his knees as he leaned forward. “Anyone take issue with that?”

“Nope,” Chris said, lowering his eyes from Josh to Charlie.

“Works for me,” Ashley agreed, dropping herself back onto the wadded up blanket on the floor, setting her book aside for the time being.

“I think that sounds like an excellent plan,” Sam nodded, feeling fifty pounds of dread lift from her chest as they came to the agreement. She sat down on the ground between Ashley and Josh, stretching her legs out languidly. “That does mean we have to find a way to fill forty-five minutes, though.”

“We could have that orgy everyone’s been talking about.”

“Uh, my mom specifically said no orgies in the apartment while she’s out on business.”

Fuck.”

“We could always play that game you guys showed me,” Sam suggested with another poorly restrained yawn. “The one with the phones. And the Twilight picture.”

Beside her, Ashley’s eyes went wide. She whipped her head to Sam with a look of horrified disbelief. “You saw the Twilight picture?” Her gaze flicked to the couch, fixing both Chris and Josh with a frantic stare. “She’s seen the Twilight picture?!”

Josh shrugged and reached down to get his drink again. “It’s a good picture.”

“It’s not!” she whimpered, falling backwards onto the floor. She spread her arms out wide and groaned up to the ceiling.

“Well, while she does…whatever she’s doing down there...Social Suicide it is! You kids remember the rules?” Without missing a beat, Josh removed his phone from his pocket and tossed it onto the patch of carpet between all four of them.

“I was born knowing the rules.” Chris’s phone was next, clattering on top of Josh’s. “Who goes first? We going oldest to youngest? Tallest to shortest? Hottest to nottest?”

Sam added her phone, and then took Ashley’s and added it, too. “None of those are fair.”

“Why’s that?”

She held a hand out, gesturing vaguely to Josh. “Oldest. Tallest.”

“And hottest,” Josh finished for her. “I mean, don’t get me wrong, I will happily go first.”

“It’s probably better that way. Just tear off the band-aid.” Grunting with effort, Ashley pushed herself upright once more.

“So no one’s gonna contest that Josh is the hottest?” Leaning back against the couch, Chris cocked an eyebrow and folded his arms. “No one? Really? I see how it is.”

He struck a pose, resting his chin on top of his fist as he stared dreamily into the distance. “You’re just jealous of my natural sex appeal. Okay! Hmm…let’s see. Well, Cochise, since you have such strong opinions about my raw animal magnetism. You’re up, buddy boy.”

“Bring it.”

Josh narrowed his eyes, tapping his index finger against the bottle. The corners of his mouth turned up into something familiar and disconcerting. “Mk, let’s start off easy, shall we?” He nodded his chin towards Ashley. “Swap shirts for the rest of the night.”

“Man, come on.”

Sam was already trying not to laugh, but the look on Ashley’s face threatened to push her over the edge. “I don’t think that’s going to work.”

“What? Because of Cochise’s dad bod? Ah, it’ll be fine. That shirt’s big on you anyway, Ash.”

“Excuse me? Excuse me? Did you just say I have a dad bod?” Chris didn’t just turn to look at Josh—he pivoted his entire body to round on him. “Dude! The fuck! I don’t have a dad bod!” He glowered at Josh and then plaintively turned to the girls. “I don’t fucking have a dad bod.” His brow furrowed in concern. “Fuck. Do I have a dad bod?”

Ashley opened her mouth to respond, but thought better of it, holding her hands up uncertainly instead. Sam, on the other hand, erupted into giggles before seesawing her hand back and forth as if to say ‘kinda-sorta.’

“Oh fuck you guys!”

“You’re a very sexy dad, Cochise. You’re also looking at this the wrong way—this is the perfect excuse for you to get people to call you Daddy. Don’t you want that?”

NO?

“Aw, unfortunate. Now change shirts or give me your phone.”

Looking back to Ashley, Chris grimaced. “Fine, whatever. You okay with that?”

“I think I’ll live,” she sighed, getting to her feet and disappearing around a corner. “Sam, any chance you could like…help facilitate, here?”

“I will make the swap.” She shook her head at the idiocy of the whole thing, waiting until Ashley’s arm appeared from around the bend, shirt in hand. Sam took it, flung it over to Chris, and then deftly caught his flannel as he balled it up and lobbed it at her. “For you, madam,” she joked, handing it to Ashley.

“Fucking…stupid…” Chris muttered as he tugged her shirt on, clearly displeased when it was, in fact, just small enough to drive Josh’s point home. “I hate this game. This isn’t even my house,” he sighed, waving his hand to the Ravenclaw crest now across his chest.

When Ashley came around the corner again, she was rolling up the sleeves of the shirt. “I don’t see what the big deal is, I’m perfectly comfortable.”

“My turn. I deserve it. Sam. I’m going to present you with one of the most important questions of our time. Truly, this has been used as one of the most formative, important, and polarizing assessments of one’s relationships and allegiances, so…do you think you’re ready?”

Sam met Chris’s gaze levelly. “I am, but I have to be honest with you, it is…very difficult to take you seriously in that shirt.”

Deliberately, Chris lifted three fingers as he spoke. “Fuck. Marry. Kill.”

“Who?”

He spread his arms wide, encompassing the circle of them all.

“Oh, that’s mean.”

Josh leaned farther forward, “No, no. I’m suddenly very interested.”

Chris grinned widely, clearly very proud of himself. “Or you could chicken out…”

Rolling her eyes, Sam blew a raspberry in his direction. “Do I have to go in that order?”

“Absolutely you do.”

There was no good way out of that one. She looked around the room, pretending to consider each of the other three carefully. “Okay, well…these may be controversial opinions I’m voicing here, but…Fuck Ash, firstly.”

A chorus of ‘What’s filled the room, startling Charlie badly enough that he hopped off the couch and padded into the kitchen.

Immediately bright red, Ashley dropped her face into her hands, giggling uncontrollably. “Oh my God—really?

Sam was unfazed, turning her appraising gaze back to the guys. “Marry…well, let’s be real here, only one of you comes from a rich family, so…gonna have to marry Josh, I think. Finally realize my dream of being a trophy wife.”

He punched the air in victory, taking the opportunity to stick his tongue out at Chris. “Suck on that, Hartley.” Turning back to Sam, Josh lowered his tone, “As your husband, I promise I will never keep you from your secondary dream of fucking Ashley.”

“Oh my God!

“So that just leaves…Kill…” Sam squinted in mock seriousness as she locked eyes with Chris.

In response, Chris narrowed his eyes, scooting towards the edge of the couch to get closer to her. “You would kill me? You would…kill me, Samantha? If faced with the option of sleeping with me, joining me in holy matrimony, or killing me, you would kill me?”

“I’m definitely not going to fuck you, sooo…”

He flopped back onto the couch cushions and made a noise that was difficult to describe. “I need better friends. Friends who appreciate me.”

“And are willing to bang your dad bod,” Josh added, narrowly dodging out of the way of Chris’s fist.

Rocking her head side to side, Sam clucked her tongue and thought. “My turn, then?” She turned to Ashley, giving her a jokingly menacing once-over. “Ash.”

“Oh God.”

“Have you read Fifty Shades of Grey?

At that, Ashley laughed aloud. “No. No I have not.”

“Um, related question!” Josh suddenly piped in, smiling wolfishly. “Have you read the fanfiction it was based on?

Ashley’s face remained impassive as she held his stare. “No follow-up questions. It’s in the rules.”

“Oh sweet Jesus above, you have.” All the slights against him forgotten, Chris’s mouth fell open in surprise. “You have, haven’t you?!”

“No follow-up questions!”

Ashley Brown! I’m surprised at you!”

“I answered and now it’s my turn!” She waved both of her hands in the air, signaling for the others to stop talking over her (not that it helped much). “Josh.”

“Yes, Your Nastiness?”

“Ugh. Read us the last five things you searched on your phone.”

If possible, Josh’s grin only widened. “Man, you guys are so boring. Fine, gimme.” He reached down, fingers waggling, and Sam handed him his phone from the pile. “Last five, here we go: Tongue rash, world’s sexiest knock-knock jokes, how do I know if I’m allergic to strawberries, potato followed by onetwothree…seven question marks, and then octopus top hat.” Shrugging, he dropped his phone like one might drop a mic after a particularly sick burn. “Bam.”

Sam winced noticeably. “You know, if you have a tongue rash after eating strawberries, you’re…probably allergic to strawberries.”

“I never said the two were connected, just that I searched them. My turn again. So, Ash. Smashley. Encyclopedia Brown. Tell me. Have you read the fanfiction that Fifty Shades was based on?”

She flopped back onto the floor, covering her face with her hands. For a long while, she said nothing. There was a dramatic whoosh as she took in a deep breath, and then, almost too quietly to be heard. “Yes.”

The room exploded.

“It was bad!” she said, trying in vain to defend herself. “It was so bad and I didn’t enjoy it!!! I just…wanted to know what the fuss was about!”

“Why were you out there reading Twilight fanfiction?!”

NO FOLLOW-UP QUESTIONS!” She paused, and then sat up fast enough to give herself whiplash, staring at Sam intently. “My turn. Sam, why do you know it was Twilight fanfiction?”

“Ohoho!” Chris laughed, clapping his hands together at the drama of it all. “Plot twist of the century!"

“Catfight!” Josh added unhelpfully.

Sam sputtered for a second, taken off-guard by the immediate turnaround. Her mouth moved wordlessly in protest, but there was no use. She dropped her hands to her sides in a show of surrender. “I read part of it too—part of it! One of my friends sent it to me, and—oh shut up, you goons, like you haven’t done worse.”

“I have not gone out into the great expanse of the internet to read steamy Edward Cullen porn, no.”

“My turn again. Ash.” Both girls laughed as Chris and Josh jeered from the couch. “Why don’t you like the dark, huh?”

To her credit, Ashley kept her smile even as she reached over to the pile of phones and presented hers to Sam. It was a slighter smile, decidedly different than the one she’d been wearing only moments ago, but a smile nonetheless. The boys booed in disappointment.

Instantly, Sam felt bad, lifting her eyebrows in regret. “I didn’t—”

But Ashley just waved at her. “Hey, no one else has forfeit yet. We were due for one. Go on, do your worst.”

“There’s never anything good on Ash’s phone anyway,” Josh wistfully sighed, taking a drink before offering it to Chris.

Sam shot her an apologetic look anyway. Much like the last time she’d played, she couldn’t help but feel like she’d stepped into forbidden territory without knowing it. At first, she didn’t quite know what to do with Ashley’s phone (she gave heavy thought to changing Chris’s contact name to ‘Chris Heartley,’ knowing that its subtlety would make it harder to notice and fix, but that felt like a cop-out). And then she made the fortuitous decision to check out her notepad. Sam opened one of the more recent entries, eyes scanning it quickly. A smile slowly crept across her face as she highlighted and copied the text, opening up the group text and pasting it in.

Only a moment later, the three phones still in the pile all flashed with a new message.

Everyone went perfectly still.

Staring at the pile, Ashley apprehensively asked, “What did you do?”

With an innocent smile, Sam set the phone back down among the others. “I just sent a text, that’s all.” She sniffed and pulled at a corner of the blanket Ashley was sitting on, using it to cover up her chilly feet. “Oh!” she added, acting as though the thought had only then occurred to her. “By the way, Ash, I had no idea you wrote.”

Two things happened at once: Ashley’s face went white, and both of the guys nearly collapsed onto the floor in their rush to grab their phones.

Josh managed to get his text open first, his face brightening and brightening until it seemed he might burst with childlike glee. “Ahhh! Oh fuck me sideways!

Chris cleared his throat obnoxiously and began to read in a pretentious (and terrible) British accent. “‘And in that moment, she knew she was lost to her own insatiable needs: For answers, yes, but also for closure. When she’d arrived in the moors amid the smell of gunsmoke and blood—’

“Dude, fast forward to the interesting shit, huh? Like this part.” Josh, much to everyone’s chagrin, picked up the horrible accent as he read. “‘The world had grown dizzyingly warm around them, and she thought she might faint, were it not for the strength of his arms around her waist—’

Ashley dragged her fingers down her cheeks, making tiny sounds caught somewhere between sobs and laughs. “I hate you guys—I hate you guys. And Josh, you’re so full of bullcrap, I didn’t write any of that!”

He held up a finger to silence her. “‘Her breath caught in her chest, and her buttocks heaved with a great passion.’

“Her buttocks heaved?” The shame was out of Ashley’s voice, replaced by exhausted disbelief. “I think you mean ‘bosom.’

“Nope, I’m reading what’s on the screen, and the screen says ‘buttocks.’”

“Butt cheeks can’t heave, Josh.”

“Eat enough Chipotle and anything is possible.”

“Gross. I’ve had like fifteen turns, can I just…give my next one to someone else?” She jokingly shoved Sam away when she tried to lean against her. “Josh, you go. God knows you won’t shut up, might as well put that energy to use.”

He snickered and set his phone down again, bowing as best he could from his reclined position. “I’d be honored to take your turn. And just so you know, I will be reading all of that tonight, and I will be offering editorial feedback.”

“I’d really rather that you didn’t do any of that.”

“Tough. But hmm…do I have something? Do I…have an idea…Yeah, no, I got one. Samantha.”

“It never ends…” she joked, turning away from Ashley and fluttering her eyelashes as she looked back to the couch.

“Grab your phone.”

Sam quirked an eyebrow. “Well this seems counterintuitive…I thought this was the punishment, huh?” Still, she did it, waving it jokingly in his face as she took it from the pile. “What now?”

“Pull up your voicemail, call up the last person who left you a message, put ‘em on speaker, and just have a nice little chat. You can pick the topic of conversation, of course—I’m not a monster, after all.” Josh chuckled, raising his drink as though toasting before taking a sip.

Clucking her tongue, Sam grabbed her phone from off of the table, opening up her phone app. She tapped the voicemail button and immediately felt the inside of her throat turn to ice. Her face must’ve changed, at least in some small way, because to her left, Ashley was suddenly speaking up.

“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” she muttered through grit teeth, and Sam wondered distantly if Ashley thought she wouldn’t notice her saying it if she kept her lips from moving. “Josh, seriously. Sam, why don’t you—”

“Sammy’s a big girl, Ash, she can make her own decisions.”

Ashley turned to Chris instead, widening her eyes to try and communicate something. He looked from her to Sam, clearly puzzled, turning his hands over as if to say ‘What?

Sam only barely noticed them. Wordlessly, she hit the “Call Back” button on her most recent voicemail before putting it on speaker. Acting more out of habit than anything else, she tapped the volume button on the side of the phone until the ringing seemed to fill the entire room. She held the phone delicately before her, screen up, receiver facing her lips, as she’d done thousands of times before.

“Ugh. For real? You’re gonna luck out and have it go to voicemail? Well isn’t this a goddamn bitch of an unsatisfactory situation.” Josh leaned further back in the couch, drumming his fingers against the cushion nearest him.

Beside Sam, Ashley folded her hands together, looking to be in prayer. She set her chin between her thumbs and forefingers, squeezing her eyes shut. It was then that Chris managed to piece it together: she was bracing for impact. He only had to wonder why for a fraction of a second before the other shoe fell. “Oh, fuck,” he managed to say before the speaker clicked and a prerecorded voice rang out.

Hey! You’ve reached Hannah! Sorry I missed your call, but if you leave me a message, I’ll get back to you as soon as I can. Thanks! Bye!”

In the absolute silence of the room, the beep that followed was shriller than anything the four of them had ever heard before. No one knew where to look—Ashley kept her eyes closed tight, Chris pushed his glasses up onto his forehead, Josh’s gaze went unfocused as his grin melted into something else entirely. It was only Sam who didn’t flinch, still looking straight forward out the apartment’s window. Surprising herself as much as everyone else, she opened her mouth, and she spoke.

“Hey Han.” She paused, feeling the corners of her mouth twitch unpleasantly. “Been thinking about you and Beth a lot. Today, especially. I hope, uh…I hope you’re okay, wherever you are. I hope you’re…together. And I hope…” Her throat went tight. She shook her head, about to hang up, when she felt a warm hand close over hers.

There was no resistance from Sam as Chris took the phone, exhaling a deep, steadying breath through his nose. “We miss you guys,” he added, voice steadier than it had any right to be. “A whole lot, actually.”

Muscles numb with equal parts anxiety and dread, Ashley forced one of her arms out, offering her open palm. The weight of the phone was like a brick in her hand. “We’re so sorry, Hannah. We’re just so, so sorry.” Eyes still shut, she held the phone back out to the air between them all, waiting for someone else to take it.

Josh stared down at it as one might stare down the barrel of a gun. He swallowed hard, making no move to take it from Ashley’s hand. “Love you guys,” he said, voice dry and cracked and so very unlike how he usually sounded.

Quiet fell between them once more. In the middle of their circle, Hannah’s voicemail clicked as it timed out, automatically ending the call. The screen of Sam’s phone fell dark in Ashley’s hand. Slowly, Sam took it from her, holding it almost reverently.

No one said anything for a long while. They stared down at their feet, tongues too heavy and hearts too thick, all uncomfortable and all reeling from the emotional whiplash of the moment.

“I should uh…probably go grab the pizza.” Chris eased himself back up onto his feet, stepping over Charlie, who seemed intent on following him out.

“I’ll come with,” Ashley added, just a bit too quickly. She stood, grabbing her hoodie from off the back of one of the kitchen chairs, slipping it on and quickly sliding her feet into her shoes. “It’ll be easier if I’m there to unlock the door.” She mumbled it in a rush, adding an explanation where it wasn’t needed, pocketing the house keys.

Looking back over to where Josh and Sam still sat, Chris offered them a weak half-wave. “We’ll be back in a sec.”

“Sounds good,” Sam said, voice distant.

“We’ll be here,” Josh said, eyes distant.

The door clicked shut behind them, followed a moment later by the sound of the lock being turned.

It was difficult to say how much time passed like that. The room seemed to vibrate with the echo of Hannah’s voice, made all the louder now by its absence.

Absolutely at a loss for what to do, Sam covered her face with her hands, dropped them into her lap, covered her face again, and then settled on raking her fingers through her hair. She tugged the elastic out, sending her hair tumbling down from its ponytail. With movements much too jittery for her own liking, she set about gathering it all up again, twisting it into a messy nub at the back of her head. “Well shit,” she said, voice taut with what was either discomfort or incredulity. “Shit.”

“Shit,” Josh agreed. In one gulp, he finished what was left of his drink, rubbing his forehead with the heel of his hand. “Fuck. I should’ve—ugh. Goddamn it. Sam—”

She shook her head with a snap of her elastic, getting to her feet. “I should’ve just passed. That was…stupid. Wow. Wow that was stupid. Shit.”

Josh’s expression was hard to read as he stood, walking into the kitchenette and opening a cabinet, dropping the bottle into a recycling bin with the sort of confidence that suggested he was in his own home. “No, me asking was stupid. More than stupid, actually. It was—”

“I’m really, really awful at that game, huh?”

Josh turned to her, not understanding. He searched her face for a moment but found no answers there. “Uh…you’re literally the best at it. How’d you mean you’re awful?

Scoffing, Sam sat down in one of the dining area’s high-backed chairs. She gave her phone a hard flick and sent it spinning in wobbling circles atop the table. “When you guys are playing, you get each other to do anything. Or answer anything. And it’s no big. But when I’m answering something, or when it’s my turn, it’s like…that stops. I consistently mess up that flow.”

“Oh my God. Sammy, I—you really don’t understand the rules, do you? The point is to get people to hand over their phone so you can fuck with them! That’s legit the point. That’s the goal. I would love to get my grubby mitts all over Cochise’s phone, are you shitting me? Do you have the idea what kind of damage I could do? It is a fucking dream of mine. Ash never lets anyone read her shit, and you? You gave us that beautiful, beautiful gift.” He dropped himself into the chair across the table from her, plunking his elbows down so he could better lean in towards her.

They were both very aware of how quickly the topic had changed.

“I just feel like…I keep bringing up exactly the stuff no one wants to talk about, you know? Like last time, with the whole Chris and Ash thing, and now—”

“Here’s the problem, Sammy. You wanna know the problem? Here’s the problem.” Josh leaned in further, raising an eyebrow as he spoke. “You came in on Season 3, okay? You turn on the tv, and all you know is like…Dany’s got some sick dragons, a bunch of people are about to get married, and also Jaime’s only got one hand. This is all the info you’ve got to work with, because you didn’t see the shit that came before it—you missed Seasons 1 and 2. You have no idea what’s happened up until that point. Why does Dany have dragons? Has Jaime always only had one arm? Who are all these frilly assholes? Why is everyone constantly fucking? I mean just…constantly fucking? Hell, you never even met Ned or Drogo. You’re missing…huge, key pieces of context to understand what’s happening. Doesn’t mean you’re bad at it, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be watching. Just means you’re a little behind. But you’ll catch up.”

Glancing up from her phone, Sam offered him a humoring smile.

The corners of his mouth tightened. “Oh, Sammy,” he began, voice full of grief. “Please…please tell me you watch Game of Thrones.” When she didn’t respond, he let his head thunk onto the tabletop. “Samantha.

“There’s a lot of violence, and—”

This is an act of violence. An act of violence against me.”

Her shoulders shook with what might’ve been a chuckle. “I appreciate the metaphor, at least.”

“Okay, how about this. New season starts this week. You got some time to bone up before then. You want I should give you a run-down of everything that’s happened up ‘til this point?”

At that, she really did laugh. “I absolutely do not want that.”

“Okay, but are you sure?

“Prettttty sure.”

The silence that fell that time around was slightly less horrendous, but no less weighty. Josh seemed to notice this, and again, took it upon himself to quash it before it could grow. “Also, about before—”

Sam’s eyes flit back up to him.

“No. No. Not that ‘before.’ I think I specifically said that emotion-talk is strictly off-limits tonight.” He sliced his hand through the air to drive the point home. “I meant you talking about the questions you think you fucked up so brutally on. Firstly. None of us know why Ash is such a chickenshit when it comes to the dark, leading me to believe there are two possibilities: One, she was once attacked by an actual vampire in the dead of night, or two, the more likely option, she doesn’t have a reason. Either way, I’m pretty sure you’re good.” He popped his eyebrows up and down before swiveling to glance towards the front door. “Now, as for the Chris and Ash thing, I do believe I know what’s up with that.”

“Yeah, I remember you saying that,” she snickered, setting her cheek against her hand. “You sure you should be talking about this? I mean, what’s to stop me from spilling the beans and tattling on you as soon as they get back?”

“Oh, I’m sorry, I’m letting you marry me for my family’s money, and you’re gonna do me dirty like that? Is that what I’m hearing? Yeah, thought I forgot about that, huh?” Laughing, he continued, “Consider this me trying to help you fast forward to the current season, yeah? The short version of the story is that those two dumdums aren’t together because they’re both idiots, but I’m gonna go out on a limb and assume you’ve already cottoned to that idea. The longer version is that they both have this…stupid, ridiculous, frankly unrealistic idea that romance actually happens like in Hallmark movies, and so they set these…moronic expectations.”

Sam furrowed her brow, still smiling. “Not sure I get you.”

“You don’t get me because it’s stupid. I—okay, look. Here, I’ll make it simple. They have…no idea how real-world flirting occurs. None. You think either of them understands the fine art of wooing?”

Wooing.”

“They don’t see their own bullshit as clearly being romantic. ‘Oh gee, all friends stare dreamily at each other from across the room, don’t they? Whoops, there we go again, accidentally sitting too close together and getting snuggly. I mean, everyone falls asleep talking on the phone with their buddies about their hopes and dreams at three am, right?’” He shook his head and rolled his eyes. “You know what those fuckers want?” Sam only shrugged in response, so he soldiered on. “Significant. Hand. Touches.”

Sam blinked. “I…genuinely don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“You do. Imagine any like, overtly romantic scene in a movie. Think about, I don’t know. Titanic. The roguish hero holds his hand out, and the wispy heroine apprehensively reaches out to take it. Or their hands brush against each other, and then slowly—so fucking slowly—they end up holding hands. They want to do that stupid finger thing—”

One of Sam’s eyebrows shot up.

“Oh come on. You know what I mean. They want to do…that thing? With the fingers?”

Her second eyebrow went up.

“No, not—okay, first off, wow. Usually it’s me being accused of having my mind in the gutter. No, Little Miss Perv, I meant the…here, put your hands up like this?” He held both of his hands up in front of him, elbows on the table, palms facing her, almost as though he was going for a double high five. When she didn’t immediately move to copy him, Josh heaved a dramatic sigh and clucked his tongue noisily. “Sammy, I’m trying to make a point here.”

Not without reservations, she mirrored his position, holding her hands up and out in front of her.

Thank you.” Before she could ask what he was doing, Josh moved his hands forward, making a grand production of lacing his fingers between hers, punctuating the action with a squeeze.

Sam looked down at their hands and nodded. “I gotcha. The finger thing.”

“The finger thing!” Josh grinned his usual grin. “So, trust me. I’ve been dealing with those two mooks since…well, pretty much since ever. Suffice it to say, my dear Sammy, there isn’t a snowball’s chance in Hell either of them makes a move any time soon. They’re just gonna keep waiting for some big, dramatic moment, or like…some emotional and tear-filled confession. Expecting anything else is just gonna be like banging your head against a door over and over again, cuz believe you me, they’ve got no idea how to identify actual, factual, twenty-first century flirting. They’re doomed,” he sighed. “So fuckin’ doomed.”

She remembered a conversation they’d had in the lodge a lifetime ago, not so different from this one. Back then, she’d thought Josh’s mockery had been full of endearment—fondness. At that moment, she realized she wasn’t too sure about that anymore. But it had been a long day, a strange day, and a bad day, so she let it drop from her mind. “Uh huh? And tell me, Josh,” she began, “What does actual, factual, twenty-first century flirting look like to you?”

“Gee, you know Sammy…I wonder.” Pointedly, Josh glanced down to their hands, fingers still laced. His expression changed, becoming strange. “…do you think Chris realizes he’s wearing that shirt out in public?”

“Oh God.”

***

Sunday, March 30, 2014
2:03am

Ashley inhaled deeply as she was pulled back to consciousness, the bright colors of her dream already beginning to fade. She yawned, cracking her eyes open just enough to try and make sense of what was going on. Save for the flickering light of the tv (playing what appeared to be an infomercial for some kind of mop), the room was dark. If she really tried, she could still make out Sam sprawled across the overstuffed armchair, Charlie curled up on her lap, both quietly snoring. She laughed to herself, readjusting her own position to be more comfortable on the couch. Her hand patted around under the blanket to try and find the remote, planning on just turning the tv off and sleeping for real, but her fingers froze before she had any success.

“So…”

“So?”

“How’s…stuff?”

“Oh, stuff? Stuff’s fine. Stuff’s great, actually—stuff’s never been better, now that you mention it. Peachy keen.”

She did her best to blink away the heavy haze of sleep, the gears in her head cranking away to piece together what was going on. It was only then that she realized the guys were unaccounted for in the room. Her first foggy thought was that they’d already turned in for the night, but that wasn’t right—they were the ones who were supposed to crash on the pull-out couch. Another quick look around the apartment, and she noticed the balcony door’s lock was undone.

That was what woke her, she realized as she woke up a little more: the click of the door being opened and shut.

“I’m being serious, dude.”

“Oh, I know, I’m being serious too, can’t you tell? Got my serious face on and everything.”

The window was still open from earlier. None of them had thought to close it before they’d hunkered down for the night. From her position slumped low in the couch, Ashley could only barely see someone’s silhouette on the balcony, but since neither of them had turned on the outside light, it was nearly impossible to figure out whose. But she could hear them. She could hear them crystal-clear, as a matter of fact.

She nestled herself back down against the cushions, fingers weaving absently through the wide spaces between its crocheted stitches. Part of her wanted to get up and join them, to go outside and lean against the balcony’s railing, to try and find some sort of normalcy amid the swirling shitstorm they’d been wading through for the past few months. How many times had the three of them done that? How often had they just…sat out there while the rest of the complex slept, telling stupid stories in hushed whispers, snickering loud enough to worry that the neighbors would yell at them to shut up? Maybe with a snuck beer or two. Almost always with pizza or fries that had long-since gone cold and mushy.

Tonight wasn’t one of those nights. Tonight, she could already hear the helpless exasperation in Chris’s voice and felt her skin crawl at the terse replies Josh was shooting back. She’d put herself in the middle of too many of those conversations, as of late. So she closed her eyes, pretended to be asleep, and listened.

“We missed you earlier. At the restaurant.”

“Mhm, yeah, well, I’m really sorry I missed out on half-priced apps and everyone giving me the sad-eye, but y’know. I had other shit on my mind.”

“That’s not—I just meant that—”

“I know what you meant, Cochise. You’re not a difficult guy to understand.”

The first real tendrils of dread started to work their way up between her ribs, reawakening her stomach and heart with sick flutters. Ashley decided it was for the best that she had chosen to stay where she was. If she’d been out there, her emotions would’ve been too difficult to rein in. Her pokerface was shit.

Chris sighed, and then everything was quiet for what felt like an eternity. It was an old song-and-dance for them—a choreographed waltz through a minefield. Ashley realized she almost knew what Chris was about to say, moments before he actually said it.

“You know you can talk to me about this shit, right? Whenever. And anything.”

“Much appreciated, man.”

Another long pause, and she could all but see Chris mentally scrolling through dialogue options as if playing some shitty RPG. When he spoke next, it was his tone that surprised her more than anything else. He sounded…well, honestly, she wasn’t sure how he sounded. She wasn’t sure she’d ever heard Chris’s voice take on that flat of an edge.

“Sam said you haven’t been sleeping.”

She couldn’t see Josh’s face, but if she had been able to, she thought he’d likely be every inch as surprised as she was.

“Yeah. Well. That was…nice of her to share with the class.”

“She’s concerned.”

“Mhm.”

“Just like the rest of us are concerned.”

“’kay.”

“Look, I get…I get if you don’t want to talk tonight, okay? I do. For real, it was a long day.”

“Oh gee whiz, was it? I didn’t even notice.”

“I can let it drop tonight if that’s what you want. I don’t want to make shit worse, but like. Come on, man. Come on. You can’t keep just like…pretending nothing’s wrong whenever I mention it, but then suddenly I’m the villain when I’m not all about it. I just want to help, Josh, for fuck’s sake dude. I’ve been here the whole time, just…trying, and then I find out you’ve been talking to Sam about all of this? I can’t get a word out of you, you’re not answering my texts, but Sam—”

“Hey, here’s an idea. Stop right there.”

She hadn’t recognized Chris’s tone, but Josh’s she knew. An unpleasant shiver ran its way across her skin, causing her fingers to involuntarily clench around the blanket. That tone was a red flag, a warning sign flashing bright against the backs of her eyelids. If there was one thing the Brown women were good at—excelled at, really—it was identifying those flags. Identifying and avoiding.

There was a pause in their conversation, filled only by the sound of rustling fabric as one or both (assumedly) turned to the window to ensure the girls weren’t watching them. Voice lowered to a murmur, Chris continued, “I said I’d drop it.”

Silence.

The nasty tendrils of anxiety thickened around her guts, turning into slimy eldritch abominations that lashed at her ribs and filled her mouth with the sour taste of desperation. She could’ve seen this coming from a mile away, but it didn’t make her reaction any less intense. She wanted to scream. She wanted to insert herself directly between the two of them out there on the balcony and act as some sort of meat shield. She wanted to throw up. Instead, she squeezed her eyes shut tighter.

Just like that, the memories of the three of them joking around and swatting at mosquitos under the balcony’s lamp felt impossibly distant. Even as she tried to recall them, the images seemed to wear and fray at the edges like old sun-stained photographs.

Ah, great.

Now she wanted to cry, too.

Josh still hadn’t responded, as far as she could tell, and she had to really strain to hear what Chris said next.

“Hey, are you…like…have you been…?”

That got an answer from Josh. “If you are even contemplating asking me the question I think you are, Cochise, then I’m gonna have to go ahead and strongly suggest you reconsider.”

There was another beat of silence from Chris’s end, and Ashley furrowed her brow as she tried desperately to fill in the blanks. “Are you?” he finally asked, doing nothing to help her piece together this particular puzzle.

She didn’t have too much time to think about it, as the balcony door swung open a second later. Though she couldn’t see it, she could hear Charlie hop back onto the ground, letting out a shrill, surprised yelp; at least she didn’t have to worry that the guys would notice her jump at the sound of the door. There was a confused rumble of voices then, and she pretended to be roused from her sleep, reaching up to rub at her face with her sleeve.

In the armchair, Sam was slowly sitting up, her hair tousled and eyes bleary. “Whuzzat?” she muttered, only barely loud enough for Ashley to hear.

Josh’s silhouette was only visible as he crossed the tv’s bright screen. “I’m taking Ash’s bed,” he said entirely unprompted, gone again a moment later.

Charlie stood at the threshold of the balcony door, the little curlicue of his tail wagging expectantly, suggesting Chris was still out there. Whatever had just gone on was over, but something uncomfortable hung in the air like static electricity.

Shivering, Ashley crawled to the other end of the couch and clicked the lamp on. She made a show of wincing against the light on the off-chance anyone else was watching her.

“That bed is gonna be full of farts by tomorrow, hope you know that,” Sam laughed, her voice thick with sleep. There was a pained noise when she checked her phone and saw the time. “Aw man, didn’t think I’d actually fall asleep like that…I can already feel my neck screaming at me, geez.”

It was only reluctantly that Ashley looked away from the balcony door and back towards Sam. “Yeah, ooh, not really the comfiest chair to nap in. I know that one…” She hummed a tiny sound that was meant to be a laugh but didn’t really come close. “Well, if he’s crashing in my room, you can take my mom’s bed, here, I’ll—”

“I really don’t want to impose—”

Ashley waved it off as she got up, carefully stepping over the blanket that had pooled around her feet. “Don’t worry about it, seriously, she’s totally fine with it. Do you want me to find you a new pillow or…?”

Sam shook her head blearily, clearly still half-asleep. “I got it. Are you gonna…” she paused, voice trailing off. She looked at Ashley thoughtfully, then the balcony door, then middle-space, running sleepy calculations in her head. Her eyes narrowed with a question she didn’t ask aloud, just watching Ashley’s face instead.

“I’m…going to figure out where I’m sleeping.” She averted her eyes just as the first prickles of heat crept into the tips of her ears. “So…don’t be shocked if I pop in there with you in a minute or two.”

“And don’t be shocked…if you don’t.”

She shrugged. “Either way.”

“Either way. I gotcha, Ash.” Smiling that soft, drowsy smile, she playfully patted Ashley’s shoulder. “G’night.”

“Goodnight.” And then, before she could think too heavily on it, she pulled Sam into a tight hug. She could feel the moment of surprise, and then Sam was hugging her back just as tightly. Maybe even more. She closed her eyes and pressed her cheek against Sam’s shoulder.

For one surreal instant, it was almost like they were back in the guest room, both tear-streaked and huddled under the Washington’s scratchy blankets. It had been such a long day. They were both unspeakably exhausted from grappling with their thoughts (the ones they shared and the ones unique to them), both made vulnerable and earnest by the late hour.

Sam let go first, heaving a breath that caused her shoulders to rock. “What a day, huh?” There was a tremor to her voice that, while tiny, said a whole lot.

“Hardest day we’ll ever have to do,” Ashley said, the conversation she’d had with Chris in the parking lot coming back to her in vivid detail. “And we’ll never, ever have to do it again.”

It looked for a moment as if Sam wanted to say something in return. The moment passed. She nodded, then raised a hand in a half-hearted wave as she took her leave, disappearing into the master bedroom and leaving Ashley alone in front of the tv.

In the light, it was easier to find the remote. She turned the tv off just as an overexcited salesman began listing off all the uses for what looked like a Koosh ball made out of sponge. Ashley made short work of the room, coolly and methodically picking up the blanket and tossing it onto the armchair, moving snack bowls and drinks into the kitchen, and toeing aside anything in the way of the foldout couch. She had just finished removing the couch’s cushions when she heard Charlie scamper away from the balcony and into the kitchen behind her.

“Hey, I got that, don’t—”

“What, you think I can’t do it myself?” She offered Chris a sidelong glance, quirking an eyebrow jokingly. “I got it.”

“Yeah, well, can’t blame a guy for trying to be chivalrous.”

“Oh, is that what that is?” Once unfolded, she set about making the bed, grabbing the set of spare sheets from the laundry nook. She pursed her lips as she battled with what to say next, trying not to let her apprehension show. “Oh, Josh changed his mind and called dibs on my bed, so…”

Chris let himself drop onto the mattress with a grunt, but didn’t offer any further response.

A wave of exhaustion crashed over her. Ashley sat herself down on the edge of the bed, feet tucked primly against one of its supports on the ground. In that moment, it was difficult to believe that it had only been hours since they’d been sitting in the parking lot outside the funeral home—she was sure she’d aged at least five years in that time. Just barely turning over her shoulder, she put what little energy she had left into feigning nonchalance. “You doing okay?”

The mattress dipped and squeaked when Chris rolled onto his back. “It’s been…a long fucking day.” He slid his glasses off and tossed them none-too-gently onto the side table before covering his face with his hands.

“I’ll say.” She reached over and turned the lamp off again, the streetlamps outside giving the room only the faintest silvery cast of illumination. Each and every one of her muscles seemed to creak and groan as she finally laid herself down, staring up at the ceiling while trying to get comfortable on the spare pillow. “But we got through it.”

“Mhm.”

“And we never have to do it again.”

There was a muted sigh, and then the rustling of sheets as Chris dropped his hands from his face. “I really, really hope not.” More rustling.

Ashley stretched her arms out over her head with a yawn that Chris caught immediately. “Are you okay, though?” she tried again. “Don’t think I didn’t notice you dodging the question.”

“You know I’m shit at dodging. Ever see me in gym?”

“Can’t say I ever had that particular pleasure.”

“Well trust me. It was a bad time.” A stretch of silence fell between them, punctuated by Charlie’s wheezy snorts as he attempted to hop up onto the bed with them. “I’m…tired,” he answered finally. “Just crazy tired.”

She sighed, scooping Charlie up off the ground and setting him down between them where he promptly curled up and snuffled contently. “Yeah, I feel like I’ve been awake for like…”

Eighty four years,” Chris said, giving his voice a strange, wavery affectation as he said it.

Something like that.”

A door slammed somewhere downstairs. There were footsteps, heavy and angry, stomping down the stairs, voices murmuring with unintelligible agitation. It was the sort of thing Ashley was used to, but there was a rustle from next to her as Chris turned onto his side and grabbed his glasses. She couldn’t tell what he was looking at until he spoke up again. “We leave that open all night?”

Under the cover of the darkness, she grimaced. “What?” She pretended to spot the cracked window for the first time. “Oh, that? I guess. It gets so hot in here with more than a few people hanging around.”

Chris was quiet again, but she could all but hear the whir of his thoughts. “Could you guys hear us earlier? On the balcony?” His voice had lowered to a conspiratorial whisper, reawakening the maelstrom of anxiety in her chest.

Ashley was good at a great many things.

Lying? Not one of them.

Not by a long shot.

She tugged the sheets back up to her chin, doing her best to appear as uninterested as possible. “What do you mean? I heard the door open and Charlie barking…?” At the sound of his name, the pug lifted his head and snuffled at her side, setting his head on top of her shoulder. Yawning, she added, “Josh really just like…threw the door open, huh? Such a gentleman.” Now it was her dodging the question, and God, she hoped he didn’t notice.

Thankfully (blessedly), Chris seemed content enough to let it go. “Yeah…” he began, obviously distracted. “Uh, is the plan…that you’re crashing...here? Or…?”

Shit. Now she almost wished they were talking about her eavesdropping. “Oh, I mean. I figured, I mean…Josh took my bed—"

“Right, yeah, I mean, it’s fine, I just—”

“And I kinda just thought Sam…I mean she was pretty upset, and like. She probably could use the privacy, I thought—”

“Sure, that makes sense, yeah. It’s totally chill, just wanted to check—”

“I mean…why, is it weird?” Ashley cringed outwardly, hoping Chris wasn’t looking right at her. She was bright enough to know that asking if something was weird automatically made it ten times weirder than it needed to be. She had brought it upon herself. She had weirdened the situation. It was officially weird. Suddenly, she was painfully aware of the fact that she was still wearing his shirt.

“No—no! It’s just…not how we usually bunk up. That’s all.” It very well could’ve been her imagination, but Ashley swore she could actually hear Chris swallow before speaking again. “Uh…you said Sam was upset?” he asked, the change in topic as relief inducing as aloe on a sunburn.

Ashley leapt on that particular opportunity. “A little…It’s just been such—”

“A long day,” Chris finished for her. “Yeah. Sure has. If today had a tagline, that would be it.”

She sighed, scratching Charlie’s ear before draping an arm over her eyes. “I thought we were doing such a good job cheering her and Josh up…We were actually having fun, and like, laughing…” The old full-body cringe came over her again. “And then that stupid game.”

A low groan escaped him. “I know—God, I know.”

“Like…geez Louise, Chris, that was just…”

“Bad,” he finished again. “That was unbelievably bad. At least you tried to stop it…I should’ve figured out what was happening way faster than that. Ugh. Not just that, either. Of all of us, you’d think Josh would’ve…” his voice trailed off in the dark, the sentiment hanging in the air.

Known better, Ashley thought, Josh should’ve known better. But she didn’t say it. As it turned out, she had bigger things to worry about. Her nose and eyes were prickling with the first hot warnings of tears. The weight of the day had finally settled itself down on her chest, crouched there like some horrible monster, threatening to crack her ribs and collapse her lungs. It was everything: the memorial service, the restaurant, the stupid fucking game, the conversation she wished she hadn’t heard…

The silence of the room had taken on a slightly different tone, and it was only after another moment that Ashley was struck with the singular sensation she’d missed something. “Huh?”

“I said…how are you doing?”

Her tongue was thick in her mouth when she tried to answer. “I’m fine. Tired. Same as you.”

A beat. “Are you crying?” There was concern in his voice, but something else too, something like low-grade panic.

It just made her clamp her arm tighter over her face. “No,” Ashley insisted. Then, “Yes. Ugh, I’m always crying.” She tried to laugh, but it only came out as a weak huff of breath. “Just like. Constantly.”

“I think in the medical profession, they call that having ‘full eyes.’” Chris said it so seriously and so knowledgeably, that for a moment, she almost believed him.

And then she did manage a laugh, lifting her arm only enough to throw him an incredulous look through wet lashes. “Full eyes?

“Mhm,” he nodded somberly. “As in, ‘I’m sorry Miss Brown, but the test results have come back and you do, in fact, have full eyes. They’re just…full of tears.’”

“Oh my God.”

“No, unfortunately even God can’t help you now. I won’t lie to you, the prognosis is grim. You gotta empty those eyes, Miss Brown. Just gotta empty them out.”

She groaned, doing her best to keep her laughter muffled so as not to wake Josh or Sam. There was no lessening her big, cheesy grin, though. “What if I don’t want to empty them out?”

Chris seemed to think this over for a moment, rolling onto his stomach and propping himself up on his elbows. “There’s no delicate way for me to put this.”

“Just give it to me straight then, Doc.”

He nodded. “Have you ever put a marshmallow in the microwave?”

Ashley let her arm drop entirely as she turned to openly stare at him. “They’ll explode,” she said flatly, less a question and more an exasperated statement.

“Well no, first they get really, really, just…abnormally huge. Then they explode.” Putting both hands up to his own eyes, Chris quickly flared his fingers, punctuating the move with a pop of his lips. “It’s the sad truth behind full eyes.”

“The silent killer.”

