BY HANNAH WESTMAN
Christmas Eve. It was the first thing Avery thought as she climbed out of bed, the freezing air making her shudder. Christmas Eve and they were stuck here, in the middle of nowhere, with a possible murderer on the loose. Or, worse, in their own friend group. Avery shivered again as her feet met the wooden floor, but this time it wasn't because of the cold.
The wind had shrieked all night without pause, battering against the gabled roof of her bedroom. She knew exactly what she would see if she peeked outside; flurries of white snow, and not much else. Yet, mind still muddled by sleep, Avery flipped back the curtains and looked outside anyway - maybe it was hopeful thinking, but it didn't seem quite as stormy outside, and she could just about see the porch on the ground floor through the snow-
And something else, too. It was just a flash, so quick she could have imagined it, but did she see a glimpse of something brown dart around the corner of the house? Maybe it was Micah or Aaron fixing the generator again - except she'd flicked on a light when she woke up, and the electricity was fine.
Stepping back, Avery let the curtains fall closed. Daryl, who had insisted on sleeping on the sofa in the corner of the bedroom, barely stirred. If anyone had the right to sleep through the night, it was him.
Shuffling feet snapped her attention back to reality. Someone else was awake at this hour, wandering about in the hall. Her door creaked as it opened, and Avery slipped into the dark hallway.
Octavia. She hovered by the bathroom door, dark curls a frizzy mess framing her slender face, staring off seemingly into space. Except it wasn't space, Avery realised, but the locked door leading to the owner's bedroom.
"Something wrong? I mean, more so than... you know... normal." It seemed the constant exhaustion had taken away even her ability to talk. Frowning, Avery followed Octavia's gaze.
“I just thought I heard something last night. Probably just someone in the hall," she paused as if contemplating something. Then, "if we hadn't already been through something crazy, I'd swear this place is haunted. But, you know, it seems untactful to say it now."
Avery thought so but wasn't about to risk starting an argument; not after last night. Instead, she forced a smile, although it probably turned out more like a grimace, and said, "What are you doing out here anyway; two people rule, remember?"
"Caroline wouldn't stop talking all night. First, it was about Jodie, obviously, and then Aaron and their whole secret relationship - can you believe Jodie cheated on Micah? And," her voice dropped, eyes darting about the hall, "Caroline and Aaron have been together for months."
"I already know," Avery replied. There was a sinking feeling in her gut that no matter what happened today, no matter how this trip ended up, this group might not be able to patch things back together. Running a hand across her face, Avery turned to go.
"Two people rule."
Both women jumped, Octavia nearly tripping over her own feet and barely managing not to tumble to the ground. They turned to see Daryl, pale and tired, standing in the bedroom doorway.
"I didn't want to wake you," Avery replied, "I figured anyone who can sleep right now should take the opportunity."
Daryl managed a weak smile. "Want to know my secret? Sleep medication. Knocks me out no matter what."
The three stood in the doorway for a long moment, merely listening to the continuous hammering of snow against the roof. It was almost soothing, save for the fact that nothing could soothe right now.
Then the far door creaked open, revealing a dark bedroom and Jodie's thick body in the doorway.
"Gotta dash - I don't want to be here if Jodie starts something."
With that, Octavia darted back inside her room, the door falling firmly shut behind her.
"What's her problem?" Jodie snapped, marching toward the bathroom without so much as a glance toward any of them, "it's like she thinks I'll bite her head off."
Daryl and Avery shared a look, one now all too familiar to both of them. Unease swirled in her stomach, made her want to throw up - but there wasn't enough in her belly for that to even be possible. "She's just tired. And scared. We all are."
Jodie quirked a brow - and her defences came up expression hardening. If there was one thing she was skilled at, it was only letting people see what she wanted them too. It was one of the reasons she took acting and drama in college, although it never went anywhere.
"Anyway, I'm going to make breakfast. No sense in making ourselves ill by refusing to eat." Most of them hadn't eaten since yesterday morning, and now hunger was clawing dully at her insides. "Daryl, come with?"
