BY HANNAH WESTMAN
"Maybe he got turned around in the snow?" Caroline suggested weakly but gently. The crackle of the fire behind her should have been soothing, but with her wobbling voice and the shriek of the wind outside, it did nothing to calm anyone's nerves.
"It's freezing out there," Avery interjected, "if he doesn't come inside soon..."
There was no need to finish the thought; everyone knew what she meant. The group huddled in the living room, listening to the howl of the blizzard as snow flurried outside. When Avery stumbled inside it was already above ankle-deep - how bad was it now?
"We need to look for him," Daryl concluded with a heavy sigh. Perched on the edge of an armchair, eyes dark, he looked about as terrible as Avery felt. Running a hand through his thick blond hair, he cast a long look toward the front door. "He's out there somewhere, lost."
"It's crazy to go out there," Jodie mumbled. The colour had drained from her round face, and she was shivering uncontrollably despite the fire and massive blanket around her shoulders. Every few moments her eyes darted to the door, as if she expected Aaron to come stumbling through any moment.
Avery was the same. Part of her believed he would come stumbling in, cold and miserable but safe, grumbling at Avery for leaving him and demanding a hot cup of coffee. It had been long enough to know that wouldn't happen. Guilt swallowed her up, coiled around her gut. "I'll go back out," she supplied quietly, "I've already been out, I know where to look."
"Well looking didn't work out for you last time, did it?" Jodie snapped, her full lips curled into a scowl. "You left him in the first place."
"Hey, come on Jodie-"
"Don't come on, Micah! What if he's dead?"
The room plunged into silence. No one spoke, no one so much as breathed, and Avery felt like all of the oxygen had been sucked out of the room. She shared a wide-eyed look with Octavia, but neither said a word. It was nothing that hadn't gone through her own mind, hadn't gone through the mind of every person in this room.
"That's a horrible thing to say." Caroline's wavering voice broke through the quiet, her bottom lip trembling. She was the youngest of the group, started out as a friend of Avery's sister rather than Avery herself, and in these moments she seemed even younger. Sniffling, she swiped a hand across her eyes and buried into the sofa.
"Sitting around isn't helping," Avery decided, "so either I'm going or someone else can, but we have to do something." Hauling herself upright, she fought to hold back the threat of her own tears. Blinking them away, she stalked over to the door, grabbing up her winter boots-
A gentle hand landed on her shoulder. Daryl. All downturned brows and pursed lips, there was a seriousness to his expression she didn't like. "You stay here, where it's warm and safe."
"No," She snapped, only to regret it as his brows furrowed. Sucking in a breath, she tried to ignore how her stomach flipped. "This only happened because of me, so it should be me that fixes it."
"This is about Aaron, not you," Daryl shot back with surprising venom, venom that made her flinch, "so stay here, and let me search for him. Please."
Typical Daryl, always playing the hero. Yet when the wind bashed against the door, shaking it in its frame, Avery felt the fight drain from her. She was cold just thinking about outside, thinking about Aaron freezing somewhere, trying desperately to keep warm. Head bowed, she stepped aside to let him through.
No one said a word as Daryl got ready to leave. The lights flickered, and for one terrible moment, everyone's gaze snapped to the ceiling. When they held, and the wind gave brief respite, everyone visibly relaxed. Of course, it didn't last long - after only a minute it picked up again, windows rattling and snow continuing to hammer against the roof. The sound carried through the entire house. There was no escape from it.
Donned in enough warm clothing to supply three people, Daryl offered a supportive smile. It fell flat, and he seemed to know it as the smile died on his lips. "Wish me luck," he murmured, turning to go.
The door rocked on its hinges as it flew open, snow splashed out across the floor. Micah jumped to his feet, shivering in his thin shirt, and wrestled it closed as Daryl stepped out into the blizzard.
Five pairs of eyes fixed on Daryl, watching him until he disappeared into the blanket of white.
