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you start to believe it

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She drops down to the last, wavering bar of signal on her phone when the GPS says she still has another twenty minutes to go, but she’s not worried. There’s only one road, it’s not like she can get lost. Small town, Neil had said once, shrugging his shoulder in the most casual of dismissals, middle of nowhere. It doesn’t feel like a lie so much as an understatement, which she thinks is pretty fucking par for the course.

The trees are just starting to thin out a bit when the police cruiser pulls in behind her.

It comes from nowhere, or maybe just the same dense forest that’s already swallowed the sunlight and the cell service, and she doesn’t pull over. Maybe it’s the paranoia of the last week coming to a head, or maybe it’s just the nature of being black in America, but everything about this feels wrong; she’s doing exactly the speed limit and everything on the Jeep is up to date, and the cruiser might be flashing its lights in a steady beat of red blue red blue red, but the sirens are off. The woods are silent.

Unease creeps up her spine from the spot in her gut that it hasn’t vacated since Neil left, and she crosses her fingers as she dials the number that’s become all too familiar.

“There’s a cop trying to pull me over,” she says. There’s no greeting when the line connects, which she knows is normal, and she just starts talking. She thinks, maybe, it’s the first thing she’s said aloud all day. “I’m like ten minutes outside of town? Maybe?”

The answering pause feels like it’s a lifetime in length, but it’s probably only a few seconds; her car creeps another hundred yards of exactly fifty miles per hour ahead, and the lights behind her turn off. “Follow the sheriff,” Andrew tells her finally, and the cruiser speeds across the yellow lines to pull ahead of her; as he passes, the large man in uniform that she recognizes from the photo Neil keeps above his bed raises a hand in salute. “He’ll lead you to the house.”

The house is six miles off the highway and two off the access road, and it’s mostly a husk. The only intact windows are on the farthest side, and what she thinks used to be the front porch is nothing but dirt and ash and rubble now. Andrew is probably not a serial killer, she reminds herself, and starts laughing at the memory of their first meeting. It’s a matter of seconds before hysteria takes over and then she’s crying, sobbing really, in violent heaves that have her wrenching the transmission into park only to keep her from crashing.

The knock at the window only makes it worse.

“You’re Katelyn then,” the sheriff - Dave, Neil called him over the phone. My dad, he called him in stories. - greets her with a serious face and a flat voice; there’s a stoniness to his face like he’s been carved from granite, heavy and expressionless, and she only recognizes it as sorrow because he looks exactly how she feels right now. “Sorry,” he adds in a gruff, awkward voice when he notices her tears. “Didn’t mean to scare you.”

Dave is the largest man she’s ever met and he’s carrying at least two firearms that she can see, and she’s not even the slightest bit afraid of him now that she knows who he is. “I’m driving Neil’s car,” she manages on her third attempt, losing the first two to wet hiccoughs and snorting sniffles. “Of course you were suspicious. I didn’t know how to call ahead, the only number I have is Neil’s and-” His name is another round of crying, and Dave swallows heavily.

He nods and pats her shoulder awkwardly through the open door. “I don’t-” The words cut off in a choking noise that sounds out of place, too small and too weak, for the size of the man making them; his entire face crumples into a blink, and then another, and then he is stone again. “I don’t suppose he told you anything? Where he was going?”

She wishes he had. Neil had only told her that he was going, she assumed to class, and left her to guess the rest when he didn’t come home that night. It was two days and a terse call from Andrew before she realized he was gone gone, and she found his wallet and keys in the top drawer of his desk. She hadn’t even questioned it at that point - she was long past questioning. If she hadn’t asked questions about his scars or his books or his whispered conversations or the number he made her memorize that apparently belonged to a man she was told only would probably not kill her, she wasn’t going to start now. She just took his car, opened her GPS, and started to drive north.

“I’m sorry,” she whispers.

Dave sighs. “I didn’t think so. Well, you might as well come in.” The windows are mostly broken and the house is mostly burnt, but there are inexplicable lights on in the few rooms that remain. “You’re part of this now.”

She laughs again, something sharp and unfamiliar; she still feels the terror and panic and sheer incredulity clawing up her throat, urging her to get back in the borrowed car and hightail it back to anything she knows. “I gotta be honest with you,” she tells the questioning look on his face. Six faces watch them through the first of the unbroken windows as they clamor over the wreck of a ruined front porch; each one of them has the suspicion of a stranger etched into hard lines, despite the fact that she can name every one of them and match them to at least seven different events of their past. She knows them as well as she knows her own family, because she knows them through Neil. “I have no fucking clue what any of this is.”

Neil’s pack - the word still tastes like insanity on her tongue, bitter as lemons - greet her with solemn eyes and various expressions of suffering across their features as she crosses from the ruins into the barren, unfinished rooms of the remodel. “It’s a long story,” the man she knows is Kevin begins. “It all started this one night, in the woods…”