BY HANNAH WESTMAN
The next morning was a sombre affair. It seemed no one had slept a wink all night. Avery met Caroline in the hallway - the younger woman had dark circles underneath her lidded eyes, her auburn hair a dishevelled mess that hung limply across her shoulders. Even her glasses sat crooked on her small nose, but Caroline hadn't noticed.
"Bad night?" Avery offered sympathetically.
"Terrible," Caroline replied quietly.
Some Christmas getaway this is turning out to be – and with only two days to go until the event itself.
They meandered downstairs together. Even as Avery's stomach growled, the thought of food made her nauseous. There was just something about the idea of making breakfast that felt too normal in the face of last night. She tried to offer Caroline a smile, yet it fell flat. She had been good friends with Caroline for almost ten years, their families had been friends for even longer, and she knew it was pointless to pretend in front of her.
Daryl was already awake, pacing restlessly in front of the fireplace. Dressed in last night's clothes with a hoodie pulled over his blond head, Avery wondered if he had even tried going to bed. As they descended the stairs his head popped up, green eyes weary. "Still no sign of Aaron," he muttered as if he already knew they would ask. Of course, they would - it was the only thing anyone had thought about since.
Shivering, Avery perched herself by the fire. "We should wake everyone else up and decide what to do."
"Yeah, because that went so well last night," Caroline snapped - but it was half-hearted, and even her anger was subdued. She looked so exhausted, like someone who hadn't slept for a week. Avery was sure she didn't look much better, her dark skin ashen and eyelids heavy.
They sat in silence for a long time - no-one wanted to be the first to talk, because there was nothing to talk about. Once, Caroline parted her lips as if to speak - only to snap them closed without a word. It wasn't until footsteps descended the stairs that anyone else moved. Jodie and Micah appeared, looking remarkably put-together despite their sleep-deprived expressions.
"Any sign of Aaron?" Jodie asked. Only when stressed did her accent shine through, the hint of Geordie she tried so well to hide. Well right now, it was all anyone could hear.
Daryl shook his head, burrowing deeper into the hoodie. "No, nothing. The storm eased off during the night but-"
The wind battered against the windows, and Avery swore she felt the walls rattle. As if to spite him, the sound echoed throughout the entire house like some kind of demented ghost. Even if it was cosy with the fire going, Avery shuddered.
"Well, never mind then." Daryl sighed, mentally shaking himself off. He always needed to be in control, but at a time like this no one was - she hated to think how terrible he felt, being as lost as the rest of them. His thick brows furrowed, arms folded stiffly across his chest. "Where's Octavia?"
"Probably asleep," Jodie huffed, "she's far too relaxed about this. I wouldn't be surprised if she slept the night through."
"That isn't fair," Micah chided tiredly, "she's just optimistic."
"There's optimism, and there's apathy," Jodie shot back with a scowl. Even right out of bed she looked beautiful, with her hair up and earrings in. In the face of crisis, she somehow managed to look good. There were a few choice words about what that image said about her, but no one voiced it.
Micah frowned, running a hand through his thick hair. "You're being a bit harsh, no?"
"I'm just saying, we've only known her for two years, and not once have I seen her ruffled."
They'd all met her at a Christmas party, the year before last, and it had been a wonderful weekend. Thinking of it now, Avery wished to have that back, instead of the mess they had now. Chewing on her bottom lip, she sank deeper into the armchair with a sigh. No use in wishing for the past - it didn't help now.
"I'll check on her," Caroline announced, "make sure she's okay."
Silence descended in her absence. There was a lot of that lately; awkward stillness broken only by the creak of the trees and shriek of the blizzard outside. God, Avery hoped none of those big old trees would blow over-
Caroline was back, followed by an exhausted Octavia. So much for Jodie's theory. Yet she smiled weakly, ruffling her thick curls, and collapsed onto the nearest available seat. "So what are we going to do?" she asked.
No one answered. No one knew. Phones were down and there was no landline, and searching hadn't done them any good. There was the obvious thought, the thought that emergency services wouldn't do any good now anyway because it was probably too late...