“Oh no, it’s not silent at all. It’s actually very loud, and very painful.” It was getting harder for Ashley to muffle her giggling, then, but he kept going. “And it doesn’t kill you—you can lead a perfectly happy, healthy…well, okay, maybe just healthy life after full eyes, Miss Brown. Also, just between you and me? It’s considered a pre-existing condition, so like. Good luck getting decent insurance, that’s all I’m saying.”

A snort—a real, full snort—escaped her, startling Charlie again. Ashley flailed her arm over to jokingly smack Chris’s shoulder, only for her blow to be buffeted away. When she tried again, he pinned her hand down onto the mattress as though they’d been arm wrestling. She laughed and held her other hand up in surrender, resisting the urge to curl her fingers around Chris’s hand.

He didn’t immediately pull away, though, and that was a surprise. The bigger surprise came when he gave her fingers a firm, reassuring little squeeze. “Thanks for having my back today, Ash,” Chris said, voice lowered once more. “For real, I…don’t think I would’ve made it through on my own.”

Her laughter tapered off as she returned the squeeze, the moment leaving her feeling immensely better than she had only minutes ago. “Yeah you would’ve."

“Questionable. Very questionable.” He dropped himself back down onto the bed, removing his glasses with his free hand, sending them clattering to the side table for the second time that night.

Ashley closed her eyes, still perfectly aware of the weight of Chris’s hand in hers. “Tomorrow’s gonna be a better day.”

“It’s gotta be, right?”

***

10:35am

“Seriously? You can’t just like…keep a bottle of something masculine around here just in case? Do you know what I had to wash my hair with? Do you know?

“Now, Cochise, is that any way to speak to our lovely hostess?” Josh’s feet had been up on one of the dining area’s chairs up until that moment; he shot Chris a jokingly indignant glare when they were swatted away so he could take the seat. “I, for one, have no issue smelling like a tropical paradise. Gotta get more secure in that masculinity, my good man.”

Chris flapped one of his hands like a sock puppet’s mouth before knocking the pizza box open and taking one of the remaining pieces. “Maybe I just don’t want to walk around smelling like peaches and honey.”

“You know, given that’s what I use to wash my hair, I think maybe you should lay off,” Ashley warned, her voice a jingling sing-song as she rummaged around in the fridge.

Sam glanced up from her phone, offering him a noncommittal shrug. “Peaches are delicious. I can think of worse things to smell like.”

Ashley sat back down next to Sam, sliding Josh a bottle of water before cracking open a can of soda for herself. “Way worse,” she agreed, nodding fervently. She was mid-sip when she caught herself in a laugh, one hand rushing up to cover her mouth in case she spat. “Oh my God, do you know what that just made me think of? Do you guys remember a few years back—uh, you guys’ senior year, I think it was—when Drew Moreau found that little…” she waved her hand as she tried to think of the word, holding her thumb and index finger about four or five inches apart. “The…I don’t know, canister of pepper spray on the floor in the Gov classroom? And he just…sprayed it on himself?”

Josh slapped the table in appreciation, already cackling. “That moron—they had to evac like three other classes.”

“Is that what happened?!” Sam sat upright, turning to Ashley with wide, disbelieving eyes. “For real?

“Yeah! I was next door in History, and you’d’ve thought a bomb went off, people were so freaked.” Ashley grabbed a piece of pizza as well, taking a bite before adding, “But who does that? I heard the teachers talking about it, and there was no printing on the bottle, no label or anything, so who just like, sees an unmarked spray can on the ground and thinks ‘Oh sweet, gonna spray this right into my eyes’? Who?”

“I mean…apparently Drew Moreau,” Chris answered flatly.

“Probably not the worst decision that he ever made.” Looking off into the distance wistfully, Josh shook his head. “Dude always smelled so bad. So bad. The kind of bad that you actually have to try for, you get me?”

“It was almost impressive.”

“Ew.”

“Honestly, the pepper spray was probably an improvement.”

“Well, I mean…that’s a fair point.”

Something in Sam’s head clicked into place. In an instant, she was awash in the juddering feeling of déjà vu, resisting the urge to shudder it away. “Hey, so…I’ve got a weird question for you guys.” She said it before she could think herself out of it, tapping her fingers against the table.

Without looking up from his pizza, Chris shrugged. “I mean, we probably got some weird answers for you, so…”

Probably?” Josh scoffed.

She smiled uncertainly, but heaved a sigh and leveled her gaze at them. “You guys are going to think I’m nuts, but…okay, so, yesterday, at the restaurant, I heard Em and Jess…uh, say something.”

Josh crossed his fingers on both hands, screwing his face up in concentration. “Please let it be about Mike’s dick, please let it be about Mike’s dick, please let it be about Mike’s dick…”

Ashley stuck out her tongue. “Double ew.”

“No, not about Mike’s dick.” She pretended to ignore Josh’s disappointed groan. “Does the word ‘almosts’ mean something to any of you?” she asked, looking around the table with an apprehensive half-smile. It only took a second for her to realize that asking had been a mistake after all. It was a very stupid question.

Folding his arms on the table, Chris leaned in closer. “Y’know what? It actually does mean something! See, ‘almost’ is an advent—”

“Adverb,” Ashley corrected from over the rim of her can.

“That’s what I said—an adverb that you use when something, mmm…isn’t quite one way. Or it’s nearly one way. It’s—”

She rolled her eyes hard enough to almost (or, as Chris had suggested, very nearly) make herself dizzy. “Oh! Oh really? Wow, thank you. You’ve been incredibly helpful. No, you putz, you know what I meant. Like is it…slang for something? Or like a nickname? Or…?”

It was Josh’s turn to fix her with a look, one eyebrow raised appraisingly. “A nickname. Yeah. Yeah Sammy. What a great nickname. ‘Hey there, my dear almost! How is it going, my man? Perchance, did you finish the homework last night?’”

Without missing a beat, Chris beamed, “‘Ohoho, well, almost!’”

“I hate you guys,” Sam said, raking her fingers through her hair. “With every fiber of my being, I hate you so much.”

Snickering, Josh nudged Chris with his elbow. “Nah. It doesn’t mean shit to me. Clearly Cochise has opinions about it—bad ones, mind you, but opinions…how ‘bout you, Ash?”

She shook her head, shrugging her shoulders weakly. “Nope. No clue.” Her eyes narrowed slightly, the implications of the question finally catching up to her. “Wait…why would you think it meant something to us?”

In her head, Sam weighed her next words carefully. Though she couldn’t figure out why, though none of the others seemed to know why, it still felt chancy—like using a term you’d seen on the internet without checking Urban Dictionary first. Emily and Jessica hadn’t exactly been using it in the nicest of ways, after all. Lips pursed into a strange, apprehensive shape, Sam told them. “I heard them, uh…using it to talk about us.”

The confusion on their faces was cartoonish in its intensity. After a beat, the bag of chips on Josh’s lap crinkled and he shoved another handful into his mouth. “I mean…honestly, it’s better than what I assume they usually call us.”

Chris snorted a laugh. “Speak for yourself, they think I’m awesome.”

Mmm…” the other three hummed in unison, creating a chorus of doubt.

“Nice. In unrelated news, all of you are uninvited from my birthday party this year.”

Ashley turned back to Sam, mouth set in a hard line as she thought. “Are you…sure? Not that you heard it, I’m sure you heard it, but like, that they were referring to us?”

“Positive. I am positive.”

“But…” Clearly, she wasn’t understanding, the corners of her eyes crinkling, “How, though? What were they saying?”

Sam shook her head uncertainly. “They were talking about spending the day with ‘the almosts.’” She shrugged, looking between the three of them. “And it’s…it’s not the first time I’ve heard them do it, either.”

Josh and Chris exchanged a glance that she couldn’t quite read. “Oh no?” Chris looked back to Sam, still wearing an expression that suggested he was waiting for the punch line.

She gnawed at her bottom lip, again very aware of her words. “Yeah, they, uh…they were saying it up at the lodge, too.” Suddenly, her napkin was the most interesting thing she’d ever laid eyes on; she stared down at it intently. “When they were…” Setting up the prank. “…hanging out by themselves.”

“The fuck?” Josh leaned far enough back in his chair that Ashley startled, reaching a hand to grab for him in case he was falling. “The almosts? What a weird fucking thing to call someone. Why not the nerds? Or the dorks? Or the losers? Or the—”

“Hey, hey. We get it, bro. We’re not cool, we know.”

Sam’s cool,” Ashley pointed out.

“Sam’s vegan.”

“Uh, Sam’s right here.” There was no fighting her laughter, though. Sam looked back up from her napkin and shrugged for what felt like the millionth time. “Hey, I got no answers for you guys. I’m just telling you what I heard. I’m just as confused.”

Josh had taken to rocking back and forth slightly on the back legs of his chair, absently chewing at the inside of his cheek. “Nonono, I can’t deal with this. It doesn’t make sense. Like there’s no clear meaning—what makes us almosts?

“Maybe it means we’re almost worth hanging out with,” Ashley offered, voice glum. “They’ll come to the parties at your house, but good luck sitting at lunch with them…”

Chris turned to her, “Is high school drama getting you down, Ash?”

“Oh, blow it out your nose.”

“No, no, I get it—it’s hard being the misunderstood brainy girl. Have you considered taking off your glasses and straightening your hair?”

“I don’t wear glasses, and my hair is straight.”

“Aw shit. That’s really all I had in the way of advice.”

Ignoring the Peanut Gallery, Josh grimaced in thought. “Almost. Almost, almost, almost. What the hell are the four of us almost? Hot?”

Wow.” Sam folded her arms across her chest. “Cold as ice, there, Josh.”

He waved his hand dismissively. “Obviously I meant as a whole. Like the four of us, combined, the group is almost hot. You and me, Sammy? We got that shit down pat. But those two?” he jerked a thumb in Chris and Ashley’s direction. “Please.”

“We can hear you.”

“I know you can, Ash. I’m trying to drop a hint, here. Pale, nerd-looking mofos—looking like Napoleon Dynamite and Deb, over here, while Sammy and I are bringing the heat.”

There were not words enough in the English language to express precisely how withering the look Ashley gave him was.

Sam threw her hat into the ring as well. “Maybe it means we’re almost impossible to deal with for more than three minutes at a time?”

“Oh, I like that,” Josh nodded. “That might be it, actually.”

“Almost…” Chris narrowed his eyes in thought, “Almost…old enough to rent an SUV?” He looked back up, feeling the heat of three sets of eyes burning through him. “What?”

Brow furrowed and mouth slightly agape, Sam blinked a couple of times. “Yeah, that’s gotta be it, Chris. Thank you, as always, for your valuable input.”

“Well I mean, if you wanna split hairs, I’m pretty sure we can all rent SUVs in like…” His face contorted with concentration again. “Saskatchewan? I might be making that up. But I don’t think I am.”

“You are just a font of wisdom, you know that?” Still, she was laughing again, rolling her eyes. It was uncanny how Chris had that ability.

He puffed his chest out and comically brushed a piece of imaginary lint off of his shoulder. “Just call me Comic Sans, I guess.” Chris snickered until he realized the others were staring at him again. “Like…font of wisdom? Font? I—oh come on, that was hilarious!”

Sam turned to Josh, her eyebrows drawn up in a pantomime of despair.

“You will, in fact, get used to it,” he said simply, chuckling to himself. “It just…takes some time. Give it a little longer.”

“No, you don’t get used to it,” Ashley interrupted, tone flat but still playful, somehow. “You just kind of learn to tolerate it.”

“Oh fuck you guys!” Feigning insult, Chris let his voice crack. “I know I’m funny, and that’s all that matters.”

Josh thumped him on the back before reaching around to grab his bottle of water. “Sure you are, Cochise—sure, sure."

“Man, don’t touch me. You just compared me to Napoleon Dynamite—I’m not talking to you.”

“Do something about the glasses and the hair and the nose and the whack-ass sense of style, and maybe I’ll apologize.”

Gosh!

“Oh!” Sam giggled, “Maybe that’s it—almost funny.”

“If that’s it, I’m gonna sue the tight, tight pants off of them. I’m fucking hi-larious, and I won’t have my brand slandered like that,” Josh smirked.

“The almosts…” Ashley said again, pursing her lips as she turned to look out of the window. Her eyes caught a bright flash of color as a singular butterfly alighted on one of the balcony’s planters. Some unimportant voice in the back of her head rankled at that. It felt too early in the year for butterflies to be showing up. “It’s just…do you think they’re making fun of us, somehow?” Her expression seemed to darken for a second, but it wasn’t with her patented brand of Ash Anger™ that the guys loved joking about. Instead, the crease between her eyebrows seemed full of worry—maybe even sadness.

“Do I think that Jessica Riley and Emily Davis, the reigning bitches of BitchTown, capital of Bitchopia, of the planet Bitchicus Prime, are making fun of us somehow?” Chris enunciated each word with painstaking precision, eyebrows raised so high that they were in distinct danger of disappearing into his hairline. “Uh, yeah Ash, I think it’s a pretty safe bet that it’s not a compliment.”

She looked back to him, expression unamused and mouth open to respond, but was interrupted by Josh shoving another literal fistful of chips into his mouth. He crunched down on them loudly, shrugging dramatically, “I mean, again, it’s better than what we usually get called, right?” he asked, purposely showing the room as much of the contents of his mouth as humanly possible as he did so.

“Well I like it,” Sam said, causing the other three to look at her. “Eugh, close your mouth. But for real, it has a fun kinda ring, doesn’t it? It’s…mysterious…” She waved her fingers in the air and looked off into middle space as she repeated, “The Almosts.”

There was a moment of (relative) quiet as they all stared and Josh continued to crunch. And then, nearly in unison, they all grinned.

“The Almosts,” Chris agreed. “Capital T, capital A.”

“Almost funny, almost hot…” Josh took a swig of his drink before laughing. “Almost—” he caught sight of Chris’s expectant smile and groaned. “Almost old enough to rent an SUV.” Chris waved him on to continue. “Except in Saskatchewan. Where we might be old enough to rent SUVs.” Another wave. “Seriously, man? Can I—ugh. Where we might be old enough to rent SUVs, but Chris isn’t sure, so we shouldn’t take his word for it.” Chris gave him a thumbs-up and Josh smacked his hand away. “I take it back. If they’re making fun of us for not being funny, they should get that. They deserve it. We’ve only brought it upon ourselves.”

“I mean, you’re not wrong.”

Sleep had, quite miraculously, seemingly worked wonders on everyone’s mood. If there had been any lingering discomfort between them, hot showers and day-old refrigerated pizza had obliterated it. None of them addressed it, and it was likely that even if someone had asked, they wouldn’t have had the words—but the fact of the matter was, yesterday was gone. It was dead, buried, and unseen, hidden somewhere deep underground and growing colder by the second. They’d gone to bed late, woken up late, made fun of each other’s ridiculous bed hair, almost as if they’d just had a normal, run-of-the-mill sleepover.

There was relief in that, like waking up after a particularly brutal cold to find you could breathe out of both nostrils again; there was some guilt in it, too, letting yesterday’s events spiral down the shower drain, but they did their best not to dwell. All they could do was cling to the normalcy life would let them have; or, at the very least, the moments that were close to normal. Almost normal.

Chapter Text

Wednesday, April 2, 2014
Late

Josh’s eyes burned with exhaustion, but he did his level best to keep it from showing. When Bob Washington was on the warpath, it was simply the wiser choice to grin and bear it, to refrain from interjecting or pulling faces that suggested complacency. His father was hardly a cruel man, but Josh’s temper had come from somewhere, after all, and it certainly hadn’t been from his mother.

The lecture was familiar by that point: It was the one that started “Do you know how much I’m paying to put you through school?” and usually ended with “Just finish the semester,” “You’re throwing your life away,” or, on the rare occasions where Bobert was feeling particularly jolly, “Your sisters wouldn’t have done anything like this.” Real idyllic family shit. They were basically the Cleavers. Just then he was somewhere in the middle of the tirade, probably right around the spot where he started spouting the “This has been real hard on all of us” bullshit, but Josh realized that he hadn’t actually heard most of what he’d been saying.

Fuck. There it was, ladies and gents, living proof of the dangers of insomnia. Behind his eyes, his thoughts were chugging along with a strange, staccato sort of rhythm, moving too quickly or not at all, rarely resting where he needed them to be. He made a point to lean a bit forward, to furrow his brow, to grit his jaw instead of gnawing on the string of his hoodie as he had been. It was no use…it was like trying to sit in a crowded lecture hall with a hangover. No matter how hard he tried, he could not focus on what his dad was saying. He could make out the shapes his mouth was making, could judge how frustrated his tone was…hell, he could hear his mom humming to herself as she cleared the dinner table behind them, but for the life of him, Josh couldn’t process what his dad was actually saying.

There was only one thing to do about it.

He took to the old standby of nodding every so often, occasionally muttering a low “Uh huh,” or “I know,” when it seemed most appropriate. It wouldn’t work for long (that much he knew from experience), but it was just so hard to devote his attention to anything other than how heavy his eyelids felt.

Everything else was too loud, like the very house was a nest full of buzzing hornets. The clinking of plates being stacked made the skin on the backs of his arms crawl, a sensation made all the worse by the cloyingly sweet song his mom half-sung as she set about cleaning way the remains of what they’d just eaten. And…shit. With no small amount of alarm, Josh realized he couldn’t even remember what that had been. They had just finished dinner, hadn’t they? And still he couldn’t piece together whether it had been spaghetti or chicken or takeout or if they had photosynthesized like goddamn sunflowers.

God Almighty, he needed to sleep.

Bob’s voice continued to drone on in front of him. Josh was struck with a wholly inopportune thought that brought him to bite down on his tongue to keep from laughing (something vaguely along the lines of, So THIS is how those Peanuts kids felt). Again, he tried to steel himself, tried to bring his attention fully to what was being said. And again, his thoughts were a soupy, tangled mess of non-sequiturs. Each time he tried to nail down what was going on, something unimportant and bizarre popped up. Why couldn’t he remember what they’d eaten? When the fuck had Melinda Washington ever done the dishes? But the weirdest part of it, the part that he was incredibly hung up on, the part that genuinely made him worry for his own cognitive function, was the fact that no matter how hard he strained his brain, he couldn’t remember when his dad had gotten back home from filming. He kept running the dates in his head, and kept coming back to one truth: Bob should’ve been at Washington Pictures in Burbank, working on Blood Monastery 3.

So why the fuck was he sitting on the couch, yelling at him?

Josh!

He snapped back to himself, blinking hard as he looked up at his father.

There was a vein throbbing in Bob’s temple, ugly and forked, made distressingly obvious by his receding hairline. “Have you heard a word that I’ve said to you?”

Blinking again, Josh felt his mouth open. This wasn’t the sort of situation where a snappy comeback would be appreciated, he realized; the cogs in his head whirred as he tried to come up with a suitable answer. “Uh…” was all he managed.

Face reddening, Bob shook his head. “Unbelievable…unbelievable! What are you doing over there, sleeping? Is that it? Are you sleeping?

“No, I…” he sputtered, a hot wave of shame washing over him as he felt his ears and neck begin to prickle with humiliation. For a moment, his mouth gaped open and shut like a fish gasping for breath, his words eluding him. There had to be some sort of explanation he could give…he was tired, it was hard to think, he’d been having really shitty nightmares that kept him from getting more than a few hours of sleep at a time, and God, his mom’s humming was so distracting…

In the gauzy vagueness of his thoughts, a puzzle piece clicked into place.

The entirety of his body broke out in goosebumps.

Josh leaned back in his seat, feeling it pressing insistently against his shoulder blades. He felt his forehead crease as he gave his father a fearful once-over. “What?” he asked, voice little more than a hoarse whisper. He cleared his throat and tried again, but the results were much the same. “What did you say?”

Bob went almost purple with fury that time, hands balled into fists atop his knees. Each inch that Josh had pulled back, he leaned forward, closing the space between them again. “Are. You. Sleeping?

Whatever color was left in his own face immediately drained. The room fell deadly silent around them, save for his mom’s melody, which, while distant, was suddenly all too recognizable. As she cleaned, she’d occasionally murmured a word or two to herself; it was only then, with Bob glaring daggers into him, that Josh realized he’d understood her all along.

Hmm hmm hmm hmm…Frère Jacques…hmm hmm hmm…hmm hmm hmm…sonnez les matines…”

He ached to turn and look at her, but felt his muscles paralyzed by the intensity of Bob’s stare. Josh shut his mouth with an audible click of his teeth, his breathing beginning to grow labored as his chest constricted. His ribs had become fingers, articulating and clenching and squeezing the air from out of him until he thought he might pass out.

Bob opened his mouth (doubtlessly to launch into another lecture), face growing darker all the while. When he made to speak, no voice came from him—there was only a wet choking sound that wasn’t entirely unlike a cat trying to pass a hairball. This seemed to confuse Bob, who cleared his throat before trying again. Still no voice. The anger in his eyes flickered, then disappeared, giving way to something Josh couldn’t quite name. It was then that Bob’s chest heaved, once, twice, three times, and he folded over himself. He began to gag, making terrible, visceral retching sounds as his fingers scrabbled at his throat.

At the same time, he became aware of a meaty popping sound behind him, reminiscent of someone cracking out their joints. His mom had stopped humming.

Josh’s vision filled with glittering spots warning him that he was dangerously close to passing out. Squeezing his eyes shut as tightly as he could, he put all of his effort into pulling in as deep a breath as the invisible band around his chest would allow, the air filling his lungs in a shuddering gasp. It all rushed out of him in a shaky exhale a moment later, and though he had been so afraid that he wouldn’t be able to take in another breath, the tightness of his chest seemed to lessen then. He took another deep breath, trying to hold it for longer before it escaped him. He took another, then another, then another, until the world around him grew blissfully silent.

No more gagging, no more humming, no more cartilage tearing…just quiet.

He kept his face screwed up, feeling the racing thudding of his heart slowly beginning to even back out. Whatever had just happened, horrible as it had been, had been nothing more than a momentary lapse in…what? His rational thought? His perception? The human brain needed sleep (something he clearly hadn’t been getting enough of), and wasn’t it…wasn’t it true that people could hallucinate if they were tired enough? If their brains hadn’t rested? That had been on an Abnormal Psych test recently, hadn’t it? Maybe last semester. If he really tried, he could almost see the bullet points of the study guide explaining it all…

After another few moments like that, breathing in and out, he opened his eyes again, expecting to see his parents staring down at him, concerned but not completely surprised.

He did not, however, expect to see Bob still sitting on the couch, face the purple-black color of an old bruise, eyes bulging and mouth open wide. Josh had just enough time to process a single thought, childish in its disregard for the situation (Oh shit, just like The Ring), before he saw his father’s lower jaw begin to quiver.

“P-P-Pop?” His voice cracked as though he was fourteen again.

Bob’s jaw wagged up and down, his eyes rolling back until only the whites could be seen. His mouth opened wider.

And wider.

And wider, until Josh could see the dark pits of Bob’s old silver fillings in his back molars. His tongue lolled out like a thick, slimy worm, revealing something impossible behind it.

At first, Josh couldn’t figure out what he was seeing. There was something pale pushing past the ring of his father’s throat, too large, too solid to be vomit. When four thin, dainty fingers hooked themselves over the front of his chin, though, it became clear enough. There was blood underneath the perfectly manicured fingernails, staining them a crusty brown. They clenched, exerting some unseen pressure, and Bob Washington’s jaw seemed to drop to his chest. Had there not been an arm slithering its way out from between his teeth, the expression would’ve been a hilarious caricature of surprise.

There was another horrendous tearing sound as flesh gave way, Bob’s body falling to the carpeting. He wriggled there, his stomach pulsating grotesquely. An elbow appeared from inside of his mouth. Then a second set of fingers. A second hand. A second arm.

The acrid taste of bile filled Josh’s mouth as he watched his father all but deflate before him.

Beth wriggled free from the sack of skin that had once been their father like a butterfly bursting from out of a cocoon. All the while, she fixed her blank, hazy eyes on Josh, straightening up to her full height. Even as she took her first step out of him, her clothes streaked with wet, shining gore, the flesh on the ground continued to writhe, its shape warping and stretching until shuddering and going still.

He wanted to run, wanted to look away from the grisly scene in front of him, but Josh found he couldn’t so much as blink. His body was too heavy under the weight of Beth’s unseeing stare. There was nothing he could do but watch as she neared him, shedding their father’s skin and wiping blood from her face.

Beth’s mouth never moved, but the sound of her voice filled his head so suddenly and so loudly that it felt as though he’d been struck. This is what you wanted, isn’t it? Her shout was oozing accusation, thick enough to choke him. Isnt it?!

No! Josh screamed—or maybe only thought he screamed—pressing himself as far back against his chair as he could, wondering how and why he wasn’t tipping over. His feet, suddenly part of his body again, scrambled against the carpeting, thumping ineffectively as he tried desperately to put more space between the two of them.

She limped forward, each step unsteady, the muscles of her legs creaking audibly when she put her weight on them. It didn’t take long to reach him. Beth leaned into him, clamping her hands atop his on the chair’s armrests, and he could feel the clamminess of her skin, could see where frostbite had turned her lips black, could see the cataracts spreading across her eyes, could smell the sweet horror of rot from inside her mouth. It should’ve been you, Josh. It should’ve been you who died.

A second set of hands gripped his shoulders from behind, leaving dark, wet smears on the fabric of his hoodie, and he realized with a belated surge of terror that he hadn’t heard a peep from his mother.

The humming began anew, moist lips pressed so hard against Josh’s ear that he could feel the teeth hidden just beyond. Frère Jacques, frère Jacques, Hannah sang discordantly to him, the shape of her mouth slurring the words in such a way that it almost sounded like she was saying his name.

Beth’s hands tightened over his, her nails digging deep rivets into his skin. Her fingers were so cold, so frozen by months of being buried under the snow, that his own hands had gone numb to the agony, but still he screamed until his throat felt raw. Behind him, Hannah’s hands slowly crept upwards and inwards, her fingers cradling his chin like a lover’s might. Why didn’t you save us, Josh? Hannah or Beth or both asked, the sounds of their voices tangling into a wriggling mass somewhere behind his eyes. It should’ve been you. God, it should’ve been you.

With one fluid motion, so much stronger than either of them had any right to be, Beth shoved him and Hannah pulled him, finally tipping the chair over to send him hurtling to the floor. He fell, back slamming against the carpet. He sprung up and…

Realized he was in his bed.

He head whipped from one side to the other, taking in the shapes of his room in disconnected pieces. Bedside table. Lamp. Laundry hamper. Pile of clothes in the corner. Clock.

His breath came in short, panicked bursts, his heart pounding so hard that it felt like he was shaking his bed on its frame. Without meaning to, his hands found his face, balling up against his eyes to try and block out the lingering images the nightmare had tattooed on his eyelids. He couldn’t say how long he sat like that, head in his hands, subconsciously rocking forwards and back, muttering quiet platitudes to himself until his pulse slowed to something more normal.

Slowly, he dropped his hands again, groaning in disgust when they touched something cold and unpleasantly wet. The morning light illuminated the room just enough for him to notice how dark his sheets were. Cringing, Josh touched the t-shirt he’d fallen asleep in, finding it entirely soaked through. The realization had the strange effect of waking him fully—he noticed how wet his skin was, the dark outline of his own head stained on his pillow. He’d been sweating bullets. Sweating like a sinner in church. Like a fox in a forest fire. Like a politician trying to tell the truth. Like a drowned rat. A-fucking-lot.

He grimaced at the thought of stripping his bed and trundling down to the laundry room. The clock on his bedside table flickered as the time changed, catching his attention just long enough for the early hour to send another wave of exasperation wracking through him. Not even six in the morning, and he was already as awake as he’d ever been.

Fuck.

The worst of it—the absolute worst—was that the nightmare was as fresh in his mind as it had been while he was asleep. None of it had faded, not the way his father’s throat had bulged, or the way Beth’s skin had been sloughing off, or the feeling of Hannah’s wet mouth against his ear…it was all still there, as real and disgusting as the sweat cooling on his sheets.

“This has to stop.” He said it to himself, jumping at the sound of his own voice. His heart rate spiked again, then dropped again, proof positive that he was more adrenaline than man for the time being. “Fuck me sideways…fuck this, fuck this, fuck this…” Josh scrubbed at his eyes knowing full well it wouldn’t help. It never helped.

He looked to the clock a second time, squinting through the blurry veil of his exhaustion to check that he had the right of it. It was just so early. He could try and go back to sleep…but that didn’t seem likely. He could get up and wash his sheets like some embarrassed teenager…but that wasn’t particularly appealing. He could go down the hall and wake his mom…but again, crying about a bad dream to his mommy wasn’t a particularly appealing prospect. His eyes fell to his phone, lying facedown on the nightstand.

God alone knew how many times he’d woken Chris for stupider reasons (and vice versa, obviously). There’d been that stretch freshman year of high school where they’d both gotten accustomed to waking up to no less than ten messages from the other. So it wasn’t a ridiculous thought to reach out.

But did he want to talk to Chris about this?

Josh stared at his phone, eyes burning in much the same way they had in his dream.

Would Chris even care?

He narrowed his eyes as he thought. The other night, on the balcony outside of Ashley’s apartment, it had sure seemed like Chris wanted to help. But did he? Did he really? Did he really want to hear what Josh had to say about it all? About the nightmares? About the twins? About everything?

His phone was in his hand. He swiped to unlock it, opening up a familiar text thread. He typed quickly and messily, scowling at the smear of sweat he had to wipe off of the screen.

sammy

wyd

u up

He let his phone rest on his lap as he made a more organized attempt at collecting himself, breathing deeply and raking his hands through his hair. Through the slats of his blinds, the sky was beginning to lighten, slate giving way to morning; the reality of the impending daylight made it that much harder for him to lie to himself about the situation. There was no fucking chance he was falling back asleep like that. No chance in Hell.

There was a buzz, and he picked his phone up, relieved at getting such a quick response.

sammy

My answers to both questions completely depend on what your next message is
Example
If you were thinking of following that with
Whatre you wearing
Then what Im doing is sleeping and no I am not up

Maybe Chris would’ve cared. But Josh wasn’t about to run that risk. There was zero question in his mind about Sam, though. Sam always cared.

sammy

samantha

sam

sammy

quite honestly im offended

when i sext u plz believe it will be better than that

When huh
Interesting wording there Casanova
meant what i said

said what i meant

but fyi i really was just wondering if u were up or not

most people are passed the fuck out rn

its like

ass oclock in the morning

dont get me wrong tho

if u wanna tell me what youre wearing ill listen

and ill be super attentive

Some people get up at ass oclock to hit the gym before class
every part of what u just said is horrible

:P
The real question is why are YOU up

“That is the question, isn’t it?” Josh sighed, finally swinging his legs over his bed and getting up. Sam knew the deal, more or less. He hadn’t gotten into the real nitty-gritty of the nightmares with her (if only because he didn’t want to burden her with the warped machinations a brain could cobble together after being fed a steady diet of horror movies for more than a decade), but she knew the basic idea behind them. The twins were gone. They hadn’t found them. They would never be coming home. He should’ve been looking out for them. He should’ve chased after them. He should’ve saved them. But he hadn’t, because he’d been passed the fuck out with his head in his arms, snoring away in a castle of Jeremiah Cragg bottles.

Sam got it. God, Sam got it. Sometimes talking to her about Hannah and Beth felt like having a conversation with himself—they’d been the two closest to the twins, the ones who knew them the best, the ones who missed them the most. Sam understood.

Chris?

Ash?

Not so much.

sammy

like u said

im hittin the gym

gonna work on my delts AND my glutes i think

hey quick question

Mhm
delts and glutes are actual things right

They are actual things yes
just testing u

Riiiiiiiight
nah more insomnia bs

just wanted to like

idk

He groaned, thumbs hovering over the keyboard as he fought with himself. There was a fine, fine line between confiding and over-sharing. It was a line he found himself teetering on with shocking regularity when talking with Sam. He typed out an answer that wasn’t quite a lie, wasn’t quite the whole truth, before setting about yanking his sheets off the bed.

sammy

just wanted to like

idk

double check that im not still dreaming

if that makes sense

i guess

:( Sorry
Youre definitely not still dreaming though
yea i realize that

Aaand just like that, it was time to reel it all back. Commiserating with Sam was all fine and good…right up to the moment where he felt himself on the brink of an actual emotional purge. Then it was all hands on deck, batten down the hatches, gird your loins and strengthen those defenses. He deflected the only way he knew how.

sammy

if i was dreaming u wouldnt have reacted to my bootycall text w such disgust

Oh please
and if i was having a nightmare u wouldve answered w something cryptic and terrifying

like

i bought u some hummus

>:(
Im feeling less sympathetic towards you by the second you know
or like

let me tell u all the reasons why honey hurts bees

or even

i have this mushroom thing and i promise it tastes just like real meat

Oh look at the time Im at the gym and I gotta go
mhm

go do ur sun salutes or w/e

So close
Still wrong
But close

That made him smile. Only slightly, of course…but it was a smile, nonetheless. Josh set his phone back down on the nightstand as he finished balling up his sheets, starting in on the arduous task of shucking the covers from his pillows. He’d managed to get both out before there was another mechanical buzz.

sammy

Hey this is probably stupid but if it was the nightmares again I have a thing
gurl u know im all about stupid things

as it turns out i

myself

am a stupid thing

If Ive come to know anything its definitely that
But my dad always used to tell me that bad dreams happen because youre too hot
well

Har de har
Flip your pillow to the cooler side and try to go back to sleep
Or get rid of some of your blankets or sheets I guess but the pillow thing always helped me
Impossible to have bad dreams on the cool side of the pillow
And if you dont believe me then believe my dad
Hes a medical professional
Knows this stuff
sounds legit

ill give it a go

if scott giddings rn says it works then its gotta right?

:P
Try and get some sleep okay
After all it IS ass oclock in the morning
so u DONT want me to work on defining my glutes or delts huh

Your glutes and delts are fine
Get some sleep
samantha anne giddings

did u just admit i have a nice butt

oh god glutes ARE ur ass right

im like 99% sure they are but

that 1% man

its haunting me

Not my middle name
Go sleep
Ill be around after class if you want to talk later
ok

but im not gonna forget the butt thing

were gonna talk about the butt thing

Get some sleep Josh
yeah yeah yeah

loud and clear sammy

gonna flip that pillow and take a snooze cruise

and then

later

after i look up glutes on wikipedia

we talk about the butt thing

:T

He sat back on the edge of his bed, staring at the crumpled pile of sheets at his feet. There’d be no more sleep, he knew, cool side of the pillow or not. It was a nice gesture, though. Sweet.

He’d tucked his phone away in the pocket of his sweatpants after signing off with Sam, but he became aware of its weight against his leg again. He could still reach out to Chris…maybe even Ashley. Or both of them, like in the good old days. He could.

Instead, he squatted down and collected up the ball of sheets, absently humming to himself as he made his way down to the laundry room. He stopped immediately when he realized what he was humming. That wasn’t good. No, that wasn’t good at all.

***

Thursday, April 3, 2014
2:07pm

He’d been seeing Hill for the better part of the past four months, and while he had to admit he liked him better than he’d liked North or Williams, Josh still didn’t feel quite comfortable in his office.

At first, he’d thought it was a step up from North’s office, what with all her bright lights and watercolors hanging on the walls; hell, at first he’d thought Hill’s office was cool. The place had a real Hannibal vibe to it: mahogany paneling, slick leather chairs with the weird divots, a weirdass Renaissance-era triptych taking up the better part of an entire wall, peculiar sculptures on the desk, and a huge south-facing window that let in just enough sunlight. Hill had books and sleek filing cabinets and the sort of hardwood floors that always seemed to smell freshly varnished. This, Josh remembered thinking to himself, this right here is what a shrink’s office should look like.

And yet…every time he sat himself down in the big ol’ chair in front of the desk, the only thing he felt was discomfort. Sure, there was a couch nearby that he could’ve used—and maybe he should’ve—but it was always the chair. Josh was not a couch person. Couch people needed the box of tissues, couch people needed pillows around them. Chris and Ashley were couch people. Chair people, on the other hand, were just there to conduct some business before moving on to another of the day’s appointments. He and Sam…now there were some chair people, if ever there’d been any.

“So. You say things haven’t been going quite as you’d hoped.”

There was a dull thunk as Josh set down what he’d taken to be some sort of hellhound carved out of driftwood. “Well that’s a contender for ‘Understatement of the Year.’” He fought the urge to roll his eyes, but felt them widen petulantly all the same. He kept his line of vision firmly on the weird, misshapen paperweight, feeling strangely like a child called into the principal’s office.

The floor didn’t creak under Hill as he slowly walked to the desk from the window. It never creaked. It was firm and well tended and nothing like the floors in the lodge. The floors in the lodge always creaked.

“I was of course talking about this past week, Josh, not the situation at large. During our last session, you had said this was going to be a trying week for you. I have to imagine that the memorial service for your sisters was an incredibly difficult event to get through. How do you feel you handled it?” Hill was an older man, maybe late fifties or early sixties, if Josh had to guess. What hair he had left was well on its way to fully grey, and his skin was showing the first signs of going doughy. Sometimes, Josh had to wonder if the office was part of some greater shtick he was running—Hill was by no means Hannibal Lecter, but he dressed as though he wanted to be. The accent didn’t help, of course.

Josh sucked his teeth, making a low, frustrated tsk sound. “I was really kinda hoping that this would just be about the night terrors, actually. Everything is an ‘incredibly difficult event to get through’ when you’re running off of forty-five minutes of sleep and an energy drink.” When he looked up to Hill and saw his face, it took all of his self-restraint not to deflate.

He knew that look. He knew it with a detestable sort of intimacy. It was the look that a shrink got when they suspected they’d poked at a soft spot. A juicy spot. The sort of spot that wouldn’t take a whole lot of wearing down before it bore fruit. North hadn’t gotten that look too often (and it was probably for that reason that he’d stuck with her for as long as he had), but Williams sure had, and Purkiss, before her. Hill, on the other hand…Hill was like a bloodhound when it came to sniffing out things Josh wanted to avoid discussing. The logical part of his brain knew that it was that sort of ability that made a good therapist; the emotional part of his brain just wanted him to back the fuck off.

All the same, it was Hill who let his eyes drop first. Across the desk, he crossed one leg over the other, the buttery leather of his loafers brightening as the sun touched it. He’d uncapped his pen, the ostentatious fountain kind, writing something in the notepad on his lap. “I’d imagine so,” he said after a time, letting his eyes flick back to Josh. “Sleep is an incredibly important part of our mental processes, after all. Memory consolidation, waste removal, emotional processing…all things that our brains busy themselves with while we sleep. Necessary functions, too…now, you say you’ve been having night terrors, but I don’t think that’s…quite right. There are some key differences between night terrors and nigh—”

Josh shook his head with a quick, curt hand motion. “I took Psych 101. I know. ‘Night terror’ just sounds better than ‘nightmare,’ you know? Little kids have nightmares. What I’ve been having…” he grimaced before quickly covering it with a scowl. “Let’s just say, we’re not dealing with little kid stuff.”

Hill offered him a quick smile as he folded his hands over the notepad. “I have no doubt of that, Josh. After a serious trauma, sometimes our minds process things when we aren’t fully conscious. It’s easier for us that way, and—”

Again, he chopped the air with his hand, signaling an immediate stop to that particular train of thought. “No. I mean. I don’t think this has anything to do with…” his lips tightened against his teeth. “…what happened to my sisters.” Just saying it made him feel as though his insides had been scooped out with a knife. “It’s gotta be the meds, right? Like they’re not agreeing with me or something?”

The pen in Hill’s hand jiggled slightly as he mulled it over, bobbing his head from side to side. “It is possible. Many antidepressants can give you particularly vivid dreams or nightmares.”

“‘Vivid’ is another contender for ‘Understatement of the Year,’ for what it’s worth.”

“So it could very well be your medication.” Hill made the statement with a minute incline of his chin that suggested he very much doubted it. “What has the subject matter of these nightmares been? I know many people find it difficult to recount their dreams with any sort of specificity, but what would you say the general…gist has been?”

Josh was silent.

Another mushy spot, it seemed. Or perhaps the same one.

Hill was the sort of person who didn’t mind silences, awkward or otherwise, so he didn’t appear to be in a rush to say anything else. He simply held his pen as he watched Josh, eyebrows lifting in passive interest. Somewhere in the office, a clock ticked.

It was a dirty trick. Silence had never been Josh’s friend, and shit, that went double, these days. Each second that ticked away grated at him just a bit more, wearing on his resolve like sandpaper. “Most of them have been about the twins,” he intoned flatly, making every attempt to sound as detached from the admission as possible.

“I suspected as much…and in these nightmares, I take it that you find them?”

He leveled his gaze at him from across the desk, leaning back in his seat to mirror Hill’s posture. No, he thought to himself, They find me. But he couldn’t actually say that. He couldn’t give that to Hill. So instead, he forced a grimace of a smile and muttered, “Something like that.” Hill opened his mouth to respond, but Josh beat him to the punch, going so far as to push himself back from the desk. The legs of his chair screeched against the floor, effectively cutting him off. “I really don’t want to talk about my sisters, okay? I get it—it’s the holy grail of emotional jackpots sitting there, begging to be claimed—but I haven’t gotten a full night’s sleep in weeks, and I am getting unbelievably close to losing my shit completely. So. If we could…just…talk about…that…”

When Hill got thoughtful—deeply, dreadfully pensive—he had a way of moving his face that made Josh think of Pirates of the Carribean’s Davy Jones. Something about how flat his upper lip got, or how his cheeks stretched and shrank…or, more likely, the keen, hungry interest in his eyes. Really, all he was missing was the mottled skin and tentacles. “Loss is hard, Josh. The feelings that it dredges up can feel…insurmountable. Sometimes, these things can be a little scary…even terrifying…but I’m here to make sure that no matter how upsetting things may get…you’ll always find a way to work through it. You don’t have to be hesitant to discuss your sisters. There’s no judgment in this office, as I hope—”

“I do talk about them, all right?” It came out harsher than he had intended, but something about what Hill said felt too much like an accusation. His teeth were on edge, the nape of his neck and tops of his arms prickling with indignation. “I just don’t want to right now. I just want to talk about this medication so I can get some sleep.”

Hill didn’t seem immediately offended by the outburst. Really, he never seemed offended by much of anything. He just continued tapping the tip of his pen to the pad, the corners of his mouth tightening and going slack as he thought. “I understand that, Josh. Just as I hope you understand that I have my reasons—very good reasons, if I may add—to be concerned with how you’re avoiding the subject of this trauma.”

He sucked his teeth at the word.

“Am I to take it, then, that you’ve been discussing your sisters with your friends? I know you’ve said it’s a difficult topic to broach with your parents, for obvious reasons.”

“Yeah. Sure.”

Again, Hill glossed over the exasperation in Josh’s voice. “I’m certainly glad to hear that! During times of loss and grief, sometimes we find that our friends are easier to confide in than family or…well,” he gestured vaguely to himself, “Others, I suppose. Outsiders. In our last session, I know you had expressed some hesitance in having these conversations with them—have Chris and Ashley been understanding, then?”

“No.” That time, he did wince. It had come out too abruptly, too snappishly to backpedal from. He had already dropped his eyes from Hill, looking instead to the sprawling piece of artwork behind him, but he could feel his eyes on him, appraising. “Not them,” he corrected, his manner much more controlled. “There’s no point talking to them about the girls.”

“Oh?” Hill sat forward just enough to make it obvious how much the revelation interested him. “Why would that be?”

He’d pulled his upper lip between his teeth to worry it there as he realized Hill wasn’t about to let it go. “Ash can’t take back what she did. Chris is always going to side with her more than me, so. Like I said. No point.” When he glanced back up, Hill was still watching him, saying nothing. It was all Josh could do to keep from outwardly glowering. Hill wasn’t just prodding at this sore spot, he was jumping up and down on it wearing soccer cleats. “I talk to Sam about it,” he added after a while, wondering why it felt so much like an admission of guilt.

