BY HANNAH WESTMAN
Heavy clouds cloaked the sky overhead, dark grey and ominous. The ground was covered in thick white frost, remnants of old snow clumping around the front deck of the old lodge. It was beautiful in a mystical, unreal sort of way; like something plucked straight out of an old, traditional Christmas card.
As everyone clambered out of the stuffy minibus, Avery Patel shivered. She detested the cold, hated how her feet slid on the slick frost and how the freezing air made her nose piercing stick to her skin. She grumbled as she hoisted her bag from the seat beside her. Everyone else had already left, eager to get inside and away from the chill.
Turning, Avery was met with the bright smile of Aaron; his short hair smushed to one side. Like her, he must have fallen asleep during the ride. Holding back a laugh, she offered him her bag - a flower print relic that looked like it belonged to an older woman, not someone just touching forty. "Thanks," she replied, glad she didn't have to heave it across the driveway herself.
They walked together, waving in thanks to the minibus driver as he started up the vehicle. Sure, they could have taken their own cars, but then they'd have to drive themselves, and no one owned a big enough car. No-one in the group had kids, not even Micah and Jodie who had only married two years ago.
Aaron set her bag down by the door, amongst the pile of other bags and suitcases waiting to be unpacked. Frowning, he cast a glance around. "This place is gorgeous, but it's ridiculously cold."
Bumping the door closed with her hip, Avery grinned. "I'll put the heating on."
"Already done!" Daryl called from across the living room, "there's a wood-burning fire, too if anyone wants to have a bash."
"Not me," Jodie chimed, "I'd accidentally set the place on fire."
"Like that time you left your hair straighteners on and went out to dinner?" her husband, Micah, chimed.
Caroline, who had been digging through her bag to find her book, fought back a laugh. "I can light it if we need to."
"You know how to light a fire?"
A shrug, her smile widening as she rocked back on her heels. "I used to camp as a kid. Can't be too much different to a campfire, can it?"
Across the room, Octavia sent her a sceptical look. "I vote we stick to central heating."
A chorus of agreements went up, and laughter muffled behind hands and sleeves. The chatter continued as everyone settled in, but inevitably everyone drifted off to do their own thing.
"I claim the biggest bedroom," Micah announced, thick brows raised. When no one bothered to challenge him, he smiled, hooking his arm through Jodie's as they wandered off to explore.
"As long as the bedroom is far away from mine," Octavia grumbled, tossing thick, corkscrew curls over one narrow shoulder, "I had the hotel room next to theirs last summer, and I heard everything."
A startled laugh burst from Avery's throat, her cheeks flushing red. Too much information. "Let them have fun; they're still in the honeymoon stage."
Across the living room, Daryl leaned against the windowsill with a scowl across his usually stoic features. "Weather's getting worse," he mumbled, grey eyes cast to the sky.
Avery and Octavia joined him by the window, staring out at the expanse of white beyond. Fat snowflakes drifted from the sky, scattered across the ground before melting into the grass. Even the sky was white, but darkening clouds betrayed something more sinister than the gentle snowfall currently blanketing the lodge.
"It's pretty," Octavia said, a smile spreading across her lips, "I'm glad we're inside and not out there, though."
"Good thing we arrived early," Caroline replied. She'd rummaged through her luggage to wrap herself up in a thick, fluffy jumper. It wasn't quite Christmas yet, but it had a hideous red and green pattern resembling a Christmas tree.
"Caroline," Octavia said seriously, "that's the ugliest thing I've ever seen."
Caroline flushed, a pretty rosy shade against her pale skin. She'd been looking paler than usual recently, Avery thought, but then again it had been an exceptionally cold winter. "Just wait until I'm nice and warm and the rest of you freeze," she joked, and then disappeared into the kitchen, "I'll get the food out of the cooler and start dinner!"
"I'll help," Aaron called, disappearing after her.
A good, hot meal would do them all wonders - the kitchen was enormous, all polished marble and dark oak surfaces. They'd been lucky to find such a wonderful place at all, especially for such a reasonable price, but Jodie knew the owners. Of course, she did, Jodie seemed to know everyone - and Aaron knew the son before he moved to Ireland or wherever it was.
"We should unpack," Octavia mused, still staring out of the window as perfect white swirled around the glass. "I want a room with a view."
"We're in the middle of the country," Avery shot back with a smile, "every room has a view."
Tilting her head, Octavia nodded thoughtfully. Her thick curls tumbling over her shoulders and falling across her eyes, almost the perfect shade of inky black against her dark skin. "True," she replied, "but if I know Jodie and Micah have picked the best room already, I want in before anyone else claims the next best one."