A beat of silence; silence that only lasted a minute but felt like hours. It was finally broken by Octavia, a tense smile on her red-painted lips. "Daryl knows what he's doing. Give him ten minutes and he'll be back, Aaron in tow."
Avery appreciated the assurance, really, but the unbridled optimism was beginning to grate on her nerves. Face flushed, hands stiff from the brief blast of cold air, she collapsed onto the sofa beside Caroline. "All we can do is wait," she mumbled, "but we can at least make things better for when they come back."
"I'll throw an extra log on the fire," Micah offered, brushing snow from his jeans as he strode over. It was difficult to tell with his darker skin and thick beard, but he looked even colder than Avery, his skin ashen rather than flushed. Lifting a log from the basket by the fireplace, he chucked it in and watched it crackle.
Avery assumed that was all there was to it - but she was mistaken. As she stood to fetch blankets, Jodie fixed her with a glare. "You left him," she snapped, "if Aaron's dead, you're to blame."
Frozen and halfway across the room, Avery swallowed. "I didn't know what would happen."
"No, but you still let it."
"Jodie," Octavia hissed - but she didn't try to intervene. Everyone knew that when Jodie went on a tirade it was better to let it happen. Fumbling for her bag - an ugly camouflage thing that barely passed as a handbag - Octavia produced her phone. "Let's all just quit arguing and do something productive. I'm calling the police. And an ambulance."
Avery turned away, feeling sick. Maybe this was her fault. Eyes squeezed shut, she leaned against the mantlepiece and tried to make the world stop spinning. Her legs were like jelly, her whole body freezing despite her proximity to the roaring fire. Shit, what if they couldn't find Aaron? What if Daryl was stuck out there now too-
A reassuring hand on her shoulder jolted Avery from her thoughts. "We'll be fine," Caroline said - albeit weakly. She offered a tense smile, but her skin was pale at the best of times and now she looked downright unwell. Come to think of it, they all did.
"Thanks," Avery replied quietly.
Together the two of them fetched blankets from the cupboard, laying them neatly in the seat Micah had vacated not so long ago. It felt good to be doing something, even if it was of questionable importance. Yet by the time Avery sat back down, Caroline beside her, a tenseness had settled over the group.
Octavia's dark eyes had lost their usual spark. "No phone signal," she replied, eyes fixed on her phone, "I couldn't even reach emergency services."
"Which means we're stuck up here," Micah offered - as if he needed to clarify. Running a hand through his hair, he looked utterly defeated.
Avery's stomach dropped. Her pulse rang in her ears. She was dimly aware that Jodie was ranting again and that Octavia was trying in vain to try the phone a second time. None of it mattered, though, because it didn't change the fact they were stuck.
Suddenly she was on her feet, eyes narrowed in determination. "I'm going out to help Daryl," she announced - silencing Jodie. Four head swivelled to stare at her, but Avery ignored how it made her stomach jump. "A search works better with more people, and-"
"Daryl knows what he's doing," Jodie snapped, "which is more than I can say for anyone else around here."
Micah nudged her in the side, but he was nodding in agreement. "She has a point, Avery. If anyone knows how to manoeuvre out there, it's him."
Just because Daryl had been skiing in the Alps didn't mean he could handle this, but she decided it wouldn't help to point that out. Besides, Daryl was the most capable out of everyone - there was a reason he was basically the centre of their friend group. Biting down on her lip, she muttered, "we can't just leave them out there."
"You thought it was perfectly fine to leave Aaron the first time."
Irritation rose inside of her, and Avery had to bite the inside of her cheek. What was wrong with Jodie today? She had never been a pushover, but this was too much even for her. Scowling, Avery stalked across the room, reaching for her coat and boots.
"This is ridiculous," Octavia called. Within moments she too was on her feet, matching her pace. She snatched Avery's arm by the wrist, so tightly it almost hurt. "They will be fine," Octavia assured, but the stern tilt of her face made Avery wince. "And if they aren't, do you really think one more person out there will help?"