“I don’t believe you’ve mentioned Sam before. Well…other than I think you said she had been there, at the lodge.” There was an airiness to Hill’s voice that Josh didn’t like. Maybe it was just paranoia, but it felt exactly like the sort of feigned nonchalance an interrogator used when questioning a suspect.

“She and Hannah are—” Were. She and Hannah were tight. His entire body cringed into itself, turning the words to dust in his mouth. It was a concerted effort to keep from looking up at Hill, even as he cleared his throat and tried again. “Hannah’s friend.” He’d pushed himself away from the desk earlier, but it was then that he stood, his head rushing from the suddenness of it. “Our friend, now.” The words still felt gritty. Wrong. “My friend.”

Hill hummed in understanding and slowly nodded his head. “I see.”

“If we could, you know, move on from this, that’d be just swell.” Josh took up pacing between the couch and one of the bookshelves, never pausing for too long. Any second now, Hill would object. He’d tell him to sit back down, to puke up all of his feelings, to tell him what he and Sam said about Beth and Hannah, to do some deep breathing and slow his heart, to…

“If you want to talk about your medication, we can talk about your medication.”

He stopped mid-step, doing his best not to gawk outright at him. That was…much less of a fight than he had been expecting. “Okay…” Josh said slowly, pointedly turning his attention to the bookshelf. “Good.”

Though he couldn’t see Hill, he could still hear the incessant scritch-scratch of his pen. “I do have to preface this discussion, however. I understand where you’re coming from, Josh. You’re experiencing unpleasant physical events that could be blamed, in part, on the Amitriptyline, so you’d rather that be the cause than your grief. But—” He made a sharp sound of disapproval when Josh began to interject. “But. I ask that you also look at this from my point of view, as a medical professional. Josh, your history with medication is…well, let’s just say it’s less than ideal. The Fluoxetine made you ill, the Duloxetine made you ill…and while it is admittedly true that people can be particularly sensitive to medications across the board, the chances of them all making you feel worse are very, very low.”

It wasn’t what Josh had wanted to hear. He picked a book off the shelf (something about coping with childhood PTSD), flipping through it with feigned interest.

“With that in mind,” Hill continued, “I’m hesitant to simply prescribe you something else to help you sleep. Since it sounds to me as though your principle concern isn’t your inability to fall asleep or stay asleep, but instead the intensity of your nightmares, I’m going to suggest that we begin to taper your dosage a bit. We may find that we’re able to lessen the dose in such a way that it still helps manage your symptoms while getting rid of some of the side effects.” There was a papery sound from the desk. Had Josh turned to look, he would’ve seen Hill rifling through a familiar manila folder. “Currently, you’re taking…ninety milligrams before bed, correct?”

No response. Josh only squinted his eyes slightly, acting as though trying to memorize the contents of the book in his hands for later reference. And maybe he was; some of that shit sounded awfully familiar.

“Josh?”

Still nothing.

Josh,” Hill said, voice a bit more forceful than before. “You are taking the ninety milligrams, right?”

His impulse was to close the book. It would’ve been so…dramatic. That’s how it would’ve gone down in one of his dad’s movies: The handsome, grizzled survivor, at wit’s end, punctuating the odd doctor’s question with a quiet but authoritative thump. But this wasn’t one of his dad’s movies. He wasn’t the wisecracking hero of a bloody torture porn, he was just some smartass nineteen year old kid with two dead sisters and a growing desire to jump out of the window. So the book stayed open. He was surprised to realize that the heat creeping up from his collar was shame—the same shame that was keeping him from looking Hill full in the face. “It…depends.” His words came out slowly, his tongue feeling fat and stupid inside the cage of his teeth.

A weighty silence hung between them like noxious fog. Josh’s face grew hotter.

“It depends.” As he repeated it, Hill rubbed at his mouth with the pads of his fingers. “What does it depend on?”

“How bad of a day it was.”

The desk creaked when Hill leaned his full weight against it, his elbows set atop Josh’s records. “You’ve been increasing how much you take.” It wasn’t a question, wasn’t an accusation. It was a statement of fact, cold and simple.

He did close the book then, but it was hardly the melodramatic sound he had imagined it to be. There was a frenzy to it that wouldn’t have been out of place in the middle of a preteen’s temper tantrum. “It wasn’t helping!” he insisted, whirling back to Hill. “It wasn’t enough, so when it got really bad, when my head got really bad, I’d just…yeah, I’d take more. It’s supposed to help. It’s supposed to help me manage, and I wasn’t managing.”

Hill didn’t seem surprised—maybe a bit disappointed, definitely thoughtful, but not surprised. His fingers were steepled under his chin as he seemed to consider the situation, his lips occasionally disappearing into a hard line before reappearing again. “Well…” he began, words slow and precise and clearly measured, “I think we have an answer as to why you’ve started having these nightmares, Josh.” He let the insinuation hang, busying himself with his notepad instead of confirming that yes indeed, this had been a monster of Josh’s own making.

Not that he needed to confirm that, of course. Josh had already averted his eyes, acting as though he couldn’t quite get the book back in its spot on the shelf. After a couple failed attempts at sliding it back in place, he dourly began pushing other books aside to make room. Only once the quiet had wrapped its tendrils around him and began squeezing did he speak up again. “So…I should stop taking it, then.”

No. No, that is not what I’m saying. What I’m saying is that there is a reason I prescribed you that particular dose. By exceeding it, you’re ushering in a whole host of unwanted side effects, Josh.”

“But if I stop taking it, then I’ll stop having the dreams.” He turned back to the desk, watching Hill scribbling frantically in his notes.

“I am not recommending you stop,” Hill repeated, lifting his eyes for only a moment. “We’re going to have to taper you down back to your original dose, and then we can we can take it from there.” He continued writing until something appeared to occur to him. His brow furrowed and he sat up straighter, giving Josh a very pointed look. “I cannot stress this enough, Josh: Simply stopping your medication, especially after you’ve been increasing your intake, can only hurt you. It will make things considerably worse.”

But it would stop the dreams.

“Okay,” Josh shrugged, keeping his face impassive. He didn’t try to argue with Hill, simply letting the issue drop. Any further discussion would’ve been just like talking to Chris and Ashley about the twins. There wasn’t any point. Josh had made up his mind the second his suspicions had been confirmed. He was going to get some fucking sleep.

***

Thursday, April 10, 2014
7:15pm

I really shouldn’t have waited so fucking long to register for classes.

The thought echoed in Chris’s head with each step he took, acting as a self-flagellation of sorts. Signing up for late classes was one of the most heinous cardinal sins of college life, second only to signing up for early classes. Well, that, and wearing your lanyard around your neck. He’d done fine for the first couple weeks of the semester, but something about consistently pushing dinner farther and farther back in the evening wore down the fabric of a man’s very soul.

I really shouldn’t have waited so fucking long to register for classes, I really shouldn’t have waited so fucking long to register for classes, I really shouldn’t have waited…

It continued playing over and over, punctuating each step up the dingy staircase. His stomach had stopped growling about fifteen minutes ago and had started roaring instead, drowning out most of his other thoughts. He’d popped into one of the dining halls just long enough to grab some fries, and God he just needed to get into the dorm so he could tear into the grease-splotched paper bag and inhale those fuckers. Wouldn’t even rummage around for ketchup packets. Wouldn’t even stop to chew. No, there was no time to chew, what with less than a month until finals and three monstrous projects to finish before then. Chewing was for people who did their work on time.

He swiped his cardkey in the door, cursing when the light flashed red. He tried again, cursed again, and then switched hands, jamming the card as if he could will it to work through sheer frustration alone.

When the lock finally clicked and the door finally opened, his stomach dropped before he could really figure out why. All Chris knew was that one moment he was starving, and the next, he wanted very much to puke. His brain took a full second or two to catch up to his eyes.

The problem wasn’t that the room was clean (although admittedly it was a major clue that something was up), but it was certainly the first thing he noticed. The second thing he noticed was the stack of boxes. The third thing was…well…

“Oho, so you do remember which dorm’s ours.” He tried to keep his voice jovial even as he found himself moving with the delicate uncertainty of a mouse nearing a trap. It took almost all of his concentration to make himself look casual as he set down his food and let his backpack drop from his shoulders. “Here I was, thinking I’d have to leave a trail of breadcrumbs.”

Josh made a quiet sound that might’ve been a laugh, had it not been so short. He stood in front of his bed, stripped down to its ugly university-requisite blue mattress, rolling up a poster. Judging by the color scheme, Chris knew implicitly that it was for John Carpenter’s The Thing.

The walls seemed almost obscenely bare, now that he looked at them. The room itself felt wrong—naked. This was not good.

Still making his clumsy attempts at acting normally, Chris unzipped his bag and pulled his laptop out, gently lowering it onto his desk. “What’s with the uh, renovations?” There was no way to hide the way his voice strained around the lump his heart was making in his throat, thudding away like a helicopter’s motor (thuppita-thuppita-thuppita).

“Leavin’,” Josh said breezily enough. He slid a rubber band around the poster and it made a small, unimportant snapping sound as he released it.

“Leavin’,” Chris parroted.

“Glad we could have this scintillating discussion.” There was a hollow noise when Josh dropped the poster tube onto the floor in favor of taping up one of the boxes on the bed.

He watched Josh go about it for a moment, taking a deep breath to try and steady his jangled nerves. He’d been around the block enough to know that something was brewing. All the room needed was some flickering lights. Maybe some ambient thunder in the background. Someone screaming in the stairwell. That would’ve really set the scene. Still, he did his best to tiptoe around what he thought were the big questions, praying there was a chance this wouldn’t go tits-up. “You gonna drive up for finals, then?”

“Nope.”

“No?”

“What, are you my echo all of a sudden? I said no. I’m bailing. I’ve already bailed. Bailing has occurred. So now,” for what Chris could only imagine was dramatic effect, Josh dropped a box onto the floor. “Now, I get the fuck outta Dodge and go home. That okay with you? Or is there some exit interview I gotta fill out with HR before I can leave?”

Chris blinked against his confusion, brow knit. “I thought—you said you were finishing the semester up. There’s only a month—”

“Oh fuck, only a month? Well shit, guess I better unpack all this, huh? Lemme just scoot on down and see if I can re-enroll real quick! Only a month, boy howdy, that changes everything!

“Uhhh?” Much as he hated to admit it, the grunt was the only noise Chris could get himself to make. Josh’s rancor hadn’t exactly been unexpected, but there was something…off about the whole situation. Very off. Incredibly off. Somehow, his heart had managed to split in two, becoming twin lumps of pulsing stone in his throat and stomach. Whatever this was, it was only revving up. He felt very much like a cockroach just then, knowing that when the shoe did drop, it was going to drop on him.

“Such a conversationalist. Remind me why you’re single. Can’t believe the panties don’t just drop when you hit the ladies with such stunning wit and panache.”

“Wh-what?” He realized he’d been gripping onto the back of his desk chair, knuckles white with the effort. “Dude, what are you talking about?

“Nothing.”

“Noth—oh come on. You show up here for the first time in weeks, pack all your shit, and then get mad at me when I ask what’s up? You never said anything about dropping out before the semester was over, I think I like…have a right to know what’s going on. At least as a roommate, like—”

“Maybe you don’t get to lecture me about who I go around telling my personal business to, huh? You think of that?” Josh whirled on him, and Chris realized how bad he looked. Even with a yard or so between them, Josh’s skin looked clammy; he was pale, his eyes seemed almost swollen, and if he stood in one place for too long he appeared to sway on his feet. He looked like he had a gnarly case of the flu at the very least. He lifted a hand to gesture as he spoke, and it was impossible not to notice the way his fingers shook. “Hey, here’s another thought! Maybe I’m not totally jazzed to tell you shit when we both know you’re just gonna go run and tell Ash the second I’m out of earshot. Maybe you should just assume that if I want you to know something, I’ll go ahead and put it in the group chat where everyone can see it, so I don’t have to worry about you immediately recounting all the sweet deets to Little-Miss-Perfect.”

His face lit up with indignant fury. Every ounce of concern he’d felt for Josh flew out the window, replaced with the unintelligible buzz of anger. “I-I don’t tell her shit about your private stuff! I don’t just go around telling other people your business, you know!”

“No. I don’t know, actually.”

What?! I—what is—where is this coming from? This has nothing to do with you moving out!” It made no sense, but somehow he was already on the defensive. “We don’t just—I don’t—this isn’t—What do you think I told Ash?” His mouth wasn’t working the way he needed it to, lips feeling Novocain-numb. The world around him was suddenly achingly clear, making Josh’s accusations all the more bizarre. He had expected trouble when he walked in and saw Josh. He’d been expecting trouble since the moment his texts had started going unanswered, weeks ago. Nothing could’ve prepared him for this.

Josh shook his head and rolled his eyes. “What do I think…you told Ashley…” he repeated slowly. “I already told you: Fucking. Everything. That’s how it goes. It’s how it always goes. You two are just always having your little chit-chats, aren’t you? Always.”

“I have. Literally. No idea what you’re talking about.” Chris tried desperately to rein the situation back in, keeping his voice even. “Look, obviously you’re pissed. I get that. But I didn’t tell Ash anything? I don’t even know what you think I—”

“No. No, I’m sure you didn’t tell her anything!” He clapped his hands together once, the sound brittle and too sharp in the close confines of the dorm. “But you give her juuuust enough, don’t you? You leave little fucking clues for her to piece together like she does. You just fucking pepper them in like it’s no big, and then sit back and relax while she draws her little conclusions and plays detective. Don’t fucking bullshit me, man. Don’t you fucking bullshit me.”

“Don’t—okay, no, fuck this.” Releasing the chair took more effort than he’d anticipated; his fingers actually ached when he uncurled them. “What did I do? Can you just—clearly you have something you wanna say, so can you just say it? What did I do? Tell me that much, man, did I do something to piss you off? Did I do something to get you so mad at me? Because—because clearly, clearly, you’re mad at me. And you’ve been mad at me. So I’d appreciate it if you’d just let me know so that I could do something about it.”

Standing arms akimbo, Josh narrowed his eyes. “…did you do something? Are you actually standing here, asking me if you did something?”

“Yeah, I…yeah.” His face was burning. He hated this. He hated this so fucking much. How had things gotten this bad?

“You are honestly unbelievable, Cochise. Un-fucking-believable.”

“I can’t…Jesus Christ, Josh! I can’t apologize for something if I don’t know what it is! I can’t—”

“No, Christopher, don’t worry, Christopher, there’s nothing for you to apologize for, Christopher, because you didn’t do anything. Therein lies the problem, Watson, my dear man—you never fucking do anything, do you?”

What?!

Josh threw his arms out to his sides, lip curled in disgust. The anger was not helping his appearance any. Had anyone walked through the door at that precise second, they might’ve thought he was about to puke all over the floor (Chris was certainly of that opinion). “What what? Can’t say it much clearer than that, Cochise—you! Never! Do! Anything! You just sit around, taking up space, wasting oxygen, and then, when I actually fucking need you, SURPRISE! You continue to do jack shit!”

“It’s like talking to a wall,” Chris said mostly to himself, hands raking anxiously through his hair. “It is absolutely like talking to a wall. What are you talking about?!

“It always comes back to Ashley, you know that? Always. Always! Because that’s all that matters, right? Not me, not my sisters, not—”

“What the fuck do you mean, ‘not you’?! Since when have I not been there for you? I have been trying, and trying, and trying to talk to you, and you keep shrugging me off! You keep ignoring me! You keep talking to Sam instead of me! You’re the one who hasn’t been there, not me!”

It hadn’t been the right thing to say, apparently, as Josh stood up straight again, shaking his head in indignation. “Why the fuck would I want to talk to you, when you’re only gonna side with Ashley and the rest of those fucks who got my sisters kill—”

It’s not our fault! It’s not any of our fault!” A wave of heat rushed to Chris’s face when he realized he’d been shouting. Josh had fixed him with a stare that was equal parts fury and shock, eyes wide. Chris was immediately aware of how dry his throat felt, but his fingers were tingling with adrenaline, his hunger and exhaustion translating so easily into anger. He swallowed hard, trying desperately not to let on that the outburst had been unintentional. Lowering his voice to its normal volume, he continued, “We’re all—all—messed up over what happened to Beth and Hannah. What happened wasn’t fair, and it wasn’t right, but Josh, man, it wasn’t our fault!”

Josh held his gaze for another tick before scoffing derisively. It was the sort of sound one made when deciding they were above responding.

It was also the sort of sound, Chris realized with no small amount of alarm, that apparently made his blood fucking boil. “No—no! You don’t…you don’t get to just sit there and keep blaming us and blaming us for something we didn’t fucking do, Josh. You don’t get to do that! Losing the twins sucks—”

“Oh, it sucks? It sucks, Chris? Is that what it does? Does it suck?

“—but none of us did anything to make it happen! We didn’t write the fucking note, Josh! We didn’t read the fucking note, we didn’t run out into the fucking snow, and we didn’t fucking do anything to either of them! We didn’t do any of that! If you’re going to be pissed, and i-i-if you’re going to hate someone for what happened, then fucking hate Emily and Mike! Hate Jessica! Hate Matt—fuck, he was the one who fucking taped it! But you don’t get to be mad at us, because like you just said—we didn’t fucking do anything!

In an instant, Josh was in his face, an accusatory finger stabbing into his chest.

From that distance, Chris could feel the fever coming off of him. Oh, something was obscenely wrong, here.

“Maybe,” Josh began, words spat through a grit jaw, “If you had fucking done something that night instead of just fucking sitting there, drunk off your ass, my sisters would still be alive.”

What in God’s name was he supposed to say to that?

He just stared and stared, face still tingling and hot, breath stuck between his ribs. Chris just stared at Josh, and Josh just stared at him, and an eternity seemed to pass between them like that.

Then Josh turned. He bent down to grab a box, hoisting it up to balance on his shoulder. “I’ll get the rest of that shit tomorrow,” he said over his shoulder, wrenching the door open before disappearing into the hallway. Behind him, the door shut with a whisper that felt like a slap.

Dizzy and sick with a perverse sense of shame, Chris stood where he was. He couldn’t find it in himself to move. The past few minutes played on repeat in his head, details already warping and growing stranger in the silence that came rolling in on Josh’s heels. Was this what whiplash felt like? His ears were ringing. Slowly, very slowly, he sat in front of his desk, trying to ease the shaking in his hands. His laptop remained closed. His phone remained on his desk. Josh’s boxes remained on the floor. For the longest time, nothing moved.

And then his stomach growled, reminding him of the life he’d had before he’d walked into the dorm. He’d had plans for the night. He’d been going to eat. Chris made a small noise of disgust when he went to grab the bag of fries and found it freezing cold. Not that it mattered—he wasn’t all that hungry, on second thought. He swept his arm to the side, sending the greasy bag tumbling into the trashcan he kept at the base of his desk.

The tips of his fingers still buzzed with what he could only figure was some heady combination of adrenaline and anger. He flexed his hands a few times to try and dispel the feeling, but it lingered, becoming the uncomfortable pin-and-needle prickling of a sleeping limb. It was for that reason—or at least so he told himself—that his phone seemed to tremble as he picked it up. His fingers were steady enough as he bypassed the group text (long-since relabeled “The Almosts,” capital T, capital A), opening a new thread and adding two names.

The tingling in his fingers felt worse the longer he stared at the blank text. He cycled through what he wanted to send out. ‘Josh is out of his GODDAMN mind,’ was the first one that occurred to him, but no, no, that wouldn’t do. ‘Guess who just won the shittiest friend competition?’ was another. ‘Who’s got two thumbs, a foot in his mouth, and no roommate?’ None of them were right, though. He actually managed to type out ‘Well…it finally happened’ before he deleted it entirely and closed his inbox altogether.

That wasn’t fair—none of what he wanted to say was fair. What would the use of saying anything like that to Sam and Ash be? What was the point? All it would do was stir them up. Sam would worry about Josh, Ashley would worry about him, everyone would go to bed feeling like shit, and to what end? So he could have some small passive-aggressive catharsis? The impulse was strong, but he wasn’t a fucking twelve-year-old posting vague callout statuses on Facebook anymore, and he knew that the only thing he’d achieve by telling the girls about the fight would be making four people miserable instead of just two.

Running off and telling Ashley (and to a lesser extent, Sam) would also be proving Josh right. The thought brought another painful flush to his neck. He wouldn’t do that.

Besides, he found he didn’t really want to talk to anyone just then. He wanted to turn all the lights off, get into bed, pull the sheets over his head, and sleep until shit blew over. It would, he knew, because it always did. It was the same formula they’d been following since puberty had hit: One of them would get mad, neither would say anything about it, things would stew until they boiled over, Josh would tear him a new one regardless of what the initial injustice had been, Chris would apologize profusely, shit would calm down again and they’d be buds like nothing ever happened, rinse, wash, repeat.

This would be no different.

Chris became uncomfortably aware of how quiet the room was, how strangely the small sounds he made seemed to echo now that half of the dorm was completely devoid of any objects that might absorb them. He’d gotten so used to Josh not actually being there, but it was easy enough to pretend things were okay when his sheets were rumpled on the bed and his old posters were hung up.

Under the desk, he toed his shoes off and stood, all but throwing himself onto his bed. He didn’t need at the time to know it was still too early for him to actually go to sleep (nor did he think the rushing blood in his ears would let him), yet the allure of curling into a ball and staring blankly out the window for an hour or two was suddenly incredibly appealing.

It turned out to be a mistake. As he closed his eyes, all he could hear was his own voice. All he could see was that first snide look on Josh’s face. Chris was the sort of person who cringed himself to the point of nausea when thinking about embarrassing things he’d done when he was ten. The freshness of this particular incident made that desire to implode exponentially worse.

This was why he always ended up apologizing. This was why he always threw himself under the bus, no matter what. This was why he tried to hard to always keep his fucking mouth shut.

There was nothing, absolutely nothing, worse than the icy burn of guilt that accompanied the fear he’d hurt someone’s feelings or done something wrong. He was always the mediator, the middleman, the one who smoothed shit over to try and ensure everyone was happy. In junior high, he’d once said he’d rather jump in front of an oncoming train than know someone was pissed at him. At the time, everyone at the table had laughed. But he hadn’t been joking. And wasn’t that fucked up. That was definitely some sort of deep-seated psychological issue, but Lord Almighty, he didn’t have time to ponder that tonight.

Through the walls of the dorm, he could hear the not-so-muffled voices of the neighbors as they laughed about something. Their timing wasn’t great.

He knew things would be calmer in the morning, and that all he had to do was find a way to get his mind off of the fight for the time being, but still…

Just as he was thinking that there was no way in the great blue fuck he was going to get any of his classwork done that night, his phone buzzed in his hand.

Ashley

Hey when you get back into your dorm, can you let me know? I hate to do this but my mom thinks she royally screwed up her work computer, and I have no idea what she wants me to do about it, so…
I just kinda figured…since you’re pretty much our IT support…
Honestly I think she got that weird porn virus that’s going around because she’s REFUSING to let me see it but what can you do.

Sometimes—not always, but just often enough for it to feel a little spooky—it was like Ashley knew when shit was up.

Though his chest was still tight with the sick discomfort the fight had brewed up, Chris could already feel the first hints of relief running coolly through his veins. Without prying eyes or ears, it was easy enough for him to admit that there were few things that made him feel better than talking to her. He leapt on the opportunity to be distracted, making a silent promise to himself that, no matter what, he would not say anything about Josh, angry or otherwise. He would not prove him right.

Ashley

i really doubt jamie’s got a porn virus

I don’t know…
She clicks on unnamed attachments and links embedded in emails.
why

would

she

do

that

Because she’s a mom.
I think it’s in the mom manual, right between ‘stern disappointment’ and ‘unhealthy interest in quartz and burning sage.’
i think our moms got different manuals ash

momuals

tell her to turn it off and turn it back on again

see if that helps

it always does

It always does.
And…

He waited a moment.

Ashley

And…
Okay hang on…

He waited another moment.

Ashley

She says it’s a miracle, and you’re a genius. So I’m assuming it worked.
ty ty i'll be here all week

while i can assure you no miracles happened here on this day

i WILL accept the title of genius

tell her to stop clicking random links ok

especially if the email subject line is about erectile dysfunction

that’s how they get ya you know

get you all curious and shit

then BOOM

malware

Yeah okay, I’ll get right on that.
Hey Mom? Yeah, stop opening erectile dysfunction emails.
I’m sure she’ll love that.
no one loves erectile dysfunction ash

Eugh.
you can quote me on that too

‘no one loves erectile dysfunction’ – chris hartley, 2014

Guess I found my yearbook quote..
!!!!!!!!!!!!

That was SO a joke.
erectile dysfunction is no laughing matter ash

oh wait

‘erectile dysfunction is no laughing matter’ – chris hartley, 2014

Okay, literally can we stop talking about erectile dysfunction?
Please.
i mean ok

no need to get so stiff about it

get it

stiff

because

Uh huh.
How's it going over there?
You get that exam back yet?
no on the exam and class was fine

Oh well that's a bummer.
Stuff okay besides that?

There was no fooling Ashley. Ever. He groaned to himself, rolling onto his side as he replied.

Ashley

no comment

:\
Should I take that as a no?
Did something go down?
Was it...

Oh, he hated the pause that followed. Hated it. Despised it. The pause meant she knew, because she always seemed to know when something bad had happened. The girl was good at context clues, he had to give her that…still, he’d promised himself he wouldn’t say anything. So he didn’t. He watched the screen for a couple seconds (each feeling like a lifetime) until the telltale ellipsis appeared on her side of the thread again.

Ashley

Was it...
Did one of the guys do something?
if it please the court your honor

my attorney has suggested i take the 5th on this one

:(
So you don’t want to talk about it?

No.

Yes.

Maybe.

He wanted to call her—that was what he wanted to do. He wanted to call her and put her on speaker, set the phone on his desk or pillow, and just listen to her talk about nothing. He wanted to get out of bed and drive back home and spend the night on the Browns’ couch. He wanted things to feel normal again. He wanted things to feel okay again. He wanted everyone to stop being afraid of talking about how angry and sad and lost they all were.

Ashley

idk

not right now

not right this second

maybe later

Okay...
Wanna talk about something else to get your mind off it?
god yes

fill me in on all the hot goss from back home

You think people tell me hot goss?
Do you KNOW me?
I get passed over in roll call.
ok then tell me the thirdhand lukewarm goss you heard in the hallways

or saw scribbled on a bathroom stall

First of all, no one writes on the stalls in the girls’ room.
really?????

lame

our bathrooms were full of top notch graffiti

and lots of tiny drawings of dicks

ok tbh mostly dicks

some of them not even that tiny really

Fascinating.
But hmmm okay…well the trig teacher had to go to the er yesterday in the middle of class..
I wasn’t there because it was third period and I was in study hall, but I guess it was a HUGE deal..
Turns out she’s super allergic to pineapple, go figure..
and she just what

ate a bunch of it before third period

Yeah!
public school man

tax dollars hard at work

Um…we have a fire drill planned for next Wednesday, so that’ll be…exciting?
ash

please don’t be offended but like

this is the best you got?

these are the most sizzling stories you can offer me

in this

my time of greatest need

math teacher got some hives and maybe there’s gonna be a fire drill

fr?

i thought you were supposed to be the writer

i read that romantic period piece of yours that sam sent us

i thought you’d weave me a similar tapestry with your words

I TOLD you I didn’t know any gossip!
All anyone wants to talk about right now is prom, and it’s just repetitive and boring at this point.
Oooh what color dress are you wearing? Did you know so and so’s going with so and so?
B-O-R-I-N-G.
aw snap that’s coming up isn’t it

you planning on going?

So I can stand around all night in uncomfortable shoes and hang out with two of the Creative Writing club people and their dates?
Yeah, it sounds like a really fantastic time.
hey i’m pretty sure it’s a law that if you don’t dance to cottoneyed joe at least once a year the government takes you out

where did they come from you’ll ask

where did you go everyone else will ask

where DID they come from???

cottoneyed joe

cmon it’s your senior prom!

who misses their senior prom?

People whose friends all graduated way before them!

Something about that made his chest cramp up in an entirely different way. It was so easy to forget that Ashley was a full two years behind him. It had always felt, to some degree, like she was older. Probably due to the fact she’d been reading at a college level since fourth grade, maybe due to her always having a voice-of-reason lecture locked and loaded and ready to go, definitely due to her throwing around antiquated grandma phrases like “Go suck an egg” when she was pissed. Whatever it was, the nauseating adrenaline from before had metamorphosed into a new kind of queasiness as he was presented with two equally depressing images: Ashley doing homework alone in her bedroom while everyone else was at prom, and Ashley sitting alone at a poorly decorated table in some convention center’s ballroom while watching everyone else take selfies and dance badly to Gangnam Style.

Both were pretty terrible in their own distinct way.

Ashley

…a valid point

it was fun when the three of us went tho

you could still have fun!

It was fun back then because I was WITH people, Chris! My FRIENDS!
And don’t get me wrong, like I’m sure it would be okay to hang with the CW people or even the drama kids…
Well, okay, let’s be real, here…a select few of the drama kids.
a VERY select few

But they’re not…you know.
My GROUP.
I’m not going to be brokenhearted about it or anything.
School dances are always stupid, and they’re always the SAME.
Someone gets kicked out for being drunk, someone wears a white tux and top hat because they think it’s funny, someone throws up outside, someone smells like they’re literally covered in pot, there’s ALWAYS a girl crying in the bathroom…
well that one’s probably because there’s nothing fun written on the walls

like seriously what do you DO while you’re peeing

Besides, like I said, it’d be weird going without any of you guys.
I’ll survive not going.
it's still a bummer

Chris rolled onto his back, momentarily setting his phone down on his chest. He knew what he wanted to say. He always knew what he wanted to say. When it came to knowing what to say, he was usually pretty good; it was actually saying the damn thing that held him back. Trying to say things the right way to Josh sometimes felt like navigating a minefield (if the night had proved anything, it was that). Trying to say things the right way to Ash, though…that felt a little more like a particularly heated game of Cards Against Humanity. He had to find something that was just funny enough to get a reaction, catered just enough to her sensibilities to really hit home, and just safe enough that even if it wasn’t the winner, the loss wouldn’t sting too badly.

He took a deep breath and then, figuring he’d already fucked up enough that night to stew in anxiety for any longer than he had to, he began to type again.

Ashley

you want me to come back home and we can stage a sick rebellious prom-crash?

think sk8r boi era avril lavigne

we can stick it to the man by wearing too much eyeliner and ties that are too skinny

His jaw tightened as he waited for her to answer.

The desire to throw his phone across the room and just never check again was strong.

Ashley

…are you serious?
what

about reawakening the spirit of pop punk?

if i can find a skateboard lying around i sure am

i might even have some gloves i can cut the fingers off of

think of the possibilities

Good. Good. Not his best work, but a good enough recovery. If she seemed freaked out, he could play it off as a joke. He was so good at that—playing shit off as a joke. So very, very good at it.

Ashley

No doofus, I meant about coming home.
I mean, if you wanted, I know that they let people buy tickets for their dates as long as they’re under 21.

Had anyone else been around to see it, he would’ve fought them tooth and nail, denying and deflecting until he ran out of breath. But there was no one else in the dorm, so there was no reason to hide the ridiculous smile spreading across his face. There was certainly no one there to make fun of the nervously giddy laugh that escaped him. (A result of the leftover adrenaline, of course…nothing more than that.)

Ashley

ashley brown

is this

is this a prom-posal

You know what, forget it, it was stupid.
i was hoping for a flashmob

or at least a hand painted sign

Oh my GOD!
I said forget itttttt!
nah know what

let’s do it

let’s go to prom

…for real?
for realzies

You don’t have to say that just because you feel obligated.
It’s going to be stupid.
oh i'm sure it’s going to be awful

of that i have no doubt

but i don’t feel obligated jfc

hmu with the date later and i'll be sure i'm home

Okay, and I’ll get the tickets!
so uh

i guess now’s a bad time to tell you

i am definitely planning on a white tux/top hat combo

I take it back.
We’re not going.

And so he was able to push the fight from his mind, if only for the time being. In the back of his mind, Chris knew he’d have to deal with the fallout tomorrow, maybe even Saturday…Of course, by then, things would’ve cooled down. There were bigger things for him to think about just then. Things like prom. The situation between him and Josh would be fine—in the end, it always was.

***

Friday, April 11, 2014
8:49pm

He began to suspect he was wrong when he returned from dinner the next day and found no new texts from Josh. That morning, he’d shot him a brief apology and asked if he’d wanted to talk…the answer to that seemed to be a resounding ‘no.’ Worse yet, it looked as if the girls were inexplicably getting the same treatment. He double-checked the group text, quickly scrolling through the day’s messages, and nope—not a peep from Josh. Neither Ashley nor Sam seemed concerned about it (why would they be?), even though Ashley had specifically directed a question to him and Sam had responded to something he’d said Thursday afternoon. There he was, doing his best to refrain from spilling his guts about the whole messy ordeal to them, and there Josh was, avoiding them as though they already knew all the juicy bits. As though Chris had already tattled.

More than anything else, staring at the unanswered texts made him tired. Was it that he hadn’t sounded contrite enough? Chris tapped on Josh’s name, opening the thread between the two of them, and tried again.

Josh

hey man look i'm really sorry about last night
i feel incredibly fuckin shitty and i know you’re prolly pissed and i don’t blame you for that
but i really didn’t mean to upset you fr
can you just idk let me know you’re ok? you haven’t been responding in the grouptext
i won’t even answer if you don’t want me to

He set the phone back down on his desk, waiting for it to buzz with a response. It didn’t.

***

Saturday, April 12, 2014
1:23pm

Josh

heyyy still haven’t heard back
i really can’t tell you how sorry i am josh
i shouldn’t have been all up in your face
i was acting like a shitty little kid ok and i mean it i'll do whatev to make it up to you
just like hmu ok i'm starting to get worried lol

The seed of guilt that had been sown in his gut bloomed into something prickly and terrible, making it all but impossible to focus on any of the work he had to do before finals. He called Josh, frowning when, after three rings, he was sent to voicemail. That settled it, right? That had to mean Josh had rejected his call, that he didn’t want to talk to Chris. But if that was the case, if it was really so open-and-shut, why was he suddenly doubting the number of rings it usually took?

***

Sunday, April 13, 2014
12:00pm

Josh

dude seriously i get it you’re mad at me
sam keeps asking me if something’s wrong
if you don’t wanna talk to me ok fine but will you PLEASE answer SOMEONE
text sam or ash or the guys or idc anyone ok
just let someone know that you’re ok
at least turn your read receipts on

He tried calling again, only to find himself rolled over to voicemail. He didn’t leave a message, knowing that if Josh had been trying to ignore him, the texts and missed calls would be sufficient. Besides, he knew there was no way to keep the anxiety from his voice. This was beginning to feel like October all over again. If he didn’t hear from him by tomorrow, he was going to call Linda. Maybe even Bob. Fuck, maybe he’d pack up and drive back home to go knock on the Washington’s door in person.

Jesus tap-dancing Christ—he prayed this wasn’t going to be like October. He couldn’t handle another October.

***

Monday, April 14, 2014
8:37pm

He’d taken the aisle seat in class in case he had to dip into the hall to answer a call, had kept his phone on mute so that he could keep it on the desk where he could see it…all for nothing. Every few seconds, his eyes flit to the phone, hoping to see something—anything—from Josh. Each time the screen lit up, he could feel his heart in his throat, but each time it was someone else.

Josh

are you ok???
if you don’t answer me in five fucking min i'm calling your mom
i stg i'm not fucking around josh

Back and forth, back and forth, he paced from one side of the dorm to the other, gnawing on the insides of his cheeks as he stared down at the phone, willing it to light up. If there was one thing Josh hated, it was his parents getting brought into shit. Even before the incident with the twins, an uncomfortable familial tension had been there. A tension made worse, no doubt, by Josh dropping out before the semester finished.

As if by magic, the phone began to buzz in his hand, the screen displaying Josh’s name. “Christ dude!” He was shouting, he knew he was shouting, voice taut in his throat. “You scared the living shit—” His stomach dropped into his feet when he realized that the voice on the other line most definitely, unquestionably, undeniably, was not Josh’s. Chris felt his knees turn into jelly. He sat down on the bed that used to be Josh’s. He closed his eyes. “Hi Linda.”

***

Tuesday, April 15, 2014
4:16pm

How many times had he taken this path? How often had he trudged up the stairs, hand skimming the rotten railing? There was no way for him to know exactly, but he suspected that he’d be able to find his way blindfolded. Hell, he’d probably be able to follow the divots his own shoes had worn into the ground. But in all of those times, he couldn’t remember one where he’d felt so deeply, abysmally, cosmically worried.

Once in junior year, he’d made the admittedly awful decision of visiting when coming down off a wicked case of food poisoning, so there was definitely a precedent for him barfing at the Browns’…unsurprisingly, that didn’t exactly make him feel better.

One way or another, he knew he had to get a handle on his face. When it came to sniffing out a calamity, Ashley was almost supernaturally adept. She said it was a writer thing, that when you spent as much time manipulating and perfecting characters’ body language, you sort of figured out how to spot it in real life. Maybe that was true. Josh had always thought differently, though. Out of earshot and with the sort of smug self-assuredness only a psych major could have, he’d called it hypervigilance, a state of anxiety so keen, so well-tuned, that people picked up on the tiny shit other people might miss—minute fluctuations in tone of voice, shifts in posture, microexpressions that were little more than subconscious twitches of facial muscles. Every time, he’d follow it by saying sometimes it was just an evolutionary leftover from back when people had to outrun predators…and other times, it was an indicator of something else, a nasty little parting gift you sometimes saw in people who…

But maybe it was high time Josh stopped playing armchair psychologist with their friends.

He stopped as he reached the Browns’ floor, letting himself lean back against a wall. He pushed his glasses up onto his forehead, pinching the bridge of his nose while he fought against the wave of unpleasantness rising inside of him. Honestly, had anyone asked, Chris would’ve been hard pressed to tell them whether he thought he was going to puke or sob. Both were looking mighty appealing, at the moment.

So he stood there in the breezeway, trying his damnedest to focus on the sweet smell of spring air or the God-awful Easter wreath on the neighbor’s door or literally anything other than the matter at hand. Ashley would be freaked out as it was, what with him showing up unannounced; if he showed up unannounced and crying, she might actually explode. He took a deep breath in, slowly let it out, slid his glasses back down, and steeled himself. If he lost it now, there’d be no going back. He had to keep his head about him.

He’d barely rapped his knuckle against the door when the barking began, followed by muted footsteps.

“Charlie! Charlie, co—oh good grief. Will you just…”

There was no way of seeing whether Ashley was at the peephole, but Chris waved once all the same, knowing full well that she was on her tip-toes, peering out at him.

The door had only just swung open, but already he saw worry plain as day on Ashley’s face.

So much for his plan.

She didn’t give him an opportunity to so much as say hello before she was on him, hands clasped into tight, anxious fists at her sides. “What’s wrong? Why didn’t you text to say you were home?” He opened his mouth to say something—anything, really—to try and deescalate her panic, and again she didn’t let him. “Oh my God,” she said, eyes wide as they searched his face. “Oh my God, is it your dad? His heart thing—”

There was a moment of confusion so intense on his end that for a second, all Chris could do was stare at her and try to make sense of her words. “I—no, no, my dad’s fine!”

“Oh thank God.” Ashley visibly relaxed, her entire body seeming to deflate with her breath. She slouched against the doorframe, fixing him with an exasperated stare. “Don’t scare me like that, holy crap. You have this look on your face, like someone died, and—” she froze up again, eyes growing wide once more. Her voice fell to a terrified whisper, “Did someone die?”

“No one died.”

She went lax again, this time pressing a hand to her collarbone in an attempt to steady her heart. “Geez, then why do you look like that?”

“It’s just my face, Ash. This is what it looks like. You’ve seen my parents, this is the best the genetic lottery could do for me.”

Ashley rolled her eyes before taking a step back, keeping Charlie away from the door with the side of her foot. She smiled, but it was noticeably stiff and more than just a shade suspicious. It was obvious that he’d caught her off-guard—Ashley was not good with surprises, be they visits, revelations, or loud noises. “Ha ha ha. You should consider a career in standup,” she joked. “You wanna come in? Or…?”

He did. He did very much want to go in. He wanted to step into the Browns’ apartment, collapse onto the couch, put his head in his hands, and tell Ashley everything. Everything. The weight had been so heavy on his shoulders for so long, and there was nothing he wanted more than to unload it. Just some—not all—enough that maybe he could stand up straight again without feeling like he might snap in two. Enough that when things like this happened with Josh, he wouldn’t have to worry about rehearsing a convincing story in his head over and over and over again, lest someone notice a detail out of place and catch him in the lie. He wanted someone else to know. And shit…how badly he wanted that person to be Ashley.

In that moment, standing in the awkward silence of the landing, it was suddenly abundantly clear that something inside of him had changed.

‘Best Friend’ had never been a title in his mind, but a tier. If it had been a title…if it had been some metaphorical nametag that could belong to one person, and one person only…well, he was beginning to suspect that it didn’t belong to Josh anymore. He was struck with the horrendous realization that maybe it hadn’t belonged to Josh for a while, actually.

As hard as he tried, he couldn’t remember the last time they’d woken each other up in the middle of the night with pointless Snapchats meant to make each other laugh, or the last time they’d slyly texted each other from three feet away to crack jokes about other people in the room. Hell, he couldn’t remember the last time they’d sat silently and just peacefully existed in the same space. Somewhere down the line, likely caught between fall semester of last year and the Blackwood lodge, Josh had dropped that ‘Best Friend’ nametag. Maybe he’d peeled it off himself, letting it flutter quietly to the ground in his wake. Maybe Chris had poked and prodded at it until it came loose like an old scab. Maybe it just hadn’t been made to stick around for that long. Whatever the case, it was gone—or at the very least, it wasn’t where it was supposed to be. These days, Josh wasn’t the person Chris texted when something good happened and he wanted to celebrate, he wasn’t the person Chris called when something bad happened and he needed to hear a comforting voice, he wasn’t the person who Chris could argue with and then be cool with a few minutes later, he wasn’t the person wanted to chill with in his downtime.

Ashley was.

Everyone could make fun of him and tease him and say that it was all just because he was crushing on her, but at the end of the day, that was a load of horseshit. Ashley had been a constant (the constant) in his life since junior high, been there through good and bad, had always listened, had always helped him pick up the pieces of other people’s problems…and as he stood there in her doorway, it occurred to him that one way or another, this had been an inevitability. What happened to the twins had simply hurried the process along.

Mentally, he shook himself out of the maelstrom of his own thoughts, trying not to see how earnest the concern on Ashley’s face was. She’d gone about as pale as he had, Chris thought, and even without knowing what was happening, she looked so close to tears. Then again, she always kind of did.

“Chris,” she said slowly, her uncertainty becoming more and more clear with each second he didn’t step into the apartment, “I know you didn’t drive all the way down from campus just to say hi. That’s a long freaking trip.” There was a beat of silence as she searched his face, and Chris cringed inwardly, remembering what Josh had accused him of. Maybe he did leave her clues, maybe she did piece things together from the shreds of information he gave. She was so good at putting two and two together. “What happened?”

Without a shred of shame, he noticed that he was dangerously, dangerously close to breaking down, himself. “Do you want to go for a drive?” he managed to ask after an eon, making no excuses for the crack in his voice.

Her house keys were already in her hand. Ashley closed the door behind her, locking it with fingers that had already begun to tremble with anxiety again. “We going somewhere in particular?” she asked, voice low and serious and somehow very adult in its matter-of-factness.