He nodded, and the two of them padded across the hall in silence. It wasn't until they were halfway downstairs that Daryl whispered, "Jodie's being weird. Weirder than usual. Do you think she and Micah talked last night?"
"I don't know, and I don't care," she shot back, "I just want to eat a big breakfast and forget about our problems for ten minutes."
Downstairs was just how they left it - yesterday's dishes still scattered across the dining table, cold soup still sitting in the pot.
The living room floor had long dried, but there was mud caked into the carpet by the door. Everything was the same, except... except where Aaron's things had been neatly stacked on the sofa, was an empty space.
"We need these dishes," Daryl murmured, "I should clean them up."
Before he could walk past, Avery snagged his arm with an iron grip. "Wait," she snapped, "where did Aaron's things go?"
"Uh..." Daryl's blue gaze swept the room. Then again. And a third time. "That's a good question. Do you think somebody moved it?"
"I don't know, but his stuff keeps appearing and disappearing, and it isn't right."
"Yeah, it's weird." He stepped over to the sofa, drawing back the cushions like an entire scarf and gloves might have simply fallen down the side like a forgotten pen. "Someone probably just put it back in his room, to keep everything in one place," he reasoned, but the deep furrow of his brow said even he didn't believe it. "We can ask."
Truthfully, Avery doubted anyone would be doing much talking; she hated to think what Micah and Jodie were going to be like, and she couldn't imagine Caroline was going to be up for much of anything. They were past the point of pretending, past the point of hoping, and what did that leave?
Her thoughts were interrupted as Octavia came downstairs, bundled in a thick Christmas cardigan that looked so out of place, now. Mocking, even. "It's the warmest thing I have, don't get mad," Octavia stated as she collapsed onto the nearest seat, "I couldn't get Caroline to wake up. She just kept slapping me away, so I figured I'd let her sleep."
"You left her upstairs?"
"Jodie and Micah are- actually, that doesn't help." Octavia winced, biting down on her lip. "Look, I'm not in charge of her, okay? She's a grown woman too."
"No need to snap," Avery shot back, a spark of anger igniting her chest, "and we have a rule for everyone's safety-" This wasn't helping. Swallowing, Avery forced her voice to calm as she said, "sorry. You're right, we're all adults, and we should act like it." It was like all the energy had been sucked from her body, and she collapsed onto the armchair beside Octavia's. "It just feels hopeless."
"At this point, I don't think we have a choice but to go into town," she murmured, "we can't stay here forever, and who knows how long the storm will last."
"But it's too dangerous to go out," Daryl cut in, his features stony. He wanted to protect everyone, and that was admirable - but not realistic. He must have realised it himself because a second later he sighed, eyes squeezing shut. "We don't have a car, not that we could drive it anyway, and if there is someone out there, who says they'll let someone leave?"
Coldness settled in Avery's chest, the dull realisation like a hit to the stomach. Were they seriously considering the fact they weren't alone out here? That concept itself was enough to have her wanting to throw up all over again. The brown flash she'd seen, Jodie's claims... it was all too ridiculous to even consider.
Yet apparently, here they were.
"If there is someone," Octavia replied, "they can't keep an eye on all of us. And this place is huge, who says we'll even be spotted?"
That wasn't even the slightest bit reassuring. Avery paled, hands clenched by her side, heart plummeting. Yet no matter how she looked at it, Octavia was right. They needed the police, and they'd avoided it long enough already.
It looked like Daryl wanted to argue, his eyes dark with concern and lips parted to speak - but then raised voices broke through the silence, only getting louder as heavy footsteps thundered downstairs.
"We do not have to talk about this now," Jodie snapped, her hair flying as she whirled on Micah, who was hovering behind her like a kicked puppy. "Can't we just drop it?"
Micah, arms folded across his chest and expression sour, simply sighed - and then his eyes landed on the rest of them, face pale. "Shit. I didn't realise you were all down here already."
"Maybe now you'll stop trying to fight with me."