Fine. Octavia was right. Fun, optimistic Octavia actually knew what she was talking about. The fight drained from Avery and she slumped back against the wall with a barely-there sigh. "All right," she agreed, "but if they aren't back in ten minutes we have to do something."
What that something was, nobody knew. With the phones out there wasn't anyone to call, and the nearest town was an hour’s walk away on a good day. Suddenly their winter trip to the countryside sounded like a terribly stupid idea.
The five sat in silence for a long time. No one spoke. No one so much as looked at each other, except on the occasion where their eyes met on the way to the door. Yet it remained firmly shut, the wind smashing against it-
Until, after what felt like hours but was likely only a quarter, the door shuddered. Then it rocked on its hinges and flew open, smacking against the wall. There stood Daryl, covered head to toe in thick white snow, shivering and pale-faced.
Avery rushed to him immediately, grabbing a blanket on the way. "Close the door!" she called over the howl of the storm. Together they wrestled it shut, jamming the key into the lock with a sigh of relief.
The relief lasted only as long as it took to realise there was still no sign of Aaron.
"You didn't find him?" Caroline asked, ever hopeful - but the answer was clear.
Shrugging off his coat and tossing it aside, Daryl regarded her with dark, solemn eyes. "Couldn't find him anywhere. The snow had already covered his footsteps. I found an old barn outside, hoped he'd found shelter. But..."
The room fell quiet. There was nothing to say that could help, nothing to do that was remotely useful. They simply stared at each other in silent horror, the reality of it all finally settling in.
Perching himself by the fire, Daryl reached for more blankets. He'd been out there maybe twenty minutes and he was freezing. What about Aaron? It didn't bear thinking about. "I'll search again tomorrow," Daryl said, and Avery had always thought chattering teeth was just a thing people said, but no, he really was that cold.
Avery crouched beside him, hand on his arm. "By tomorrow..." she couldn't even finish the thought, "tomorrow the weather might have calmed, and we can try emergency services again."
"Yes. Maybe there's another barn I missed, and Aaron's holed up in there."
"Maybe it even has central heating," Jodie shot back with a huff, "optimism isn't going to help us."
"Neither is pessimism," Caroline snapped, "you're scared. We all are, and you aren't special just because you're being rude."
Oh no, Avery thought, preparing for an argument - yet Jodie simply rocked to her feet, arms folded across her broad chest, and stormed off. The sound of thundering footsteps carried on even as she marched upstairs.
Daryl winced, but at least he didn't look so cold any more. "We should all try to get some sleep anyway," he concluded with a tense smile, "we can't help anyone if we're sleep deprived."
"I don't know if I can sleep," Micah admitted, "but you're right."
They tidied up in silence. Caroline and Avery attempted to soak up the mess Daryl had trampled in, but it quickly became a waste of time. Abandoning that, Avery extinguished the fire. The drop in temperature was almost immediate - she hadn't realised just how freezing it had been without it. Even the central heating barely helped.
Octavia turned off the fairy lights - they had wanted the place to feel Christmassy, but it felt somehow disrespectful with Aaron still missing. Without them to liven the place up it looked gloomy and depressing.
Jodie never reappeared, and Micah said that she was probably in bed already. Sulking.
"She hasn't been acting like herself," Caroline mumbled.
"I don't think any of us have," Avery replied gently. She wasn't angry, not anymore. Just... defeated.
They all went their separate ways with hushed goodbyes, but no one hugged or stayed to chat like usual. It was a quiet affair, and nobody had the energy for anything more.
Avery's room was across from Aaron's, not that he'd used it. She resisted the urge to peek inside, as if he might somehow have been inside, like a twisted game of hide and seek. There was a quiet creak from inside and she jumped - but no, it was only her own feet on the old wooden floor. Scrubbing at her eyes, she headed for bed.
Avery didn't sleep that night, jolted from her doze with every little noise. At one point she heard movement from the empty room the owners sometimes used - but it was only Micah, pacing restlessly down the hall.
Eventually, she drifted into some semblance of sleep, but it was plagued by thoughts of Aaron, frozen out there in the blizzard.