“Yeah,” he said, shoving his hands into his pockets. “We’re gonna visit Sam, I think.”

Ashley looked back up at that, eyes scanning his face beneath a knitted brow. Her confusion softened; her dread became more evident. “It’s Josh.”

He didn’t have the right words, not just then. Chris knew he had to save those words, the good ones, the correct ones, for when they were all together. If he gave them to Ashley now, he wouldn’t have them for Sam later, and that wouldn’t be fair. It wouldn’t be good. So he simply took a deep breath through his nose, letting his shoulders fall with the exhale.

It told Ashley all she needed. “Shit,” she whispered, following him down the stairs and into the parking lot with tense, hurried steps. “Shitshitshit.

***

6:20pm

Sam hadn’t realized how worried she’d been until her phone buzzed on her desk and a wave of relief washed over her. She marked her spot in the textbook by dropping her pencil into the crease at its spine, hoping it would be enough to hold it open to the right page for the time being. From where she lay sprawled out on her bed, she reached for the phone, confusion creasing her forehead when the notification wasn’t what she had expected.

2 People

Ash
Hey Sam!
I hope this isn’t too random, but we wanted to stop by and say hi really quick…are you in your dorm?
Oh, related question, which dorm is yours?

She checked the clock, trying to do the math in her head before giving up entirely. It was too late to be messing around with numbers on a Tuesday. Something about it felt odd (probably the use of ‘we’ without any further explanation—it would’ve been a long trip for Chris to make, yet it didn’t seem super likely that Ashley would come with only Josh…), but she quickly shot off a reply. Immediately, three little dots began flashing under Ashley’s name.

Then they disappeared.

They appeared again…and then disappeared again.

Ah well. It was weird, but things tended to get weird with the group of them. Well…not weird, but definitely awkward.

That was the word it always came back to: Awkward. Sam laughed a little, sliding her phone into her pocket as she heaved herself off of her bed, smoothing her clothes out to make herself a little more presentable. If there was one thing their little unit (The Almosts, she reminded herself) had in common, it was that.

Ashley was the worst of them in that regard, gangly and only mid-recovery from what Sam figured must’ve been a horrendous pseudo-scene phase in junior high; she did, after all, still tend to swoop her bangs and wear the sleeves of her shirts too long, caught somewhere in between mall goth and ambitious graduate student, somehow looking perpetually overworked and underfed. Chris was the middle of the scale, aware of his dorkiness to the point of wielding it like a weapon. He had a habit of making unintentionally unflattering facial expressions at the worst possible moment, and while his jokes were terrible, bordering on prosecutable most of the time, they got the job done. Josh, though…he was the only one who had seemed to have actually grown into his weirdness like a puppy growing into its too-big paws. Josh carried himself with too much ease and panache to still be considered a full-fledged dork—he’d managed to metamorphose ‘awkward’ into ‘eccentric.’

But together, they were bizarre in their similarity. It had struck her as oddly comforting, how very quickly they’d all seemed to click together, fitting neatly into place as though she had been friends with the three of them all along—not the twins. They fit together in that special, inexplicable way that only theater kids, band geeks, and AV club members could. There was a downside to that too, Sam thought. Namely, it meant she was probably fairly awkward, herself.

She could almost hear Chris’s voice in her head: Uh, ya think? Why don’t you go eat some quinoa and discuss it with a big ol’ maple tree? Be careful not to get any sap on your sweater when you’re hugging on it.

The tiny smile found its way to her face again, and she shook her head. “Yeah…okay, that’s fair,” she said to the air, stretching her shoulders out. Her stomach gave a rumble at the movement, reminding her it had been a good, long while since she’d had anything to eat—quinoa or otherwise. She hoped the gang would want to grab a bite…that would be a fun little pick-me-up.

A tentative knock sounded at the door, signaling their arrival. It was only as Sam set her hand on the cold metal of the door handle that she was able to place what had been nagging at the back of her head. The message Ashley had sent hadn’t been in the group text. Before she had time enough to really think about what that meant, she’d pulled the door open and found herself face to face with it.

“Hi,” Ashley said, something about the sweetness of her voice striking her as saccharine, bringing to mind a diet soda. Behind her, Chris pulled a hand out of his pocket long enough to give a casual wave that somehow managed to miss ‘casual’ entirely. They took up the better part of the doorway, but there was ample space for Sam to see past them, into the hall.

And Josh was not with them.

“Hey guys.” She looked between the two of them, sure that her puzzlement was obvious to them both. “This is a fun surprise…what’s up?”

“Oh, you know…we were just…around, and thought it would be neat to stop in…say hello…” Sam noticed how very careful Ashley was not to look at her as she said it. “And I’ve been meaning to check out the dorm situation. You know this is where I’m coming in the fall, right? I’m sure I told you that…I mean, I was between a few schools, but since Mom teaches at one of the satellites, they cover a lot of the tui—”

Sam didn’t interrupt her, and she certainly didn’t call her out. She just watched her as she spoke, her smile accommodating but doubtful.

Ashley looked up to Chris, letting her words trail off mid-sentence.

She had just enough time to think Oh no before understanding slammed into her with all the impact of a baseball bat to the gut. Sam actually felt the air go out from her, her lungs suddenly in her throat. “What’s wrong?” she asked, not unlike Ashley had earlier.

Ashley kept looking to Chris, who appeared to be very interested in the nametags pasted on the side of the doorframe. Neither of them said anything, and what was when she knew.

“It’s Josh,” she said flatly, the taste of fear heavy on the back of her tongue. “It is, isn’t it? He hasn’t been answering any of my texts, and when I called I only got his voicemail, and—is he okay?”

Chris took a long breath before lowering his eyes to her. “Is your roommate around?”

She opened the door wider, stepping back so they could come in. “No. She’s out. Sorority thing, I don’t know. Is he okay?

“He’s…” Chris seemed to think it over, running a hand anxiously through his hair. “He’s fine, he’s fine. Just, uh…well, I think…we need to talk. And I didn’t want to do it over text or on the phone…I just thought…ugh.”

Legs moving of their own accord, Sam found herself back at her bed. Her knees felt like they were made out of Jell-O that hadn’t quite set yet, so she eased herself down onto the mattress, staring intently at Chris and Ashley. She realized after only a moment that, whatever Chris had to say, he had to say to them both—Ashley looked every inch as confused (and terrified) as she felt. It didn’t bring her a whole lot of relief.

The two of them milled about for a few seconds, looking uncomfortable. Finally, Chris set a hand on the chair at Sam’s desk, raising his eyebrows in a silent question. She nodded and he pulled it out, sitting down with a grunt of exhaustion. Ashley stayed standing, though she leaned against one of the posts of Sam’s bed.

“You know, the longer you wait to explain, the more freaked out we’re going to be.” There was a snap to Ashley’s voice that Sam had only heard once or twice before…and that had been back at the lodge. She couldn’t stop fidgeting with the rings on her fingers, twisting each of them around in turn, her eyes on Chris, her eyebrows drawn up in a way that made her look as though she were in pain.

“Ash…”

“I didn’t say anything about it the whole ride here, and that was almost an entire hour, Chris.”

“I know, Ash. Can I just—”

Sam knit her fingers together and braced herself for the worst. She realized was getting very, very good at that.

Chris’s face had gone the color of old oatmeal, not doing much to bolster anyone’s confidence. “He’s fine,” he said again, gesturing vaguely with both hands. “There’s just been…uh…a development…in the situation.”

What situation?”

Lord above, Sam was glad that Ashley was taking it upon herself to do most of the talking. She found she couldn’t wrench her eyes from off of Chris, though she wasn’t really sure why. In the back of her mind, in the very farthest recesses where she stored unpleasant things, a quiet warning bell had begun to chime.

He sighed loudly, back to nervously messing with his hair. “Did you guys…I mean, you both knew he was planning on dropping out, right? Of school?”

“Uh huh.”

“Well. He…did.” Chris dropped his hands onto his lap with an unimportant sound, lifting his eyes to the girls. “Um…Thursday, I think, or maybe the day before. I’m not really positive on those specifics.” He cleared his throat, “Definitely packed up his stuff and left, though. I…know that much.”

Sitting up a bit straighter, Sam looked between them again, disappointed but not surprised to see the same confusion on Ashley’s face. “Wait, wait…what do you mean he left? I thought the plan was finishing the semester—that’s all he’s ever said, that he was going to finish up as best he could, take Incompletes in the stuff he missed too much of, and then just take some time? Wasn’t that…wasn’t that the plan?”

“It was. But you know what they say about plans. Meant to be broken, and all that.”

Even with her knuckles pressed anxiously to her mouth, Ashley managed to mutter “That’s rules,” loud enough to be heard. When the other two turned to look at her, she didn’t even bother to shrug. “Sorry. Nervous.”

“Don’t be nervous,” Chris sighed, “I already said he’s fine—”

“I’m nervous because you look like I should be.” She dropped her hand from her mouth, opting instead to fold her arms across her chest. “So…he took his stuff and went home…”

Sam swallowed around the lump in her throat. “And now he’s not answering his phone. I’m gonna go ahead and guess we’re missing something here.”

Chris had taken to looking back down at his hands. “Uh…he was pretty pissed when he left. Really…really pissed, actually. And I thought…maybe he just wasn’t talking to me because of that. But uh…I realized that wasn’t exactly the case.”

Some part of her wanted to ask what Josh had been mad about, suspecting she probably wouldn’t like the answer. She chanced a glance over to Ashley again, this time watching as understanding dawned in her eyes, deepening the concerned crease in her forehead; it was then that she knew she wouldn’t like Chris’s answer. “I tried in the group, out of the group, and called once,” she admitted, the corners of her mouth tightening. “Nothing.”

“Yeah, I tried a few times, too.”

“So…last night I ended up talking to Linda for a while.” He was aware, immediately, of both of their eyes on him. “Like I said, he’s fine. She said school and stuff was just too much after the twins, so…he’s gonna be MIA for a grip. I guess he took some of his shit, packed up, and he’s gonna spend some time in Burbank at the studio with Bob. Get some…hands-on experience there, or whatever.”

“And he can’t answer us?” Sam hadn’t intended for it to come out as stiffly as it had. She was equal parts relieved and dazed, feeling oddly abandoned.

Chris’s shoulders rose and fell in a helpless shrug. “She said he left his phone and his laptop. Wanted some time to himself, I guess.”

Oh she didn’t like that. She didn’t like that one bit.

Before Sam was able to piece together what she wanted to say, Ashley chimed in. “He’s done this sort of thing before,” she said quickly, though it was hard to tell whether she was trying to comfort Sam or herself with the reassurance. Her body language changed completely, switching over from terrified to relieved. She crossed the room in a few vaguely shaky steps, probably to try and work out some of the nervous energy she’d pent up. “He spent a good part of October over there, too…it’s just…” she shrugged uncertainly, as if only then realizing how strange it all was. “It’s a thing that he does sometimes. Gets away and does the movie stuff.” She passed in front of Chris, moving over to one wall to examine the photographs on one of the desks.

Sam had been inspecting her bedspread all the while, trying to process everything. But something Ashley said…well, it snagged something in the back of her mind like a hangnail catching on a sweater. She frowned as it came to her, and she lifted her head. “October?”

Ashley nodded.

Strangely—suspiciously—Chris did not. Sam only half-noticed it, but he’d turned to watch her more carefully, a peculiar expression on his face.

Her eyes narrowed in thought. She felt very much as though she had just seen the first question of an exam: She almost knew the answer, but maybe not quite. The warning bells in her head grew louder. “He was in Burbank then? Because I thought Hannah said—” the words died in her mouth when Chris caught her attention more fully. Now behind Ashley (and therefore safely out of her view), he’d begun frantically shaking his head, waving both hands in front of his throat in the universal sign to shut the fuck up. Sam’s eyes moved rapidly between his panic and Ashley’s inattention, and she bought herself a moment of time by clearing her throat. “Never mind. I think I’m still just…frazzled.” She met Chris’s eyes again, searching for some kind of resolution. There was none to be found, so she just dropped her hands onto her knees and tightened the corners of her mouth once more.

Picking up right where she left off, Chris piped in, “Yeah. I think…I think ‘frazzled’ is a good way to put it.” He managed a tired smile when Ashley offered him a brief look over her shoulder. “But I just thought it would be…I don’t know…better if you guys heard it from me instead of getting radio silence.”

“Yeah,” Sam said, voice distant. She was still putting everything together in her head. The closer she came to finishing the puzzle, the more she disliked it. Without meaning to, she realized she was intently watching Chris’s face.

“Didn’t have to scare us like that.” The edge had gone out of Ashley’s voice, but she made it clear enough that she hadn’t appreciated the theatrics of it all. “Swear to God, you took like…three years off my lifespan, showing up out of nowhere, looking like someone died. Sam’s probably even more freaked out…”

“I’m fine.” She didn’t think she actually was, though.

Usually, that was about the time Chris came in with some kind of jokingly apologetic retort to lighten the mood. He didn’t. His tired smile reappeared, now looking significantly less convincing. Had he actually tried to say something to ease the tension, it was clear at once that he wouldn’t have had the chance.

Ashley all but jumped out of her skin, obviously still shaking off her residual adrenaline, groaning as she pulled her phone out of her pocket. “Shoot. I knew I forgot something…um…this is my mom. She’s probably freaked that I’m not at home, so…if I just like, pop into the hall to take this, can you guys let me back in, in a sec?”

“Nope,” Sam said, surprised at how light she had gotten her voice to sound. “Gonna leave you out there forever.”

“Gee, thanks.”

The click of the door shutting was punctuated by a silence so uncomfortable and so tense that the air itself felt heavier.

Sam was still pointedly staring a hole through Chris’s forehead. He, on the other hand, was looking down at the floor with the kind of intensity that suggested someone had written the answers to all of life’s greatest questions on the toe of his shoe. She folded her hands in her lap and waited, watching him anxiously rubbing at the back of his neck.

For the first few seconds, it really appeared that he wasn’t going to say anything. But then he glanced quickly over his shoulder, making sure that the door was shut tight. The panic that had been so evident on his face was gone, replaced by…huh. It was hard to say precisely what had taken its place. He didn’t look scared, per se, or angry, or embarrassed, or much of anything Sam could put a name to. There was something like a deep, deep exhaustion in his eyes, she thought, but beyond that, it was difficult to parse. When he spoke, his voice was low, conspiratorial. “What did Hannah say about…what did she say happened?”

She continued to watch him with the same sort of caution. “I wasn’t…supposed to say,” she admitted, shoulders slouching. “Guess it doesn’t really matter now, huh?”

The look he gave her wasn’t a smile, but it was reassuring in its own way. It made her realize, for the very first time, that she wasn’t the only one who’d been guarding secrets for the Washington siblings. Not for the first time that evening, she couldn’t help but dwell on how very little she liked that thought.

“I still feel like I shouldn’t talk about it.”

“Yeah, well, I think…it’s pretty safe to say that whatever you know, I know…and I think things would just be, uh, easier if I knew what you know.” The usual laughter was gone from Chris’s voice. He kept shooting anxious glances back towards the door, only increasing her apprehension.

Deep breath in, deep breath out. “Hannah said Josh was in the hospital for most of October. Not Burbank.”

Chris didn’t react to the statement at first. He simply seemed to take it in before dropping his eyes down to the floor again. “Did she say why?

“She did.” She caught on just in time to keep herself from stumbling. Somehow, she’d found herself to be an unwilling participant, playing a terrible kind of game. They were dancing, she and Chris—dancing around saying anything the other might not have known. Smack dab between them, throbbing like Poe’s horrible heart, was the truth of the matter. Neither one of them wanted to be the one to wrench it out from under the floorboards to bring it into the light of day. Neither one of them wanted to betray the trust that had been put in them. As they sat, they were forced to come to terms with the knowledge that they’d both only known one side of some tragic story.

Worse, they were realizing how very easy it would be to make those two versions converge into something more…whole.

Sam’s tongue felt dry in her mouth as she thought back to the night of the prank. The more she pictured it, the more vividly the night came back to her. When she’d walked into the kitchen to Ashley shaking Chris awake, something Hannah had mentioned to her earlier in the week suddenly came crashing back. Something about Josh being on some sort of medication. Some sort of heavy medication. She’d asked Chris if Josh should’ve been drinking. She’d asked him. And maybe it was just her memory playing tricks on her, but as she replayed the events of the conversation…hadn’t he reacted in some small, bizarre way? Hadn’t he given her a particular look? A worried stare? Had he been trying to size her up even then? “Do you know why?”

His head bobbed up and down once. “I do. What did Hannah tell you?” He asked it courteously enough, but there was an underlying exasperation to his voice that made her feel like she was being lectured by an older brother. She was still trying to figure out precisely how much it would be safe to divulge when Chris sighed, lowering his head back into his hands. “Sam,” he said, his exhaustion palpable, “I don’t know how long Ash is gonna be on the phone. Please. Just…help me out here, okay?”

It was her turn to avert her eyes. “Hannah said that…” Ugh, and there it was again, the pang of guilt. She’d promised Hannah—swore to her—that she wouldn’t tell anyone anything about it. She grit her jaw, closed her eyes, and let the words drip from her mouth like vomit. “She said she was just relieved…that he…made it out alive.” Her eyes were still closed, but she thought she could feel the heat of Chris’s stare all the same. She rolled her shoulders to try and chase away the goosebumps that had begun pricking up across her back.

“Yeah,” Chris said after a time, voice hoarse. “Yeah.”

Sam went silent again, fully intending to let the conversation drop off. She couldn’t, though…not when something he’d said belatedly caught up with her. “Wait…does Ash not know? Did…did Josh not tell her?” It was all she could do to keep from reeling back—the idea stung her skin like a smack across the mouth.

He cast another wary look over his shoulder towards the door. “I’m surprised he told the twins.” It wasn’t exactly an answer to her question, leaving the thought to fester and itch behind her eyes.

You never told her?”

“No Sam, I never told her.”

She stared. She didn’t want to keep talking about it, she really didn’t, but the situation was so surreal that she couldn’t help gaping at him, childlike in her disoriented uncertainty. “You guys talk about everything, how could it just…not come up? Didn’t she ask questions when—”

“When what, Sam? When he went to Burbank? To spend time with his dad?” Chris looked to her again, face forlorn. “It wasn’t my story to tell. Josh said he didn’t want anyone to know. I didn’t ask questions. I just didn’t tell anyone. And yeah, sure, I know I fuck up sometimes, I make shitty mistakes, I end up putting my foot in my mouth more often than I like to admit, but if someone tells me to keep something a secret, I’m going to keep it a secret, okay? I’m a lot of things, but I like to think I’m a good fucking friend.”

That time Sam did reel back, her shoulders tapping against the headboard of her bed. She blinked away her surprise, choking on the guilt that filled her throat at the look on Chris’s face. Her mouth hung open slightly as she tried to think of something to say. Nothing came to her. In a flash, her chest felt close to bursting open.

He hadn’t told Ashley. The guilt and confusion that had been scattering her thoughts melted away into a newly burgeoning horror. Hannah had been so upset, so broken by what happened that she’d felt she had to tell Sam. It hadn’t been enough that Beth had known—she had needed the support, the commiseration, the comfort of someone else helping her carry a piece of her grief. Chris hadn’t told anyone. He’d just kept it locked up tight, safe from prying eyes and ears. Sam had felt badly enough going back on her word not to say anything, and Hannah wasn’t even around to feel betrayed by it; she couldn’t even begin to fathom what Chris must’ve been feeling, just then.

She did, however, have a slightly better idea of what had made Josh so angry before he moved out of their dorm.

Suddenly very aware of how quiet she’d gotten, Sam leaned a little closer to Chris. “You are,” she said softly, nodding in hopes of reassuring him. “You are a good friend.”

Something about his expression made her doubt that he believed her. “Yeah. Well. I think—” Both of them startled at the knocking coming from the door, moving in unison to look towards it. “Look, let’s just…can we talk about this later? We should talk about this later. Alone.”

Sam nodded again. “Okay. Later.” She watched as Chris got up from the chair to let Ashley back in, letting herself go lax, slumping against the frame of her bed. She caught herself checking her phone and—knowing what she now knew—felt unspeakably stupid for it. She hoped Hannah and Beth wouldn’t have been too mad at her for talking to Chris. And God, she hoped Josh wouldn’t be, either.

Chapter Text

Sunday, April 20, 2014
1:49pm

“I just know that after it happened…things were rough. Between the three of them, I mean. Because Hannah was just…sad. But Beth was…”

“Pissed,” Chris finished for her. “Yeah. Yeah, she sure was.”

Sam looked up from her hands, still anxiously twisting at the ring on her left index finger. When she glanced across the room, she wasn’t surprised to see Chris had taken his glasses off; it was a piece of body language she’d quickly come to understand. Already, her throat felt sore and dry. They hadn’t been talking for that long, really, but God it felt like it had been years. Only a few days had passed since he and Ashley had shown up at her dorm room—as it turned out, those few days were all it had taken for anxiety to gnaw a nasty hole in Sam’s gut. “You sure we shouldn’t…you know…” she dropped her voice to a conspiratorial whisper, “Close the door?

Chris made a thin sound that she took to be a laugh. “Noooo. My parents know the deal. Well. The basics. The gist. They have a general working idea of the situation.”

Glad for something to else to fixate on, Sam kept her gaze pointed towards the door. Only a sliver of the hallway could be seen, the walls decorated with family photos, but it gave her the uncomfortable sensation that anyone could be listening to them, nonetheless. “You sure?”

Clearly uncomfortable, he slouched further into his chair. “Sam…ugh…if I close the door, they’re gonna freak.”

“What? Why?” She looked back to him momentarily, brow furrowed.

“Because…” he said very slowly, each word an obvious ordeal to get through. “You’re a girl. In my room.”

It didn’t quite click for a few seconds, but when it did, she made a face.

“Okay, uh, wow? Ouch?”

“No, it’s not—just…really?

The tips of his ears were rapidly flushing red, even as he rolled his eyes. “They’re old-fashioned!”

“What do they think we would…do?

“Hey, y’know, I get that like, I’m not your type or whatever, but I’d appreciate it if you showed a little less disgust at the thought of a hypothetical romantic encounter with me.”

“Yeah, okay. It’s just…they know I’m not Ash, right? They saw that I’m not her? Usually the blonde hair is a dead giveaway.”

Chris chose to ignore the comment, returning to the issue at hand. “So Beth told you, too?” He was rubbing at his face, fingers pressing down hard on his sinuses to soothe away the first twinges of what he feared might bloom into a stress migraine. “They just…went around telling everybody?”

Sam shook her head, finding it was hard to keep her eyes away from the open door for any length of time. “No, Beth never said anything about it to me. Hannah just…Hannah said a lot.” She sighed quietly, chest aching fiercely at the memory. “A lot. She was really, really upset. Cried about it for a long time. And even when she said she was over it, I could tell that like…she wasn’t. Not really, you know? It was still there…this…thing she had to deal with.” She pulled her knees up to her chest, hugging her legs tightly. “She said she couldn’t talk to Beth about it because she was just so mad at him. She—”

“Said he was selfish. That he didn’t care about how they would’ve felt if he…” Chris’s mouth took on a strange shape. “And then they go and do it to him. Makes you glad to be an only child, huh?” There was no humor in his voice. Sam had only seen him this distraught once: That first week when the four of them had been standing on the cliff in the snow, Josh’s shouts carrying on the wind as he tore into them. She didn’t like it. There was something unspeakably distressing about seeing the class clown rendered so somber. “Yeah.”

It was quiet between them then, save for the distant sound of a lawnmower growing rhythmically closer and then farther away again. Chris sat at his desk, rocking himself slowly from side to side in his chair; Sam hunched herself protectively over her knees, her weight barely making a divot in his bedspread.

Both had been sworn to secrecy for so long that getting information out of one another had felt almost like an interrogation. There was no relief to be found from it, no solace in having coughed up their similar stories. All they’d been left with was the raw, throbbing ache that accompanied a particularly gruesome bruise. They both suspected that it could only mean one thing…that their purging was far from over.

“How are you?

Surprised, Chris looked up from the floor, blinking sightlessly in her direction. “Uh…oh. Fine, I guess.” He considered grabbing his glasses again and then decided against it. Sometimes it was just easier when he was looking at vague blobs of color instead of an actual face. “I mean, not great, obviously, but like. Fine.” His fingers pinched at the bridge of his nose as he thought. “Maybe not even fine. But what can you do. How’re you, though?”

It was difficult to make her shrug apparent, what with the way she was sitting. “Not great,” she repeated, voice mostly swallowed up by her knees. Her forehead creased as she frowned, and she found herself wishing the bed would just open up and swallow her whole like one of the creatures from Josh’s horror movies. “I think it’s my fault.”

He did find his glasses then, putting them back on so he could better read her expression. “Wh—I—Sam, what?” Leaning forward, he tried his best to make her meet his eyes. “How could…no. No, I don’t know what you think you did, but this wasn’t you. I mean…fuck, if anything…we got into a really big fight the night he left. I still…don’t really know why, or where it came from, but he was pissed. But that doesn’t mean…I—look, it…ugh.” His head dropped, he set his elbows onto his knees, and suddenly their postures were all but identical. “I don’t think it’s anyone’s…fault,” Chris tried again. “I mean…I’ve been through this with Josh before, and just…it’s no one’s fault, Sam. It’s just—”

“I told him something I shouldn’t have.”

“…that was an incredibly ominous thing to say, and I gotta tell you, Sam…not really the best way to preface important information.” It had been meant to sound jokey, to help lighten the mood somehow. It hadn’t worked. The attempt fell about as flat as his voice, making him sound more scared than anything else. “…what did you tell him? Again. I’m…positive whatever it was wasn’t enough to cause this, but…is it…something you can tell me? Or…?”

She closed her eyes and inhaled as deeply as she was able to. “Do you listen to Radio From the Pines?”

A wrinkle appeared between his eyebrows as he tried to place it. “No…? Should I? Are they indie, or—”

“It’s a radio show out of Blackwood Pines. Weather, news, current events…all that stuff. I’ve been listening to it since…well, since you know when. Not as much as I used to. In the beginning, I was…pretty much plugged into it twenty-four-seven, just hoping…” Her throat tightened. Sam swallowed hard, backtracking a bit to try and get around that mental obstacle. “Now I just sort of check once a day. Usually before bed. It’s a habit now, I think…a weird one, but…I sleep better after listening to it. I think Josh was listening to it too, at least at first. I don’t know if he still does or not.”

“Okay…” His voice was heavy with apprehension. Sam had long-since come to realize that, when it came to matters of emotion, Chris was an open book—possibly the most open a book had ever been, in the history of open books. It was startling how different he and Josh were, in that regard.

She took another deep breath. “And the other night…Wednesday night, um…I heard something.” Her arms tightened around her legs as she curled further into herself. “So don’t freak when I say this, because it’s definitely not what you think it’s gonna be, but…they found a body up on the mountain.”

His blood turned to ice. Without meaning to, Chris snapped to attention, his back smacking against the chair. “Holy shi—

“No, no, see, you didn’t…you didn’t hear me. I said it’s not what you think it is. It wasn’t…it wasn’t either of them.” Sam resisted the urge to screw her face up, instead letting the wave of anguish wash over her. “The problem is…I didn’t know that, at first. I came into the report halfway through, freaked out, and just…” She gestured helplessly with one hand, “I called Josh before I got the full story.” Her shoulders slouched so far down that for an instant it felt like they might snap clean off of her torso. “Apparently, in the past month, two more people have gone missing. Not all…you know, from the lodge, but…in the general area. A hiker, I think, and then some journalist who wanted some pictures of the sanatorium. They don’t think the cases are related, or suspicious, or anything like that…they think they’re just all really unfortunate coincidences because of the terrain and how fast the weather can change up there, but…”

Chris felt himself slouch down as well, looking up to the ceiling to avoid seeing the distress on Sam’s face. “What the fuck…what the actual fuck…”

“And even then, they think the journalist probably isn’t even up there anymore, and maybe they went AWOL and ran away or something, but they can’t prove that one way or another.” The corners of her mouth tightened, “The hiker, on the other hand…” There was no hiding the shudder that worked its way up her spine. “He was up there with a group, and I guess he got turned around or something, because next thing they know, they all go back to set up camp and he’s gone. No sign of him. Until like…Wednesday. Dawn, I think. Sometime around then.”

“Oh God.”

She shrugged again. “But like I said. I didn’t get all that, at first. I just heard they’d found a body. And like an absolute idiot, I just…I mean…I had to tell him, you know? I had to. Because what if? What if it had been one of the girls? I couldn’t…” Sam couldn’t swallow past the lump in her throat, so she shook her head. “I shouldn’t have done that. I should’ve checked the internet for the full story first, or called the ranger station, or…anything. I should’ve waited ten minutes to see if they’d repeat the details. I should’ve done a million things other than calling Josh, but here we are. I did. And he flipped. And then it wasn’t anyone, it was just some random guy who died of exposure or something.”

The chair squeaked faintly as Chris leaned back, both hands covering his face. “Ooooh man. Oh man, oh man, oh man, Sam. This is seventeen different kinds of fucked up.”

Miserable beyond words, she said nothing.

“Still not your fault,” he added quickly, realizing his mistake. “Absolutely not your fault, or anyone else’s, but what the fuck?

“I know. It’s just…”

“A lot. It’s a lot. Like, too much, actually. The Washingtons were gonna find out eventually, Sam—it’s their mountain.”

“I know.”

“It never ends, huh? Just…” he let his voice trail off for a moment, rolling his eyes to the window. “Never ends.” He grunted slightly as he stood from the chair, instead perching on the edge of his bed to join Sam. Lowering his voice, he too shot a quick glance towards his bedroom door. “Hey, does…does Josh know that you know all of this? About…everything?

The question caught her off-guard for a second. “I—no. He never brought it up, so…I didn’t, either.” She watched him nod as if to say ‘Good, good,’ feeling another lurch in her stomach. It didn’t seem like the right way to end the thought. “It doesn’t change the way I think about him, you know.”

At that, Chris did his best to keep from visibly reacting. “Good,” he said stiffly, “It shouldn’t.” The way he’d bristled at it, the defensive way he’d come back, gave the impression that she had tread on a sore spot.

The physical closeness between them was somehow very comforting, despite the tension in the air. Sam slowly felt herself uncurling from her protective ball. Her hands slid to her knees as she readjusted herself into a cross-legged position, and almost instinctively she began rolling her shoulders to ease the knots there. There was an aching pit in her throat, somewhere between her tongue and collarbone, filling her with the strange impulse to keep talking, to fill the silence with something—anything—other than the heavy cloud of their shared knowledge. “The weirdest thing about it is…well, it was Halloween when Hannah told me. She was dressed as a farmer. I was having this party at my house, and I had invited her and Beth and Josh…” Her tongue twisted when she realized what she was saying; she tried to hurry past it to gloss over the fact that she hadn’t, in fact, invited Chris (or Ashley, for that matter). “But she was the only one of them who showed up. She was just so sad most of the night, and then once everyone left, she just…” She patted at her knees thoughtfully, trying to keep her grief at bay. “She just spilled it all out. I guess he’d only been out of the hospital for a few days at that point, so…” Chancing a quick peek over, Sam couldn’t quite read the expression on Chris’s face.

“I-I’m sorry. She chose to have that…incredibly delicate conversation with you dressed as—”

“A farmer, yeah.”

“A farmer. As in…‘Howdy, y’all,’ farmer.”

“Yeah. I think she was going for ‘sexy’ farmer, too, but there were more pressing matters so I didn’t really…ask.”

“Well, I mean…aren’t all farmers kind of sexy? Just by nature, I mean? With their overalls and their woven baskets bursting with fresh produce.”

She narrowed her eyes, still trying to read his face. When the first laugh bubbled up and out of her like a glut of puke, she smacked a hand over her mouth to stifle it. It was too late, though; already her shoulders were shaking with giggles, Chris not faring much better. The room filled with the tense, nearly frantic sort of laughter that followed scares or other unpleasant things, high-pitched and sharp and maybe a little too loud. They’d had their talk, they’d opened old wounds to compare them to the new, and now that it was over, the only thing left to do was laugh the fear away.

“It gets worse,” Sam said, using the pad of her thumb to wipe away a tear threatening to spill over the corner of her eye. “Whatever your mental image is right now, like…prepare yourself. Because I was dressed like Minnie Mouse.”

He actually snorted at that, turning away from her to double over. “Shut up!

“I was!” she laughed, clutching at her chest as she tried to pull in shallow breaths. “I was, though! Like, the ears and everything!” The scene came crashing back, and for once, the lens of time magnified its ridiculousness instead of its tragedy. “So we’re—we’re just…in my bedroom, both of us sobbing…” For some reason, that brought on a fresh wave of laughter, making her sound nearly hysterical, “And she’s wearing this stupid…floppy hat, and I’ve got this fake nose painted on and these big, dumb gloves…”

Chris had reached the point where his laughs had turned to silent wheezes, his face bright red. He waved at her to stop, shaking his head frantically. “Nonononono, fuck you! Stop it! No more! You’re—” he collapsed into another fit, failing to keep from snorting again, “You’re fucking making this shit up!

Using the heels of her hands to wipe the tears from her cheeks, Sam took a few steadying breaths. “I wish I was,” she sighed, clearing her throat a few times to ground herself. The jag of giggling had made her more than a little lightheaded, and she fanned herself with her hands, knowing she was likely just as red as Chris. “Because that should be a really sad memory! It was a really sad time! But now, whenever I think on it, all I can see is, well…that.”

“Yeah, I—” his voice cracked so badly that they both teetered on the brink of losing it again. Chris snickered, dropping his voice into a preposterously bad baritone to keep it from cracking a second time, “I can see how that might be weird.” It was his turn to screw his eyes shut and breathe deeply in an attempt to find balance again. When he’d finally managed to calm down, he reached back to rub at his neck. “But hey, the way I see it…you gotta hang onto the shit that makes you laugh, right?”

That time, her smile felt a lot more natural. “That’s…a good way of looking at it, I think.”

He leaned over just slightly to give her knee two bracing pats. “Good talk.”

“Good talk,” Sam agreed with another laugh. Her cheeks were still hot and tingling, her lungs sore. As somber as the room had been a few minutes ago, she was surprised to find she actually couldn’t stop smiling. She’d taken a fair number of potshots at Chris’s horrible jokes in the past, but at that moment, she was unspeakably appreciative for the way he brought laughter into whatever space he was in. Maybe it was that appreciation that made her speak up again. “I’m sorry I didn’t invite you.”

“Huh? Didn’t invi—wait, to the Halloween thing?!” Chris contorted his face in disbelief before waving her off. “Yeah, no, I’m totally heartbroken that you didn’t invite me to a party that not only happened half a year ago, but also no one else that I knew was at. Truly you’ve wounded me. Honestly, I-I’m not sure how I’ll ever recover.”

She rolled her eyes. “Don’t be a dick about it.”

“Sam,” he said, perfectly calm, “If I got my feelings hurt over every party I wasn’t invited to, we wouldn’t be having this conversation right now, because I’d be curled up in an attic somewhere, rocking back and forth and sobbing uncontrollably.” Chris stopped, pursing his lips in thought. “That example sort of got away from me. Uhhh, let me try again: If I had a dollar for every party I didn’t get invited to—”

“You’d have enough money to throw your own party?” she tried.

“What? Oh fuck no, you’re too kind to me. No one would come. No, if I had a dollar for every party I didn’t get invited to, I’d be rich enough that people would want to invite me to their parties.”

“Shoot for those stars, Chris.”

He chuckled before checking his watch. “Okay, how about this…let’s cut a deal, you and me.”

“Oh, I do not like the sound of that.” Like catching a yawn, she found herself absolutely unable to keep from mimicking him. She checked the time on her phone and groaned, standing up from the bed.

“No, here’s the deal,” Chris continued, shoving his own phone in his pocket as he lead her out into the hall and down the stairs. “If you have a Halloween party this year, just be sure that I’m the first person you invite, and maybe I’ll be willing to call it even.”

Maybe, huh?” She shielded her eyes against the glare of the sun as they headed out the front door. “Why maybe?”

“Uh…let’s see…” He unlocked his car and slid into the driver’s seat, looking to her only briefly as he fiddled with the ignition. “There’s that pesky matter of you saying you’d kill me, if given the chance.”

She clucked her tongue in disbelief, “That was months ago! Are you ever going to let that go?”

“Nope.”

Sam managed to click her seatbelt into place just as he began backing out of the driveway. Settling herself in for the drive, she toed her shoes off and pulled her legs up onto the seat with her, getting comfortable. “You know, with an attitude like that, it’s no wonder people don’t invite you to stuff.”

“I get invited to stuff! I mean, not parties. And not your high-end shindigs, obviously, but. Stuff. Sometimes.”

“Oh yeah?”

“Yeah.”

“Like what?” Her head lolled onto her shoulder as she stared up at him, eyebrows raised high enough to put them in danger of disappearing into her hairline.

Still smirking, Chris opened his mouth, seemed to think about what he was about to say, and then shut it again. He reached up with one hand, awkwardly scratching at the side of his nose while he appeared to concentrate on the road. “Like, uh, prom.”

“Aren’t you a little old for—” The realization hit her a second later, causing her to sit straighter in her seat. “Wait, wait…I’m sorry, did you just say you’re going to prom? Like…in the near future? Why—oh my God. Are you going with Ashley? It’s gotta be Ash, right? I mean who else…” Sam leaned forward, thunking her elbows down onto her knees, physically stopping herself from finishing the sentence. “See, this strikes me as information you should’ve shared with the class, upfront.”

He resisted the urge to roll his eyes. “No, I shouldn’t have. Compared to what else is going on—”

“Hey, with everything else that’s going on, I think Team Almosts could use some good news, huh?” Shrugging her shoulders, she reached out and poked him hard in the arm. “So spill it. Dish the deets. Is it a date?

Groaning, he weakly swatted at her hand. “It’s not a date. It’s just two friends going to a dance. A very lame dance, I might add. I don’t know if you remember your senior prom—”

“Well, it’s a lame dance and dinner.”

“Fine. It’s just a lame dance and dinner.”

“…And probably After-Prom.”

“There have been no decisions as to whether or not we will be attending After-Prom.”

“Oh,” she nodded sagely, leaning her head against the window. “Does that mean you might have…other plans for the night, then?” Her tone was innocent enough, but all Chris would only have to turn his head slightly to see the slow smirk spreading its way across her face.

“Oh my God.”

Sam giggled softly, “I’m kidding, I’m kidding. You already know what I think.” Before he had time to respond, she turned back to him, “Gonna get a corsage?”

“I actually hate you. Did you know that? It’s a deep, slow-burning kind of hatred. The kind that drives people to madness.”

“Are you gonna slow dance?” There was no chance she was letting up on this. No chance in hell. If she stopped talking for any amount of time, there was a very real danger that Chris would turn on the God-awful music he liked so much—the loud shit that relied way too much on bass drops and synths. She had to prevent that from happening at all costs. “Are you gonna look deep into each other’s eyes and have a profoundly emotional moment of understanding?”

At the stoplight, Chris hit the brakes just a bit too hard, jostling Sam against her seatbelt.

Half-sputtering, half-cackling, she yanked the seatbelt away to give herself more room. “Look, all I’m saying—”

“Oh, I know what you’re saying.”

All I’m saying…” Sam tried again. “Is that prom is the perfect opportunity for some good, old-fashioned romance. That’s it. That’s all I got.” She held her hands up defensively. “Sounds to me like you’re already halfway there. You got a date—”

“It’s not a date!”

“Going to prom sounds like a date to me, Chris.”

In the rearview mirror, Sam watched as he rolled his eyes. “It’s not. Trust me. We’ve been to prom together before.”

Again she raised her eyebrows. “This is also news to me.”

His hand was halfway to the stereo when Sam smacked it away. There was no getting out of this one, it seemed. “She came to my senior prom, too. It wasn’t a big deal. This isn’t a big deal.”

Sam made a wavery little noise, pretending to fawn like a child hearing a juicy rumor. “So it’s tradition, huh? Still sounding romantic.”

“Yeah, well, it wasn’t. The three of us went together as a group—technically Ash was Josh’s date because he bought the tickets—”

“Oooh, scandalous.” She rifled through the center console, finding a pack of gum and popping a piece in her mouth. “Love triangle action.”

Chris grimaced, “Absolutely not. Look, it’s just…ugh.” He sighed and anxiously ran a hand through his hair, letting it rest against the back of his neck in what seemed, to Sam at least, to almost be a protective gesture. “Sam, I know you’re joking around. And that’s fine—God knows I’m always doing it…But what you need to understand is…man, there are just…there are just certain topics that we don’t go near, okay? I’m sure you had shit like that with…” Chris paused, wincing as he realized what he had just been about to say. “…other people in the past. Sometimes…sometimes being tight with people means you talk about eeeeverything together. And sometimes it means you talk about everything except X, Y, and Z.” He looked back to her, searching her face for any sign of understanding. “You feel me?”

Sam regarded him carefully, folding her arms tightly across her chest. She felt a corner of her mouth tuck in as she thought, and was almost disappointed when she could, in fact, see the logic there.

“I—ugh, you know what? Fine. Okay. So here it is. All of it. Out in the open. I don’t know if you’ve ever experienced being in love with your best friend, Sam, but it’s…it’s not as easy as the Disney Channel movies would have you believe. You gotta be careful with shit, and that goes double for Ash, okay, because Ash has…well, she’s been through some stuff. Like, Capital-S ‘Stuff,’ and I don’t want to totally wreck the relationship we have right now by doing something stupid like….”

“Like telling her that?” She couldn’t help but roll her eyes, already feeling a smile starting to bubble to the surface. “I really don’t think you’d wreck anything, for what it’s worth.” Though she was positive it was because he’d come very close to mentioning her by name just then, Sam couldn’t help but think about Hannah and her disastrous crush on Mike.

Now that…that had been a bad time. Still, she’d sat through her fair share of conversations similar to this, Hannah pining over Mike and sighing at the thought that they might never be together, that she hoped he’d only just give her a chance, that maybe if Emily wasn’t in the picture things could work…

She’d listened to enough of that to know beyond a question of a doubt that there was something different in the way Chris talked about Ashley.

“Ah, see, you say that, but do you know that?” He shot her a pointed look, eyebrows raised. “No,” he finished for her, “No you do not. And neither do I! So. It’s just safer for everyone involved if I just take aaaaaaall my stupid feelings—” Chris pantomimed gathering a cloud of something with one hand, “—and jam them down as far as I possibly can. That way everyone’s happy.”

Sam groaned aloud. “You are so overthinking this. First of all—no, don’t look at…keep your eyes on the road! Jesus, Chris—first of all, you’re not going to wreck anything. I’ve been hanging out with you dweebs long enough to know that much…give me some credit, huh? More importantly, can you just like, get over yourself for half a second there, Hamlet? Everyone, at some point or another in their life, realizes they have a crush on one of their friends. We all gotta deal with it, buddy-boy. That’s just how it goes. You’re already super close, you have an emotional connection…it just makes sense that sometimes you start crushing.”

He got quiet for a moment as he drove, mouth set in an uncertain line. “Uh huh, well. Be that as it may. That’s a real nice pep talk, and you should consider hitting the talk show circuit with it, but you’ve overlooked…a real key detail there, Sam.”

“Oh yeah?” she asked. “And what would that be?”

“I didn’t say I had a crush on Ash.”