It didn't take them long to settle in, all things considered. Once Caroline started cooking, and the scent of hot, homemade risotto filled the lodge, it almost started to feel like a home. Micah popped open the wine and alcohol started flowing, the rooms filling with laughter and warmth. Aaron even strung Christmas lights from the windowsills, looping them across the fireplace and kitchen countertops.
Within an hour, it felt like Christmas already.
After finding a suitable bedroom for herself - a small, cosy room near the back with pleasantly old-fashioned wallpaper and a delightful shag carpet that felt like walking on clouds - Avery found herself back downstairs. It was roaring a gale outside, a flurry of white battering against the windows and turning the world beyond into an expanse of nothing. The wind shrieked above even Jodie's raucous laughter, whistling down the chimney and making her shiver.
Caroline all but shoved a glass of wine into her waiting hands, promising it was a good, expensive Pinot Noir. "The weather might be disgusting, but at least there's wine."
Yet as Avery took a grateful sip of the earthy wine, she noticed Caroline didn't have a glass of her own. "None for you?"
Sheepishly, Caroline didn't quite meet her gaze. "An early New Year's resolution."
Avery swirled her wine around in its glass, admiring the reflective shine from the colourful Christmas lights Aaron had strung. Even the glasses were expensive - but she expected nothing less from a family friend of Jodie's. "You're missing out," Avery mused, "and resolutions never last anyway - but hey, good for you."
Caroline offered a wonky smile, one that didn't quite look right, before meandering off into the kitchen. Something was wrong, but before Avery had the chance to go after her, Daryl swung by with an armful of cutlery, plates and bowls stacked so highly, they seemed to sway with each step. Avery leapt out of the way just in time as he dropped them onto the dining table - they made a dull thud against the solid oak.
"Careful," Avery warned, "we break those, we pay for them."
He huffed, but a smile curled at the corner of his lips. "I've got it."
Before long they were all sitting down for dinner; a creamy, delicious mushroom and chicken risotto with roasted vegetables, fresh salad and, of course, more wine. With the seven of them crowded around the dining table, the dishes took up every inch of space, and soon enough even the storm outside became a distant thought.
Or at least, for a short spell. Suddenly the front door burst open, slamming against the wall - and a gust of wind rolled through so strongly the entire house turned cold in seconds. Everyone froze in place, quiet falling across the table.
"We never locked it," Daryl supplied after a tense beat of silence, "I'll get it."
The lights flickered overhead as Daryl reluctantly heaved himself to his feet. Seven pairs of eyes turned to the ceiling, seven pairs of ears listening to the shriek and howl of the storm. The door continued to rattle on its hinges, wet snow billowing into the living room. Through the archway joining living to dining, it was easy to see how quickly the carpet became drenched.
The key still lay on the coffee table where it had been left, and Daryl grabbed it as he trudged over. Yet when he went to lock the door, it shuddered under the force of the gale. Turning the key in the lock, he still felt the door shudder in its frame. Shivering, Daryl shoved his hands deep in the pockets of his hoodie and trudged back into the dining room.
"You all right?" Avery asked gently, "you're all damp. Here, finish your meal, and I'll make us all tea." Her usually neat hair was messy from the cold air - had the wind really reached so far into the house? - and her cheeks stained pink. So were Jodie's, and everyone else was freezing too.
Avery was halfway out of her chair, and Octavia was about to refill Daryl's wine when everything went dark. One moment the room was bathed in gentle light - the next, complete blackness. Jodie gasped, Aaron swore, and then everybody hushed. For a long, tense moment, nobody so much as moved.
The wind howled relentlessly, battering against the windows and whistling through the trees. There was a little annexe outside, accessible only through an exterior door, that seemed to shake with the intensity of the storm.
Finally, someone spoke. Octavia set the bottle down with a clunk, and her silhouette shifted in the darkness. "Power cut," she concluded, "we had better get the candles out."
"Maybe there's a generator," Aaron supplied, "a place like this is probably equipped for a power cut."
In the dimness, each person became a shapeless blur. The shadow in Micah's space folded its arms, head turning toward the window. It was impossible to see anything. "There's one around back, but in this weather-"
"Who knows how long the power will be out. Without the heating, we'll freeze, and the showers are all electric too." That was Caroline's voice, pitched with fear.
"Anyone here know how to work a generator?" Micah, irritated.
"I do!" Avery piped up - and Daryl couldn't have been the only one to feel a spark of surprise. Then again, Avery was a hoarder of practical skills and always had something new in her inventory. She stood, her thick body barely more than a gloomy silhouette. "Let me wrap up first, and I'll have a look."
Aaron stood too, his tall frame towering above even Daryl. "I'll come with you. Wouldn't want anyone to be alone out there."
