BY HANNAH WESTMAN
Truthfully, Avery was crumbling. She was always the mother of the group. The one to sort out drama and help when something went wrong, but she couldn't fix this. No one could. The lodge, once so big and cavernous, felt constraining. Trapping. A prison made of quant brick walls and wooden floors.
Once Caroline had stopped throwing up, she'd retired to her room to sleep. Leaving Avery alone. There was nothing wrong with being alone, per se, but it left her too much time to think. To let panic take over and reduce her thoughts to what-ifs that might never be answered. She found herself standing outside her bedroom, hand on the handle but unable to open it. Separated like this, wasn't it kind of like... giving up?
A murmur caught her ears - panic spiked, head whipping around as if expecting to see someone had materialised in the hallway. Of course, there was no one, because the hallway led to a dead end and all the doors were closed. All except one. Daryl's door stood cracked open just a sliver, enough to see the dim glow of the light streak across the floor.
No reply. Yet that quiet, muffled murmuring continued - and with a jolt, Avery realised what it really was. Hushed, muffled crying. In all of the years she'd known him, she'd never witnessed him cry.
I should leave him alone, she reasoned - but she couldn't force her legs to move. Instead, she hovered there, biting down on her lip until it hurt, convincing herself to brave it and go inside. No one deserved to be alone, not after all of this. So, with a deep breath, Avery pushed open the door and slipped inside.
Daryl spotted her before she'd even closed the door. His head darted up, hand swiping beneath his eyes to hide the tear tracks gathering there. "Avery?"
"Hey." He hadn't asked her to leave, so Avery took that as an invitation. Settling on the corner of the bed - giving Daryl plenty of space - she offered a tired smile. "You're not doing so good either, huh?"
Expression hardening, he shrugged. "We've been through a lot. I have to... stay strong. For everyone else."
Bullshit, Avery thought - but had the sense not to say it aloud. Instead, she placed a comforting hand on his arm, his skin pale against hers. Although she'd lived in Scotland her entire life, Avery was half-Indian and her skin was warm and rich even in winter. Although, she had to admit she probably looked as ashy-grey as Daryl did right now.
"You know Aaron was so excited to come here, right?" Daryl muttered, features twisting into a scowl, "he loves Christmas more than any of us, and his birthday's in January, so it was like a birthday getaway too." He looked close to tears again, blinking them away just before they had the chance to fall. "I've known him since college and now he's just... gone."
"We don't know that."
"Don't we?" he snapped, viciously enough to have Avery snatching back her hand. Expression softening, he said, "sorry. I was trying to stay positive back there, but I just don't see how he's still alive."
It brought up that one topic again, the one everyone had been so disgusted with. Murder. Avery refused to believe it, refused to believe anyone would have the means or even motive to hurt Aaron, yet the nasty thought was creeping into the back of her mind and making a home there.
As if reading her mind, Daryl shook his head. "Don't think like that. We won't know anything until we can call the police-"
"Which won't be until the storm subsides," she finished, voice hollow. When that would be, no one knew. All they could do was wait; wait and hope.
Hope was something severely lacking in this house now.
They sat in silence for a long moment, each staring into nothing. There was nothing else to say, not really, not when there was nothing she could say that would help. Nothing she said would bring him back.
Eventually, Daryl sighed, heaving himself upright like it took all the effort in the world. Running a hand across his face, he turned to her and said, "I should stay productive. It's pointless really but... it will help stay focused."
She agreed. "Sure. I'll...take Aaron's stuff up to the last room. At least then, if he comes back..." he'll have somewhere to sleep. She wanted to finish, but her words failed to come. Instead, she trudged downstairs alone, words still sticking in her throat.
In the living room, Aaron's stuff was still exactly where he'd abandoned it before. A small, lonely suitcase and one sports backpack filled with junk. Aaron had never known how to pack a bag, and it brought a melancholy smile to her face.
"Need help with that?"