Her mouth was open to reply, but she paused, running the conversation back in her head while watching him carefully. Slowly, the corners of her mouth curled upwards into a delighted grin. “No,” she agreed, “You didn’t say that, huh?” She continued to beam up at him, knitting and unknitting her brow as she inspected his profile for any signs of it being another joke. “Oh, so…so now you’ve got nothing to say, is that it? You just drop into a perfectly casual conversation that you love Ashley—”

“I have no idea why I thought this would make you drop it. Why did I think that this would make you drop it?”

“Now, are we talking like-like love? Or like family love? Or love like ‘Oh I love Chex Mix,’ love? Or ‘love,’ the tennis score? Or…”

“Holy shit. I didn’t think it was possible, but…yup, yup, you just…ah, there it is! Congratulations! You’ve officially won the title of ‘Worse Than Josh!’ How does it feel?” Without looking away from the road, he held his right fist out to her, pretending to hold a microphone.

Sam leaned in as though to speak into said mic. “I gotta say, Chris…it feels pretty good, actually.”

He shot her a deliberate look, dropping his hand back onto the wheel. “Here’s the thing. Even if Ash and I never, ever, ever wind up together, that’s gonna be fine. Do you know why?”

“Why?” she asked, suspecting that it was something he’d been wanting to get off his chest.

“Do you know what I want to happen between her and me?”

She mulled it over, cocking her head to the side. When the memory hit her, she actually had to bite down on the inside of her mouth to keep from laughing aloud. “Significant hand touches?”

Chris’s face screwed up in confusion. “…what?”

“You know…” she said, gesturing vaguely, “The finger thing?”

What?!

There was no fighting the laughter that time. “Never mind.”

“I—no, seriously, what the fuck is ‘the finger thing?!’” Chris turned to look at her, eyes wide. “For real, it sounds bad, and I-I-I can’t help but feel like maybe you have the wrong idea, here.”

“Nothing, nothing! Just…say what you were gonna say. Ignore me.” Her fingers slid up to her mouth, covering the curve of her grin. “It’s a stupid inside joke,” she added.

His look suggested he didn’t believe her at all, but he shook the distress off quickly enough. “I just…” Another sigh. “I just wanna make her feel safe and happy. That’s it. And I can do that—” he raised his voice to be heard over the sugary-sweet keening noise Sam had begun to make, “—just as easily being her friend as I could do it as her boyfriend, so. It’s a nonissue.” He shrugged weakly. “It’s not a date. It’s not gonna be the kind of thing you read about in a romance novel from the teen section. And that’s fine. Cuz it doesn’t need to be. So. That’s. That’s that.”

“That’s that.” Still smiling to herself, Sam nestled her head back against the seat’s headrest. She let a minute or two pass before she spoke up again. “Hey Chris?”

“Mhm?”

“Why are you telling me all this?”

He considered the question for a while, tapping his thumbs in no particular rhythm against the steering wheel. “Uh, cuz the drive to your dorm is like an hour long? What else you got to talk about—politics? Current events? Sports? Do you want me to talk about sports, Sam?”

“You know what I—”

“Did you happen to see The Big Game last night? Where the Good Team took the ball and, oh, they just…they just kept that ball for themselves until they managed to score that point? My favorite was when they almost didn’t score the point but then they did score the point. It was magical. Also, when that one guy did that thing and the coach yelled? Pff, don’t get me started. Poetry in motion.”

“Avoiding the question won’t make it go away.” Sam futzed with the lever to recline her seat, raising her other arm up to act as a sort of pillow against her cheek. “I seem to recall you not wanting to touch the topic of you and Ash, last time I asked.”

His eyes found hers for only a second. “Well…last time you asked was a while ago. Things were different.” The click-clack of the turn signal filled the pause with the soothing familiarity of a heartbeat. “And without getting too sappy…you’re one of us now, like it or not.” He briefly glanced away from the road, raising his eyebrows as he met her gaze again. “So congrats—you’re finally starting to unlock some special backstory dialogue. How honored are you?”

She narrowed her eyes, staring off into the distance. “Eh,” she finally shrugged, seesawing her hand in the air. “I could take it or leave it.”

“That’s the spirit! Hey, what is friendship, after all, if not a minor inconvenience?” He snickered along with her. “Look, it’s something you were gonna figure out sooner or later, so…whatever. Just don’t go around blabbin’ to Ash, and we’ll be a-okay.”

“I won’t go blabbing to Ash. God, you’re such a baby.”

“Nah, see, I’m gonna need your solemn oath as an Almost,” Chris said, voice dropping into a register that was ridiculous in its feigned seriousness.

“An Almost oath, huh? I think I can do that.”

“Good. And if I find out you broke that oath, please know that I won’t hesitate to utterly destroy you.”

“I’m trembling,” Sam said flatly. “So let me get this straight, real quick. If I’m one of the gang now, that means you could say…I’m not almost an Almost?” she asked, beaming brightly up at him.

“Most certainly not! You are not almost an Almost. Now, you’re almost almost an Almost, meaning, of course, that you are, in fact, an Almost. If you acted in a manner a little less like the rest of the Almosts, say, behaving in a way that other people might consider competent or normal, then you’d almost be an Almost, but as it stands, you are almost definitely an Almost.”

“Okay, forget it. I’m sorry I asked.”

“That’s all right, you’re forgiven. Almost.”

“Ugh. Just let me out here in the middle of the highway. Please.”

***

Wednesday, April 30, 2014
2:03pm

“How are you feeling today?”

“Oh, me? Well I’m…I’m just peachy, really. Thanks for asking.” When he looked up from his hands, he saw that Hill’s smile had grown tight. Josh lowered his feet from where he’d kicked them up onto one of the ottomans, his expression softening into something less smug. “I’m okay,” he ceded, shoulders shifting in what could’ve been a shrug, could’ve been a passing shiver. “Better than I was.”

“Well that’s certainly good to hear!” Though his tone was chipper enough, Hill’s eyes remained unconvinced. “Am I to take that to mean the new medication is treating you all right?”

Not fully understanding why, Josh felt cowed into earnestness and lowered his eyes to his hands once more, nodding. “Yeah, they’re fine. It’s fine. I’m fine.” His gaze flicked up to Hill and back down again.

“And what does ‘fine’ mean for you, exactly?”

He popped his lips quietly a couple of times as he considered how to best go about answering the question. “I’m sleeping,” Josh began, ticking his points off on his fingers, “No more nightmares, thank God…I’m eating okay…I’m thinking okay, as far as I know, uh…I’m feeling a little more…evened out, emotionally, I guess…” But he’d been here before, he’d gone through this rigmarole, and while it hadn’t been Hill seeing him through it last time, he remembered enough about his last stay to know what the question had really been about. “And…” Still, the words felt like shards of glass catching in his throat. “It turns out that my desire to be dead was just a fleeting fancy.” He waggled his fingers mystically, not needing to look up to sense Hill’s continued doubt. “Really,” he added. “I’m fine.”

There was a low tapping sound as Hill drummed the fingers of his left hand against the desk. The large ring he wore on his pinky caught the sun from the window and gleamed dully, shooting a small disc of brassy light onto the opposite wall. “I am, of course, very glad to hear—and see—that you’re feeling a bit better than you were when you checked in.”

Surprising himself, Josh managed to overcome the desire to roll his eyes. ‘Checked in,’ made it sound like a stay at the local B&B. It glazed over some of the finer details, like signing stacks of medical release and consent forms, or the monitoring, or the cute little wristband. He bit his tongue and let it pass.

“And while I know and recognize that humor is a very important coping mechanism, I would remind you, Josh, that there’s nothing humorous about why you’re here right now.”

His face felt cold. “I know.”

“The topic is unpleasant, but I will have to ask you to refrain from making light of this. Suicidal ideation is a very serious matter that deserves to be treated with the proper gravitas.”

“I know.”

The drumming stopped, Hill laying his hand flat against the table. Had Josh been looking up, he would’ve seen the shift in his expression. “It’s reassuring to hear that you haven’t been experiencing any unpleasant side effects thus far, though. That’s a very good sign.”

“I know.” That time he winced, again consumed by the strange sensation that he was being reprimanded in the principle’s office. “It’s definitely been a relief.”

“I’d imagine so!” Hill continued to watch him from the other side of the desk, mouth pursed in thought, fingers steepled under his chin. He tapped his index fingers together with the slightest narrowing of his eyes before pushing himself back from the desk. “I hope you don’t mind, Josh, but I’ve taken the liberty of setting something up for our session today. Unless there’s a specific topic you’d prefer to discuss, I have an exercise here that I’d be interested in completing with you.”

He tried to keep the huff of his breath from sounding too much like a groan. If there was one thing Hill loved, it was his little exercises. “Sure, why not,” Josh said, leaning forward to rest his arms atop the desk, watching with mild interest as Hill returned, hands full. “Those sure don’t look like Rorschachs.”

“Ah—well that’s because they’re not.” Unfolding a thick, rectangular strip of paper, Hill turned it over once and set it down in front of Josh on the desk. There wasn’t much to it, really; three neat lines separated it into four squares, the one farthest to the left marked ‘MOST’ in a bold typeface, the one farthest to the right marked ‘LEAST.’ He straightened it out with a meticulous little nudge of his fingers before setting down four small statuettes, each roughly the size of a saltshaker. “Now…this is, as I said, an exercise. It’s not a test, there are no correct or incorrect answers. I’m going to tell you a short story about our hypothetical players here…” he swept his hands out, gesturing to the four white figures on the desk, “And then I’m going to ask you to give me your opinion about what you’ve heard.”

Josh looked down from Hill to the paper before him. “Hey, as long as it’s not more word association, I’m game.” He plucked one of the statues from the table, turning it over in his hand. It appeared to be an ox, or maybe some sort of steer. Without any paint, it was almost uncomfortably hard to tell. The worst part of it was its eyes, white and blank and unseeing. Curling his lip slightly, Josh gingerly set it back where it had been.

A smile touched the corners of Hill’s mouth as he settled back into his chair, folding his hands under his chin once again. “Here we have the four characters of our whimsical little anecdote. First, we have the king—a wise ruler, known for being benevolent to his people while still adhering to tradition. He serves his kingdom to the best of his ability, and never has a townsperson spoken ill of him. We then—”

“Wait, that’s it? He’s just ‘the king?’” Picking up the carving, Josh turned it over in his hand, running his thumb against the ridges and spikes of the miniature crown on its head. “He doesn’t have a name?

“Names are entirely unimportant to the story at hand, Josh.”

“The story, sure, but we’re talking about my immersion here, Alan. How am I supposed to form any sort of opinion about this guy when he isn’t even important enough to have a name?

To his surprise, Hill smiled an actual human smile at that, shrugging his shoulders mildly. “All right…I suppose that’s a valid enough point. A name for a king, hmm…how about Alterion?”

Josh’s face scrunched up. “That’s a weird one, but okay I guess.”

“Would you prefer I change it to something else?”

“Nah, it’s your story. Go for it. Take those artistic liberties.”

Hill watched him for a moment before continuing. “We then have King Alterion’s daughter, Princess…mmm…Bellanne. The princess is a beautiful young woman, known for her sweetness and her chastity. Some have said that she is a naïve girl, and perhaps a bit impulsive, but she is still young and there is time to outgrow that.”

“Known for her chastity, huh?” Josh sniffed noncommittally, leaning back in his seat in much the same was Hill was, making himself more comfortable. “She must be a blast at parties.”

“Next, we have the gallant Prince Callafar, the heir apparent of a neighboring kingdom. A handsome young man, his boldness is matched only by his pride. Far and wide, townspeople speak of his arrogance…but also of his influence. He is not a cruel man, but maybe a tad too self-involved for his own good.” Carrying on, Hill gave Josh very little opportunity to interrupt again. “Finally, we have the bull. There isn’t much to say about him, as he’s…simply a bull.”

Wordlessly, Josh raised his eyebrows. There was a beat of silence as he (futilely) waited for Hill to get his meaning. “Does…does the bull have a name?”

“The bull really doesn’t need a name, Josh.”

He held his hands up in defeat. “Fine, fine.”

“Now that you know our characters, let’s get to the meat of the story, shall we? In a beautiful, snowy kingdom, high in the mountains, there was a beautiful princess named Bellanne. So beautiful was she, that one day, she caught the eye of Prince Callafar, who was next in line to rule a neighboring kingdom. The two kingdoms had always been cordial with one another, trading goods and supplies when needed, but it was clear that Callafar’s kingdom was much larger and stronger, its influences farther-reaching than Bellanne’s. Callafar approaches Bellanne and makes his intentions known—he wants to marry her, to have her for his own. Well, the princess is distraught, as she doesn’t want to marry the prince. She tells him, in no uncertain terms, she will not marry him.

“The next day, Callafar goes to Bellanne’s father, the great King Alterion, and asks him for his daughter’s hand in marriage. The king immediately accepts, and why wouldn’t he? By royal decree, the match is all but required—royal blood should only wed royal blood, so on and so forth. That very night, the two are wed in the castle, pronounced man and wife. However! Before they can consummate the marriage—” Hill paused only for a moment, pretending to ignore Josh’s snickering, “Bellanne is so distressed by what has happened, the situation she has found herself in, that she flees the castle. She throws herself out of the safety of its great stone walls, running out into a field. So upset is she, that she completely ignores a sign warning of the danger lurking in the field. Close by, there is a bull grazing in the moonlight. Upon seeing the girl run across the field, the bull charges her. The princess is trampled by the bull, and sadly dies of her injuries.

“What I want you to do is this, Josh…” Hill leaned forward, carefully balancing his notepad on his knee. “I want you to line up our players here in order of who is most guilty of Princess Bellanne’s death,” he tapped his pen on the corresponding square in front of Josh, “…to who is the least guilty of it.”

Looking down at the paper, then back up at Hill, Josh chewed at his upper lip. “That’s it?”

Hill inclined his head. “That’s it. Like I said, there are no correct answers…there are no incorrect answers. I’m just looking for your opinion, based on the details you’ve heard.”

The task seemed simple enough. He thought it over for a moment, eyes flitting between the statuettes. It didn’t take too long for him to place each character where he felt it belonged. The story, after all, seemed fairly straightforward; there wasn’t even a single moment of second-guessing himself. Carefully, he spun the paper around to show Hill his answers, taking pains to not let the statues fall over.

“An interesting order, to be sure.” There was a moment where Josh suspected maybe they were about to have a problem—Hill didn’t write anything down on his pad. But then he pointed the sharp tip of his fountain pen to the figure farthest to the right. “So…you feel that our nameless bull is the least guilty of the princess’s death. How did you come to that conclusion?”

And there it was. The psychoanalysis had begun. Still, Josh couldn’t help the incredulous smile curving the corners of his mouth. “I think you said it yourself, earlier. It’s, uh…it’s just a bull.” He shrugged as if to punctuate the thought. “I mean, it’s a stupid animal, it’s not responsible for her dying.”

He shook his pen slightly, “Ah, ah, ah…it was the bull who trampled the poor girl, we mustn’t forget that.”

“Well yeah it trampled her, she was running through the field. That’s what bulls do—they see something moving, they charge it. You can’t expect a bull not to charge something that’s running and flailing and probably making a whole lotta noise. Expecting it not to charge is pointless. It’s a bull.”

That was when Hill started writing. The scratching of his pen on the paper was almost comfortable in its familiarity. He was quiet for a moment, obviously trying to get his thoughts down onto the paper before moving on. Glancing back up, he seemed to catch sight of the apprehension on Josh’s face, and offered him a faint smile of his own. “No right or wrong answers, Josh. As it were…I happen to agree with you. Bulls can only react in the ways of which they are capable. But let us soldier on, hmm? You said that King Alterion was the second-least guilty of the princess’s death. Now that is certainly an intriguing choice! What was your thought process?”

Again, Josh shrugged. “I just—well, okay, look. The guy messed up. Clearly. He shouldn’t have married her off, sure, but…man, it’s complicated. Do you really want me to like…go through all of it?” The only response he received was a knowing look, so he blew a tired raspberry between his lips. “Alllll right. First of all, you never said anywhere in the story that the princess told him she didn’t want to be married. If she had told him, that would be one thing. The guy’s not a psychic, unless you left that out of the story, too…so there was no way he could know she wasn’t down to clown. On the topic of his ability to see the future—or lack thereof, I guess—even if he had known she didn’t want to be married, he couldn’t know she’d be that upset by it, right? He probably figured she’d cry or get mad at him, or maybe…I don’t know, order a royal divorce, assuming she didn’t sign a royal pre-nup. But mostly, I don’t think he’s that guilty because you said there was the royal decree, right? They were both royal, and if she didn’t marry him, she would’ve had to marry some other royal asshole. The king was just trying to save some time there. Plus, if the prince’s kingdom was one of their allies, and super huge and strong, then yeah he’s going to want his daughter to marry into that. The king probably thought it would help his entire kingdom and get him in good with the neighboring kingdom. It’s a win-win.”

Hill nodded as he wrote. “So you feel he was doing what was best for everyone.”

“Yeah. I mean, obviously not for Princess Belle, or whatever, but again, she didn’t tell him, so…”

“It’s also an interesting point you raise about him wanting to earn the approval of the other kingdom.”

“Well, it’s basic Game of Thrones shit, isn’t it? If you solidify your alliance with the other kingdom, then you can expand your own, which means more supplies and trade for your people, stronger forces during war, blah blah blah.”

Another cryptic smile. “Well, let’s now jump over this middle line and visit the other side of the spectrum, here. You said that it was the prince who was second-most guilty of the princess’s death. Why would that be?”

Josh threw his arms out to his sides, offering Hill a weary expression. “Isn’t it obvious?”

“It’s not, and that’s why I’m asking you for your explanations.”

He clucked his tongue and made a show of rolling his eyes. “Well…first and foremost, he’s a dick. A princely dick, sure, but a dick, nonetheless. See, the king didn’t know the princess didn’t want to marry the prince…the prince sure knew, though. He knew! He knew she didn’t want to marry him, he knew she wasn’t going to be happy about it, so what does he do? He sneaks around to the dad and goes ‘Psst, hey buddy, can I marry your daughter?’ Not exactly a cool move.”

“So am I correct in saying that the main difference you find between the king and the prince, then, in terms of their guilt, is that one knew the princess would be upset, whereas the other did not?

“I mean, that’s definitely part of it, yeah. The king didn’t know marrying her to the prince would upset the princess. The prince asked the king for her hand, knowing it would upset her. But still, the king had the entire kingdom to think about! The prince was just thinking about himself and what he wanted. He wanted to marry her, and that was all that mattered to him. He didn’t care about her or her feelings, just that he would get to feel her, you get me?”

“Oh, I get you,” Hill assured him. “I’m an old man, Josh, not a dim one.” He flashed him another reassuring half-smile. “That just leaves one character, doesn’t it? It seems you found Princess Bellanne to be the guiltiest. And I have to say…I am a bit surprised that you placed her there.”

Eyes narrowing slightly, Josh looked over his choices again. “Level with me here, Alan. Do people really answer differently than this? Like…do people actually put them in orders other than this?”

“I think you’d be very, very surprised at what other people say. But I’m not asking about other people, Josh, I’m asking about you. Why do you feel the princess was the most responsible for her own downfall?”

He glanced at the back of the statuette’s head, taking to drumming his fingers against his arm. “…are you gonna write down on that sheet that I’m victim-blaming if I say ‘She should’ve known better?’”

There was a quiet chortle from the other side of the desk. “I’m not here to judge your answers, just listen to them.”

“Then she should’ve known better. Look, I don’t care how upset she was—really, I don’t. Okay, she didn’t want to marry this guy and she didn’t want to bone down, I get that. We’ve all been there, right? But this was her kingdom. She knew that field was outside, and she had to know the bull was there too! You said in the story that she ignored the sign, meaning she knew it was there. I’m also gonna go out on a limb and assume she knew that bulls like to run at moving things, and that bulls are usually not the friendliest members of the animal kingdom. She knowingly—and willingly, I might add—threw herself into that situation. And yeah, the prince caused it, but she’s the one who did the dang thing. So I stand by my first answer: She should’ve known better.”

“Hmm…” Hill said, staring down at his paper. “Hmm hmm hmm…well, I stand by what I said originally, as well: It was an interesting order, to be sure. But it raises an equally interesting follow-up question, I believe.” He set his pad down on the desk, delicately laying the pen on top of it. Lacing his fingers together, he leaned against his elbows, giving Josh an appraising look from the other side of the desk. “Is that really how you feel, Josh? The reasons that you gave me, are you willing to stand by them?”

He wasn’t able to staunch his laughter at that. “Uh…yeah. I’m not going back on any of that. Well, not unless you change the plot, I guess. Maybe if you make it so the king picks the princess up and throws her off a cliff, or something. I gave you my final answer—that’s how I feel.”

Hill seemed to think that over, jaw working up and down as if he was chewing on something unseen. “And what if I challenged those beliefs, hmm? What would you say then? Do you think I could persuade you to change this order?”

“What, you mean if you just told me I was wrong? I thought there weren’t right or wrong answers.”

“I’m not saying you’re wrong, per se, but what if I said to you that I thought the bull was the most guilty? It was his hooves, his weight that crushed the poor girl to death. The guilt should be his!”

Josh shook his head, chuckling again. “Nah, we’ve already been over this! It’s a dumb animal, and all it could do was charge. Bulls charge. It didn’t want to hurt her, it didn’t mean to hurt her, it was just reacting out of instinct.”

“Then perhaps someone should’ve blindfolded the bull before the wedding.” Acting as though he’d just won the debate, Hill raised both eyebrows, nodding definitively.

“What?” It…it wasn’t anything he’d been expecting to hear. Josh squinted at him, trying to work through what he’d just suggested. “I…what?

Nonchalantly, Hill shrugged. “Perhaps someone should’ve made it common practice to blindfold the bull at night, don’t you think? If they did that, then there would be no worry about how he would or wouldn’t react if someone ran through the field.”

“I don’t…that isn’t the question, though.” Without realizing it, he’d straightened up in his chair, leaning his elbows against the desk in a mirror image of Hill’s posture. “You asked me if I thought the bull was guilty. I said no. You never asked, or even mentioned in the story, anything about tying a hankie around this thing’s face every night. That’s…it’s not even a point. It’s just…why would anyone blindfold a bull?”

“To keep it from charging, of course.”

“That doesn’t make any sense.”

The response didn’t appear to throw Hill off his game in the slightest. Instead, he changed his tack. “What if I said that I felt the princess was the least responsible for her own death? That she couldn’t control her response, given how very distraught she was at the thought of having to wed and bed the p—”

That time, Josh didn’t let him finish. “No! We’ve been here already, too! And look, I get the whole ‘making bad decisions when emotional’ thing. Obviously. I have made a shitty decision…or two, or three…while upset. We’re humans. That’s what we do. But she knew the bull was there in the field. She ignored it. I don’t care how upset she was at the thought of dealing with His Royal Dick and his royal dick, she threw herself at the bull. It’s her fault!”

“What if I said it was the king who was the most responsible? That if it hadn’t been for his decision, this never would’ve happened? He simply shouldn’t have married her to the prince.”

“Then he would’ve made an enemy of the other kingdom, or at least like…he wouldn’t have had their support if he needed them. Also, he didn’t have the whole story! There was some important, key info that man was missing. He never could’ve made an informed decision based on what he had, and again Alan, he didn’t want to hurt her. The prince did.”

For a long, quiet moment, Hill watched him from across the desk. He didn’t say a word, didn’t move to write anything down, just scanned Josh’s face for God-knew-what. “So there’s nothing I can do to change your mind?” When he asked it that time, his voice had lowered and softened, something in his tone suggesting to Josh that they were nowhere near done with the exercise.

“Nope. Nothing.”

He continued to stare at Josh for a few seconds, eyes contemplative even as he reached up to scratch at a cheek. “All right. It is, of course, important for a man to be able to stand by his own opinions. That’s a gift, even if you don’t realize it, Josh—I think you’d be shocked to realize how very fluid some people can be when it comes to their own principles.” Picking the pad up again, he lowered his eyes from Josh. Making a few quick flourishes with his pen, Hill allowed the office to grow silent around them once more, nothing but the sound of their breathing filling the air. “I wonder though…do you think you would stand by those opinions if I changed the story?”

That time, he actually groaned. “The plot? Yeah, I think I’d change my mind, actually, if the prince was suddenly…I don’t know, some machete-wielding psycho.”

Hill chuckled, “No, you misunderstand. I’m suggesting that perhaps I change a few…unimportant details. Peripheral details…the setting and such. For example, if it did not take place in a castle.”

“Then…no. I wouldn’t care if it took place in the parking lot in the back of an Arby’s. My answers are gonna be the same.”

“Are you certain?” Hill didn’t raise his eyes, but Josh had the singular sensation he was being observed, all the same. “Shall we try?”

One shoulder lifted and fell in a shrug. “Uh, okay? You’re gonna go through the whole thing again, except it’s not in a castle?”

“Well, I might as well change another unimportant detail or two while I’m at it. Hmm...earlier, you were quite fixated on the characters having names, weren’t you? So how about we change their names, too? The names that I chose the first time around—admittedly—were somewhat odd, weren’t they?” He didn’t wait for Josh to agree or disagree. In one practiced move, Hill turned the paper strip back around so that the statues were all facing Josh again. “Now, let’s see if you can really hold onto those beliefs, shall we?”

The corners of Josh’s mouth tightened. Part of him wanted to complain about the waste of time…until he remembered that it was Bob paying for the appointments. Hill could tell him as many shitty stories as he wanted. “We shall.”

Clearing his throat once, Hill began the story again. “Once, on a beautiful, snowy mountain, there was a young woman named Hannah.”

Josh’s eyes widened to the size of dessert plates as he gaped up at Hill. “No,” he said flatly, pushing away from the desk. “No, that isn’t the same.”

Hill stopped the story immediately, returning to his hawk-like inspection of Josh’s face. “Precisely how is it different, Josh?”

“It just is!

Going quiet again, Hill waited a moment until Josh met his gaze. “I listened to the answers you gave me earlier. Now, I ask that you listen to me for just a minute. I recognize that this is a subject you prefer to avoid, Josh. Be that as it may, I think we can both agree that it’s one that must be addressed, if you’re to heal from this loss.” He held his eyes for another beat, “This isn’t a punishment, and it isn’t a mockery. Sometimes, we get so…wrapped up in our own emotions, the noise in our own heads, that we find it difficult to see other perspectives, or consider what has happened in a more clinical, logical, abstract way.

“I told you that I was going to test your beliefs, Josh, and that is exactly what I’m going to do. I won’t sit here and trudge through the story again, as I think we can both agree that would be redundant. I’m going to ask you to do precisely what you did before: Explain your decisions to me.” That time, he tapped the princess’s head first, the pen making a hollow clicking sound against statue. “Who do you feel is most guilty of your sisters’ deaths, Josh?”

“This is bullshit.” He stood jerkily from the chair, both hands raking through his hair. “Fuck this. It’s not the same! These are…these are false equivalences! Your stupid princess story has nothing to do with—”

In a voice so calm and so soft that Josh could only just barely hear it over the sudden rush of blood in his own ears, Hill spoke again. “A few minutes ago, you were very firm in your opinion that the princess was the most responsible for her own death. In your own words, you said that she ‘should’ve known better,’ that she ‘threw herself’ into the situation.”

He whirled, nostrils flaring. “That’s not what happened with my sisters.”

Hill was silent. He simply watched Josh with that same inscrutable look, one leg crossed over the other, pen still occasionally tapping against the princess’s head.

“Hannah was…humiliated. Of course she ran!”

“Yet a moment ago, you said you ‘didn’t care how upset the princess was.’ That her emotional upheaval was no excuse.” Still the same calm, rational voice. There wasn’t any accusation in his tone, and something about that fact positively drove Josh up the wall.

“Fine, whatever, it’s bullshit and wrong, but whatever. Let’s assume it’s the same. It’s not, but let’s just assume, okay? Beth was concerned. She had to follow Hannah. She wasn’t just acting on impulse, she—”

“It was her kingdom, Josh.”

He froze where he stood, fingers still knotted in his hair. The way Hill had said it, the gentleness of his voice, caused him to rock back on his heels. When he’d stood from the desk, there’d been a flare of heat creeping up his chest and neck, a flare that Josh had taken for fury. As he stood there, staring at Hill, he recognized it for what it truly was.

Grief.

“Your kingdom may not have been a castle…and perhaps there was no bull waiting for your sisters in some moonlit field. But your sisters knew the lodge, and they knew the grounds. They knew the dangers of those grounds. They knew there was a storm coming in. They knew they were charging into the unknown, into the night, into the storm. They knew all of that, Josh.”

His arms were beginning to feel numb. “It’s different.” He blinked hard, hoping Hill wouldn’t notice.

“While we’re still here on the guilty side of the board…let’s move to the prince. Of course, you didn’t have a prince, but from the story you’ve told me, it certainly sounds to me that there were players involved who intended to upset your sister.” Lowering his pen to the paper, Hill’s eyes seemed to scan his notes for something in particular. “I don’t believe they require much explanation, though, do they? In all the time we’ve been talking, the part they played doesn’t seem to factor into your anger or hurt. Perhaps because you considered them to be friends of your sisters, and not your own?” He looked up to Josh for only an instant before gesturing towards the empty chair. “Please.”

Josh eyed the chair, his agitation so thick he could almost taste it on the back of his teeth. He stood for a while longer, his own silent protest…and then sat. The arms of the chair were smooth and cool under his palms as he gripped them. Hill began to speak again in that same deceptively soothing voice, but Josh found he couldn’t wrench his attention away from the princess and her horribly wide, white, unseeing eyes.

“It’s the other side of the middle line that interests me the most…and quite honestly, I should hope it’s the side that interests you the most as well. Once we cross this line, Josh, we make the switch from most to least—that isn’t to be confused with switching from guilty to innocent. Never once did I ask you who was innocent in the story. All of the players’ actions have consequences that they must reap, but that isn’t to say that all of their choices were equal in severity or gravity. Does that make sense to you?”

The longer he looked into the princess’s eyes, the blanker they felt. There was something building in his chest, making his organs feel too full, too fat. His sinuses ached with the memory of snow. “Are you about to tell me why I’m the king, in this situation?”

“I am not.” A rustling of paper suggested that Hill had set his notebook down, but Josh couldn’t look away to confirm it. “What I will remind you of, though, is that the reason you put the prince on this side of the line, and the king on this side of the line, was because the prince intended to hurt the princess with his actions…and the king did not.”

Josh already suspected he wouldn’t like what Hill was about to follow that with.

“Of course, the king had other reasons for doing what he did—isn’t that so? He wanted to earn the approval of the other kingdom, to bolster himself and his kingdom, in their eyes. He also, as you pointed out, did not have the full story. He was lacking important information that made it impossible for him to make the proper decision, when the time came.” Another rustle as Hill ostensibly leaned forward. “Neither Sam nor Ashley had all the information, Josh. They couldn’t have. Neither could’ve possibly known how severely Hannah would react. It sounds to me as though Ashley very much wanted that other kingdom’s approval. And it sounds to me as though Sam was only doing what she thought was right. The intent was not there.”

He chose not to respond. The insides of his cheeks were raw where he’d been biting at them, working the slick flesh between his molars until he could taste the first trace of blood.

“So that just leaves the bull, doesn’t it?” Hill picked up the small figurine then, inspecting it carefully before setting it back down on the square marked ‘LEAST.’ “No bulls up in the mountains, I know, but in my opinion, it’s safe to say that there were two creatures up there who were utterly incapable of reacting any differently than they did. Two very unconscious young men.” Hill paused for effect, but Josh didn’t so much as lift his gaze. “Just as we could never expect the bull to do anything but run at the princess, so too would we be wrong to expect that either you or Chris could’ve done much of anything to stop what happened.”

Whatever was working its way up his throat burned like acid. His mouth tasted like blood and cotton, the muscles numb, moving almost of their own accord. “…I was awake.” The admission stung his eyes, doubling then trebling his vision before he could blink it away. “Beth tried to get me up. I heard her. I could’ve…” His lips tightened. “I was awake.”

Hill had gone perfectly quiet as Josh spoke, his face impassive. When he finally spoke up again, the utter lack of surprise was enough to break Josh from his stupor. “Ah. Were you, now? Hmm. That certainly changes things, doesn’t it? So you were awake, you ignored your sisters, you chose to remain where you were, and you didn’t care what happened to them, then?” He watched as Josh’s forehead creased and uncreased, jaw working behind closed lips to find the right words. “There is a very important distinction between ‘awake’ and ‘aware,’ Josh. If I remember the story correctly, and please believe that I do, you had been drinking quite excessively—while on your medication, no less. Do you know what happens when you mix Amitriptyline and alcohol, Josh?” He didn’t wait for him to respond, “I certainly do. Were you awake? Perhaps. Were you conscious enough to understand what was happening at the time? I find that doubtful. Even if you had, did you have the physical wherewithal to react? Absolutely not. There was nothing you could’ve done.”

“I could’ve just…” And there was the flush in his face, the heat warning him that he was getting too close to losing it all. This wasn’t what he had expected. Hill should’ve been disgusted with him, should’ve been shocked and horrified. He wasn’t supposed to be reassuring him, he wasn’t supposed to justify his inaction. “I could’ve…I didn’t have to drink, I could’ve—”

“Blindfolded the bull?” Hill suggested.

It was only then that Josh looked away from the princess and her sad, hollow eyes, finding Hill’s, instead. He could feel his throat working to swallow around the lump that had formed. Something hot, wet, and traitorous slipped down his cheek as he stared up at him.

Hill was indeed leaning on the desk, but he took a moment to clasp his hands in front of him as he hunkered down further. There was something unsettlingly comforting in his gaze as he lowered himself to Josh’s level, some nebulous breed of sympathetic understanding that suggested he, too, could feel the pangs of loss making Josh’s ribs vibrate around his guts. “Everyone made some terrible decisions that night. Everyone. But it is in our nature to make mistakes. ‘To err is human,’ and so on. And while I know you won’t appreciate me saying so, you and your friends are young—so very young. It may not feel that way to you now, and yet I assure you it’s true. You have long lives ahead of you, full of trial and error. Some of those errors will be costly, some will be horrible, but they will happen. Mistakes are an unavoidable part of being alive.

“What happened to your sisters? To Hannah and Beth? It was a tragedy, and a grave one at that…but nothing can change what happened. The past is beyond our control. All you can do now, all anyone can do now, is work towards healing. I’m not going to sit here and tell you that will be an easy journey. It may, I’m afraid to say, be one of the hardest things you ever have to do. What I will say is this: It appears to me, Josh, that you have friends who are trying very, very hard to help you on that journey. It also appears to me that, with a notable exception or two, you have been doing your best to push them away.”

Josh set his jaw, desperately fighting the urge to drop his eyes from Hill’s.

“We don’t pay much mind to slights acted out against us by strangers, or those we don’t like. If someone you disagree with insults you or questions your way of doing things, do you dwell on it? Probably not. It may sting for a moment, but then you push it from your mind. So how can it be that we behave so differently when we feel that it is our friends who have wronged us?” He tightened his mouth in the way that he had, the shape becoming something akin to a smile. “It makes sense that you would be hurt by your friends’ actions that night, Josh. It makes perfect sense. It is logical, it is intuitive, and it’s entirely explainable by basic psychological principles—it is simply how we are wired to react. What you need to remember is that just because your feelings are understandable, just because they are valid, does not necessarily mean that they are correct. The brain is a tricky thing. The heart, even trickier.”

A buzzing had begun in the back of his head, uncomfortable and discordant and strange. He didn’t like it. He didn’t like what Hill was saying. He didn’t like the slow spread of pins and needles marching their way down his extremities. He didn’t like how clear and obvious and rational Hill’s point was.

Mostly, he didn’t like the princess’s hollow eyes watching him, accusing him of agreeing with Hill.

Accusing him of blaming her for her own death.

“Well, it looks like we’re out of time for this session,” Hill said, sounding leagues away. “Let’s get you back to your room, hmm?”

***

Saturday, May 3, 2014
7:45pm

“Do you think Sam’s okay? I was texting her earlier and she seemed…I don’t know, muted, or something.”

“Muted? Of all the words in the English language to describe a human being, you go with ‘muted?’

There was a rustle as Ashley readjusted herself, gathering up a few inches-worth of her dress to do so. “Ugh, you know what I meant.”

“I know what you meant, sure, but God, you gotta stop talking like an SAT prep book, Ash. You think that’s how you win friends in college? Cuz it’s not. Someone starts throwing synonyms at me, you know what I do?”

“Break into hives and start sweating?” she offered dully, sticking her tongue out at him.

“Well, come on, that’s just how I react to any social situation, so that guess wasn’t really fair.” Pulling into the parking lot, he groaned and stopped, waving a gaggle of prom-goers across. “I’m sure Sam’s fine. She’s got finals coming up, that’s all.”

Ashley frowned, fingers absently toying with the intricate braid woven into her up-do. “It felt like more than that, though. I think she’s still really upset about Josh bailing to be with his dad. Must be hard…I know he’s like…the one person who knows the twins as well as her, so…” she let her voice trail off, not entirely sure how she wanted to end that particular thought.

Once everyone had skittered by, he managed to pull into a space. “Ah, yeah, that. Well, honestly, it’s probably more the Blackwood stuff than anything el—”

As though her head were on a swivel, she snapped her gaze to him, searching his face. “What Blackwood stuff?”

Chris winced and he shifted into park. “Oh, I should not be telling you this.”

“Uh huh, well, too bad that you’re already halfway into it, then.” Her seatbelt clicked and she pivoted in her seat to better face him, eyes wide with intrigue. “What Blackwood stuff? Come on! What do you know that I don’t?”

In the back of his head, Josh’s voice echoed judgmentally. ‘What do I think you told Ash?’ he’d asked in the dorm room, ‘Everything.’ Chris had tried so hard to prove him wrong on that count, and yet there he was…He looked over to her with a heavy sigh, “It’s gonna gross you out.”

“It will not!

“It will, though.”

“Oh my God, the more you lead on with stuff like that, the more I need to know—just tell me, already.”

He gnawed on his lip for a second before biting the bullet and diving right in. “Sooo…they found a body up by the lodge.”

Ashley gasped, her interest immediately tempered by shock. “A body?

“Yeah. Not one of the girls, though…it was some rando, go figure. Sam heard the news report and told Josh—”

“Oh no…”

“And it’s just…man, it sounds like a real clusterfuck up there.”

“Do they think…” she paused, mulling over her next words carefully. “It’s related to Hannah and Beth? Or…?” Her fingers buzzed with an excited dread that was hard to parse until it all clicked into place; between the fancy clothes, the people walking past the car windows, and the frankly upsetting subject matter…it felt a lot like they were back in the parking lot of the funeral home, waiting to go in and face the Washingtons.

He shrugged, letting his hands fall onto his lap. “I don’t know—like, for real, I don’t. Sam didn’t think so, at least. But I’ll tell ya, Ash, after she told me, I did some digging online, and oofa doofa, the details are. Upsetting.” Undoing his seatbelt, he began the mental exercise of trying to decide what was too much to tell her. “They had to use dental records to ID him.”

Her cringe was somehow audible. “Ugh, ew, usually that means…there wasn’t much left. If that was the only way to identify him, then…ugh.” She was beginning to regret asking for the details, after all (not that wild horses would be able to drag that truth from her).

“Yeah. Yeah, believe me. I know.”

“That’s just so sad. He must’ve been out there for a while…Was it an animal, do they know? I know Josh said there are wolves up there…”

Chris had thought (really and truly) that he had been doing a particularly good job of controlling his face. As far as he was concerned, he was wearing a stony mask of indifference and nonchalance, affected by nothing. But apparently that wasn’t the case. When he glanced over to Ashley, her apprehension was evident. “What?”

“Oh my God, you don’t think it was wolves.”

“I mean, to be fair, it very well could’ve been wolves—”

“Oh no, oh no no no, no you don’t. Don’t lie to me—why don’t you think it was wolves?” She leaned closer to him, her hands supporting her weight on the center console. “What could possibly make you think it wasn’t wolves? There must be something, otherwise you would’ve just said ‘Yeah,’ and we’d be done. So what—”

He groaned, covering his face with his hands. “Ash, puh-lease.” She didn’t answer, but he could feel her eyes burning holes through him, all the same. “Look. I just…think…that it’s…possible…maybe something else did it.”

“Something else like what? Like a person?” Her voice shrank to a whisper as she said it, as though there was any danger of them being overheard. In that moment, she realized what sort of a scene they must’ve been making for anyone walking past the car. She was immediately and painfully aware of how close she’d leaned into Chris, and took a moment to covertly settle back into her seat.

“No! Not a person, Jesus. Like a…like maybe a bear.”

All plans disregarded, she leaned in close again. “What…specifically…makes you think…it could be a bear?”

That was definitely going to be a line-crosser. For sure. That was bar-none, unquestionably, no ifs, ands, or buts, too much to tell Ashley. But she was staring at him so intently, and he felt his resolve crumble into pieces. Chris winced again, teeth bared in a grimace. “Well. Uh. Remember how I said they needed to use…dental records?”

“I do. It was thirty seconds ago.”

“Well, um. When they found his body, it had definitely been eaten."

“Okay.”

“But even if it hadn’t been eaten, they would’ve needed the dental records.”

“…okay…”

“Because it took them a while to…find his body.”

Her eyes flit downwards as she thought. Chris could all but see the gears turning in her head, could almost hear the Jeopardy! theme accompanying her mad scramble to piece it together. Surprisingly enough, Ashley seemed stumped; she looked back to him cautiously. “I don’t follow.”

Chris made a low, hesitant humming sound, still obviously uncomfortable. Without saying another word, he dragged his thumb across the base of his throat, sealing the deal by letting his head flop sideways onto his shoulder.

“WHAT?!

“Ugh, see? See?! I knew I shouldn’t’ve told you! Fuck.”

“His head was somewhere else?!

His shoulders slouched helplessly as he melted into a boneless puddle in the driver’s seat. “His head was somewhere else.”

“Oh my GOD!

“It was by the guest cabin.”

Oh my GOD!

“Not like, in the guest cabin, or sitting out on the porch, or anyth—why am I still talking?” he asked the air. “Why the fuck am I still talking?”

Ashley had both of her hands at her mouth, knuckles pressed hard against her lips. “Sam told Josh that there was a headless guy found at the guest cabin?” Above her hands, her eyes were wide with scandalized horror.

“No—no!” Chris waved his own hands frantically. “No. God no. Sam just told him they found a body and it wasn’t one of the twins. No one knows about the other stuff except me.”

“And me,” she added fervently, pulling her shoulders inward as though she were trying to shrink herself out of existence. “Oh my God, Chris, oh my God.”

“God, I shouldn’t have told you. I should’ve just said ‘Aw I dunno Ash! Sam’s probably fine. Maybe it’s lady troubles!’ But no. Nope. Gotta just…run my mouth.”

She whirled back on him, caught between intrigue and horror. “No! I had to know!”

“You didn’t! You really didn’t.”

“I did! Now I know not to like…bring it up in front of anyone. And—and—now you don’t have to sit there, consumed by this…horrible knowledge by yourself.” A flicker of movement caught her eye, and she quickly looked out the window before turning back to find Chris staring at her disbelievingly. “…what?”

He narrowed his eyes. “Are you…are you already turning this into some weird novel in your head?”

No!

A pause.

“I’m not!” She rolled her eyes with a groan, getting out of the car once Chris did. “…it could’ve been a badger.”

“…what?

With the good grace enough to look abashed, she mumbled, “Badgers don’t…eat the heads of their prey.”

He blinked at her. “Yeah. Yeah, okay. Yeah. A badger. I’m sure…I’m sure it was a badger, Ash.”

“Or like…a wolverine, maybe. Badgers are…small…”

“How about we talk about something a little more, uh…” Chris watched as another group of people walked past them. “Family friendly?

You’re the one who brought it up.”

“Uh yeah, only after you forced me to.”

