BY HANNAH WESTMAN
For a long time, no one spoke. The crackle of the fireplace was the only sound in the cavernous lodge, and no longer was it a comforting noise. Daryl clutched Aaron's jacket between ice-cold hands, trying futilely to suppress the way they shook.
"Where did you find it?" Caroline piped up, voice shaking even more than Daryl's hands.
"Around the back of the house, by the treeline." Hands clenched around the jacket, fingers sinking into the cheap material until his knuckles turned white.
"What was he doing there?" Micah asked, features twisting into an uncharacteristic scowl.
"Did you see anything else?"
"Why would he abandon his jacket?"
Voices rose, cutting over each other in rising panic. Caroline and Jodie were fighting to be heard, Avery trying to calm them both down - but it only added to the cacophony of pointless chatter. Even Octavia, usually so reasonable, was pale-faced as she shouted over Avery's attempts at calm.
"Everyone!" Daryl hollered, and his heart was hammering so loudly in the ensuing silence, he wondered if they could hear it, too. "There's no point in panicking, okay? It isn't helpful."
"Neither is anything else, now," Jodie snapped, "it's pretty obvious he's dead."
Caroline and Octavia sucked in identical breaths, eyes darting to Jodie. "Don't say things like that," Caroline murmured, "we don't know for sure."
"Don't we? No one could survive out there." Tears sprung to the corner of Jodie's clear blue eyes, yet she blinked them away before they had a chance to fall. Nose crunching, she made a poor attempt at composure. Even with her arms folded stubbornly over her chest, it was obvious she was shivering. "Daryl?" she asked, quieter than he'd ever heard her, "did you find anything else out there?"
Still soaking wet, Daryl gently laid down Aaron's coat and began to strip off his own. "No," he admitted, "the snow is so thick, the jacket was practically hidden." Kicking off his shoes, he sent the jacket in question a furtive look. Maybe there hadn't been anything else outside, but he hadn't thought to check inside the jacket itself.
Avery must have had the same thought because she stepped over, delicate hands passing over the pockets. She turned up Aaron's wallet, a half-used pack of gum, laying them aside with the utmost care. "Nothing," she surmised - although she likely expected as much. Then her frown deepened, face turning ashen, and lifted up the sleeve. "Wait, there's something here."
"What?" Caroline exclaimed, leaning over Avery's shoulder to see. Everyone else crowded too, hope lighting their faces.
Yet Daryl saw what she did, and it wasn't something to be grateful for. The left sleeve was torn at the shoulder, as if in some kind of struggle, and something dark, reddish-brown crusted around the tear.
Daryl didn't know who said it, but the words rang in his ears. A small part of him had always thought he'd find Aaron, that the entire ordeal would be the kind of thing they'd laugh about years down the line. Now, looking at the flecks of dried blood clinging to the fabric, he knew that wouldn't happen.
"Why blood?" Avery asked the one thing everyone else was thinking too, "There's nothing out there except the barn and generator, and why would he be near the woods?"
"He probably got lost," Octavia supplied, "turned around in the snow as you thought."
"That doesn't explain why he abandoned his jacket, or why it's bloody."
"Sometimes hypothermia tricks people into thinking they're too hot," Daryl answered, "it makes people think they're burning up, so they take off their layers." It sounded almost reasonable, but something didn't sit right. None of it added up, none of it made sense, and he couldn't figure out why. If Avery, with the worst sense of direction he'd ever known, made it back safely - how come Aaron couldn't?
For the first time in his life, Daryl had no clue what to do.
A squeak snapped his attention to Caroline. Ashy faced, she doubled over with a groan. "I think I'm going to be sick," she murmured - and then like lightning, she dashed off toward the bathroom.
"I don't feel so good myself," Micah muttered, "I just can't wrap my head around this."
"Me neither," Jodie agreed - and for once she was quiet. Head downcast, she scrubbed at her eyes.