No one complained, no one told them what a crazy idea it was. And it was mad to go out there. The wind could blow someone like Avery off their feet, and none of them had come prepared for a blizzard. At best they had hats and scarves, but the weather forecast had promised light snow and perhaps hale, at most. Not this. Yet as Avery and Aaron bundled up, not one person tried to stop them. Because really, they did need the power back. And soon. Already the temperature was plummeting.
"We'll be back in no time," Avery promised, providing one of her best motherly smiles. It was lost in the gloom but seemed to ease everyone's nerves at least a little.
Shrugging on an enormous padded jacket, Aaron unlocked the door and braced himself for the rush of cold air. The force physically propelled him backwards, the door whining on its poor hinges. Sharing a look with Avery, he disappeared into the sea of white snow. Wincing, Avery followed - and then both of them were gone.
"I suppose we should clear up this mess," Caroline mumbled, sweeping a hand across the mess that was the carpet.
"Wait until they get back," Octavia suggested, "they'll just trample in more sludge."
The carpet was the least of their concerns, or so Daryl thought, but he kept that to himself. Instead, he began cleaning up after dinner - something to occupy his mind, something for his hands to do. He had to squint into the darkness, and already a headache was settling into the back of his skull.
In the living room, Micah battled with the fireplace. A real, wood-burning fire was difficult to light, not to mention their only source of light was the battery operated fairy lights. Going by the soft swears, he wasn’t having much luck. After a moment Jodie joined – even with the two of them, it took ten minutes to light the fire. Five more for the house to begin to warm. By then, Daryl had managed to fumble through washing dishes in the dark.
Octavia joined him at the sink, her silhouette blocking out the glimmer of light from the living room. "Do you think it's cold enough for frostbite?"
"Frostbite? No, you'll be fine." Quietly, he contemplated the possibility of hypothermia.
Any further attempt at conversation was cut short when raised voices caught their ears. “It’s your fault we’re stuck here in the middle of a blizzard.” Caroline, her voice strained with worry. “You two organised this whole thing!”
“It wasn’t as if we knew this would happen!” Jodie snapped back, and even unable to see her, Daryl could picture her standing there, hands on hips and defiant.
“It’s been a rubbish winter, and you should have seen this coming.”
“Well, Caroline, you didn’t have to come!”
More hushed voices, a vain attempt to hide their argument from eavesdropping ears. Then the sound of thudding footsteps, the slam of a door somewhere down the hall.
"Caroline’s been in a mood all day," Jodie's voice snapped, "it isn’t my fault.”
"Jodie!" Micah hissed, his voice carrying through to the kitchen where Octavia and Daryl stood.
"Oh, leave off. I'll go and see if she's all right."
Quiet descended again, and Daryl felt the tenseness like a physical weight pushing down his chest. Even the warmth of the newly lit fire couldn’t warm him up. He turned to Octavia, and her knitted brows told him everything he needed to know.
"This is why I'll never get married," she mumbled with a strained smile.
As they spoke, the lights blinked on - the sudden brightness made his headache flare, vision swimming. Then Octavia cheered, turning to slap him across the shoulder.
"See, I knew we'd be fine! Took them long enough, though."
"Then why did you ask about frostbite two seconds ago?"
A shrug, a relieved smile. "I was just messing with you; I knew they would get the lights working again."
He was about to shoot back a sarcastic reply - but at that moment the front door screeched open, and snow flurried into the house. Peeking through the kitchen archway, Daryl and Octavia saw Avery stumble inside, hair dishevelled, face pale, shivering like a leaf.
Daryl rushed over, forcing the door closed as Avery kicked off her snow drenched shoes. Even her socks were wet.
"You got it working!" Daryl congratulated, unable to keep the grin from his face, "thanks, seriously. You and Aaron are lifesavers. Speaking of... where is he?" It was only then that he realised, Avery was the only one there.
Her features squinted, snow clinging to her dark eyelashes. "He isn't here? That ridiculous coat was so cheap, I didn’t think it would be warm enough, so I told him to go back inside."
Caroline appeared by the hall door, her face pale. "Aaron isn't back yet?"
Avery's cheeks, which had been flushed from the cold, drained of all colour. "He should be - I found the generator, and he was bright red, so I sent him back. I've been out there for twenty minutes; he should have been back ages ago."
Silence descended. Bitter, harsh realisation settled in as everyone cast wide-eyed gazes across the room. Jodie appeared, then Micah, staring around the room and just knowing something had happened.
"Maybe he got turned around in the snow," Caroline offered weakly, "he'll appear any second.
But Aaron didn't appear, and the blizzard was getting worse, and eventually, everyone was forced to admit there was something very, very wrong.