“Oh, I forced you, huh? That’s the story you’re gonna go with?”

He flapped his hand in a ‘blah blah blah’ gesture before reaching into the pocket of his suit jacket and pulling out his phone. “You’re the one who brought badgers into it. For real though, check it—I got the evening’s entertainment.”

Unimpressed, Ashley glanced down to the screen. “Nothing makes a girl feel more special than her prom date texting the night away.”

They made it through the bottleneck at the front doors of the reception hall easily enough, but he waited until they were out of earshot of anyone else to try again. “Nah, look…it’s school dance bingo. Made it myself,” he added, beaming.

“It’s…what?” That time, she took his phone from him, zooming in on the image displayed. It appeared to be a shoddily drawn bingo card thrown together in MS Paint, the lines nowhere near straight, none of the text boxes matching, everything written in neon green Comic Sans. “This is what gives you migraines,” she said bluntly. “Looking at disgusting things like this is what gives you headaches.”

He feigned insult, gasping loudly. “Do you have any idea how many hours I slaved over that, Ashley? Like…it took me so long.”

“And you could’ve been studying for your finals.”

“Yeah!” he agreed, all enthusiasm. “I could’ve! But I didn’t. For the sake of my art.” Near the end of the sentence, his voice dropped into British accent so terrible that a couple of nearby students turned and scowled. “But if you’re done ragging on it, how ‘bout you give it a little look-see?”

“Okay. Prom bingo, huh? Let’s see what you…geez, the neon green is hard to read.”

“Yes it is!”

“This is…okay, ‘Guy who shows up in cargo shorts and Converses to be edgy.’” She thought it over for a second before shrugging. “Yeah, all right, that one’s fair. Usually a couple of those. Uh…‘Emo kids hanging out by the wall because dancing is lame.’” Making a noise, she looked up to him, “That one feels like a personal jab.”

“Oh come on. You were never emo. You tried—my God, you tried—but bless you, you just couldn’t get a hold of the whole glitter thing.”

“‘Girls trying to get their picture taken with the one cute teacher chaperone,’” she continued to read, unable to stop from laughing. “‘Dude who showed up blackout drunk.’ ‘Two people having an incredibly serious conversation in the hallway outside of the dance.’ Wow. That one’s…specific.”

Chris leaned over her shoulder, tapping one square in particular. “That one’s my fave.”

“‘Someone passes out from dehydration and the EMTs show up?’ What kind of dances have you been to? Oh, and there’s ‘Girl crying in the bathroom…’ I like that the free space is ‘The Cha-Cha Slide,’ that’s good.”

“What can I say? I’m a genius.”

“You’re something, all right. What’s the prize if you get bingo?”

“Uh…huh. Bingo usually has a prize, doesn’t it? Hmm. Maybe the real prize is…the friendships we made along the way?”

“I am absolutely regretting coming to this dance with you.”

The first hour or so passed uneventfully enough. The ballroom was dark and packed and too hot, regardless of how far from the dance floor one was; within maybe fifteen minutes, there were already people sitting and fanning themselves, suit jackets and shrugs tossed aside to drape on the backs of chairs. It was organized chaos at its finest, piles of high-heeled shoes growing around the borders of the dance floor, people shouting over the speakers to get their friends’ attention, made all the worse by some of the most terrible dancing ever seen in the history of humankind.

Every so often, they’d bump into someone from Ashley’s Creative Writing group, or a classmate, and they’d smile and laugh and pose for the selfies like everyone else. Neither would be able to say why, or even when, but it wasn’t long before both of them realized they were…anxious? Worried? There wasn’t really a word for the way their teeth had been set on edge. It was almost as though they were waiting for the other shoe to drop…but they’d missed the first shoe entirely. Sure, it was loud, it was crazy, and big social events had never really been their thing…this was something else. When Ashley felt a tap on her shoulder and turned around to find herself face-to-face with Matt, it fell into place.

Loud music, shouting, and bad news about a body near the lodge.

“Hey! Matt!” She managed to smile in an attempt to shake off the uncomfortable prickles of déjà vu creeping their way up her spine.

“I almost didn’t recognize you! With the—with your hair being up!” Matt laughed, waving a hand around his own head to illustrate. He seemed to spot Chris as an afterthought, nodding halfheartedly in greeting. “Hey.”

Chris gave him a quick two-finger salute. “Hey man.”

Matt leaned in closer to be heard over the noise. “You haven’t seen Jess, have you?” there was laughter in his voice as he asked it, but Ashley was close enough to see the beginnings of concern in his eyes. “A bunch of us’re supposed to take some pictures together, and she just sort of, I dunno, disappeared?”

She shook her head, tightening her mouth into a line. “We haven’t! Um…” Between the strobing lights and the sheer number of people, the ballroom appeared to be nothing more than a sea of heads. “I can definitely keep an eye out for her, though!”

“Cool, cool…” Matt looked around the room again, to no avail. “I mean, she’s probably gonna show up, you know she never misses a photo opp.” He glanced over his shoulder as if hearing someone trying to get his attention, turning back to the two of them for only a second. “Well, whatever. Thanks, Ash! Catch you around.”

“Yup.” Whether or not he could hear her over the buzz of the room was uncertain.

“Oooh, drama-llama. Wanna know the good news about that? ‘Person desperately trying to find their friend,’ is absolutely one of the bingo squares.” Chris chuckled even as Ashley nudged him with her elbow. “She probably got distracted by something shiny—they’ll find her in five minutes, fawning over her own reflection.”

“You’re so mean. So mean.”

He smirked, the screen of his phone reflected in his glasses as he crossed off a bingo square. “You’re laughing, though.”

“Whatever.” The pit of uneasiness in her stomach had let up slightly, reverting to run-of-the-mill social anxiety. Ashley rubbed at the back of her neck, very aware of how hot she was, in that moment. “Ugh. I’m gonna go get a drink and splash some water on my face, it’s an oven in here…you want me to get you some water?”

He waved it off. “Nah, I’m good. Just gonna hang back and people-watch. Hey…” Chris pointed an accusatory finger her way. “Don’t get lost.”

“Ha ha.” Weaving her way through the crowd was a challenge, but the relative coolness of the hallway was more than its own reward. In the quiet of the reception hall’s entrance area, her ears felt like they’d been packed full of cotton balls. It was ridiculous how greatly a little quiet and light could affect her mood. She bypassed the water coolers in search of the restroom, making a point to avoid looking at the pair having a hushed, somber conversation in a nearby alcove; she made a mental note to tell Chris, for the good of his stupid bingo card.

The restroom was bizarrely far from the ballroom, down its own narrow, spooky hallway. As she turned the corner, following one of the many signs lining the path, a few girls pushed past her, muttering unhappily amongst themselves.

In retrospect, she probably should’ve taken that as a sign in its own right—people hurrying away from the bathroom. But she was hot and tired, and more than just slightly disoriented from dealing with so many people in such a small space, so…she didn’t. Ashley pulled the door to the bathroom open with a sigh, walking up to the line of sinks and turning on one of the taps to get some cool water going.

…in retrospect, she probably should’ve noticed the crying. But…she was hot and tired, her ears still ringing with the ghost of the Hot 100 pop songs the DJ had been blasting, so…she didn’t.

“Oh my fucking God!” A furious voice rang out from one of the stalls (likely the only one with the door shut), startling her badly enough to actually yell out. “I said get out! Who the fuck is that?!”

If it was possible for a human being to cringe themselves out of existence, Ashley came about as close as anyone had ever gotten. Every inch of her was screaming to turn around and scurry back out into the hallway, but she could sense the other person was waiting for her to answer. She was caught. “Um…A-Ashley?” she said, wondering if her voice was loud enough to be heard at all. “Ashley Brown?”

There was silence. Her hands anxiously smoothed at the sides of her dress while she waited for any sort of response. Without warning, the stall door swung open with a horrendous screech.

In the mirror, Ashley watched a very rumpled Jessica Riley emerge, her face streaked with dark mascara tears.

So at least that was one mystery solved.

She was rendered perfectly, stupidly motionless until Jessica joined her at the row of sinks. Only once Jessica leaned towards the mirror to get a good look at herself did Ashley seem to regain control of her body. “Ohmygosh,” she breathed, turning to her, “Are you…is…um.” The words were thick on the tip of her tongue, but she knew the answer before even asking. “Are you okay?”

Jessica barked a high, shrill laugh, yanking down a handful of paper towels from the wall dispenser. “I’m great!” She wet the handful of towels under the tap before squeezing them out, beginning the process of carefully wiping away the dark tracks running down her cheeks. “I mean, what’s not to love about tonight, right? Who doesn’t love prom?”

Ashley realized with no small amount of concern that she was still crying, even as she actively scrubbed at her face. She turned away, so as not to stare, instead glancing at their reflections. The difference between the two of them was staggering—even with her makeup running, Jessica looked like Prom Night Barbie, her hair curled and tumbling to her bare shoulders, her dress a strapless wisp of pink and white tulle, somehow managing to maintain her aura of down-home glamor despite her tears; on the other hand, with her hair pinned back, her makeup dark and her dress’s halter neck leaving nothing but her arms uncovered, Ashley looked more like an off-brand American Girl doll playing dress-up. Only adding to the strangeness of it was the way the bright fluorescent overhead lights combined with the cottony, faraway sound of the dance to give the bathroom a vaguely surreal feeling, like the two of them were standing in the middle of a daydream.

Wadding the mass of paper towels into a ball and positively slamming them into the trashcan, Jessica glanced down to fumble with a handbag hanging from her wrist. “Best night of my life!” The bag opened with a quiet snap, Jessica swearing loudly when her phone tumbled out and clattered to the floor. “Oh fuck this! Fuck it! Here, can you just…” she slid her hand out of the strap around her clutch, holding it out to Ashley.

Stumbling over a few words, Ashley took it. Under normal circumstances, she would’ve been sorely tempted to take a peek at whatever was inside…but this was Jessica. She averted her eyes as politely as she knew how, waiting wordlessly while she retrieved her phone from the ground. When Jessica stood back up, Ashley offered it up to her, surprised when she didn’t outright take it back, but instead reached inside. Not one to argue, she kept it held out to her as she rifled through for whatever it was she needed.

Jessica pulled an eyeliner pencil out of the clutch, moving with well-practiced ease as she tugged the skin of her cheek just slightly and fixed the smudges on her waterline. “Know what’s the best?” With her eyes on the mirror, it felt much more like she was talking to herself than Ashley. “Just like…the absolute best? The best thing ever is when you like…think everything’s totally fine between you and someone, and then they totally freaking screw you over. But you’re a nice person! And super forgiving! So you just…let it go.” She switched to her other eye, pausing only long enough to clean the first line up. “You let it go, and you think things are like, totally chill and fine…” Jessica dropped the eyeliner back into the clutch and sightlessly managed to grab a tube of mascara instead, setting about touching up what she had cried off. “And you think everyone’s gonna be cool! And maybe they’ll put on their big girl panties and be an adult for once! And then they grab a big ol’ knife, and they stab you in the back over and over and over again, not caring about whether or not you’re hurt or how you’re doing, because ha! Why would any of that matter?! And then…just when you think they’re done stabbing you—SURPRISE! They pick that knife right back up and start doing it all over again!

At the first spike of Jessica’s voice, Ashley had recoiled by an inch or so, instinctively moving away from the fury radiating off of her; it proved to be a good call. She watched as Jessica bit off a strained, choked noise that could’ve been a swallowed scream. The fist still wrapped around the mascara tube slammed down against the sink in three rapid punches that sounded too loud, too meaty to not be painful. There was a clatter when Jessica threw the mascara at the mirror, sending it bouncing back towards one of the empty stalls, hitting a closed door and falling impotently to the ground. Eyes wide, Ashley caught a glimpse of her own reflection in her periphery, snapping her mouth shut so Jessica wouldn’t see her gaping.

Not that there was much risk of that happening, of course. From where she was standing, hands grasping either side of the sink, head hung over the basin, all Jessica was likely to see was the drain. “It’s. The best,” she repeated. Then, in one quick, jerking motion, she whipped her head back upright, shaking her hair out primly. She fixed the placement of a curl or two before taking her clutch back from Ashley, snapping it shut and sliding the strap around her wrist again. “Only the best from my bestie,” she muttered, voice barely loud enough to be heard over the buzz from the ballroom.

“Um.” It was only one Jessica turned to look at her that Ashley realized she had said it aloud. “Oh, uh. I…” she floundered, feeling her face heat up with each passing second she couldn’t quite get her mouth to cooperate. “I don’t want to like…um…overstep or anything…” Why was she talking? There was no way in hell that Jessica Riley, of all people, needed advice from her—but her mouth wouldn’t stop moving. “I don’t know the…circumstances, or whatever, but…if someone like…went out of their way to make you this upset tonight—I mean, when they knew you were going to be out and having fun and all that, um…maybe they’re not…that great of a friend?”

Jessica had been in the middle of yanking her dress back up under her arms when Ashley said it. She stopped moving, fingers still curled around the fabric of her dress, fixing her with a look that was equal parts surprised and suspicious.

It was the sort of look, Ashley thought, that suggested she had only just remembered she was talking to an ‘Almost.’ No sooner had that thought occurred to her than she felt the color drain from her face. Like a domino falling into another, it had triggered a sudden, intense memory of the conversation at her dining room table—Jessica wasn’t the only one who’d come up with the name for their little group.

Her stomach filled with a frantic, terrified swarm of butterflies as she realized the person Jessica had been talking about (the person that she, herself, had just insulted) was absolutely, undeniably, irrefutably, Emily.

After what felt like an eternity, Jessica tugged her dress into place. “You know what?” She didn’t give Ashley a chance to stutter through a response, “Maybe you’re right.” One more pass of her hair, one more once-over in the mirror, a deep breath, and then Jessica righted herself, straightening her posture. The effect was immediate: once more, she was radiant, showing no signs of what had happened only a few minutes ago.

To Ashley, it was astounding. The fact that Jessica could snap out of it so quickly, so completely, was on par with a Las Vegas magic trick; when she cried, there wasn’t enough mascara in the world to cover it up. Still seized with the implacable feeling that she was caught in a hallucination of sorts, she watched in the mirror as Jessica smoothed her dress out and sashayed her way to the bathroom door.

At the last moment, hand pressed against the door, Jessica turned back. Giving her that same thoughtful look, a corner of Jessica’s mouth turned up. “Thanks, by the way.”

And then she was gone, the door swinging shut behind her, leaving Ashley alone in front of the sinks.

She blinked in the wake of it all, stomach in knots, ears buzzing, having completely forgotten why she’d come into the bathroom in the first place. Ashley awkwardly turned in place as though to reassure herself no one else had witnessed the interaction, the low heels of her shoes clicking dully in the empty room.

The door swung open again as one, then two, then three girls stumbled in, raucously laughing at some joke. Ashley slipped out into the calm of the hallway, tucking a piece of hair behind her ear. She walked back to the ballroom, keeping a good couple of yards between herself and Jessica.

“Oh damn, you actually found her, huh?” Chris’s laugh tapered off when Ashley got close enough for him to see her expression. “What?”

Glancing over her shoulder to make sure Jessica was well out of earshot, she shook her head. “She was crying in the bathroom.”

For a moment Chris said nothing. Then he pulled his phone out and tapped one of the bingo squares, never breaking eye contact with her.

“Oh come on!” She pressed her fingers to her temples, the music around them suddenly unbearably loud, the room unbearably full. “Are you gonna be upset if we bail?” she asked, the sea of people around them making her incredibly dizzy. “I’m just…really not feeling this, all of a sudden.”

“Oh, thank Christ, I didn’t want to be the one to say it. I am down to dip.”

The relief between them was palpable. Short of running, they made their way out into the parking lot as quickly as possible, the evening air amazingly cool compared to the sweltering dance floor.

The apartment was dark when they opened the front door, save for a lamp in the living area. There was a quiet snort as Charlie the pug lifted his head from his spot on the couch and blinked dolefully up at them before curling up again. Ashley wasted no time in getting out of her shoes, balancing herself against the back of one of the dining room’s chairs to undo the straps.

“What a magical evening!”

She blew an errant strand of hair out of her face, exhaling a cloud of tension that had been clogging her chest the moment her bare feet hit carpet. “Sorry for being a cruddy prom date.” The look she gave him as she passed by wasn’t terribly apologetic, though. Like a moth drawn to a flame, she made a beeline for one kitchen cabinet in particular, standing on her tiptoes to nudge a few mugs away. Her fingers scrabbled around, feeling for something unseen at the very back of the cabinet.

“Apology accepted. You know, most girls would be honored to—what are you doing?” He paused mid-joke (and mid-jacket removal), raising an eyebrow as he watched her struggle. Ashley didn’t respond except to grunt in effort, and he was left to laugh when it occurred to him. “Jamie is going to murder you if she finds out you’ve been in her stash, Ash.” Chris stopped again, a self-satisfied smile curling its way across his face. “Stash-Ash,” he muttered, “Ash-stash.”

The paper wrapper didn’t stand a chance. Ashley tore it off and crinkled it up in her hand, letting it fall onto a countertop. She took a bite big enough to pose a real choking hazard, exhaling another relieved sigh through her nose. “Man, fuck Jamie,” she shot back, her voice thickened by the chunk of chocolate in her mouth.

Despite his grin, Chris gasped loudly enough to startle Charlie off the couch. “Ashley!” he jokingly admonished, accepting the chocolate bar when it was offered to him. “Language.”

She rolled her eyes over to him, pulling a face. Primly, she moved a hand in front of her mouth, covering the worst of it while she talked and chewed. “Jamie didn’t hear about any headless guys, today.”

“Well, not that you know about.” He bit off one of the bar’s segments before reaching over and pulling one of the chairs out from the table for Ashley. “I mean, what if she heard about two headless guys, comes back here, and realizes her stash is gone?”

“She’ll live.” She plucked the chocolate back from him, taking another bite. “Like…this was all just…weird. The dead guy, Josh not being around, the whole thing. Everything just feels weird. I’d really appreciate it if things could stop being weird. Just for like. A week.”

“Join us next week, ladies and gents, for another inspiring episode of ‘Words of Wisdom With Ashley Brown.’” He spread his hands out in a dramatic arcing motion. “Hey, I told you we should’ve done the Avril Lavigne thing, just shown up in band t-shirts and those pants with all the straps, riding skateboards and stickin’ it to the man. But you…” he took the chocolate back, “Didn’t like that idea.”

Almost without realizing what she was doing, Ashley had begun feeling around her hair, pulling bobby pins out one at a time. “And I feel so bad for Jess—” Chris snorted derisively and she scowled in return, “You weren’t there! She was so upset. And on prom night, too! It was sad.”

“Please, please…don’t be sad for her. Okay? Please? High school is specifically set up for people like her to rule with an iron fist. An iron fist with a French manicure, sure, but iron nonetheless. I think she can handle having a rough night.”

“You really don’t like her.” It was a statement, not a question, Ashley accepting the chocolate from him again.

Chris rolled his eyes and settled back into his chair with his arms folded across his chest. “She’s definitely not my bestie. She’s also not bae or boo, for what it’s worth—though honestly, I’m still not sure what the difference between those two things is. But you gotta remember here, I’m what the kids these days would call a ‘nerd,’ or a ‘dork,’ or ‘bad with social cues,’ so it shouldn’t really be too much of a surprise.” He put his feet up on one of the other chairs to make himself more comfortable, but fixed her with a jokingly contemplative stare. “I think the real question here is why you seem to like her at all. Honestly, it’s pretty weird.”

It was Ashley’s turn to roll her eyes. “She’s nice.” When Chris made another sound of disbelief, she tried again. “Is it really that hard to believe? She’s…I don’t know, charming! Everyone likes her, she’s crazy popular. She was Homecoming Queen!”

“There is such a difference between being popular and people actually liking you. She’s popular. If people liked her, she wouldn’t have spent prom alone in the bathroom, sobbing.”

Scoffing, she gave her head one last cursory pat, not finding anymore hidden pins. “People liking you is the definition of popularity.”

“Nope. Incorrect. They’re very separate things. I’ll take that shit to my grave. Jess is popular, but people—” Chris cocked in eyebrow in what was meant to be a suave manner, gesturing to himself, “—such as moi, do not like her. Now, take me for another example. I’m not popular by any stretch of the imagination, but people love me.”

That got an actual laugh. “Oh yeah? Name five.”

“Ouch…ouch! Well you like me. That counts for something, doesn’t it? Even if, admittedly, your taste in people is apparently the worst.”

“She’s just…she’s so pretty. And always put-together. People want to be around her, they like…want to hang out with her for reasons other than hoping she’ll do all the work on group projects for them.”

Grimacing, he took the chocolate. “Aw man, I didn’t realize this was gonna be an episode of Dr. Phil. You wanna talk about high school, Ash? You…you wanna talk about the difficulties of being the smart kid?” He took a sizeable bite, hoping it would make what he said next harder to hear. “And shut up, you’re pretty.”

It did not make him too difficult to hear. Ashley raked a hand through her hair, trying and failing to keep from smiling too widely. “Yeah, well…her boobs are so much bigger than mine.”

Silence.

Chris looked over from the chocolate bar, cocking his head to the side as he caught her gaze. “…oh, I’m sorry, were you hoping I was going to say something about that? Nuh-uh. No way. Nope. Sorry Ash, I might be an idiot, but I’m not an idiot with a death wish. Not touching that one.”

She giggled tiredly before stifling a yawn. “Oh well. A girl can try.”

“Aw man, not to change the super great subject, but the bad news just keeps coming,” Chris said, looking down at his phone with an expression that could only be described as consternation.

Ashley felt her stomach start to wind itself up into a gnarled knot. She leaned in closer, trying to see what he was looking at. “Why? What happened?”

He sighed before turning his phone so that she could get a better look at the screen. “Turns out I just missed getting a bingo.”

She didn’t even pretend to read the screen, groaning loudly as she shoved his hand away. “Oh my God, I thought something serious happened! Don’t do that!”

“Something serious did happen! I was so close! Look!” Chris was doing his best to restrain his laughter, pointing at the makeshift bingo card. “Ash, no—wait—look, just look! See, if you go this way, diagonal, I was so close! Cuz look, look, we got…girl crying in bathroom! Jess, right? So that’s one. Someone who was clearly blackout drunk—you saw that guy, right? Were you in the bathroom for that? Then there’s the free space, they played the Cha-Cha Slide, because like, of course they did…and then…” He stopped as he realized the scathing glare he was receiving from the other side of the table. “Ashley. Can you please take this seriously?” He turned back to his phone, “Because then, there were those guys who got into the fight but never actually threw any punches.”

The chocolate bar was nearing its end. Ashley bit off another section, chewing at it absently while watching Chris gesture madly at his phone. Despite herself, she sighed and scooted her chair across the floor so that she was next to him again, setting her chin against his shoulder to get a better look at the screen. “So what did we miss?” she asked, offering him the bar.

“Oh, so now it’s ‘we,’ huh?” Without thinking about it, he leaned over and took a bite of the chocolate while Ashley held it. “We missed spotting a ‘Couple slow dancing to a song wildly inappropriate for slow dancing.’”

“Why did you make so many that were that specific?” She sucked a breath through her teeth, taking another bite. “Hmm…We did bail before anyone really had a chance to get into the groove, didn’t we?”

“We sorta did.” He stared at his phone for a moment longer before shaking his head. “Ah well. B-I-N-G-no, I guess. Maybe next time.”

“…next time? What next time?” Ashley laughed and set the last few squares of chocolate down, folding her arms atop the table. “You realize there are no more school dances, right? Like. That was it.”

“Oh. Right. Well. Fuck.”

She was still laughing to herself even as she stood from her chair. “Well…I guess that means there’s only one thing to do.”

“What’s that?” he asked, warily watching her stand up.

“Find a song.”

He blinked up at her, not quite understanding. “Uh? You got a request, or…?”

“Yeah, something…what did you say? ‘Wildly inappropriate for slow dancing.’” She offered him her hand, doing a poor job of hiding her grin. “Come on, before I change my mind,” she said when Chris made no immediate moves to get up from his chair.

Tentatively, he set his phone down, staring at Ashley’s hand and then back up at her, as though weighing his options. “Okay, okay, I got one!” Chris held up a finger, signaling for her to wait while he scrolled through his phone, brow furrowed. He settled on a song, tapping the screen before sliding his hand into hers, allowing her to help him to his feet.

There was an awkward moment of fumbling as both of them tried to figure out where to put their hands. The end result was some uncomfortable reproduction of the middle school version of slow dancing, arms straight, with roughly a football field’s length between them.

“God, what did you pick? Why won’t it just start?”

“Hey, give it a sec, okay? I ripped it off YouTube, so it’s probably gonna take—”

The first two notes of the song rang out, tinny from the phone’s speakers, and Ashley groaned so loudly that Charlie barked from the other room. “Are you kidding? Are you kidding?” She rolled her eyes up at Chris and his cheesy grin.

“Wildly inappropriate, right?”

She had to give him that—if there was any one song on Earth that wasn’t meant for slow dancing, it was certainly that one. “Whatever,” she sighed, the sound trailing off into a laugh as the kitchen filled with the discordant screeching of What Does the Fox Say?. “Anything for bingo, I guess.”

And it was hard to say how or when or why, but by the time Ylvis began questioning how a fox could ever talk to a horse, their stiff-armed postures had melted away to something else, the two of them swaying to the song like it was some sad, slow waltz. Maybe it was exhaustion, maybe emotional whiplash, maybe some combination of the two; Ashley tucked her chin against Chris’s shoulder, Chris set his atop Ashley’s head, and it was a long while before they realized the song had ended.

***

Wednesday, May 7, 2014
2:11pm

The day was overcast, the sun cloaked behind clouds dark with the promise of rain. It made Hill’s office seem unbearably spooky, the usual rays of light replaced by the unnatural yellow glow of overheads. It made the colors appear more saturated than they were, which made Josh’s eyes ache in turn. He’d been sleeping better, that much was for sure, and for the most part he was feeling better, but ‘better’ was not ‘perfect.’ ‘Better’ was still not ‘well.’

“You cannot—cannot—simply decide to stop taking this medication like you did with the Amitriptyline.”

“I know, I…I know.” Josh had the good sense to look rueful at that, anxiously scrubbing at his mouth with his fingers. “I get that. Really, I do. That was…a real shitty mistake. I wasn’t, like…” he sighed and grit his jaw through the admission, “…in my right mind. No more cold turkey, believe me on that one.”

No part of Hill appeared wholly convinced, but he carried on anyway. “Once this medication begins collecting in your system, as it already has, simply stopping your dose will absolutely result in an incredibly unpleasant withdrawal.”

“Okay—”

“No.” Hill held up a finger, his tone edging towards admonishment. “Not ‘okay,’ Josh. Listen to me. I’m telling you this because it is of great importance. Withdrawal from this medication can and will not only bring back your nightmares and issues with sleeping, but may also result in incredible stomach issues, paranoia, difficulty regulating your anger, you could hallucinate, you could experience ataxia—are you aware of what ataxia is?”

He shrugged noncommittally, gnawing on his upper lip as he bore the chastisement.

“It means you can lose control of your physical movement. This could mean twitches, spasms, slurred speech…it’s not something you want to toy with.”

A beat passed, then two, then Josh looked up from his lap. “I understand.”

“I hope you do. I’ve been doing this for a long time, Josh. A very long time. I cannot tell you how many times, across the span of my career, I have seen patients decide that they don’t need their medication anymore, or they simply no longer want to be on it. They begin to feel better, more functional, more coherent, and decide they don’t need to continue the protocol, only to end up right back where they started.” Hill took a deep breath in and let it out in what was almost a sigh, folding his hands in front of himself on the desk. His cheeks puffed and hollowed thoughtfully. “Josh, I hope you realize I don’t bring this up as some attempt to scold you. That could not be farther from my intent. As I’ve mentioned before, your history with medication has been…less than ideal. I just worry that this is something none of your previous doctors have thought to discuss with you.”

His first impulse was to fire off some sort of witty retort…but he found his reserves dry. Instead, he just nodded. “I get it. I…I do.”

“I just want you to be prepared for when you go home.”

“I know,” he repeated for what felt like the thousandth time. “I will be. Trust me, Alan, if there’s one thing I don’t want to risk, it’s dealing with the nightmares again, all right? You don’t have to worry about it. Learned my lesson like a good little boy should.”

It seemed to appease him, if only for the time being. “All right. Now, on a related topic, have you thought at all about what we discussed in our last session?”

Lips pursed, Josh lifted and dropped his shoulders in a weak shrug. The action made him feel like a petulant child, but it was the one thing (well, second thing, if the medication shit counted) that he’d been dreading dredging back up. “Yeah,” he said quietly, punctuating it with a nod.

Hill raised his eyebrows expectantly, rocking forward in his seat to rest his elbows against the desk. “What precisely have you been thinking about?”

“Uh…hmm.” He heaved a sigh through his nose before slumping himself back in the chair. “Everything you said last time…makes…sense. About…being too close to pick things apart, I guess.”

“I’m glad to hear it.”

“Well, it…it makes sense…but…” Josh let his head loll back onto his shoulders. It was easier to look at the ceiling than Hill, sometimes. “I’m still mad. It’s still hard for me to…I don’t know. Think about everything in a different way. I’m pissed at who I’m pissed at, and I blame who I blame, and that’s…it. Even if I try to look at it differently, I just keep coming back to it.”

In lieu of picking up his notepad, Hill folded his arms across his chest. “I had suspected as much. I’m actually quite glad that you brought that up—I was going to, if you didn’t. I have another exercise I’d like you to try, Josh.” Noticing the way his mouth curled at the suggestion, Hill chuckled. “Don’t worry, I’m not expecting you to do it today. No, this is more of a long-term exercise, I think. Something you’ll have to ponder long after you’re back home.”

It would be a lie to say he wasn’t at least slightly interested in the prospect. Josh made a low sound of interest to suggest as much, still trying to shake off the feeling of being so thoroughly cowed.

“Many people, myself included I might add, find that it’s easier to work through inner conflict if they abstract their issues into something else.” He spread his hands wide, “For instance, the story we went over in the last session. One could say that it was an abstraction of a more relevant circumstance, couldn’t one?”

“One could…” he began cautiously. “But…”

“But?”

“I’m not really much of a writer,” Josh deadpanned. “It’s just…not really my bag, you know? Don’t get me wrong, I won’t sit here and say I haven’t been tempted to sit down and type up some truly heinous Sonic the Hedgehog fanfiction—I mean, I think we’ve all been there—but words aren’t really, uh, my thing.” He shrugged amiably enough, casting his eyes towards one of the bookshelves instead of running the risk of meeting Hill’s gaze. “I don’t know if storytelling is gonna be my best bet, there.”

Showing absolutely no sign of discouragement, Hill returned the shrug. “Prose can be difficult! It takes practice. Poetry too, for that matter. However…unless my memory is already beginning to go, I seem to recall that you are, in fact, rather skilled in another form of narrative expression.” At that, he couldn’t help but smile, catching Josh’s perplexed gaze. “You could always write a screenplay, of sorts.”

Josh blinked as the thought settled in his mind, not quite taking root, but sticking to something, all the same. “I could make a movie,” he muttered thoughtfully, brow knitting with a tired sort of realization. And then, louder with resolve, “I could make a movie.”

“It could be a way for you to organize your thoughts,” Hill agreed, his cool expression belying how pleased he was. “Self-expression can be…incredibly healing.”

***

Sunday, May 18, 2014
5:35pm

There was something bittersweet about officially moving out of the dorm. Sure, it marked the end of finals and (if truth be told) a semester full of unpleasantly unnecessary core classes…but it also meant pulling up stakes and leaving the four walls and bed she’d spent so much of the past year in. Lord knew the memories that room had absorbed, wrapped up tight like gnats caught in a spider web or nightmares in a dream catcher—it was the bed she’d slept in after every failed trip back from Blackwood Pines, the desk where she’d listened to hour after hour of radio updates, the walls she’d covered in photos and trinkets from better times, the air where so much bad news had hung.

It felt good to leave it behind, but it ached. When they’d pulled into the driveway, she’d been struck with the pretentiously poetic idea that the dorm was like a scab of sorts. In and of itself, it had done nothing wrong, it had caused no injury. If anything, it was just…there, existing in the aftermath of what had happened to draw blood. It was nothing, it was blameless, yet the sight of it brought everything back. Scabs fell off, though, sometimes they were pulled off, and sometimes that was for the best. Sometimes the wound needed to breathe.

Sam wasn’t actually sure that was correct. She’d considered asking her dad for half a second before deciding against it; the day had been long and hot and full of the strain of moving over-packed boxes…she didn’t need to end it getting a lecture about the hygiene of picking at scabs.

Already the majority of the boxes had been moved into the house, leaving little more than her laundry basket full of clothes, a shelving unit or two, and her shower caddy. She was looking forward to nothing more than nudging everything into a tight pile in the corner of the basement and letting it gather dust for a week or two before actually unpacking. She’d just take care of the last few things, hop in the shower, eat something, and then pass the fuck out until the last strains of finals anxiety leached out of her.

Stacking one of the plastic shelves on top of the mountain of clothes in her laundry hamper, she didn’t even register the sound coming from behind her until it was too late.

Hey!” The shout was followed by an unbelievably loud blast from a car horn, causing her to drop everything onto the driveway.

Sam clutched at her chest as her pulse threatened to burst its way through her skin. For a fraction of a second, she scowled down at the pile of shirts and jeans spread across the cement, an exhausted little voice in her head bemoaning how long it would take to rewash everything. She spun around, not really sure what she was going to do when she found herself face-to-face with the jackass who’d scared her...

Only to find her words swallowed up by the swelling of her heart.

The convertible at the end of her driveway was distantly familiar…the faces leering at her from inside even more so. With the top down as it was, she had no issue seeing the others’ grins or hearing their laughter.

“Get in, loser.” Behind the wheel, Josh lowered his sunglasses dramatically. “We’re going shopping.”

Chapter Text

Saturday, June 14, 2014
10:00am

The cursor blinked. And blinked. And blinked some more. Without realizing it, he’d taken to tapping his middle finger against the ‘O’ key in time, marking a rhythm that wasn’t entirely unlike the metronome Hill used on occasion. It wasn’t helping, but it wasn’t hurting, either.

A jerky shove against his desk sent his chair wheeling back across the floor, and he spun a lazy circle in the beams of light peeking through his blinds. Josh laced his fingers together before covering his eyes, just letting himself sit in the warm patch of sunlight, his head full of angry buzzing. None of the thoughts were useful. None of them went anywhere. They were just flitting around like pissed off wasps in a shaken nest.

To be fair, he’d taken Hill’s advice to heart: He’d plunged himself into developing the movie just as soon as he’d unpacked his bags and cut away the hospital wristband. Having something to distract him was good, but if he was being entirely honest with himself, the past few weeks had been full of more frustration than anything else.

Not that it was for lack of trying! No, he’d certainly been trying—and trying real fucking hard, at that. There was hardly a spot on his desk or corkboard or side table that wasn’t covered in crumpled pieces of paper. Hell, his trashcan was beginning to look like a kid’s volcano experiment, if instead of baking soda and vinegar lava, it shot out wadded up loose-leaf. For the most part, he figured only the stuff pinned to the corkboard was salvageable…the sketched diagrams of the haunted mansion, basic blocked-out storyboards to give him an idea of the camera direction, that sort of thing. What was on the desk and side table was iffier. He had the general idea of how he wanted the characters to look…or at least, he thought he did. But every time he managed to get a face drawn out, it was wrong somehow, or missing something. They were good for reference, but most of them were fairly spooky in their varying stages of completion. Some were eyeless, some mouthless, some profiles, some scratched out until they were little more than blobs.

The stuff in the trash was worthless. Those pieces of paper, torn and balled, were the written notes he’d been trying to take, the dialogue he’d been scribbling down whenever it occurred to him. And, not to put too fine a point on it, it was all shit.

Maybe not shit. That was being a little harsh. It was probably better than ninety percent of the dreck Bob cranked out in a year, but it wasn’t right. It wasn’t the story he had in his head. It wasn’t the story he needed it to be.

He let out a loud, drawn-out groan, using his foot to push himself in another dizzy circle. His room spun around him in a blur of colors until he reached out and grabbed the side of his desk, bringing the merry-go-round to a sudden stop. “Oookay,” Josh muttered to the open air as he scooted back in front of his laptop. “Let’s do this…once more. With feeling this time, huh?” Trying not to sigh, he pulled up the document he’d been writing in and quickly skimmed it.

EXT. MANSION – MIDNIGHT

The grounds are foggy. It’s almost too thick to see anything. Except the lights of the windows, which are orange/yellow in the dark.

PAN TO BOTTOM OF DRIVE

We see four shadowy figures. They’re looking at the house. We’re behind them, so it’s not clear who’s talking.

MEAN GIRL
I can’t believe we’re doing this.

COMEDIC RELIEF/ALPHA MALE(?)
And I can’t believe we got you to look up from your phone for five minutes. It’s a night of surprises, isn’t it?

He(?) puts his(?) elbow up onto MEAN GIRL’s shoulder, leaning against her.

SCAREDY CAT
I don’t know, guys. I don’t think we should be here. It doesn’t…feel right…

SLOW PAN AND CAMERA TURN

The last speaker is a girl, brow furrowed. She looks resolved more than scared. Her head is held high and her hands are fists at her sides.

FINAL GIRL
We have to do this. All of us. We don’t have a choice.

The four of them…

The cursor just kept blinking, marking the unfinished sentence with unapologetic cruelty. It was almost nothing. He’d been working all morning for almost nothing.

Josh reached up and cracked the knuckles of his left hand, then his right, stretched his fingers out, then tightened them into fists. He’d had the document open since he’d woken up a few hours ago, but neither time nor breakfast nor the hot shower he’d taken had done anything to help him make any progress.

“Told you writing wasn’t my thing, Alan…”

In three keystrokes, it was gone. All of it. Probably for the best, really.

The chair creaked under him when he leaned back, kicking his feet up onto the desk, careful to avoid the laptop. He rubbed tiredly at his arms, craning his head further and further back until he nearly managed to get an upside-down view of the wall behind him. None of it should’ve been so hard.

It was the characters, he thought. If he had more solid characters, the story would unfold itself at their feet. Working with tropey horror husks was all fine and good, but they needed names and faces and motivations. How were they all connected to the haunting? More to the point, how were they all connected to each other? In his experience, the perfect, plastic-y types didn’t usually pal around with the crybaby sidekicks. Why were they doing any of it?

A shuffle of papers as he dropped his legs to the floor and rolled again, flipping through the rumpled stack of potential designs lying around. He spent a minute or two going through them, letting the cast-offs fall to the floor until there were no more to look at. “Clearly…this isn’t supposed to happen today.” He set his head down on the desk, pillowing it with his arms. In all his years of knowing her, he’d seen Ashley fill stacks upon stacks of composition notebooks with stories and snippets—and there he was, unable to get so much as an establishing shot done. It didn’t make sense. Maybe…maybe he’d take her aside later and ask for some advice. That would be good, wouldn’t it? She’d like it, he was sure…give her a little confidence boost of her own.

Josh groaned into his arms and sat in the silence that followed. “Okay. Know what? This is fine. This is…a-okay.” Slowly, taking time to crack his spine out, he sat back up, drumming his hands absently against the desk. None of the classics were written in a month. Not a single one. A month was still brainstorming time. The words would come…eventually.

God, he hoped they would come.

With a tap, he closed out of the document, finding himself staring at the dark landscape of his desktop.

His eyes moved to the folder labeled ‘school shit’ in much the same way a tongue finds itself prodding at the bloody hole of a missing tooth. His gut lurched, his fingers tingled, his throat tightened. Looking at the folder was worse than looking at the cursor and its fucking endless blinking. There was nothing in the blank writing document that could hurt him.

The folder was a different story.

Even as he thought it, he realized he was clicking it, opening it up to all of its subfolders. He didn’t want to be doing it (really, he didn’t), but it was as though his hands had thoughts of their own.

It had been Poe who’d written about it, right? He had some vague memory of reading it in an English or Literature class…the one about the letter. The…something Letter. Much of it was already gone, never actually learned or memorized, but kept in his short-term memory up until the moment of the exam, where he’d promptly flushed it away to never be seen again. He could remember the twist of it, though, the way the mysterious letter the police had been looking for had been hidden in plain sight all along. No one ever looked for the big, bad, gnarly shit out in the open; no one went snooping around in someone else’s boring homework files.

No one cared about the school folder of a college dropout.

There it was, nestled comfortably between two files from his film appreciation course.

untitled1.mov

He double-clicked the file, keeping his eyes low on his keyboard until he heard the first muffled giggles. Already, his palms felt clammy with…what? Apprehension? Disgust? Fear?

Before he could think on it too much, he clicked the video again to make it fill the screen.

It was torturous. He knew each line, each movement of the camera, each shitty angle, each time the lens was blocked by a slat. He knew it in the same way he knew all the classics, could probably quote it line-for-line if anyone ever asked (not that anyone ever would). The worst part was…he didn’t want to be watching it, he really didn’t. Every part of his brain was screaming out at him to close it down, to turn away, to just delete the fucking thing. It wasn’t going to help him heal, it wasn’t going to help him work through jackshit

But it was there. It was accessible. And since they’d left the lodge, it was the only tangible thing he had left.

First, there was laughter—muffled behind hands, but high and shrill and feminine. Jessica and Emily shushed each other. There was always a pang at that point, an angry spike of something in his stomach, when he heard Ashley’s laugh underneath theirs. Then there was some vague rustling as Matt tucked himself away. Then Mike muttered something he couldn’t quite make out, but seemed to make Emily and Jessica start to giggle again. A minute passed like that (seventy three seconds, not that he had counted) before the door opened and Hannah walked in.

He hadn’t been able to get through that part for a long time. His throat always tightened and his face lit up with the agony of secondhand shame when Hannah reached for the top button of her shirt, still so unaware of what was happening. And that was the kicker, really…no matter how many times he watched, she was always unaware. It didn’t matter what he grumbled at the screen, Hannah never caught on. Not until it was too late, anyway.

By now, it was easier to watch; still not easy, but easier.

“Wait, wha…Matt? What’re you doing here?!”

Click.

“What’re you doing here?!”

Click.

“What’re you doing here?!”

Click.

“What’re you doing—”

Chin in hands, he stared at the screen with the corners of his mouth tucked in. The video quality was shit—the room had been dark, the phone’s camera hadn’t compensated for that, and of course, Matt had been hidden in a fucking armoire when he’d taken it—but he could still see Hannah. Could still see the terror on her face, the betrayal, the pale X of her arms as she covered herself from the others’ laughter. He could still see his sister.

BZZT!

Josh jumped about a mile out of his chair at the noise. He whipped his head to the side only to see the screen of his phone brightly lit up with a new notification. “Motherfuck!” An anxious laugh escaped him, exorcising most of the tension from his chest. Laughing in earnest, he tapped the notification, bringing up Snapchat. “Fuck, jumpier than a coked up kangaroo, huh, Joshy?” he muttered to himself, “Turning into Ash, buddy boy.” And then, actually opening the Snap, “And speak of the devil.”

The picture was hastily taken, if the blur was anything to go by. In the foreground, Chris and Ashley were all crossed eyes and puffed cheeks, hamming it up for the camera; he had to admit it served as a beautiful counterpoint to Sam in the background, clearly unaware that a picture was being taken at all, her own face obliviously caught between expressions, her eyes downcast on her own phone. Slashed across the photo was a text box proclaiming “BABE DELIVERY!!!!!!!!!” followed by a positively unintelligible string of unrelated emojis. “Artful, Cochise,” he muttered to himself. “Coulda just honked.”