"Out of everyone," Avery said, "I thought Aaron would be the least likely to have an accident. Of any kind."
Jodie's head darted up, tears brimming. "Maybe it wasn't an accident," she snapped, "blood, his jacket just lying there. Doesn't it scream foul play?"
Silence. No one wanted to be the first to speak, to voice their thoughts on the matter. Daryl couldn't blame them - his instinct was to say it was crazy, that of course Aaron hadn't been murdered. He refused to entertain that it might have been true. Forcing out a slow breath, Daryl collected himself. "There's no one for miles but us seven." Seven, yes, because Aaron still counted. "The next house is fifteen minutes away and who would walk that in this weather?"
"Maybe no one had to walk here," Jodie shot back. There was a nasty side to her that people rarely saw, a side of her that didn't care what she said, as long as she was heard. Jodie didn't care who else she hurt. "What if it was one of you?"
Daryl froze. So did Avery, turning a wide-eyed gaze to Jodie as if to say what the hell?
Micah shifted away, physically leaning away from his wife with his lips parted in silent horror. Yet he couldn't speak, couldn't utter so much as a single word. All the while, Jodie glared.
It was Octavia that spoke first. "That's absurd," she argued, "why would anyone want to hurt Aaron? Never mind how. We've all been stuck in this damn lodge since we got here."
"Caroline ran off after Avery and Aaron went out," Jodie mumbled, sinking deeper into her seat with a scowl, "no one saw where she went-"
"Don't be stupid," Avery snapped, "so she left the room. It's a huge leap to assume it's her fault."
"She's been acting strange this entire time," Jodie shot back.
"So what?" Octavia now, her voice rising, "you've been acting like a bitch, but we haven't accused you of murder."
The situation was spiralling out of control, panic rising in time with the voices. Jodie leapt to her feet, pale hair frizzing around her round face, eyes dark. "I'm just saying that we should consider this wasn't an accident."
"And of course you accuse Caroline," Micah murmured, "you've never liked her."
Jodie turned her icy gaze on her husband, lips pursed into a fine line. Her entire body was trembling beneath her thick jumper, expression cold. "You’re taking her side now?"
"It's like saying it’s my fault for choosing this lodge, or Avery's fault for being with him. Do you even hear yourself?"
Daryl was just grateful Caroline wasn't here to listen to this. Running a hand through his short hair, he attempted to reign in the urge to bolt. His heart was hammering against his ribs, sweat clinging to his forehead despite the lingering chill. Yet the clamour of shrill voices had a headache nagging at the base of his skull, and it was just too much. "Quiet down!" he hollered - and immediately, everyone silenced.
"Sorry," Avery mumbled, the most sensible one here.
"No one murdered anyone, okay? I can't believe you'd even suggest it, Jodie. Do you think conspiracy theories will help?"
Guiltily she looked away, a flush blooming across her round cheeks.
"I didn't think so. Now, we can't jump to conclusions, not when all the evidence we have is one bloody jacket." Without thinking, his hands had drifted to the item in question, fingers curling around the fabric. "The best thing we can do is stick together and stay inside. Keep the windows locked."
"Bar the bedroom doors at night," Octavia joked, but her smile fell flat. "Sorry, just trying to lighten the mood."
"Not the time, Octavia," Micah replied, but there was no venom in his voice. He just sounded tired, and Daryl couldn't blame him. Every single person in this room looked terrible; the blood drained from their faces, empty eyes.
Biting down on her lip, Avery cast a long look outside. "Maybe she's not far off. Even if it sounds crazy, isn't it better to be safe? We don't know what happened."
Already cold, Daryl suppressed a shudder. They were right, as much as he hated to admit it. A crawling sensation crept along his spine, eyes darting to the window as if he expected to see something there. But no, it was just the familiar flurry of snow battering against the glass.
"The best thing we can do is wait out the storm," Micah said with a sigh, "and hope that whatever happened to him doesn't happen to us."