Micah's voice startled her, heart skittering against her ribs. Upon seeing his broad figure from the corner of her eyes, Avery relaxed. "Thanks, but I'm fine. Figured I should put it in his room instead of leaving it sitting here."
"I thought the same. At least so we didn't have to look at it every time we walked past. I just didn't have the heart to touch it." He smiled sadly, nudging the sports bag with his toe. Micah had on a pair of red Christmas socks, bright against his dark jeans. The contrast had her staring openly. "Only thing I had," he answered, "with it being Christmas time, I only brought themed socks. Seems stupid now."
"It isn't stupid," she replied automatically, "we were expecting to have fun."
"Only two days until Christmas," Micah replied, and he couldn't keep the scowl from his face. "Anyway, Octavia says lunch will be ready in twenty if you can stomach it."
Nodding in thanks, Avery watched him go. Then, turning to Aaron's bags, she carried them upstairs. Daryl was gone when she reached the bedrooms, but she hadn't seen him downstairs. It was probably best to give him space anyway. With a grunt she wrestled open the door to Aaron's bedroom - yes, she still thought of it as his even if he hadn't slept in it.
The inside was small and cosy, with a friendly double bed covered by a tartan bedspread. A big window faced the front of the house, but nothing was visible through the wall of snow. In here, the wind howled, shaking the windowpanes, but Avery had learned to block it out. The blizzard was normal by now.
What wasn't normal, was how when Avery set his bag on the bed, it was unzipped. The backpack had two compartments, and one spilled open to reveal its contents. An autobiography on several football players, headphones, his tablet with the gaudy blue cover, it all came pouring out onto the bed.
Yet she remembered it being stuffed full last time she'd passed it, and now it was half empty. As if someone had been inside and rearranged the contents.
Or removed something.
Swallowing thickly, Avery took a halting step back. Yes, she definitely remembered it being packed to the brim before, practically bursting at the seams. And it had definitely been zipped closed. Heart racing she opened the suitcase, half expecting to see it tampered with too - but it looked just how she expected. A mess, yes, but a reasonable Aaron mess.
Maybe she was paranoid. Perhaps she was wrong and Aaron had forgotten to zip up the bag while he was packing. Or maybe someone had just mistaken his bag for theirs and gone inside.
It sounded stupid, even to her. A flimsy excuse for something clearly wrong. A chill passed over her, and not because of the weather. Staring down at the bag and its contents, a creeping, slimy feeling settled over her. Avery knew exactly what was missing from Aaron's bag - his camera, and his favourite jumper. He brought those things everywhere, to every holiday they'd ever been on - yet they were nowhere in sight.
Avery was shaking now, the revelation settling in. Except, what it meant, she had no clue. He could have just forgotten them, or left them on purpose for once. But no, that wasn't like Aaron at all.
"Avery!" a voice called from downstairs, echoing through the house. It sounded eerie, ghostlike, and Avery shivered. But of course, it was only Octavia. "Lunch is ready! Try to eat. It might help."
Abandoning Aaron's bags on the bed, Avery all but sprinted from the room - almost knocking over Caroline in the process. The two knocked shoulders and Caroline stumbled, eyes wide. "Avery? What's wrong."
"Come downstairs. There's something everyone needs to know."
Everyone was already at the kitchen table, their silence sullen and dark. Yet Octavia managed a smile as she saw them, ushering them over. She'd made a thick, creamy leek and potato soup - but Avery's appetite had vanished.
"Guys," she murmured, and everyone's heads turned to her in eerie unison. "This isn't a good time to say this but... I found something strange."
"Stranger than what's already happened?" Octavia replied, ladling a heaping amount of soup into a bowl.
That caught everyone's attention. Octavia paused, the bowl landing on the table with a clunk. Jodie and Micah turned to look at her with doe-like eyes, and Caroline simply stared. Daryl, at least, regained his composure - he'd already recovered from earlier but she was about to hurt him all over again.
"I think Aaron's stuff has been tampered with," she admitted, biting down on her lip. A terrible habit, one that was making her skin crack. "His bag was open and some stuff is missing. I walked by it last night and I swear it's been touched since."