Without looking up from the phone, he struck out at the keyboard, two fingers tapping the space bar with all the precision and force of a cobra’s fangs. The video paused just as Sam burst into the room, the screen split between her indignation and Hannah’s agony. He reached up and shut his laptop, feeling some heavy cloud lift from his shoulders once the video had been safely hidden away again. Scrubbing at his face with his hands, he made a mental note to just…bite the bullet and delete the awful thing once and for all. It wasn’t doing him any good, obviously…and fuck, if anyone found it on his computer…well, it’d be a hell of a lot harder to explain away than porn, that much was for fucking sure. But that was something to think about later.

Just then, he had bigger plans for the day. Grander plans. And those plans started with him letting the others into the house.

***

12:07pm

“Can you just help me with this? I’m not getting it. It’s…it’s just too much.”

Ashley raised an eyebrow as she sat up from her nest of pillows. “When you say help, do you really mean write it for you? Because I don’t have summer reading to do, Chris. Not gonna do yours.”

He rocked back on the couch, pressing a hand over his heart. “Ash—you wound me. When have I ever asked you to do my homework for me?” Silence. “Okay, okay, so maybe I’ve asked once or twice. Throw me a bone here, I’m not really a smart person, I just play one on tv.”

Sighing, she dog-eared the page of the novel she’d been reading, standing from her spot on the floor before plopping herself right back down next to Chris on the couch.

“Ooh, before we get too deep into this, that reminds me…” he steepled his fingers together with a chuckle, appearing a bit like a cartoon supervillain. “How’s it feel to be…” he made an unnecessarily loud doot-doot-doot in an absolutely disastrous impression of a trumpet, Done with high school?”

“It’s thrilling, truly. I feel like maybe I’d be able to enjoy it a little more if I was able to, you know, enjoy my first official summer vacay as a grad if I wasn’t…oh, I dunno…doing your homework.” She shot him a smirk before heaving another sigh. “Mk, what’re you not getting?” She took his laptop from him unceremoniously, leaning forward to quickly skim the assignment. “Did you even read the book?” Her look was somehow simultaneously accusatory and amused.

“Did I read Romeo and Juliet?” Chris pretended to be aghast. “Of course I read it.”

Ashley’s eyebrow quirked again.

“I watched the movie.”

Chris.

“It was some of Leo DiCaprio’s best work, Ash. He’s a master of his craft. A master.”

She snorted a breath that could’ve been a laugh, shaking her head as she turned back to the prompt. “Okay, sure. But I don’t see what’s not to get, here.”

Chris hefted himself back upright with a groan, hunching over the computer with her. “It’s the whole…dramatic irony thing.” He gestured vaguely, hands and fingers twirling in the air, “No idea what that’s about. I thought the whole thing was dramatic. That’s the point of Romeo and Juliet, right? Drama?

“No, dramatic irony is…” Ashley stopped abruptly, shooting Chris a sidelong glance. “Did you pay attention in English even once?

It was his turn to raise his eyebrows. “Hey Ash? Real quick, what is it about me—as a person—that would lead you to believe I could ever be capable of paying attention in English? What about me screams ‘Yes! This is exactly what I want to be doing right now! Reading! Oh boy!?’ Please tell me. Please tell me immediately so that I can change it.”

She shoved him with her elbow, sending him sprawling back once more. “You’re such a tool…” she snickered. “Okay, okay. Look. Like you, dramatic irony is also a tool. A tool that, when used well…or even just correctly, I guess, can fill the reader with a real sense of dread or tension...or sometimes frustration. It’s when the audience, in this case, the readers, know something that the characters don’t.” With that, she lifted the laptop and dropped it back on Chris’s lap. “There you go.”

“Wait—wait.” He nabbed the back of her shirt with two fingers before she could stand from the couch. “That doesn’t make sense either. How do the characters not know everything the reader knows? The reader only knows it because the characters tell them.”

Ashley couldn’t help but roll her eyes to the ceiling. “Holy crap. How did you graduate, again?”

“I’m good with those newfangled electronic devices the kids talk so much about these days. And extra credit. Lots of extra credit.”

Clucking her tongue in a decidedly matronly way, she readjusted herself so that she sat facing him, pulling her legs up onto the couch. “The characters do not always know everything the reader does. Look at it this way…” She paused, lips pulling into a grimace of concentration as she thought up an example. “Okay…uh, at the end, when Romeo walks into the crypt and sees Juliet lying there, looking all dead and stuff, and you see him freak out and drink the poison to kill himself…what are you feeling? What are you thinking? As the reader, I mean.”

Chris shrugged, shaking his head slightly. “Uh, I don’t know…I’m thinking he’s an idiot, mostly.”

“Why?”

He laughed, “Because if he waited like three more minutes, she would’ve woken up. But instead, he goes and drinks the medieval equivalent of drain cleaner. You know, as you do…”

“Right!” she clapped her hands together for emphasis. “You know that Juliet is alive. She’s fine! She’s just sleeping! But Romeo doesn’t know that. So we see him take out the poison, we hear his plan, and we think ‘Don’t do it!’ Because yeah, if he would’ve waited three more minutes, or if he had, I don’t know…poked her or something, everything would’ve been fine! But he doesn’t have the same information we do, so he can’t act on it. And the audience is powerless to do anything about that, other than sit back and watch it, just…knowing what’s going to happen.”

“I guess that makes sense…”

“Good. Think you can write your essay now? Can I go back to my book?”

“Only on one condition.” Chris straightened up again, setting his laptop down on the floor before leaning in and taking both of Ashley’s hands in his, looking her square in the eye with an uncharacteristically dour expression. “I need you to promise me something, Ashley Brown.”

“I’d rather not.”

“Promise that if you ever find me dead somewhere, you’ll actually check to make sure I’m dead.” As he said it, she began to laugh, and he reached up with one hand to jokingly smoosh her cheeks in. “No, no Ash, I am so serious. If you ever see what appears to be my dead body, please. Poke it. With a finger, with a stick, I don’t care, it’s all the same to me. Put a mirror to my mouth to see if I’m breathing. Slap me around a little. Do that thing doctors do where they lift up your eyelids and check my eye situation. Promise me, Ash. Don’t just assume I’m dead unless you can actually see that like…I’ve been sliced in half. Or if my head is three feet away from the rest of my hot bod. It’s probably safe to assume I’m dead then. But under any other circumstance, you gotta check. Promise me.”

Still laughing, she made another halfhearted attempt to shove him away. “Oh, if you’re giving me permission to smack you, I will be more than happy to take you up on that offer.” She collapsed into another fit of giggles as her voice came out distorted by the way he’d pushed her cheeks in.

“Wait, wait, one more condition. If it turns out that I did, in fact, die of drinking medieval drain cleaner, you are still more than welcome to try and kiss it off of me. In fact, I encourage it! Just because it didn’t work for Jules doesn’t mean it won’t work for you.”

Jules?

“Would you prefer Julie? How about Julie-Bean? J-Mizzle?”

“No. I’m sure this comes as a shock, but no, I really wouldn’t prefer any of those.”

“You’re avoiding the subject.” Chris chuckled, “Look, if I really am dead, no one will ever find out that you were kissing on a dead guy. But if I’m actually alive, then your secret is safe with me.”

“My secret of kissing on dead guys.”

“Debatably dead guys, at least.”

She pretended to think it over, pursing her lips in thought, giving herself an exaggeratedly fish-faced pout in the process. “Is that still going to be a requirement if your head is three feet away from the rest of your…” she rolled her eyes with a loud, theatrical sigh, “I think you used the phrase ‘hot bod’?”

“I mean, it couldn’t hurt to check, right?”

Ashley attempted to stick her tongue out to no avail—Chris was smooshing her cheeks just enough to make it nearly impossible. That in itself made her laugh again, the sound coming out as more of a snort than anything else. And then Chris was laughing at the ridiculousness of the sound. They were both laughing and laughing up until the precise moment they weren’t, the hilarity tapering into silence.

A comfortable silence, but a charged one, no doubt about that.

The room felt almost impossibly still around them in that moment, and though she knew she didn’t have the courage to actually look up and check, Ashley was seized by a sudden sense of knowing; Chris was looking at her lips. The thought was absolutely bonkers (she would’ve called it laughable, had it not literally stopped her from laughing only a moment ago), probably only brought on by the fact that kissing had been at the forefront of their stupid conversation, but still it remained. Worse, she realized belatedly that yeah, whoops, okay, regardless of whether or not he really was looking at hers, she was definitely looking at his.

Well…shit.

When she’d think back on it later (and she would, not just that night but for the rest of the fucking week), her only explanation would be that she must’ve gone momentarily insane. Lost her goddamn mind. Because Ashley Brown leaned in. The one bit of solace she had, even as she turned it over in her mind a hundredthousandmillion times, was that Chris didn’t pull away. She felt her eyes flutter closed, felt Chris’s hand on her chin, felt the couch cushions shift under them, a miniscule movement, probably less than a fraction of an inch at first, but…

The door to the garage banged open with enough force to rattle the windows in their panes, and the two of them sprang apart as if they’d been caught in the midst of some obscene act, eyes wide and hearts thundering.

“Fuck me sideways!” Josh’s voice was still distant, muffled by the wall, but it quickly became clearer as he stepped into the house. “It’s hotter than Satan’s taint, out there.” There was a crinkling, a grunt, and then the sound of groceries being dropped onto the kitchen counter. “Don’t ask me how I know that, by the way.”

“Wasn’t gonna.” From the sound of it, Sam unloaded an armful of bags as well. “Here, you want—”

“Oooh, yes please. Aw shit, that’s sticky.”

“Oh hey, hold up a sec, do you want my cherry?”

“In more ways than you know, Sammy. In more ways than you know.”

“Wow. Smooth. Does that usually work on people, or…?"

Ashley was on her feet immediately, acting as though someone had literally lit a fire under her ass. She hesitated walking into the kitchen, feeling her face burning red-hot, instead clearing her throat and trying to act as though she hadn’t just almost…done that. “Wow, you guys took forever.”

It was Josh who sauntered into the living room first, making a grand show of scooping something out of a styrofoam cup and licking it graphically off of a spoon. “Yeah, we made a pit stop. Didn’t realize you were timing us.” A wrinkle appeared between his eyebrows as he frowned, looking Ashley over once. “Do I need to turn up the a/c or something? You’re like…bright fucking red, Ash. Little young for hot flashes, aren’t you?”

“Yeah, it’s uh. It’s warm,” she muttered, quickly skirting around him to hide away in the kitchen, letting Chris deal with the brunt of Josh’s questioning. “That’s…a lot of food you guys bought.” She tried clearing her throat again, feeling like her voice might never stop wavering. Ashley peered into a bag, busying herself with looking through everything they’d picked up. “Like…a lot. Is this supposed to all be for us?

If Sam noticed how she was behaving, she didn’t show any sign. Like Josh, she held a styrofoam cup in one hand, only half-heartedly rummaging through the grocery bags with the other. “I don’t ask questions anymore,” she joked, taking a strenuous sip through a fat straw. “I just pushed the cart.” Unable to find whatever it was she’d been looking for, she sighed, looking over to her. “What’d you guys get up to while we were gone? You finish your book?”

“Uh…”

From the living room, Chris’s voice rang out. “You dick! You didn’t get me one?”

“You know the rules, Cochise. You didn’t come for the ride-along, you don’t get to revel in the spoils of the trip. If you wanted a milkshake, you shoulda come with.”

“I didn’t realize milkshakes were on the table!”

“No table,” Sam corrected helpfully. “They did bring them out to the car on a fun little tray, though. It was very cute.” She leaned against the doorway, similarly exaggerating how good her shake was with each drink. “That little place by the store, uh…Timmy’s? Or something like that…they have vegan milkshakes—how cool is that? I’m in my glory, over here.”

Chris screwed his face up in displeasure, “Yeah. It’s great. I’m like super happy for you.”

“It’s mint chocolate chip,” Sam added.

“How…dare you flaunt that in front of me?” Unless it was just her imagination (and Lord knew hers was wild enough), Ashley could’ve sworn his face was just as red as hers.

Josh brushed past Sam with a joking little bow, moving back into the kitchen to look over the haul. “Yeah, enjoy the vegan shit while it lasts, because this is gonna be a good, old-fashioned, all-American bee-bee-que, ladies and gents. More burgers and dogs than you can shove into your gob.”

“Footlongs, I hope.”

“Aw man, you know size doesn’t matter, right, Cochise?”

“Who’s been telling you that?”

Taking each item out of its bag and setting it neatly on the counter, Ashley lifted her eyes to Sam’s in a wordless look of exasperation, shaking her head even as she laughed. “This is just…geez Louise, this is just way too much food."

She joined Ashley in organizing the groceries but did little more than shrug in response to her observation. “You wanna sip?” Sam nodded towards her milkshake, shrugging when Ashley shook her head, “Your loss.”

“Does Josh really think we’re gonna like…gorge ourselves?” Ashley pulled another pack of hotdogs from a bag, furrowing her brow as she added it to the rapidly growing stack.

“I think he just didn’t want to admit the house needed groceries, is what I think.” Sam took another few gulps before returning to the task at hand. “For real though, where did they put…hmm…”

Ashley frowned. “But it’s just him and his mom most of the time while his dad’s filming, and like…does his mom only eat hotdogs? That doesn’t strike me as a particularly sustainable lifestyle.” She shot Sam a slow, suspicious glance, “Do you…know something I don’t?”

“About whether or not Mrs. Washington only eats hotdogs? No Ash, I really don’t have any further insights to offer you.” She laughed, then abruptly gasped, plunging her hands into the bag with gusto. Sam pulled out a small jar with a proud flourish. “Aha! I knew it was in here…I got us grenadine and maraschino cherries, so we can make Shirley Temples.”

It was Ashley’s turn to gasp, the sound loud enough to startle both Josh and Chris into jumping, even though they were one room over. “Oh my God, I love Shirley Temples!”

Right?! Like…do you know how many of these things I would just pound at bowling alley birthday parties?”

“And bat mitzvahs,” Ashley added with a sagely nod. “I haven’t had one since like…ever. Oh man, I’m so psyched!”

“They’re the ultimate party drink.” It was quick, there and gone in the blink of an eye, but Ashley swore she saw Sam cringe after saying it.

If her curiosity wasn’t piqued before, it sure fucking was now. Assuming as casual a posture as she could, Ashley opened one of the bottom cabinets and pulled out the plastic bag full of other plastic bags, proceeding to jam the new plastic bags inside. “So this is a party, huh?” she asked breezily.

“Well, I wouldn’t call it a ‘party,’ per se.” The answer didn’t come from Sam, but Josh, his voice thickened as he spoke around a mouthful of milkshake. “It’s an almost-party. An Almost party. Get it? Get it??”

“That’s so gross,” Sam said curtly, pulling a face in his direction. “No one wants to see or hear your food, Josh.”

“Incorrect. You all do.”

Ashley rolled her eyes as she leaned back against the counter, resting her hands against the edge. “Does my vote count?”

“Your vote counts the least.” Josh swallowed audibly, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. He pitched his empty milkshake cup into the open trashcan, dramatically bowing and waving his hands as Chris appeared behind him, pretending to cheer. “I’m right though, aren’t I, Christopher, my good man?”

“Oh yeah, definitely, definitely.” Chris set his elbow atop Josh’s shoulder, leaning his weight against him. Pausing, he leaned in and stage-whispered, “Right about what?

“That all of you, my dearly beloveds, are gathered here today for a relaxing day of food, fun-in-the-sun, swimming, and in all honesty, probably smacking you a whole lot when you forget your sunscreen—”

“Like always,” Ashley interjected.

“—and burn to a fucking crisp—”

“Like always.”

“—and cry like a bitch whenever you bend any of your joints because you hurt so bad.”

Like always.”

Chris scowled amid their laughter, shoving Josh away from him. “Oh, ha ha. I get it, let’s gang up on the pasty nerd and make fun of his inability to tan. Real nice. Real classy, that’s what you guys are.”

“Hey, chill. Chill, man. I think our lovely ladies here will agree with me when I suggest that there’s nothing sexier than a dad bod with a little sun-kissed glow.”

I don’t have a dad bod!

“Stop denying the truth, dude. ‘Remember who you are, Simba,’ and all that. And who you are…is a pasty nerd with a dad bod.” He lifted his hands to shield himself from what appeared to be a very genuine punch from Chris, only fueling his laughter. “Girls love dad bods! Just ask! Hey Ash—” Chris’s punching seemed to increase at that, “—you’re into dad bods, right?”

She rolled her eyes and actively turned away, taking Sam up on her offer of a sip of milkshake. Sam, however, was more than happy to lean forward, grinning innocently through the barricade of food. “Chris, ignore Josh. I, for one, think you’re perfect just the way you are.” A beat. “Dad bod and all.”

Chris groaned in defeat, but before he could let his head loll back in frustration, Josh had hooked an arm around his neck, pulling him in close with seemed to be more of a chokehold than anything else. “Speaking of poolside sunburns…do you think we should…?” he let it trail off, waggling his eyebrows mysteriously. “Y’know…?” Josh nodded curtly towards the sunroom, where the door to the backyard was.

It took him a second to stop his flailing attempts to get out of Josh’s grip. “Should we wh—oh. Oh yeah, yeah let’s…do that.”

“You girls got this, right?” Josh asked, gesturing vaguely to all the food. “We’ve got some…things to attend to.”

“So many things.”

“Are you insinuating that we put the food away because we’re women?” Ashley asked scathingly, raising her eyebrows and tracking the two of them as they pushed each other towards the sunroom.

“No, Ash, I’m not insinuating that,” Josh sighed. “I’m overtly stating it. This is the kitchen. Where you belong. Now make my lunch and put my food away, woman, while Chris and I go do manly things to each other in the pool shed.”

Chris snickered…and then stopped. “I—wait. Wait, don’t I get a say in this? Aren’t you at least gonna buy me dinner or someth—” He yelped as Josh pushed him out the sliding door and into the backyard. A moment later, their voices had trailed off entirely, leaving Sam and Ashley alone again.

“Is it just me,” Ashley asked, following the boys with her eyes until they disappeared around the corner, “Or are they acting like…particularly weird today?”

“I don’t know about particularly weird. That’s sort of a hard thing to judge with them.” Sam put a bottle of mustard down onto the counter and set her hands on her hips, looking around the kitchen. “But I’m definitely not finding room for all this stuff in here. That is so not my job.”

“Yeah…yeah! Screw that.” She pushed herself away from the counter and made her way back towards the living room where she and Chris had been earlier. “Know what we should do instead? While they’re doing…” Ashley waved her hand vaguely, “Whatever it is they’re doing in the pool shed?”

Sam nodded fervently. “I would greatly enjoy doing anything that doesn’t involve thinking about them in the pool shed, thanks.”

Bright sunlight filtered through the living room’s windows, making the space seem even larger than it actually was. The Browns’ apartment was quaint and cozy with its warm colors and overstuffed furniture, the Hartleys’ house was the picture of homespun suburbia with its crocheted afghans and family photos, but the Washingtons’ house (the Washingtons’ estate, they all joked) was…different. Sam had spent her fair share of time in the house during high school—studying with Hannah, sleeping over, even just having dinner or a snack before going home for the day—and it always had the strangest sense of…well, not being lived in.

It was a huge place—that was probably the root of the problem. She made a mental note to eventually ask one of the others just how many rooms there were. There were only a handful she was familiar with, herself: the living room, Hannah’s and Beth’s rooms, the screening room, the bathrooms, the kitchen…In a way, it almost felt like the lodge. The décor couldn’t have been more different, all bright whites and dark blacks, occasionally broken by some vivid spot of whatever accent color was currently en vogue at that time (currently some shade of purplish-pink), and everything was always clean, spotless and shining, yet the feeling remained. It made sense, really, since the two places were decorated by the same person and owned by the same people. And yet it had that same tense, mysterious air about it. Like you didn’t know what you might find if you opened a closed door too quickly. Like you could get lost if you weren’t paying close enough attention.

“I think it’s…uh…oh, here!” Ashley stood in front of one of the bookshelves along the back wall, tapping her chin until she was able to find what she’d been looking for. Carefully, she pulled a thick volume from the shelf, her smile widening as she turned it over in her hands. When her eyes found Sam’s, she drummed her fingers against its cover, her nails making a loud clicking sound against the heavy stock. “You wanna see something real embarrassing?”

“Why is that even a question?”

Ashley curled up comfortably on the couch, pulling her legs up under her. She opened the book when Sam sat next to her, the thing big enough to spread across both of their laps. What Sam had first assumed was some sort of encyclopedia or maybe a weird dictionary, given how thick it was, turned out to be an incredibly detailed scrapbook full of photographs and mementos. It was clear Ashley knew what she was looking for as she flipped through page after page, each going by way too quickly for Sam to get a good look. For an instant, she pressed both of her palms down flat on either page, obscuring Sam’s view entirely. “Now I’m only showing you this because it’s the one picture of us where I don’t look the worst out of us all. I’m not ashamed to admit that.”

“Duly noted. I’m terrified.”

“Good, you should be.” With a laugh, Ashley turned the page, directing Sam’s gaze to one photo in particular.

The top of the page read “2009” in shining, holographic stickers, and yup…yup, that looked about right. From what she could tell, it had been taken in front of the Hartleys’ house, only because she could see the slightest sliver of what seemed to be a handmade autumn wreath hanging on the front door. The picture itself was a testament to the time—just blurry enough to suggest it had been taken on (gasp) an actual camera, and not a phone. Sam’s focus should’ve been whatever the fuck was happening in the photo itself (baby Josh and baby Ashley were standing on either side of baby Chris, Josh looking very proud, Ashley looking like she was on the verge of crying from laughter; Chris, though, couldn’t have looked less amused if he tried, mainly because he appeared to be wrapped from waist-to-mouth in masking tape like a bargain bin version of a mummy), but what actually got her was everything else.

Wow,” she said when she finally found herself able to say anything. “That’s…that’s a lot to take in.”

“Mhm, mhm…what’s hanging you up?” Ashley playfully nudged her with her shoulder, still giggling every time she glanced down at it. “Is it the tape?”

“Honestly? No. I wish it was!”

“Chris’s transition lenses? Yeah, that was a pretty dark time for all of us.”

“No, no…not that either. I mean, it’s a strong contender, but…There’s just…wow, there’s a lot of facial greasiness happening there.”

“Which one of us?”

“Oh, all of you. All three.” Sam nodded, furrowing her eyebrows as she bent over to get closer to the picture, scanning it with hawk-like precision. “And the braces! The braces are bad! But seriously, God you’re all so shiny. Puberty, huh? Wow. Just. Wow!” She shook her head as though it would help her make sense of what she was seeing; she kept looking between the picture and Ashley, turning from side to side while comparing the two. “This is a lot, Ash.” She tapped her finger against the photo, “I like the hair, though! Man, this is way before we met, huh? I feel like I’d remember…that.”

Ashley sucked a breath through her teeth, feigning yanking the book away from her. “Look, it was a phase, okay?”

“Hey, I said I like it! Purple was a good color on you.”

“Oh please.”

“No, for real! The choppiness of it, how washed out it is, the way your roots are starting to show…it all really goes together very nicely with the arm warmers and…is that an Invader Zim shirt I see?”

She threw her hands up in the air and let them fall. “At least I got better at doing my eye makeup, can you give me that?”

“Eh…” Seesawing her hand back and forth, Sam grinned. She managed to shove Ashley’s hand away, flipping through the pages of her own accord. “Sheesh, this is so weird, seeing the baby versions of you guys.” Sam turned to the very last page of the scrapbook first, unable to help but beam down at all the cheesy smiles on the page. The spread was labeled “SUMMER 2012,” the photos interspersed with stubs of movie tickets and a couple of concert wristbands that had been pressed flat by time. The faces were a little more familiar in the photos—much, much closer to what they currently looked like.

Sam ‘ooh’ed and ‘aww’ed as the book let them travel slowly through time, each page taking them further and further back into the past. She spotted herself in a few of the pictures, usually with one of the twins somewhere nearby, but she found she could only vaguely remember most of the events involved; a part of her, still a little sore, still a little tender, wondered if there was another scrapbook up in those shelves. A scrapbook that was more about the girls and their friends than Josh and his.

Every so often, Ashley would stop her and point to a picture, tapping at it as she explained the context. “Those are some of the guys’ friends—uhh…think that’s Luke, he was a douche, um, oh, and that’s Brody, also a douche, and that’s…” or “They kept messing around even though we were right up against the falls, and like, I was having a heart attack the whole time…” and more than once, “That one…would take wayyy too long to explain.” Her delight was clear as day as they kept turning the pages, the faces in the photographs growing younger and younger, the fashion regressing horribly to the denimy days of the early 2000’s.

Right near the middle of the book, though, Sam forced her to stop. Spread across four pages of alternating paper, black and vibrant orange, were the Halloweens. From the looks of it, there seemed to be snapshots from at least six different Halloweens, some taken during dark trick-or-treat expeditions, some taken at brightly lit parties, still others with the familiar backdrop of rusting blue lockers.

Sam laughed as she looked through each of them, her fingers absently tracing the outline of a 3D jack-o-lantern sticker on one of the pages. “Man, that’s a lot of group costumes, huh?”

As though the thought was only just occurring to her, Ashley bent down closer to the pages, the curve of her smile growing into something that suggested fond memories. “Yeah, well…you’d be surprised how easy it is for us. Dark-haired guy, light-haired guy, girl,” she ticked each one off on her fingers, rolling her eyes all the while. “Pretty much every media franchise ever, actually.”

“That makes sense.” Her own smile grew hooked, then, and when Ashley met her gaze, Sam had to stifle a laugh. “Hmm…” She pretended to turn thoughtful while looking down at the photographs. Tapping her finger against one, then another, then another, she pursed her lips and made a quiet humming sound. “None of these…are my favorite…hmm…I wonder…” It was only then that Ashley understood (and groaned loudly); Sam flipped to the other side of the Halloween spread, and there it was.

The Twilight picture.

The original.

The masterpiece.

Depending on how you looked at it, the photo itself was very, very good…or very, very bad. If you’d’ve asked any of them, they’d tell you it was impossible to recall precisely who had come up with the idea. But like most terrible ideas hatched up in a high school cafeteria, it had stuck like superglue once spoken into the universe. So the three of them had shown up at school, painstakingly costumed as the Twilight assholes.

Ashley had spent the whole day biting her lip, eyes vacant and glazed; Josh had found himself what could only be described as the worst shirt ever, screen printed with the image of rippling six-pack abs, and he furrowed his brow and glared angrily at every- and anyone who walked past them; but it was Chris who had really gone the extra mile, Chris who had taken great pains to obtain body glitter and leave his glasses at home so that he was forced to squint broodingly all day long.

It had been, in a word, horrible.

Sam was in her glory. Ashley was not.

“God, I love this picture.”

“You’re the worst. Like actually the worst.”

“For real, I’m not even joking, it’s my favorite thing ever. I think it’s Chris’s subtle shimmering that really puts it over the edge. Did this make it into the yearbook? You guys should’ve won some kind of award for it.”

“Ugh!”

“One of these days, I’m gonna need one of you guys to send me a copy of this so I can make it my desktop, screensaver, wallpaper, and just frame and hang it.”

Ashley’s response was a tired sigh and a pointed turning of the page. “Josh would,” she admitted, defeated. “I’m pretty sure he keeps a stack of eight-by-ten glossies of it in his room, just in case a need arises.”

She snickered, glancing around the first floor while Ashley was distracted. There was still no sign of the guys…were they still messing around in the back? As sneakily as she was able, Sam checked the time on her phone. They were cutting it pretty close. When she turned her attention back to the scrapbook, she was literally shocked to see how young the faces on the pages were. “Wow, these go back a long way, huh?” she asked, taking it upon herself to flip to the very beginning. “You guys were tiny in some of these, jeez!”

“Yeah, I guess.” Ashley cocked her head to the side, opening and then shutting her mouth. Slowly, she sat back against the couch cushions, looking down at the album with a distant, unreadable sort of expression. She was still smiling, but only just—it was more a hint of a smile, really, a wistful upturn of the corners of her lips. “You know, it’s weird. I can’t really remember a time without those dorks.” Her mouth tightened again as she thought. “It’s like we’ve always kind of been friends.”

“The Three Muskateers,” Sam joked.

Ashley let out a tiny huff of a laugh at that. “Suuure. More like the Three Stooges, honestly.” The wistful look was back. Even she was aware of it, but there wasn’t anything she could do to fight it. Things had been…‘difficult’ was maybe a good word, or ‘tense,’ ever since the lodge…and really, maybe before the lodge, too. She wasn’t about to say that to Sam, obviously, and things had admittedly been getting better…still. Ashley pushed the thought from her head, mentally shaking herself out; this was supposed to be adorable and fun! She had to stop getting so stupidly introspective, so stuck in her own head. Looking over to Sam again, she raised her eyebrows knowingly, “Did I ever tell you how I met these doofuses?”

Sam grinned and shut the scrapbook, taking it from Ashley. “Nope. Can I guess, first?”

“Um, okay, sure. Shoot,” she laughed, watching Sam get up and approach the bookshelf.

“Hmm…” The space where the scrapbook had come from was obvious, a gaping chasm between other books, and still she pretended she had to search for it. Sam’s eyes scanned the spines, trying to find one that was similar in any way, shape, or form to the scrapbook. “It was someone’s birthday, and you all ended up at the same laser tag place.”

“Nope!”

The idea of a book of photos of the twins had nestled its way deep into the folds of her brain, sinking its claws in and refusing to let go. None of the others looked like the scrapbook, though. Not even close. “Um…your mom didn’t want you to skip any grades, but you got put in a class a couple levels ahead, and you met them there?”

Ashley giggled appreciatively at that. “Nah. You’re getting warmer, though.”

“Oh yeah?” Her fingers drummed against the cover of the book. “Hmm…Chris walked into the wrong class one day and nearly exploded from being embarrassed, and you just had to track him down in the hall to make fun of him.” As if it were an afterthought, she added, “Did you guys make this book, by the way?”

There was a rustle from the couch as Ashley repositioned herself, stretching out her legs and nestling herself in the crook of one of its armrests. “No and no,” she answered, turning to watch Sam slide the scrapbook back into its place. “Chris’s mom made it—you know how she is with that crafty stuff.”

Ah. Of course. She nodded, mostly to herself, and put it back on the shelf before taking her spot on the couch again. There wouldn’t be one of the twins, then. That was probably for the best.

“We actually met because of drama club, way back in middle school.” Her gaze had taken on a somewhat distant quality, her teeth scraping against her lower lip in thought; only after a significant beat of silence did she seem to snap back to herself. “I—wait, what’s with the look?”

Sam blinked. “…drama club.”

“…yeah? Why’s that weird for you?”

Her eyes narrowed faintly in concentration. “I’m…I’m trying to picture…any of you, really, on stage. Acting. It’s not…it’s not great, if I’m being honest.” Her teeth were bared in a grimace until Ashley laughed again.

“No! Nononono, oh my g—no. Not acting. I could never get up in front of that many people, I have nightmares about that!” As if to prove her point, her body wracked with shudders. “Nu-uh, no way José. Mom really wanted me to do some, y’know, extracurricular stuff, and it wasn’t like I was gonna do a sport,” she scoffed dismissively. “So I signed up to be part of the crew for the drama club. Lights and sets and that kinda stuff. Got stuck painting backdrops for like two weeks, and Josh was one of the older kids working on them, too.”

“Oh God, what was Chris working on? Please don’t say anything electrical.”

She snorted, rolling her eyes to the ceiling. “Ohhh…don’t you worry. No one trusted Chris with anything.” Her eyes slid back to Sam’s, her expression somehow both amused and exasperated—the look most of them took on, when Chris was involved. “He wasn’t even in the club.”

“…Okay, huh?”

“Mhm. He just like. Ended up hanging around after school where we met so that he could bug Josh. Predictable, huh?” Despite her tone, her smile was wide, “Really, I don’t even know why they ended up even talking to me. I was pretty quiet—”

Was?

She stuck her tongue out at Sam before waving at her to shut up. “I probably laughed at the right joke or something stupid like that. But we started hanging out after that! I mean, okay, chances are good they realized I’d do their homework for them if they asked nicely enough, but…they’re stuck with me now.”

“Forever and ever,” Sam added. “Man, no offense, but those sets must’ve been…rough to look at.”

“Rude! They were actually pretty decent for, you know, middle school stuff. Between you and me, I think that’s the only reason they kept Josh around. He was—still is, I guess—such a snot to everyone there. He did this awful impression of the drama teacher, Mr. Lombardi, and it wasn’t even funny—”

“Wait, wait, wait.” Not for the first time in that conversation, Sam had to stop her, raising her hands up. “Stop. Rewind. What about Josh?”

Ashley nodded, “Yeah, it was a really bad impression. It was super mean, and I don’t care what he and Chris say, it didn’t sound anything like him!”

“No, Ash, I…no. I meant you made it sound like he was good at painting the sets.”

For a few seconds, Ashley just looked at her. Sam had to wonder if she hadn’t heard her, or hadn’t understood her, or what. But before she could repeat herself, recognition dawned on Ashley’s face. “Oh holy crap. Do you not know?” Her smile resurfaced, excited and gleeful and maybe even a little bit proud. “Have you not seen Josh’s art stuff?”

“Art stuff?” Her eyebrows shot up.

Three notes, high and glassy, rang out through the house, echoing through the empty rooms. Nearly moving in perfect unison, Ashley and Sam turned towards the general direction of the front door, their view obscured by the living room wall. Both frowned at the prospect of having to get up and answer it, but no sooner had Ashley pushed herself up from her comfortable slouch than the sunroom door slammed open and shut, one of the guys hurtling through the house like a frightened animal. “I got it! I got it!

Ashley was clearly perplexed as she leaned into the cushions once more. “I really worry about them, sometimes,” she said, more to the air than to Sam.

The two of them continued to stare at the wall, straining their ears to try and make sense of the low rumble of voices coming from the foyer. But then the front door closed with a click, and a second later Josh popped his head into the living room with a cheery wave. “Ladies.”

“What was that all about?”

“What was what all about?”

Her scowl wasn’t terribly convincing, even as she folded her arms across her chest. “You know. The running through the house thing.”

Josh squinted, and then pretended to only just understand her. “Oooh, that! Yeah, don’t worry about it, Ash. No big. What’re you two up to?”

Jumping in before Ashley could ask him to explain, Sam smiled mischievously. “Hey so, it was just revealed to me that you’re an artist.” She turned to Josh, throwing her arms out to her sides. “When was this going to be shared with the class?”

“We talking about arteests?!” Chris appeared from behind Josh, his face already reddened by sun. “Y’know, I consider myself one of the greats, really. At least as far as comedy is concerned.”

“Uh huh,” Josh answered flatly, “You’re a regular Pauly Shore.” He looked to Sam, but his eyes kept flicking towards the sunroom in a way Ashley didn’t particularly like. They were doing very little to help quell her suspicions. “I dunno, Sammy, it’s nothing big. Sometimes shit is doodled, what can you do?”

“Oh, we’re talking about you. Of course. We’re always talking about you.” Chris pantomimed heaving a great, melodramatic sigh. “Guy spends his whole life learning the complicated craft of telling a quality joke, and what’s he get? Nothin’. Guy can draw a hand and suddenly he’s fuckin’ Michelangelo.”

“I—whoa. What the fuck, Cochise. Have you ever tried to draw a hand, you sonuvabitch? Fucking…you draw a hand that actually looks like a hand, and then get back to me.” Tightening his mouth into a humorless line, he looked back to Sam. “How ‘bout this, Sammy—next time I’m in the market to draw someone like one of my French girls, yours’ll be the first number I call, huh? Sound like a deal?” He dropped her a lascivious wink, and Sam made a sound stuck halfway between a laugh and a groan.

Even from behind Josh, Chris’s pout was obvious. “You never offer to draw me like one of your French girls.”

Ashley was done with it. “Nope. Nope. Stop. Just…everyone stop.” To her surprise, everyone did stop talking. She let the room marinate in the silence for a breath or two, inspecting each of their faces carefully. “You’re all being really, really weird today. Weirder than usual,” she added quickly, robbing either of the boys of their chance to interrupt her. “First, you come back from the store with way too much food. Then, you disappear out back for a conspicuously long time. Now, someone shows up at the door and you’re just pretending like they didn’t. It feels like there’s some joke going on that I’m not in on, and I gotta be honest—really not digging it.” She pursed her lips and looked between the three of them again, shoulders rising and falling with a deep breath. “And I’m not just being paranoid, so don’t even try that. What the heck is going on?”

The others exchanged their own rapid series of looks: Josh looked to Chris, who shrugged towards Sam, who rolled her eyes at Josh. Finally, he turned to Ashley, tapping his fingers thoughtfully against his chin. “Well…I mean…I guess we could probably just…get on with this, huh?” He smirked, holding his right arm out in front of him, acting as if he was checking a nonexistent watch. “It’s about that time, I think.”

“‘Bout that time!” Chris parroted, clapping his hands before rubbing them together like some sort of gremlin.

“Sounds like a plan!” With a sly smile of her own, Sam took Ashley’s elbow, pulling her up and off the couch with her.

Unexpected. Ashley’s attention bounced back and forth between them all, hesitating against Sam trying to lead her out of the living room. “Uh, okay, I take it back. I don’t want to know.”

“Mmm…I think you do, though,” Sam laughed, managing to get her over the threshold into the kitchen.

She made a low, warbling keening sound when Chris took her other elbow. “Nooo, I don’t like this! Why does this feel like you’re dragging me to the electri—oh my God!” Her vision went dark when Josh, having stepped behind her, covered her eyes with his hands. “If you throw me in the pool, I swear to God, you guys—”

“No one’s throwing you in the pool.” Chris found Sam’s eyes and rolled his own. “Stop worrying so much.”

Another anxious noise.

“Really, Ash? Really?” Assuming his best grown-up tone, Josh spoke directly into her ear, hands still over her face. “You think we’d do that to you? You think we’d grab you, drag you outside, into the sunlight…” he smirked widely when they did, in fact, step out into the backyard, the bright sun falling on them all, no doubt warming Ashley’s face, “Get you riiiight up to the edge of the pool, and…shove you in?” He nodded to Chris and Sam, who released her arms, and then jokingly pressed one of his hands between Ashley’s shoulders, applying just enough pressure to trick her into thinking he was going to push her.

The effect was immediate—she shouted, scrabbling back against the wall the three of them had formed, whipping her head around when Josh dropped his hands from her eyes.

In reality, she wasn’t anywhere near the pool. They stood only a yard or so from the house, on the cement paving that surrounded the pool, but even then they were well behind the deck chairs and chaises lounges around the perimeter. Mouth still open from her squeal, Ashley felt her face screw up in confusion; there were other people in the yard. A few farther back where the grass began and there were some yard games set up, one or two around the tiki bar next to the house, someone already tanning on a beach towel…

She whirled around to face them (all three grinning ear-to-ear, clearly exceptionally proud of themselves) and stopped cold as she saw the long table just to the side of the door they’d come through. It was already piled high with paper plates and plastic cutlery, napkins and Solo cups, black and gold balloons weighted down but still drifting with each breeze. Four gargantuan Mylar balloons floated in the center: 2 0 1 4. Wordlessly, she looked to them.

Sam was the first to say something, spreading her arms out wide in the universal signal for ‘ta-daaaa!’ “Surprise!”

“Wha…what?” she blinked, still not fully comprehending, the pieces not quite lining up the right way.

“Jamie said you weren’t like, planning on doing a grad party or anything, so,” Chris shrugged, still beaming, still obviously pleased. “Mayyyybe we took matters into our own hands. Not sure who all these randos are, though…what assholes, sneaking into Josh’s backyard, eating all the canopies—”

Distracted though she was, Ashley found she was nonetheless able to correct him. “Canapés.”

“Bless you.”

It was Josh that she looked to last, Josh with his knowing smirk and loose shrug. “What can I say? Haven’t been to many Brown parties that get crazier than like...Scrabble tournaments and buffalo chicken dip, so we thought to ourselves, ‘Hey, how better to celebrate our girl Ash leaving the dreadful halls of high school adolescence and entering the still pretty awful halls of college anxiety…than with a Josh-Wash production, huh?’” He snickered in his self-assured way, looking from Sam to Chris and back to Ashley. “I mean, why party like a mathlete when you can party like a, uh…”

Rich mathlete?” Sam offered.

“Oh yeah, good one Sammy, that’s exactly what I was looking f—”

“Porn star?” Chris said, speaking with all the confidence of someone giving a wrong answer on Family Feud.

Josh slowly turned to Chris, eyebrows drawn up and in, seeming pained. “Uh huh. Okay. Yeah, sure, fine, whatever. Why party like a mathlete when you can party like a porn star. Okay. Good. Let’s party like we’re fuckin’ porn stars, then, sure, Cochi—” Not for the first time, he was cut off as he tried to talk. Josh rocked back on his heels as a sudden weight was launched against him, and he stumbled back a step or two to keep his balance.

Ashley had thrown her arms around him, hands locked behind his neck in a desperate, grasping squeeze. It took him a second to comprehend what was going on, but when he did, Josh chuckled quietly, returning the hug with one arm while waving the other two over.

“Yeah, bring it in—bring it on in, you saps.” There was an awkward moment of scrambling to find positions that didn’t squish anyone too badly. “Are you crying?” Josh asked Ashley after a moment, craning his head to try and get a better look at her. It was no use, she’d already buried her face in his shoulder, so he just snorted a laugh. “Oh my God, Ash. This is no time to cry! There are guests you need to mingle with, and snacks to eat, fucking Cornhole to play, a giant goddamn pool…”

When she looked back up, effectively beginning to disentangle their messy group-hug, Ashley wiped at her cheeks with her hands, lower lip quivering enough to be noticed. She snuffled once, even as Sam hugged her harder from the side. “You guys,” she started, voice dropping off midway through. “I—this is the nicest thing anyone’s ever done for me.”

The nicest, huh?” Josh asked. “Man, if that’s true, sounds like you need to get some better friends.”

She laughed and hugged him again.

***

3:50pm

“I just don’t get it.”

“Don’t get what?”

“I don’t get how you can eat something called a ‘veggie dog.’” To drive the point home, he pretended to gag, tongue lolling out of his mouth. “The thought of biting into a hotdog and getting a mouthful of tofu is absolutely abhorrent.”

Instead of rolling her eyes, Sam locked her stare on Chris, pointedly taking an unnecessarily large bite out of her hotdog. His reaction was immediate disgust; she covered her mouth with one hand when she couldn’t keep from laughing, hiding her mouthful from him. “You’re totally out of your mind—real hotdogs are the grossest thing on Earth! At least you know what’s in a veggie dog. Do you have any idea what’s in a meat hotdog?”

He nodded, “Actually, Sam? Actually, yeah, I do. Meat. What we as humans have been eating since we discovered fire.”

“Been eating plants since before fire…”

“Meat has protein, Sam. And protein, as we all know, is what a body needs. Gives you energy, gives you muscle—”

“And how’s that working out for you?” She sneered mockingly as he turned to face her more fully, eyes wide with unanticipated insult.

“Um…wow? Okay, okay, I see what you’re doing. Oppressing the carnist.”

“Chris, I promise…you do not deserve to be oppressed because you eat meat.” She adjusted herself on her seat, patting his knee affectionately. “There are so many other reasons why you deserve it. Meat doesn’t even make the list.”

He let out an appreciative hum as he finished taking a drink, setting his beer down on the tiki bar. “Oh…you’re gonna need to back off if you’re thinking of usurping me as the comedian of the gang. I’ll fucking take you down.”

“Yeah?”

“Mhm, and it’ll be brutal.”