"We look again," Daryl announced clearly, "we search until we find him, or until the blizzard clears enough to phone someone." He sounded so sure, so adamant, despite the weary faces surrounding him. Said with such surety even Daryl himself looked unsure, his brows pinched, as he nodded along with his own words.
"And if we don't find him?"
"That isn't an option."
"That's stupid," Jodie murmured, "to risk ourselves when we don't even know what happened."
"I don't see anyone else coming up with ideas," Octavia shot, "Everything will be all right in the end, but only if we make it so."
Ah, there was that optimism everyone loved. Or hated. Really, it was an acquired taste. It brought a smile to Avery's lips though, her mood lifting just a little. "If we keep trying the phones, we'll get through eventually," she added with a nod that felt firmer than she sounded, "we can take turns, alternating between searching."
"And if we still don't find him?" Micah asked.
Avery frowned, heart jolting. Well, that was something she didn't want to think about. "Then we just have to hope he's smart enough to take care of himself."
"Aaron is a capable guy," Daryl replied, "he stands a better chance out there than the rest of us."
Not with that useless coat and no hat, Avery thought, as the doubt crept back in. Yet she forced a smile, hoping it didn't look as fake as it felt. Even a false smile sparked a little bit of hope in her chest.
Daryl offered to go out first - of course, he did, because he was Daryl and always had to take charge. He didn't listen when Avery asked to come with him, or when Mica suggested he go instead. In the end, no one could stop Daryl once he had his mind set on something. Donned in half a dozen layers, he took a deep breath and opened the door. The force of the wind had him bracing an arm across his face, eyes squinting into the field of pure white.
Even halfway across the room, Avery shuddered. The temperature dropped instantly, as Daryl wrestled to shut the door behind himself. Avery caught sight of him as he passed the living room window, and then - he was gone.
Nobody spoke for a long time after. They each sat in their own space, separated despite physical closeness. Caroline kept her head bowed, Micah stared off at nothing in particular. Even Octavia didn't speak, snuggling down into her thick winter hoodie. The fire crackled warmly, casting a cheerful glow across the floor, but the coldness inside Avery didn't come just from the weather.
"We should at least eat something," Avery concluded, "we can't neglect ourselves because we're worried." Standing, she ignored how her joints creaked in protest. Old she was not, but at forty-five this cold did her no favours. Wincing, she tried not to think about Aaron, freezing and alone. She should count herself lucky, given the circumstances.
Jodie joined her, and up-close that perfect put-togetherness wasn't quite so flawless. Her skin had a clammy sheen to it, last night's mascara clung to her eyelashes. "I'll help," she replied, "I need to keep busy."
Avery and Jodie had never been especially close - she and Micah were Daryl's friends from college days, and Avery didn't join until much later. Yet she didn't want to be alone for fear of her mind wandering, so with a tight smile, she agreed. It felt wrong, somehow, to stand side by side with Jodie as they cooked. As if, by doing something so normal, they were betraying Aaron.
By the time the food was prepared, though, hunger was beginning to claw at Avery's insides. Pancakes with fresh fruit had never looked so good, and it wasn't long before everyone was digging in.
"We should save some for Daryl and Aaron," Caroline suggested quietly as they sat at the table, "Aaron will be hungry when he gets in."
Micah, who had already started eating, paused with the fork halfway to his lips. "We can make some for him fresh," he replied, "he'll need something hot."
Avery knew he was just being kind. Somewhere, deep in the back of her mind, she'd accepted the worst as fact. There would be no Aaron returning, no need for extra pancakes or the warm blankets still waiting in the living room. God, what if Daryl was out there right now, stumbling upon Aaron's frostbitten corpse-
Caroline's voice broke through her thoughts, snapping her back to reality. "These are too sweet," she mumbled, setting down her fork. Her normally pale skin looked white, features twisting into a look of disgust.
"We barely added any sugar-"
Without a word, Caroline pushed back her chair, and it squeaked horribly against the hardwood floor. "Sorry. Just - just give me a second." Then she spun on her heels, dashing off upstairs with a hand clamped over her mouth.
The group shared a long look between them. "Is she all right?" Octavia questioned, gaze lingering on the now empty seat.