"I'm not fighting; I’m- never mind." Micah looked like a man ready to pull out his own hair, broad hands tangling in his dark locks. Jodie stormed across the living room and through to the kitchen - but he lingered behind, eyes wary as they wandered across the group. "Did I miss anything?"
"Just Octavia wanting to trek into town," Daryl replied quietly. He didn't even have the energy to argue any more. "I think it's stupid."
"I'm not saying you have to do it," she snapped - and it was so unlike her that everybody's attention turned to her. "I'll go. I'm the fastest and bar Aaron probably the fittest, but he isn't here so... yeah."
"It's still dangerous," Micah prodded gently, "maybe I should go."
"You just want to get away from Jodie - not that I blame you - and no offence, but you're a businessman who hasn't been to the gym a day in his life."
Instead of one of his usual snappy comebacks, Micah just rolled his eyes and sat down. "Fine, but if you get hurt out there, no one can help."
"I know," she replied softly - and for once she wasn't smiling, her gaze sombre as she sank deeper into the armchair cushions, "but it's Christmas Eve, and Aaron is dead, and I can't bear the thought of us being stuck here even just one more day."
Nobody could argue with that. They all fell silent, not quite meeting each other's eyes. Even Daryl was quiet, staring at his own feet like they somehow held the answers.
It was Avery who broke the thick silence, her voice low as she said, "by the way, did either of you move Aaron's gloves and scarf? They were gone this morning."
"No," Micah replied, his brows furrowed, "and Jodie was with me all night, so she certainly didn't."
"Why would someone move it anyway?" Octavia questioned.
"No reason..." Arms tucked around her knees, Avery fell quiet again. There was a nagging feeling that wouldn't leave, one that made her stomach roll and her heart stutter. She curled up just a little tighter.
"Well," Octavia muttered, and when she heaved herself upright, it seemed to take up every last ounce of energy. "I guess if I'm going, I should make it soon."
"Maybe someone should come with-"
"It's safer for everyone else if I go alone," Octavia argued. She was scowling, her dark eyes narrow slits - and everyone knew that when Octavia glowered, she meant it. Arguing with Octavia when she was like this - well, they were sensible enough not to try.
Jodie still hadn't reappeared, but the bubbling of a boiling kettle drifted through, barely audible above the blizzard. She was probably staying through there just to avoid them, which honestly made sense. Avery didn't much feel like being around her friends either.
Nobody tried to stop Octavia as she shrugged on her coat, shoving her feet inside the enormous, insulated boots she'd bought. When they'd gone out shopping, Avery had laughed at her for buying such ridiculous clothing - it’s not Antarctica, she'd teased - it didn't seem silly now.
"At least eat something before you go," Daryl suggested, "keep your strength up?"
She hesitated at that, and Avery couldn't blame her. Yet her features hardened. "We've got cereal bars and a couple of those energy drinks Aaron likes - liked. I'll take those."
"It's an eight-mile walk, which would take long enough on a good day. I can't hang around." She was checking her pockets now - not that there was much that could help in a blizzard - and without a word, she strode into the kitchen. It was so strange to see Octavia take the lead, stranger still to see her look so calm and collected, but someone had to step up. So why not her?
Voices drifted through from the kitchen, harsh whispers that sliced through the wind. Then someone groaned, and Jodie exclaimed, "you're so stupid!"
Moments later, Octavia reappeared. She looked shaken, her hands clenched into fists, but she'd grabbed a backpack and shoved two of Aaron's energy drinks inside. Then a flask, followed by a handful of cereal bars. "Well, I'm all set," she said firmly, although her expression gave away how she really felt. "Wish me luck."
Octavia was on her way to the door before Avery sprung from her chair - within seconds she had wrapped her arms around Octavia's smaller frame, face pressed against the crook of her neck. "Stay safe, you stupid woman," she murmured against Octavia's hair.
"I will, promise."
Avery wanted to ask her to stay - demand it, beg for it if necessary - but Octavia gently pried her away with gentle hands, her smile soft but hardly reassuring.
And then, just like that, she wrenched open the door and disappeared into the whirling snow.