BY HANNAH WESTMAN
When Avery came back to consciousness, it was to Daryl hovering anxiously by her side. Crouched by her chair, face pinched with worry; she didn't think she'd ever seen him so worried. She was probably only out for a minute at most; but in that time a headache had set in, pulsing at the back of her eyes. Sitting up, ignoring the way the world spun, Avery cast her gaze about the room.
Aaron's gloves and scarf were still there, clutched loosely in Jodie's hands. She hadn't moved from her spot by the door, staring into the blizzard through narrowed eyes. Running a hand through her blonde hair - now a damp mess - she murmured, "I saw someone out there. That's why I came to the door."
"Don't be silly, no one could be out there in this," Octavia replied - yet she went to the window too, staring out into the expanse of white. "Unless someone's living in that old barn out back, which is ridiculous, I don't see how it's possible."
"It could have been Aaron," she replied, eyes wide and hopeful.
It was Caroline's turn to butt in, nose crinkled in disgust. "Not long ago, you were the one insisting he was dead! No one's out there, Jodie."
"But I saw someone."
Avery and Daryl shared a look, brows raised questioningly. Octavia was right; no one could be out there in these conditions. "I think we all need to calm down and think this through," Avery spoke, although she hated how her voice wobbled, "we don't know anything, and throwing wild theories around won't help us." Silence descended over the group, each head turning to look at her. Now she knew how Daryl felt; always the leader, always keeping everybody else together. Swallowing thickly, she said, "now Jodie, what did you see?"
Although her eyes were shining with tears, her voice was deathly calm as she said, "I left the kitchen because I... I couldn't handle the way you were all acting as if nothing was wrong." Shooting an accusing glare Octavia's way, she continued; "and I thought I heard something, so I went to the window. That's when I saw someone. Or...a flash of someone, ducking around the corner of the house."
"But you didn't see a whole person?"
"No," she admitted, "just a flash of colour from a jacket or something as they disappeared around the side."
"What about footprints?" Micah asked - and maybe it was just the stress, but it was said a little too forcefully.
Shrugging, her gaze turned back to the window. Her fingers had curled so tightly around the scarf here entire hand was disappearing into the fabric. "Snow's too heavy, I guess."
No one knew what to say to that. Yet it didn't change the fact that someone had left those things to be found, and nobody could deny that. Avery's pulse was pounding against her ribs, the panic rising - she felt sick, although there wasn't even enough in her stomach to throw up. Eyes squeezed shut she took a breath, willing herself to calm down-
"For all we know, Jodie put that stuff there herself."
Eyes snapped open she spun to Caroline, jaw going slack. Had she heard that right? Sweet, gentle Caroline accusing Jodie? For a long moment, the words rang in her ears, and she couldn't tear her gaze away.
Caroline, shrinking under everybody's stern gaze, sank lower in her seat. "She left everyone; we couldn't see what she was doing. Maybe she placed it there herself."
"Why would I do that?"
A shrug, her lower lip trembling. This wasn't an act of cold cruelty, Avery saw that now, but something more profound. Darker. It was confirmed when Caroline sat up, jabbing an accusing finger at Jodie. With a wobbling voice, she said, "I know why you'd want to kill him. Because he chose me over you; and if you can't have him, then nobody can."
"What? That's ridiculous-"
"You've been cheating on Micah this whole time, with Aaron."
The following silence was deafening. No one spoke, no one so much as breathed, the perfect eeriness broken only by the constant howl of the wind. For a long, painful moment; it was as if time had frozen.
The worst part? Jodie didn't even try to deny it. Her whole body drooped, the fight leaving her, and the only sound was an incredulous little huff that was drowned out by the wind. Yet when she turned to Micah, her expression hardened. "You don't believe her, do you?"
"Actually, I do." This entire time he'd been stood by the fireplace, where some of the sad Christmas decorations still hung. They looked pathetic now, but no one had the energy to take them down. Micah ran a hand through his shaggy black hair, his eyes narrowing. "I always knew there was... something between you two. I've known something was up since Octavia's party in September. You two disappeared for an hour."
Avery needed to say something. Do something before this got out of hand. Yet she remained frozen in her seat, wide eyes snapping from Micah to Jodie, and then to Caroline. At least she had the sense to look embarrassed, shame colouring her pale cheeks. What had she been thinking, starting relationship drama during all of this?
Daryl got to his feet, knees cracking as he rose, and shot a pointed glare toward Jodie. "You two can sort this out later - we have bigger problems." Arms folded, he looked toward the window. "Assuming there was a person out there, we're not alone. And if there wasn't, well, that's a whole different kind of problem."
"Because it means one of us did it," Octavia finished slowly. It seemed she'd finally accepted the reality of the situation - that itself, was enough for relief to shine through. If even Octavia was worried, then what was happening was terrible - but at least everyone was on the same page now.
It wasn't much of a reassurance though, and panic was slowly boiling away in Avery's gut. She felt like passing out again like the world was crumbling around her, and there was nothing anyone could do. Tucking her knees up to her chest, for once she kept silent.