"Maybe she's ill," Jodie offered, "the weather probably got to her."
"Last I checked a cold didn't make you want to throw up," Octavia said with a frown, "I'm sure she's fine, but maybe we should go check."
Avery didn't have much of an appetite anyway. Pushing back her plate, of which she'd taken maybe one bite, she said, "I'll go. She'll talk to me." At least, Avery assumed so - in the last twenty-four hours everything had been turned upside down, and she honestly wasn't sure if anything was still true. Sighing gently, she trudged upstairs in search of Caroline.
The woman in question was in the main bathroom, hair tied in a messy bun and glasses perched by the sink. Yet Caroline herself sat on the cold tile floor with a glass of water clutched between her shaking hands.
"Caroline?" Avery murmured, tapping on the door to make herself known, "are you all right - scratch that, clearly not. Want me to get you something?"
She looked up, and somehow she looked even paler than she had minutes ago. "No, I... I'm fine. I just don't feel myself since Aaron went missing."
Truthfully, Caroline hadn't been acting herself even before Aaron's disappearance, but Avery thought it best not to mention it. She let out a sympathetic sigh, dragging herself down onto the floor to sit with her. The tile was cold and made her hips hurt, but she didn't need to worry until it was time to get up again. "I know there's something up, and it's more than last night," she urged gently. Push Caroline too hard and she closed up, not push her hard enough and she'd never say a word.
Caroline shifted, back bumping against the bathtub. "All right," she gave in, eyes dark with worry, "but you can't tell anyone. Okay? Not even Daryl."
Since they became friends six years ago, after Avery moved into the house across from his, she'd told Daryl basically everything. Yet whatever this was, Caroline meant it. So she nodded, scooting closer to place a reassuring palm over Caroline's. "I won't say a word. Promise."
Eyeing her warily, Caroline pursed her lips. The water sloshed dangerously in the glass as she took a huge swig, then set it aside. Procrastinating even to the last second. Then she sighed, digging the palm of her hands into her temple, and muttered, "I'm pregnant."
Had... had Avery heard that correctly? She blinked slowly, eyes wide and owlish. "Pregnant?" she managed quietly, "how long have you known?"
"Only two weeks," she mumbled, hand pressed against her stomach, "I kept feeling sick and somehow I just knew it was morning sickness. So, I took a test, and here I am."
"Who's is it?" Avery asked gently - yet she already knew before it was even said out loud.
A moment later, Caroline confirmed her suspicions. "Aaron's."
Even when she saw it coming, Avery sucked in a breath of cold, stale bathroom air. "You never mentioned it. Neither did he."
A shrug, eyes downcast to the cool blue tiles beneath them. "We aren't together. We fooled around for a while, on and off, but it's never been anything serious. You know Aaron, he's never been one for old fashioned romance."
Yet Avery also knew Caroline - and therefore knew what a hopeless romantic she was. Avery couldn't help the frown that tugged at her lips, or the sympathetic twinge to her voice as she said, "that's why you're so freaked out about all of this."
A single nod confirmed it all. Caroline shrank in on herself, knees pulled up to her chest and chin resting on top. A little colour had returned to her face, at least, meaning the sickness had subsided. "Do you really think he'll be okay?" Sometimes, despite being nearly thirty-four, Caroline sounded so young. Frail, even.
Stomach turning, Avery realised she didn't have an answer. "I don't know," she replied, "at this point, I'm not sure any of us will be. Not after this."
They sat in silence, shoulder to shoulder, staring into the hallway outside. Soft voices rose up from the living room below, but they were muffled, as if from far away. Then there was a change in the voices - Jodie's distinctive gasp and Daryl speaking in a rushed, panicked tone.
Sharing a wide-eyed look, the two women rushed downstairs.
The first they saw was Daryl, holding something thick and dark in his gloved hands. They saw his face, red from the cold and dusted with snow, pale and stricken. "I found this outside," he replied, holding out the pile of fabric, "but no sign of Aaron himself."
Avery inched closer, taking the fabric in her hands. It was worn, poorly insulated, and smelled of Aaron's cologne. Heart jolting in her chest, Avery suppressed a gasp-
It was Aaron's jacket.