"I still think it was Caroline," Jodie snapped, but her voice was small. Embarrassed. Glaring out the window, she refused to look at anybody else. "Or maybe it was you, Avery. You were the last one to see him-"
"That's enough." Four heads spun to stare at Micah. Micah, who never raised his voice because he always expected to be heard. Micah, who in all the years they'd known him had never so much as lost his temper. He was flushed, face red and eyes narrowed. "You're not so perfect yourself, Jodie, and you've no right to act so high and mighty."
"What does that mean-"
"You know exactly what it means. If anyone here is capable of something so cruel, it's you."
Questions flurried in Daryl's mind, half-formed thoughts he never had the chance to voice. Micah launched himself to his feet, tossing aside the blanket he'd been using with more force than necessary. Then he was off, storming across the living room without so much as a glance back toward Jodie. Daryl watched his retreating back with a cold, unsettling feeling growing in his stomach.
Things were falling apart quicker than he could pick up the pieces.
"I should check on Caroline," Avery mumbled, "Jodie, don't you dare say any of that nonsense in front of her." Avery's dark eyes, usually filled with such warmth, were blank as she stared at Jodie. Then, with a strangled sound almost like a muffled cry, she darted upstairs the same way Micah had.
"I can at least make myself useful and make food," Octavia suggested, offering a smile that was more of a grimace. If even Octavia was struggling, that's when you knew it was bad. Terribly bad. She slinked off into the kitchen, still bundled up in one enormous blanket, and the sound of clinking pots drifted through the archway.
Now it was just Daryl and Jodie. Her gaze was still fixed on the swirling snow outside, arm awkwardly reaching over the back of the sofa to trace the water trickling down the windowpane.
There was a lot Daryl could have said - part of him wanted to shout, to tell her exactly what he thought about her stupid theory. Yet the words wouldn't come, just twisted around in his mind until that dull headache became a painful throbbing behind his eyes. With a scowl, he stood. "I know you and Caroline haven't always seen eye to eye," he stated firmly, "but that was low."
Jodie didn't reply, not that he expected her to anyway. All he received in reply was a shrug, her full lips turning into a scowl.
Daryl hated to even contemplate the idea, but deep down he knew he'd have to keep an eye on her. Perhaps on everybody. With tension high, he had the dark thought that this was only the beginning.
When it became apparent Jodie had no plans on defending herself Daryl left. He couldn't bear to stay in that room anymore, not with Aaron's jacket and Jodie's cruel words ringing in his mind.
Yet the lodge, despite its size and grandeur, suddenly seemed so small. The walls felt like they were closing in, the hallways long and narrow and snaking off into darkness. White snow blanketed every window, blocking out the light despite its brightness.
He found Avery outside the bathroom, legs crossed as she sat in the floor. Her big eyes glanced up as he walked by, face pale despite her naturally dark skin.
"You okay?" Stupid question.
Her laugh was humourless. "No, but who is?" she replied gently, "I just couldn't sit and listen anymore."
"Did you tell Caroline?"
"Keep your voice down. She’s in the bathroom." Avery ran a hand down her face, fingers massaging her temples. "I haven't said anything, and I don't plan to."
A nod, a forced smile. As long as Daryl kept it together, so would everyone else. Probably. " For the best," he decided, "is she okay?"
Her eyes widened and for a moment she floundered. "Just ill I think," came the halting reply.
As much as he hated to say it, Daryl didn't believe her. Yet what reason would she have to lie? It was paranoia, that was all. Shoving the doubts to the back of his mind, he offered a strained smile. "Octavia's cooking, if you're hungry. Although I don't think anyone will be having a chat with their meal."
Before Avery could reply there came a heaving, gasping sound from behind the bathroom door. She jumped to her feet, shooing him off with a scowl.
Frankly, he didn't want to see the rest anyway, so he sidled off as Avery slipped inside the bathroom. The sounds of vomiting followed him until he reached the bedroom door and went inside.
Alone once again, Daryl finally let grief overtake him.