It was Micah who spoke first, a shock not just to Avery. Although his expression was hard and coldness in his eyes, his voice was calm as he said, "we have to stick together. I refuse to believe it was any of us, and if someone's out there, we're better off together."
Caroline turned her doe-like gaze to him. "Seriously? We can't trust each other. We don't know what's happening and if someone murdered Aaron, I don't want to be next."
"You won't be next," Octavia murmured, but her reassurance went ignored.
"Maybe it wasn't Jodie. Maybe it was you. We've all spent time alone in this house; it could have been any one of us. But you knew about Jodie and Aaron this entire time." Caroline was losing it now - really, truly losing it. She'd never been good under pressure, always prone to panic even over the little things. Now she stood, whole body shaking, pale as a sheet.
"I was with you just then," Micah snapped, "when could I have-"
"That winterwear could have been sitting for ages. The step is sheltered; it could have been waiting there all night for all we know." Sucking in a breath, Caroline looked like she was about to throw up. Nobody looked good right now, yet she looked even worse than everyone else combined. "Maybe you snuck out during the night-"
"That's enough!" Avery hauled herself upright, crossing the space between them, and then stared at Caroline directly in the eyes. "I know Jodie's said nasty things about you, but that isn't an excuse to go after Micah. It isn't smart, and it isn't helpful; so do us a favour and keep it to yourself."
Caroline's big, shining gaze fixed on Avery with a look of betrayal. Lips clasped, but they wobbled with the threat of tears. Even now, at the sight of disaster, she was acting like a child. Pregnant or not - although she was sure no-one else knew - it wasn't an excuse to be horrible.
"Now, I think we should stick together, as Micah said. Nobody goes anywhere alone, not even at night. Especially not at night."
Daryl nodded sagely, although the worry in his gaze was leaking through. "Don't go to any part of the house you don't need to, keep the windows locked. I think we should share rooms too when we go to bed."
Caroline sidled over to Avery - and as much as it shamed her to say it, Avery couldn't bear to share a room with her. Not tonight. Not after what she'd said. Arms folded, she said, "I'll share with Daryl since his room's a twin. Octavia, would you mind sharing with Caroline?"
Octavia looked doubtful, yet she nodded.
She wasn't sure how Micah and Jodie would manage, not after this revelation - but as Daryl said before; they had bigger problems.
It wasn't late yet, but already the world outside was beginning to darken. It was as if the snow itself was blocking out all the light, although no doubt beyond the blizzard there were dark clouds brewing. Avery had never liked the dark - but now, it brought a whole new level of concern. Her stomach flipped just at the thought.
"Tomorrow we can decide what to do," Daryl was saying, yet Avery was only half listening. Maybe it was her imagination, or paranoia caused by sleepless nights and everybody's wild theories - except those theories didn't sound quite so wild now. Perhaps she was crazy, but Avery swore she saw a flash of a dark red coat somewhere in the distance. Yet when she looked again, there was nothing.
"...at the end of the day, our safety comes first. I'm afraid we have to acknowledge now that there's nothing more we can do for Aaron." Daryl's fingers were digging into his arm, causing little half-moon shaped indents in his tanned skin. He was barely keeping it together - and that was enough for Avery to snap back to reality.
Jodie's expression was sour as she settled on the sofa - notably as far from Caroline as possible - and turned her gaze away. She hadn't spoken since the outburst, wouldn't look at any of them, but her haughty show was paper-thin.
"There's nothing more we can do tonight," Avery announced, "but everyone keep an eye out for anything strange, okay?"
A chorus of okay rang out through the living room - although it was lacklustre - as if every last drop of energy had been sucked from the room. Already everyone had drifted off into their own thoughts, replaying the events over in their own minds. Just when it seemed like things couldn't get worse, they were proven wrong - how much worse could it get?
To make matters more awkward, Avery needed the bathroom. The new two people at all times rule meant she couldn't just slink off - as much as she would have preferred to be alone right now - so she awkwardly announced she needed someone to accompany her.
"I'll come," Micah murmured, "only to stand guard!"
She had the feeling he didn't want to be around Jodie, so she agreed. The two wandered the halls together intense quiet, only stopping when they reached the downstairs bathroom.
"You know,... about what Caroline said," he murmured, glancing down the dark hall like he expected the woman herself to materialise, "I'd never hurt Aaron, and neither would Jodie. We have... problems, but not just because of him."
Reaching out, Avery gave his shoulder a gentle squeeze. "I know. Caroline's having a hard time right now, but that's no excuse. Whatever happened to Aaron," whoever murdered him, "I know none of us had anything to do with it." Even as she said it, the doubt began creeping in. Could she really be so sure? The very idea made her stomach turn, and yet there was a part of her mind that wouldn't let it go.
Micah's smile was uneasy, and as he rested his hand on the doorframe, it clenched into a fist. Avery had been so focused on herself and Caroline; she’d forgotten that everyone else was struggling too. "I just... I wish there was more we could do."
"Right now, with that horrendous blizzard and no real clues, it would be dangerous to try anything. Maybe tomorrow the weather will be better, and we can get the police out here."
"Yeah," Micah replied gently - but he didn't seem convinced.
Quite frankly, Avery didn't have much faith either.