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The (Almost)s

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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…