Sam crunched a potato chip, spinning in her stool so she faced the rest of the yard. “I’m positively quaking in fear.” One leg moved to cross over the other, and Sam balanced her paper plate atop it, lazily picking at her chips. Across the yard, over where a handful of newcomers were starting up a new game of…something (she couldn’t quite tell from the distance, reminding her why they referred to the property as ‘The Washington Estate'), she spotted Josh and Ashley talking to a couple people, Josh’s elbow resting on Ashley’s shoulder, Ashley’s hands moving aimlessly as she spoke. She sighed contentedly and took another bite. “I think we did good,” she nodded towards the two of them to direct Chris’s gaze. “I think she’s having a good time.”

He overshot the amount of effort it would take to turn around in his stool, spinning around once before slowly coming to rest in basically the same position as Sam. “Yeah…I think so too.” Chris didn’t say it aloud, choosing to let sleeping dogs lie, but there was a twist of something else in his voice, a bright, springy sort of something. Sam suspected it was relief—she smiled along with him instead of bringing it up. They sat quietly like that for a few minutes, occasionally waving or calling hello to someone they knew or sort-of-knew or even vaguely recognized, as the politics of high school graduation parties dictated. Someone pulled a truly gruesome cannonball from the pool’s diving board, and the resounding smack of flesh against the water, in addition to the communal “Oooooooh” that rose up around the poor fool seemed to finally shake something loose from Chris. “Man, I am...psyched this is going so well. I’ve, uh…I’ve been kinda…worried.”

An eyebrow raise, and nothing more. “Oh yeah?” Sam took a slow drink of her soda.

Chris’s smile was tight for a moment. “Yeah, it’s…stupid.” He shook his head but the thought was firmly lodged. He’d already opened his mouth and started this, he figured he might as well finish it. “I’m just…I guess I’m just glad they’re getting along, that’s all.” Sam didn’t ask who he meant, and he was unspeakably grateful for it. “Shit’s coming back together. It’s good.”

Without thinking too heavily on it, Sam set her head against Chris’s shoulder, leaning herself comfortably against him as she ate her chips. “I think it’s pretty common knowledge that the healing process is greatly sped along with parties and cupcakes.” At ‘healing process,’ her hand made an arc in the air.

“Truer words have never been spoken.” Per her reminder, he grabbed the cupcake off of his plate and proceeded to eat all of the icing first, like some sort of heathen. He ignored Sam’s sound of displeasure until he’d managed to swallow most of it; when he stuck his tongue out at her, it was stained electric blue. “And uh,” he said, trying and failing to sound casual, “Seems like Josh is doing better.”

Her laughter tapered off into a quiet hum of acknowledgement. Sam took another drink, tapping a chip against her paper plate.

Brow furrowing, Chris looked down to her as best her could, what with her head against his shoulder. “You don’t think so?”

She shrugged, similarly trying and failing to appear unconcerned. “You’d know better than me.”

Silence between them. Just for a second, just for a moment…but long enough to communicate what it had to. “I guess,” he mumbled, biting into the cupcake in earnest, his tone suggesting he wasn’t quite as sure as she was.

As though on cue, Josh sauntered over to them, dipping around the other side of the tiki bar. He’d disappeared for a moment, rummaging through the mini-fridge, before popping back up with a drink, splaying his hands to either side of him on the bar. “What’ll it be?” he chuckled.

“Mmm, so you’re taking up drink-making, huh?” Sam swiveled around in her seat again. “Think you can maybe whip me up a Shirley Temple? I’ve been waiting like…allllll day. Or is that gonna be too challenging for you?”

Scoffing, he popped just below the bar again, the clinking of glass bottles and aluminum cans audible as he dug through the fridge. “Too challenging…clearly, Miss Giddings, you don’t know who I am. I…am the best goddamned bartender from Timbuktu to Portland, Maine.” He paused for effect. “Or Portland, Oregon, for that matter.” He smirked and then promptly frowned when both of them simply continued chewing their food. “…Uh, hello? The Shining? Really? I know you fucks have seen it—we watched it together.”

Ooooh!” Chris said, nodding vigorously. “Yeah, no, I got nothing. Sorry we don’t all have weird movie encyclopedia memories like you.”

He grumbled something in response, but was already throwing ice in a glass for Sam’s drink.

“I hope you’re making one for me, too.”

“Will you cool your metaphorical jets, man? I’ll make you a girly drink if you want it.”

“Shirley Temples are not girly,” Sam interjected.

“Uh, they’re named after Shirley Temple, Samantha. One of the girliest of girls. Ergo, girly drink.” Josh paused, dangling a maraschino cherry over the glass by its stem, “Did you know if you add booze to one of these, they call it a ‘Dirty Shirley’?”

Sam cringed. “Ick.”

“Hey, let Shirley get as dirty as she wants. This is a free country.” Chris glanced momentarily over his shoulder, scoping out the party situation. “Shindig’s off and popping, as the kids say.”

Sam cringed again. “Double ick.”

“Oh, it’s popping all right,” Josh agreed, sliding Sam her drink with a wink and a blown kiss. “But hey, so…Cochise?”

“Mhm?”

When Chris didn’t turn around, Josh scooted over so that he was directly across from him, elbows on the bar. “Chris.”

“Yeah?”

“Christopher. Bro. Buddy. Dude. My one and only.”

At that, he did turn back around, pulling back slightly at Josh’s proximity. “Uh…hi?”

Smile widening into something decidedly worrisome, Josh cocked his head to the side. He heaved a loud, wistful sigh—the sort cartoon characters made when dreaming about the objects of their affection. “I’m gonna make you your Shirley, truly I am, but before I do…I got just…just a tiny, little, itty-bitty, super inconsequential, low-pressure question to ask you, my dude.”

Chris straightened up, anxiety blooming brilliantly across his face. Sam stopped mid-sip of her drink to watch. Her eyes flit back and forth from Chris and Josh as though watching a spirited game of tennis.

“So…while me and Sammy were off getting the groceries,” he began, looking down to examine his nails. “What is it—exactly—that you and our lovely Miss Brown got up to?” He raised his eyes to Chris’s face again, smirk still firmly in place. “Inquiring minds simply must know.”

Sam frowned in confusion, fixing her gaze more squarely on Chris. At first, she had assumed it was nothing more than another of Josh’s jabs at Chris’s crush on Ashley, but then Chris opened his mouth, seemed to search for his words, and then shut his mouth again, and she knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that it wasn’t. “Oh my God,” she said, lowering her voice into a conspiratorial whisper, hunching over the bar to be closer to both of them. “Something happened. What happened?”

“Noth—nothing happened!

“Oh, he’s lying,” Sam said to Josh.

Obviously.” They both turned on him, vipers lining up deathly strikes, eyes trained and teeth bared. “Don’t you lie to me, Christopher—don’t you lie to Sam. We don’t deserve that.”

“Yeah, tell us the truth. We can…” she grinned widely, shooting Josh a deliberate look. “We can handle the truth.”

His expression was pitying, at best. “I appreciate the effort, Sammy, but we’ll work on it.” He patted her hand once, still mainly focused on Chris. “We can do this the easy way, the hard way, or the really embarrassing way.”

Chris had intended to scowl at them, really he had, but had managed something that was more of an insolent pout. “What’s the easy way?”

“Uh, you just…fucking tell us.”

He eyed Josh warily. “What’s the hard way?”

“I push you off the stool, drag you over to the water, and dunk your face in until you crack.”

He narrowed his eyes. “What’s the embarrassing way?”

Never flinching, Josh calmly blinked. “I turn off the music and use the stereo system to broadcast a message to the entire party that you and Ash were doing untoward activities in my home while I was away.”

The pout deepened noticeably. “Okay, two can play at this—what were you guys doing while you were out at the store, huh? Huh? Took you an awful long time to get back—”

Straw in her mouth, Sam shrugged. “Orgy in the produce section. Like three cashiers joined in. Scandalous. Upset a lot of soccer moms and destroyed a lot of kale in the process,” she said with a voice so flat and matter-of-fact that Chris nearly fell out of his stool. Josh was howling with laughter. She giggled and rolled her eyes, “We’re just teasing—”

“I’m not,” Josh interrupted. “I’m not teasing at all. I mentioned something to Ash, and she got…real cagey on me, and now you’re being a brat, so something happened.” He leaned in even closer to Chris, so that they were nearly nose-to-nose. “I would like very much to know what transpired, my good sir.”

“She was just helping me with my summer reading project! Stop trying to make a federal case out of it, God you two are just…ugh I hate you both.”

“Nu-uh, that’s not it. You can’t bullshit a bullshitter, Cochise. She was helping with your homework, and then…”

“And then nothing!

Setting her drink down, Sam huddled even closer. “You’re still lying. Oh my God.”

“I-I’m not—fucking shut up!”

Suddenly deathly serious, Josh raised both eyebrows. Speaking with the sort of calm detachment a dentist might use when reporting a cavity, he simply said, “If I have to find out from a third party source that you banged on my couch—”

Chris did stand then, and would’ve likely beaten a hasty retreat had Josh not grabbed his arm and pulled him back. “You’re so—we—God, just shut up!

Triple ick. Going for a world record, tonight,” Sam laughed, taking another sip from her straw.

He rounded on her, glad for the distraction, if only for a second. “Wait, uh, excuse me? Why is that an ick? Why is it gross, Sam?!

She hadn’t meant to, but she snorted, trying to keep her shoulders from shaking with the louder laughter she fought to tamp down. “Sorry, sorry! It’s weird to think about. Like,” her face crinkled as she thought, “Like thinking about one of your cousins doing it. Ech. Weird. It’s…you’re not like…a sexual being in my head. No offense or anything.”

“I’m at least ninety percent positive Chris and Ash aren’t sexual beings in their own heads, Sammy, so you’re in good company.” Josh only released Chris’s arm when he decided he wasn’t a flight risk. He snickered to himself, finally pouring him his promised drink. “Just watchin’ out for you, bro. Trying to cheer you on from the sidelines. Rah-rah-sis-boom-bah and all that shit.”

He grumbled something way too quietly to be heard, ignoring the drink Josh slid to him. Chris glanced over his shoulder again to reassure himself that Ashley was still out of earshot (as it stood, she and a few of the other Creative Writing girls were a fair bit off, one snapping selfies of the group of them in front of the giant ‘CONGRASHULATIONS’ sign hung near the desserts…no one had found it quite as hilarious as he had hoped). “There was just…a moment earlier. Fuck. If she got weird when you mentioned it, then…ugh.”

Almost in perfect unison, Sam and Josh perked back up, exchanging a veiled glance between themselves before looking back to Chris. “A moment, huh?” Sam asked, chewing at her straw. “What, uh…what kinda moment?”

Half of his drink was gone in one gulp. He shook his head, shoulders shrugging helplessly. “A bad one, clearly, if she got ‘cagey.’ Fuck. Fuck. I’m an idiot.”

“Well, yeah, you are, that isn’t up for debate here, Cochise…” Josh came around the bar again, nudging Sam until she moved one seat over; he plunked himself down on the stool between the two of them, reaching behind himself to grab the beer he’d gotten himself earlier. He cracked it open and took a drink, purposefully swiveling all the way around to watch Ashley and the other partygoers. “I’m gonna keep guessing until you tell us.” Beside him, Sam laughed, and his smile only widened.

“Dude, fucking—”

No, you already said there was no fucking, so stop trying to throw me off. Hmm…this is like Twenty Questions or some shit. Were hands involved?”

“I—” Chris’s brow furrowed. “Wait, what is it with you guys and hands?

“Taking that as a no. Moving on. Were there feet involved?”

“Wh—no!

“I’m not here to kinkshame. I mean, I can’t speak for Sammy, but I assume she isn’t, either.”

“Oh let me die, God.” There was a thunk as Chris set his head down on the tiki bar itself, trying to will himself to melt into the fake wood. “Please take me now, Jesus, I’m ready.”

“Was there an emotional heart-to-heart?”

“You’re assholes.”

Josh rolled his eyes. “Goddamn it, man, I’m running out of shit to accuse you of. This is growing lamer and lamer by the second. Uh, okay, hmm…oh, oh, were hot makeout sessions involved?”

He cringed into himself, doubling down on his mental pleas to God. “No.”

The pause hadn’t been long. It hadn’t been particularly noticeable. But it had been there. Josh and Sam’s heads snapped to him quickly enough to cause whiplash, and Sam came close to climbing into Josh’s lap to shove Chris’s shoulder. “Did you kiss Ash?!” she hissed, eyes bright and grin wide enough to show her back teeth. “Did you guys freaking kiss?!

Watching him carefully, Josh shook his head, “No…they didn’t.”

“No,” Chris agreed, “We didn’t.”

“But you came real, real close, huh?” Josh leaned back, giving Sam more room as she loomed over him, jokingly blowing a light stream of air into her ear, causing her to pull back and smack his arm. “Aw, lookit you, buddy,” he knocked one of his knees against Chris’s stool. “Growing up right in front of our eyes. I’m so proud.” He pretended to sniffle affectionately. “She prolly got all weird when I asked because she was pissed you didn’t kiss her, you know,” he added airily, taking another drink. “It’s her big day and you left her high and dry. Rude, Cochise, real rude.”

“There’s literally no way she wanted to kiss me.”

If ever there was a moment where two human beings approached true, pure telepathy, it was that moment, as Sam and Josh turned to each other, eyebrows raised in exasperation. After a beat, Sam shook her head, gesturing in a vague way that suggested they let the topic drop. Josh rolled his eyes in lieu of a reply, but let it go all the same. “Ohoho…” he said, tone changing significantly. “Well looky, looky…and here I was, thinking this was gonna be a nerds-only ordeal.”

Sam spun around first, then Chris followed (albeit apprehensively), both more than just a little surprised to see Jessica and Matt walk in from the front of the house.

“Wow.” There was a hint of derision in Chris’s tone, even as he joined the other two in half-waving to them from across the yard. “Didn’t expect them.” He lifted his drink to his mouth and then froze, “Does that mean Emily is coming?”

“Does that mean Mike’s coming?” Sam asked, the intensity of her scorn surprising her just as much as the boys.

Josh set his beer down without so much as another sip, folding his arms across his chest. “I know this is hard for you two dumbos, but just, for one moment, please try and use your critical thinking skills. Why…in God’s name…would I invite Mike or Emily to a party for Ash?” Using one of his feet, he rocked himself side-to-side slowly on his stool. “She likes Matt and Jess, she doesn’t like Emily or Mike. Why would I even consider sending either of them an e-vite, huh? I ask you. What logic is there in that?”

The implications of what he said took a moment to sink in, but when they did, both Chris and Sam blinked in surprise. They huddled a little closer together into a semi-circle to keep from being overheard. Chris let out a quiet whistle—the sort one might make if supremely impressed (or supremely concerned). “Uh oh…” he said, his childishly jeering sing-song reverberating through the glass as he spoke from over the rim. “You split up their group.” Eyebrow raised, he shot Josh a look that seemed, at first blush, almost suspicious. “Bold move. Stupid. But definitely bold.”

“Oh please.”

“You never split the group, man. I thought you knew that.”

Sam snorted a laugh, leaning backwards against the tiki bar, propping her elbows up on the tabletop. “How brave of you!” She kept her gaze fixed on a vague point in middle space, somewhere just above the pool, if only to keep from looking directly at either of the guys. “Man, you better stay off Facebook for the next few days, if you know what’s good for you. Em might have some words for you.”

“Pfft, yeah, sure. C’mon, what’s she gonna do—write a mean status about me? Start a rude hashtag? Please. I think I can handle more than a little vagueblogging at this point in my life.” He rolled his eyes, continuing to twist back and forth on the stool. “Besides…like she and Mike would even deign to grace us with their collective presence. And anyway, I heard me a little rumor on the interwebs.” He paused for dramatic effect, folding his arms across his chest. “Sounds like maybe that group’s splitting itself up all on their own. No outside help required. Isn’t that tragic?” Conveniently, the answer let him omit an uncomfortable truth: He didn’t want to have to look at either of their faces, didn’t want to hear their voices.

He’d been thinking a lot about Hill and his little blame game, the past few weeks.

A lot.

Across the yard, they watched as Ashley (clearly just as surprised as the three of them) hugged Jess and then Matt, mouth moving with words they couldn’t hear over the music pumping through the speakers.

Reaching over, Josh shoved Chris with an arm. He nodded towards Ashley and Matt hugging and smirked. “Bet you’re wishing you kissed her now, eh, Cochise?”

***

9:14pm

The water of the pool was nearly black as ink under the night sky, dappled with constellations from the fairy lights strung up around the backyard. Arms spread wide, eyes closed, Sam let herself simply float; the world around her smelled like bonfire smoke and charcoal and chlorine, felt like cool balm against the beginnings of her sunburn, tasted like sweat and sticky-sweet cherry juice. She thought she could’ve slept like that, if given the chance. As she drifted, something brushed against one of her outstretched arms, bringing her back to herself. Lifting her head from the water, the sounds of the yard immediately returned to her, replacing the thick silence of the water with low, murmuring voices and whatever weird music Josh was streaming through the speakers.

“This has just been…ridiculous.” Ashley treaded water next to her, only dimly lit by the lights. Her hair seemed very dark against her skin, slicked back away from her face. “I’ve never been thrown a surprise party before—I feel like a little kid.”

“Hey, graduating’s a big deal! If that doesn’t deserve a few streamers and balloons, what does?” She laughed right along with her, scooping her own hair out of her face with a cringe. There was a real prune situation going on with her fingers. “Plus…” she slowly swam backwards as they talked, leading Ashley towards the edge of the pool. “Now you get to come join me on campus. Also celebration-worthy!” She put both of her elbows up onto the rim of the pool, pulling herself up and onto the pavement with a watery woosh. “Think of it—I can show you the places to avoid in the dining halls, which floors of the library are haunted…the quintessential college experience.”

Ashley propped her arms up onto the pool’s edge, but remained in the water, the old band tee she’d worn over her one-piece drifting behind her like a fin (Sam hadn’t mentioned it; it was the sort of thing that felt best left unaddressed). Her face was bright under the glow of the fairy lights, her cheeks and nose darkened with sun. “It’s so nuts, right? You should let me know what classes you schedule—wouldn’t that be so fun to have one together? God…class in a lecture hall…”

She wrung out her ponytail over the pool, snickering tiredly. “Oh Ash,” Sam sighed, “It’s gonna lose its charm real quick, hate to be the bearer of bad news.” She reached over for the pile of clothes she’d left on one of the lounge chairs, shaking her hoodie out before zipping it up over her swimsuit. The night was still warm, but the breeze felt Arctic, having just gotten out of the water. “Well, wait, you are sort of a dork…maybe it won’t wear off for you.”

“Oh har-de-har-har.” Ashley smacked the water, sending a small crest up to splash at Sam’s feet. She turned back towards the house, resting her cheek against one of her arms as she watched the small huddle near the food.

The party had cooled down to only a handful of late-comers and stragglers, mostly friends of the guys’. Three or four of them leaned against the house and the tables, having some energetic conversation. Every so often, even over the music, a swell of guffawing laughter could be heard.

“Whaddya think the bozos are up to?” Sam followed Ashley’s line of sight before turning back to her.

“Something stupid, probably.” There was a fondness in her eyes that was almost heartbreaking in its openness.

Sam found it positively contagious. “Yeah, well duh. Obviously.” She wrapped her arms around herself against the faint chill, narrowing her eyes minutely when one of the group gestured in a way that appeared…confrontational? It was hard to tell, but the laughter that followed wasn’t quite as raucous. A moment later, he split off from them entirely and disappeared around the side of the house. “Know what? I’m gonna get myself another drink and check it out. You want anything?” When Ashley shook her head in the negative, Sam slid her feet into her boat shoes and casually began making her way to the bar and its cooler.

“Oh, wait, if you’re going over there…”

She glanced over her shoulder to Ashley again.

Sheepishly grinning, she released the edge of the pool, pushing herself towards the middle again. “Could you just please change the music? Josh’s taste sucks.”

“Oh, definitely. Gotcha covered.” There was a quiet splash behind her as Ashley went under again, leaving Sam to her business. She passed the group of guys as nonchalantly as possible, sneaking only the quickest peek to try and get a read on the situation.

Ah. There it was. Phones piled up on the table next to what was left of the hotdog buns.

There was no need for her to refrain from rolling her eyes, so she really just went wild with it. She wasn’t sure what their obsession with that stupid game was—in her experience, it never really ended well. There wasn’t much left in the cooler, save for melted ice and a few diet Cokes, leaving her to rummage through the bar’s mini-fridge. There, in the back, wedged behind the beer, was a single bottle of water. Divine.

One drink, two, and she realized belatedly how thirsty she really was. Heat and potato chips had a tendency to do that. She all but chugged it down, shivering in contentment. Already she could feel the aches of a good workout thrumming in her muscles, filling her with that breed of sweet summer exhaustion that promised an excellent night’s sleep.

She futzed with the laptop below the bar, closing out of Josh’s weird music stream and grinning to herself as she opened a Disney playlist on YouTube, instead. That was sure to get a laugh or two, right? A few of the people still playing yard games definitely shot a confused look her way when the ambient techno beat was replaced with the opening notes of Let It Go. She acted as if she hadn’t noticed.

Another guy broke off from the group. Sam frowned, craning her head to try and get a better look at them. In the dim lighting, it was impossible to see their expressions, but hoo boy, if she was a betting woman, she would’ve put money down on the likelihood shit was starting to go south.

Earlier, when talking to Chris, she’d kept it to herself…but oh, she hoped she was wrong. She’d been sensing a storm, the past couple of weeks, and Lord she prayed she wasn’t about to walk straight into a thunderhead.

She neared the group just in time to hear one of them (Marc? Manny? She had only been half-paying attention earlier when they’d been introduced, and she definitely hadn’t known him that well in school) say in a tense, panicked voice, “No, for real, what did you sen—why is my dad calling me? Dude. Dude!

Sam was cringing even before she heard Josh’s response: “That’s why you delete scandalous photos like those from your camera roll, man.”

God, fuck this stupid game.” And then he was gone too, anxiously pushing his phone to his ear as he made his hasty retreat.

“You two sure know how to break up a party, huh?” Sans decorum, she wedged herself between Josh and Chris, leaning the small of her back against the table. “I have literally—literally—just watched three people run away from you. What on God’s green Earth have you been doing over here?”

“Hey, it’s called Social Suicide for a reason, Sammy, they know the deal.” Josh moved his shoulders up and down in a shrug, nabbing his own phone off the table and tossing it into the air. He caught it with a flick of his wrist, chuckling lowly. “Can’t stand the heat, get outta the kitchen.”

Her earlier suspicions were confirmed when Chris didn’t quite laugh with him. He made a sound, sure, a quiet huff of sorts, but it wasn’t a laugh. Sam sucked a breath through her teeth and smiled through it. “I dunno…I’ve played my fair share, and uh…I’ve never run away like that.” Trying to dispel some of the tension, she nudged them both with her elbows. “Have you dorks been taking it easy on us ladies, all this time? That seems like…super sexist. Just crazy sexist, honestly.”

“I am hurt that you think I would sully the integrity of my own game by playing favorites, Samantha.” Josh nudged her back. “Nah, see, the difference between you and our grumpy little buddies—” he raised his voice loud enough to carry across the yard, the effect made even more noticeable by the song ending, “—is that you don’t have a phone full of God-awful dick pics. At least, not last time I checked, you didn’t.”

“Ah. Now, see, that’s a good point. Didn’t think of it that way.” She glanced up at Chris, who was staring pointedly down at his phone, leaving her to wonder precisely what she’d missed. Only distantly was she aware of the starting percussion of the next song on the playlist, or the thin vein of heat lightning forking the sky off to the east, or the weight of Josh’s arm as he rested it atop her shoulders. “Well…looks like it’s game over, at least. I’d ask who won, but if there’s one thing I know, it’s no one wins Social Suicide.”

“Mmm…” Josh hummed into his bottle before setting it down behind him on the table. “Not quite, Sammy.”

Aw fuck, she thought to herself.

“It’s my turn to ask Chris something.”

Aw double fuck.

Far from looking resigned to his fate, Chris turned to look at him over Sam’s head. “Definitely not your turn. It’s Manny’s turn, and he—”

“Bailed. So he forfeits. Which means it’s my turn.”

“Whatever.”

She looked between them, her smile feeling tight at the corners—artificial. It was the thin grimace of a friend-fight civilian finding themselves caught in the crosshairs. Sam had wandered into worse before, she suspected (usually between Hannah and Beth, whose arguments could run the gamut from ridiculous to heart-shattering in a matter of moments), but this wasn’t the time. This wasn’t the place. Not when things had been going so well.

She’d never considered herself particularly good at improvising, so when the plan dropped into her head, fully formed and ready to go, she took it as a sign from fate, itself. Did it probably have more to do with the song being blasted from the speakers? Yes. Did she have to admit that? No.

Sam barely had to turn to be right up in Josh’s space, but gestured to get him to duck his head down so she wouldn’t have to stand on tip-toe to scheme with him.

He paused as she whispered her idea to him, face contorting clownishly while he pantomimed mulling the idea over. Josh pulled back slightly, sizing Sam up…and then he nodded and grinned, posture going lax again. “Mk, thanks to the counsel of one Miss Giddings, I do think I have a request of you, Mr. Hartley.”

Chris looked to Sam, who winked as slyly as she was able. Good as her intentions might have been, it didn’t exactly fill him with confidence. “Okay,” he sighed, sounding resigned. “What?”

All he did was nod in the general direction of the pool. “Go take a dip.”

There was silence as Chris eyed him warily. He looked over to the pool, spotted Ashley still swimming, and turned back. “Uh huh, okay, and the catch is…?”

Josh shook his head, spreading his arms and hands wide in a show of innocence. “No catch! Just go swim with Ash, that’s all.”

He shot another cautious glance Sam’s way, a crease forming in his forehead. “And I don’t have to like…do anything outrageous?”

“Nope.”

“I don’t have to say anything?”

“I mean, not if you don’t want to. That’d be pretty fucking awkward though, don’t you think? Just silently doing the butterfly stroke? Sort of creepy.”

“You’re not gonna make me do a dance or get naked?”

“Oh God no.”

It was clear as day that he didn’t trust whatever was going on. Still…he knew that whatever Sam had cooked up was likely leagues better than one of Josh’s dares, and it was probably only for that reason that he muttered a soft, “Okay,” and kicked his shoes off, already beginning to tug his shirt off up over his head as he walked away from them.

“This is a good one, Sammy, gotta hand it to ya.” Josh followed her over to the tiki bar, his grin not entirely unlike the Cheshire Cat’s as she cranked the volume as loud as it would go.

Chris had gotten about halfway to the pool when the first ‘Sha la la la’s hit; they watched, bursting with delight, as he stopped and turned around to fix them both with an exasperated glare. The music was way too loud for their voices to be heard over it, even when they cupped their hands around their mouths to sing along. But he could see their lips moving. He could see their haphazard choreography. He didn’t need to hear them above the chorus of undersea creatures babbling, ‘My oh my, looks like the boy’s too shy, ain’t gonna…kiss the girl.’ He set his glasses down on a deck chair, flipped them both the bird, and then dove into the water, disappearing from their view.

Sam lowered the volume back to where it had been before, waving apologetically to the other partygoers through her laughter.

“Why you turning that down? It sh—oh, we going somewhere?” Josh let himself be led to the sunroom’s sliding door, hissing a startled breath as they stepped into the wall of air conditioning. “Shit, gotta turn that down, huh?” he muttered more to himself than Sam, furrowing his brow while following. “Is this the part where you lure me into a secluded part of the house and murder me? I’ll give it to you—no one would hear the struggle over The Little Mermaid going on out there, but there aren’t a lot of great places to hide a corpse in here, Sammy.”

She rolled her eyes to him with a sigh. “If I was going to kill you, I wouldn’t do it in your own house.”

“Oh no?”

“Nah, I’d find like…a lake or something.”

“Mmm, so they’d have to drain it to find any proof. Good thinking. You are learning!”

Letting go of his arm, Sam undid the front door’s deadbolt, stepping out onto the porch. The front of the house was like a completely different world—the sounds of the backyard were dulled and distant, the view replaced with warm squares of light coming from neighbors’ houses, reflecting off the cars parked all up and down the drive. “I thought maybe a change of scenery would be nice.”

Josh watched the back of her head for a moment, the corners of his eyes crinkling in thought. With one last look at the foyer, he joined her outside again, shutting the front door behind him. “Such a change."

“Figured the quiet might help a little, too.”

“Help with…what, exactly?” He joined Sam at the porch’s railing, drumming his fingers against it. “Did I miss a memo, here? Cuz if you’re trying to set a particular mood here, Sammy, all you had to do was say—”

“Felt like things were getting a little tense back there, that’s all.”

He blinked in surprise, smirk momentarily wiped clean from his face. “Tense? What was…what was tense?” Mentally, he rewound the tape in his head, playing back the past few minutes. “It was just—you mean because the guys fucked off? Sometimes they just get—”

At first, she’d thought he was just playing dumb…but no, no…Sam felt herself frown as it occurred to her that Josh really hadn’t noticed. “I meant with you and Chris.”

He looked at her for a good while, still trying to pinpoint the moment she was talking about. Try as he might, it wasn’t there. “…what?” Trying to laugh it off, he shook his head. “Nah, that’s…things weren’t tense, Sammy.” She didn’t seem to be buying it. That was concerning. It was Josh’s turn to frown as he asked, “Wait…was it tense?”

She pinched her thumb and forefinger together until only a millimeter of space separated them.

The loose, easy shape of his posture turned into something different, entirely. His shoulders slumped, eyes widening under a creased brow. “…oh.” It felt lame, weak, but nothing else was coming to him. “Oh. Well. Shit. I didn’t…” He looked towards the side of the house, unable to see even a sliver of the party going on. In a rush, he felt his gut knot around itself; if Sam hadn’t mentioned it, he probably wouldn’t have given any of it a second thought. “Shit.” He set his weight against the railing, dropping his head into his hands, fingers tangling in the sides of his hair.

“It wasn’t bad-bad,” she assured him, “Just a little…uncomfortable.”

“Yeah. Getting pretty good at that, huh? Making people uncomfortable.” He let his arms flop down again, hanging over the porch. “That’s what I bring to the table as a friend, you know—obscure film trivia, a nice ass, and the eerie ability to piss everyone off without trying. It’s impressive, really, if you think about it.”

“Can I make a guess about something?” Sam pulled her phone out of her hoodie pocket and checked the time before setting it down on the railing between them. She turned her attention back to Josh, trying to keep her expression neutral. “Were all you guys maybe…possibly…talking about the whole…Chris-and-Ash thing before I showed up?”

His forehead creased again, before recognition flashed across his face. “Oh. Uh. I mean it…probably came up? But c’mon, Sammy, that shit’s so—”

She leaned herself against the railing, staring up into the night sky. “I think…” she began, trailing off and narrowing her eyes; there were a million thoughts swarming in her head like angry mosquitos, each fighting to spear itself into the forefront of her mind, making it difficult to pick her words. “I think that sometimes, being a good friend means not saying what you’re thinking.”

When she turned to him, Sam found Josh watching her with a guarded sort of interest, his eyebrows raised and chin in his hand. “No, no, I’m all ears,” he said, waving her on. “Please, enlighten me, Dr. Giddings. I wanna see where this is going.” For a moment—and only a moment—his usual smirk reappeared, comforting in its familiarity.

Sam rolled her eyes but continued all the same, returning her gaze up to the sky. “I think that the conversations we choose not to have…are just as important as the ones we choose to have. If that makes any sense.” She shifted her weight to her other foot, but didn’t wait for a reply. “When you don’t like someone a lot, I think it’s hard to come right out and read them the riot act to hurt them, even if you want to—you always wonder if you’re getting the message across, or if anything you’re saying is sticking with them. But when you do like someone a lot, when you do care about them, and they are a big part of your life…you know exactly what buttons to press to make them mad or hurt their feelings or embarrass them. You know where they’re vulnerable, you know their…” she gestured vaguely with one hand, grimacing when she couldn’t find the right word, “I don’t want to say weaknesses, but…the things that upset them. The stuff that you know that no one else does. The stuff they’ve let you see, but no one else. And when you’re mad or hurting, I think it’s very, very easy to see those things as big, red bull’s-eyes. What makes you a good friend, a really good friend, is seeing those bull’s-eyes and ignoring them. Walking away from them. Pretending they don’t exist.” She dropped her eyes, the brightness of the stars suddenly too much for her to handle.

Josh was silent.

“That’s what I think, anyway,” she added as a quiet afterthought, tapping the toe of her shoe against the porch absently. “There’s a difference between being honest with your friends and sticking your finger in a wound, you know?”

Had Sam looked back to Josh, she likely would’ve been taken aback by the sudden intensity of his stare. Chin still resting against his hand, he regarded her carefully, mouth set in a thoughtful line. His other arm was beginning to prickle with the telltale pins and needles of falling asleep, but he paid it no mind. Instead, he watched her profile, trying to parse each twitch, each movement, as some sort of microexpression. He had gotten very good at reading people, he often thought to himself, but Sam was still a tough cookie to crumble. Very tough. “Sounds like you’ve thought about that one for a while,” he said slowly—pensively.

She shrugged. “I’ve been thinking about a lot of things for a while, Josh,” she said with a sad little smile, turning to him before leaning down further, setting her head against her arms.

Without a thought, he mirrored her stance perfectly, his arm immediately waking up with a fresh rush of blood as he repositioned it. “Join the club, soul sister,” he muttered, tone joking, but only outwardly so. “We should have hats made. Buttons, too.”

“And a big ol’ banner.”

“And a big ol’ banner,” he agreed. They stood looking out over the yard in silence, save for the chirping of the evening insects, smelling the night air and avoiding acknowledging the ghosts between them. A quiet chime caught Josh’s attention, and his eyes flicked to the illuminated screen of Sam’s phone; she had just gotten a text, but it seemed she hadn’t noticed. His eyes moved to her face again, following the line of her gaze to the glow of his neighbors’ windows. He looked back to the phone. The screen had gone dark, but he hadn’t cared much about the message in the first place. A different idea had taken root, and before he could put any further consideration into it, he quickly reached over and snatched the phone from the railing, turning it over in his hand.

“Hey—” Sam started before he cut her off.

“Whaddya say? Our game got cut off pretty suddenly, back there…how’s about a quick lightning round. Everyone loves a lightning round.” He flicked his wrist and gave the phone a gentle toss, catching it before she could grab at it.

“I don’t think so, Josh. I’m not sure I’m really in the mood for it.” She held her hand out expectantly, pursing her lips when he continued holding it away from her.

“Uh oh…” he said breezily, tapping at the darkened screen, “Think of all the damage I could do, right? Think of all the alarm clock settings I could fuck with. AM to PM, PM to AM, forget about your snooze settings, because those are gone…”

She sighed a loud, frustrated groan, folding her arms across her chest and turning to lean her back against the railing. “Fine. Lightning round.”

Josh laughed, setting the phone on the railing so that it stood upright, pretending it required much more effort and concentration than it actually did. “Hmm…okay…what to ask, what to ask…” He clucked his tongue as though the idea had only just occurred to him, looking back up at Sam with an expression that was suddenly deadly serious. “What conversations have you been choosing to not have with me, Sam?”

Surprised, she straightened up. She was immediately seized with the terrible feeling that accompanied being called out—the feeling of her gut falling into her feet, her heart leaping into her throat, her head spinning. It was the too-hot-but-too-cold dread of a looming confrontation, or worse yet, confession. “Josh…”

“Now see, that doesn’t really sound like a conversation. At least not to me.” He pressed his fingers to his chest dramatically. “C’mon Sammy. You said it yourself, you’ve been thinking about a lot of things for a while, now. So. Let’s go ahead and air at least one of those things out, huh?”

It was her turn to watch him carefully.

Josh picked her phone up again, flipping it over to carefully examine its case. “Or you could forfeit,” he offered, moving his eyebrows up and down jokingly.

“I’m worried about you.” She didn’t say it quietly, didn’t say it loudly, but instead spoke with a metered kind of evenness that felt somehow worse than both. Sam kept her eyes on her shoes as she spoke, her lips pressing so tightly together between words that they all but disappeared. “I am really, really, really worried about you, Josh.”

He stopped toying with the phone, rocking back as though she’d snapped at him. With wide, shocked eyes, he noticed Sam was pointedly avoiding looking up at him. The feeling of his stomach twisting intensified.

“I know this has been hard for you. I know ‘hard’ isn’t even close to being the right word. I can’t imagine everything you’ve been going through since the girls…” the word caught in her throat like a horrible, infectious wad of phlegm. She cleared her throat to try and dislodge it. “Since they disappeared. But I know what some of it’s like.” Then she did raise her eyes, did meet his gaze. “Josh, no one knows what it’s like better than me. No one. I’m sure it’s not even in the same zip code as how you feel or what you’ve gone through, but it’s something.” If her heart beat any harder, she thought she might vomit it out. It was pounding so furiously that it felt as though she might split open at any moment, slit right down her middle like some terrible chrysalis. “Losing Hannah and Beth…” she shook her head, blinking away tears she hadn’t realized had been collecting at the corners of her eyes, “It’s changed things. It’s changed me. And I see it changing you, too, but Josh…”

He looked away, overwhelmed with a sudden inexplicable guilt. She hadn’t even really said it yet, and already he felt his face growing hot with the shame of being found out. Being accused.

Sam shook her head again, eyes bright with tears. “I feel like you’re turning into someone I don’t even recognize anymore. You’re so…angry. All the time, you’re just angry. Even when you’re trying to have a good time, I can tell you’re furious deep down, and it’s like…” She wet her lower lip before pulling it between her teeth. “It’s like you can’t stop. You can’t stop being angry. Even when we’re all just chilling out and having a good time, it’s like this…cloud around you.”

“Anger is productive, Sammy. It gets shit done.” His voice was stilted and jagged, each word sounding as though it didn’t belong with the last. That wouldn’t do, that wasn’t how he had wanted it to come out. His throat was too tight to shape his voice into anything else. He was unspeakably thankful for the darkness around them, if only so Sam couldn’t see the emotion she was hearing from him. “Honestly, I don’t understand how you aren’t pissed.”

“Anger hurts people too, Josh. It hurts other people. It hurts you.” Atop the railing, her fingers knotted and unknotted. “And it doesn’t bring them back. I’m too tired to be angry, Josh—I’m too sad. But tired? You can recover from that. Sad? It comes and goes. And it sucks when you’re deep in either of them, but they don’t eat at you.” She stopped just long enough to give each of her lower eyelids a brief brush with her thumb, just in case. “I want to know that you’re going to be okay. We need each other to be okay. We need each other to get through this in one piece.”

For someone who was usually so on top of shit, so ready to fire off a witty retort on short notice, Josh found he didn’t know what to say to that.

“And I get it, okay? I do—Chris and Ash messed up back then. Just like everyone else. Just like us. Everyone messed up really, really bad. Believe me, all right, I’ve…I was pretty furious with Ash, in the beginning. Ask her. It’s not all the time, but sometimes there’s just this…like I said, this weird tension between you guys, and it’s killing me to watch, because—”

“Sam, that’s not—”

“—we all need each other. Ash was showing me your old photo albums earlier, and like…you three have always been so tight, and I don’t want to be coming into this just to watch you guys all fall apart from each other. Yeah, they messed up, but they’re sorry, and they’re trying—”

He raised his hands to try and stop her, shaking his head again. “That’s not—fuck, Sam, that’s—look, there’s just. A lot more than just that, okay? Shit’s…” he groaned, setting his head against one of the support beams as he rubbed his face. “Shit’s complicated.” Part of him wanted her to let it go. Most of him wanted her to let it go. Things rarely turned out the way Josh wanted, those days, though, so what actually happened was Sam said nothing, and kept watching him, waiting for…what?

He let out another groan, feeling very much as though he was back in Hill’s office. “My two best friends are in love with each other. Y’know how that story ends, Sam? Cuz I do. In five years, maybe six, they’re gonna get engaged. Then, they’re gonna get married. Then, they’re gonna get their own house. A nice one, full of bookshelves and maybe a little breakfast nook because you know how much young people these days looove breakfast nooks. They’re gonna get a cat or two, have a wine rack in the kitchen, and the place is always gonna smell like coffee. Chris is gonna make some sort of stupid software that…I don’t know, makes human accountants obsolete, and Ash is gonna write mystery novels for lonely housewives, and they’re going to have their own quaint little life. Know where that leaves me? I don’t. I sure don’t. And now I can’t even say that I’d have my own…blood-family to scurry back to, because surprise.”

“Josh…”

“Just like…where does that leave me, Sam? When they go off and do their thing, who does that leave me?

She turned to him more fully, lips pressed into a hard line. “Me, for one.” The sentiment hung in the air like the fairy lights; Sam felt a surge of something akin to satisfaction when it landed, startling Josh into looking back up at her. “You’d still have me.”

That had knocked him off-kilter. Again. Josh was left to blink as he struggled against the bluntness of it. “I didn’t mean…” he began to say, and then stopped, narrowing his eyes curiously. “Would I?”

Sam let her arms fall to her sides with an unimportant sound. “Of course, you shmuck.” A corner of her mouth turned up in a show of sad affection. Suddenly, she felt very unsteady on her feet, almost as if she were in the middle of one of those shitty dreams, just waiting to trip over her own sneakers and jolt awake just before hitting the ground. This was dangerous territory. Her heart fluttered somewhere in her throat and deep in her stomach all at once, reminding her voicelessly that she hadn’t simply wandered into this, but had strode in with purpose and intention. “And for what it’s worth…your timetable’s a little off. You’ve got another solid decade or two before anything happens with Chris and Ash, and that’s being generous. Plus—plus—I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but those two? They’re kinda stuck on you like glue. I don’t think they’d leave you in the dust if their lives depended on it.” She laughed to rid her chest of some of the anxious energy that had been gathering. “I mean…I know I’m still kinda new to the nerd table and all that, but I think I’ve hung out with you guys enough to know that it would take a lot for them to ditch you, Josh. A whole lot. I feel like you could punch those two in the face and they’d still apologize to you.”

He didn’t respond at first, still trying to make sense of something in his head. Before too long, the porch went quiet, save for the occasional burbles of laughter or music coming from the party out back. When he finally figured out what he wanted to say, Josh found he had to clear his throat a few times to make his voice work properly. “I’m…I’m working on it, Sammy. I am. The…anger, I mean. I’m…” His hand traced strange shapes in the air, “I’m trying. I promise. It’s just been…it’s just been hard. But I’m working on it.” He dropped his hands again, anxiously cracking his knuckles out one by one while he chewed on his words. “I know I haven’t always been…fair…with you guys. But I’m…I’m trying now. Really trying.”

Leaning down against the railing once more, Sam turned her gaze to the street in an attempt to make it easier for him. “I know.” Tentatively at first, she reached over, gently squeezing his arm in acknowledgement.

Josh remained still as a statue for a moment, watching the empty street. Then, he pulled his phone out of his pocket, laying it down in front of Sam. “It’s your turn.”

Caught somewhere between wary and weary, Sam let her arms drop to her sides. “Josh, we don’t have to—”

He shrugged one shoulder, “I got one, now you get one. Them’s the rules.”

She looked at their phones, then back up at Josh, then the phones, then him again. “Okay. Okay, well.” Her eyes scanned his face as she tried to plot out her next move. Not that it mattered in any real way, of course…she’d known from the second he took his phone out what she was going to ask. “Are there any conversations you’ve been avoiding having with me?

A beat of silence passed, broken by the chirruping of the crickets hidden in the yard. “Yeah,” Josh said, “Just one.”

Sam had time enough to process two very conflicting thoughts (the first being Wha—? and the second being Guess we have been avoiding this one) before he was kissing her. Her heart was in her throat and his h