Micah and Daryl shared a look. The kind of look only old friends can understand. Then, wincing, Micah asked, "what does that mean?"
"I don't know," Avery replied softly. So softly she wasn't sure anyone heard. Swallowing, she continued, "but his camera isn't there, and you know how excited he was to take Christmas photos. And his favourite jumper, the big black one with the cuffed sleeves?"
"The one he takes on every trip," Jodie confirmed.
"Exactly. Nowhere to be found."
Jodie paled immediately, sinking down in her chair. No one else looked in much better shape; they'd been here for two days, and already it was as if no one had slept in a week.
"So someone's been moving, or hiding, his things?" Caroline surmised. She looked awful too, her auburn hair a mess, and she hadn't bothered to adjust her squint glasses. "Why would someone do that?"
"Oh, I don't know," Jodie snapped, "you're the one that's obsessed with him."
"Jodie, enough," Daryl snapped, "we are not starting this again."
Caroline simply glared, but her eyes were watery and soon enough she dropped her gaze to the floor.
Octavia slid a bowl across to Avery, her smile soft and reassuring. "Whatever it means, we can work it out later. Eat. You can't make sense of anything if you starve."
True enough, but staring down at the soup made her stomach turn. Collapsing into the nearest chair - which happened to be next to Jodie, unfortunately - she forced herself to grab a spoon. "You're sure none of you have touched his stuff?"
"Why would we?" Caroline replied.
"Right. Yes." At least the soup was hot, hot enough to warm her hands when she placed them around the bowl. Avery wasn't particularly interested in Christmas, yet she had always enjoyed these winter trips with friends. Octavia's soup was a staple of every winter holiday - she just couldn't make herself eat it, not this time. Pushing away the bowl, she curled her lips.
"Eat," Octavia ordered again, more firmly this time, passing over a plate of bread.
Beside her Jodie shifted, her face forming a scowl. "I can't eat either," she mumbled, “feels too normal.” Pushing her chair back with a horrible shriek, she disappeared into the living room.
Octavia's expression was sympathetic even as she frowned. “What’s up with her lately?”
“Everyone copes in different ways,” Daryl replied softly, “some worse than others.”
Humming an affirmative, Octavia turned back to the meal. She didn’t seem to have much of an appetite either, but she forced herself to take a bowl. "So you really think someone's been messing with Aaron's things. With Aaron?"
The swift change back to Aaron left Avery reeling. "I do," she managed.
"So if someone's been going around touching his stuff, or hiding it or whatever, do you think..."
Do you think they hurt him too?, Avery finished silently. What did she think though? Now her thoughts were a mess and nothing made sense. There was no point in trying to decipher them.
"I think there's a perfectly reasonable answer," Daryl replied confidently - yet she didn't miss the flash of worry that passed across his face. For a moment their eyes locked, and Avery knew how hard he was trying to keep it together.
"Maybe we should-"
Wherever that thought was going, it was cut off by a terrible scream. The whole house fell silent, everyone frozen in shock as the scream rang through the rooms.
"Jodie," Micah murmured - and then he was on his feet, sprinting toward the living room.
“What the hell?” Daryl whispered – then he and Avery followed after, skidding to a halt when they felt a blast of cold air. The front door was open, the space filled by Jodie's broad body as she stared into the whiteness outside.
Stepping aside, she revealed what had made her scream - Aaron's scarf and gloves, soaking wet with the snow, and stained with blood.
"Oh shit," Micah murmured, eyes wide. He bundled up Jodie in his arms, and when she didn't pull away he led her to the sofa. They both collapsed onto it, shivering and quiet.
It was Daryl who moved first, wrestling the door closed with a grunt of effort. Snow had tracked into the house but no one cared about that, not when someone had very purposefully placed Aaron's bloody scarf and gloves on the doorstep.
For them to find.
As the realisation sank in, Avery felt the last of the heat drain from her body. She just had time to flop onto the nearest armchair before the world rushed up to meet her.