BY HANNAH WESTMAN
Daryl wasn't afraid to admit that he was terrified. With Octavia gone, the entire group was falling apart, and he simply couldn't keep everyone together any longer. Nobody had uttered a word since she left, and in her absence, the two people rule had been abandoned.
It was as if everyone had given up, and that was the worst part of all.
Now Daryl jumped at every little noise, and even though barely an hour had passed, he found himself hoping for Octavia's return. Was she safe out there? Warm enough? Had she been spotted by this mysterious killer, they weren't even sure existed? The thoughts whirled around and around in his mind, unable to be answered.
Somehow Daryl found himself alone despite him being the one to enforce the rule. It seemed pointless now, with the five of them, when Jodie and Micah couldn't stand to be around each other any more. And besides, what could they really do if someone tried to hurt them anyway? One person wouldn't help, not when there wasn't a single weapon in the house save for a handful of kitchen knives.
Sinking further into his seat, Daryl stared listlessly out of the window. Every time he looked outside, he half expected to see someone there, standing with their face pressed against the glass like some old fashioned horror movie. This was real life, though, and the window remained clear.
Over the sound of snow and wind, it took Daryl a moment to hear the soft patter of feet as someone entered the living room. The open space provided enough from for a dozen people, but he'd been alone since Octavia left. Head tilted up; he was surprised to note Caroline standing by the unlit fireplace, her gaze cast down. "I just woke up," she mumbled, "Avery told me what happened. Has Octavia really gone?"
Unable to hide his wince, Daryl offered a sympathetic smile. It fell flat. "She has. Out of everyone, I never expected her to step up - but she was determined to go."
"You should have stopped her," Caroline muttered, collapsing heavily onto the nearest armchair.
On that, they agreed. It was stupid to expect Octavia to bring back an army of police and save the day, and selfish to have put that expectation on her. Her absence was like a deep, dark hole growing in his gut. Truthfully, when Octavia had first joined their group, he hadn't been so sure about her. They had all been staying at a hotel over Avery's birthday, and Octavia had inserted herself into their friend group when her own had been too drunk to dance with her, and she'd been hanging out with them ever since. Over the years, though, her sunny personality and love of excitement had always been a source of fun for everybody.
Groaning, Daryl dropped his head into his palms. "I can't be the strong one anymore, Caroline. I'm done."
"I'm sure Avery would have something inspiring to tell you, but she's locked herself away in the bedroom," Caroline murmured, "to tell you the truth, I don't know what to say."
Although the honesty was appreciated, it did nothing to improve his mood. Dragging a hand down his face, he felt the prickle of stubble on his chin. Hardly important considering, but it struck him as just another sign of how bad things are. Not once, in ten years, had he let his beard grow.
"Listen," Caroline murmured, "Avery didn't tell me the details of what happened - she thinks she has to protect me, like I'm not a thirty-year-old woman - but I know. It's my fault. Not - not Aaron or anything, I had nothing to do with that, but the stuff with Jodie and Micah and Aaron."
Frankly, Daryl wasn't sure he was able to handle a heartfelt confession right now. Yet he sat up, forced his shoulders straight, and met her eyes. "Whatever you think is your fault, it isn't. We're all exhausted and afraid, and nobody really means what they say."
"Micah knew about the cheating," Caroline blurted, "and so did I, but I didn't care because... because I knew Aaron loved me more. I'm having his baby for God's sake. But now there's this whole mess and Jodie won't talk to anyone and it all came about because of this, and Aaron isn't even around to tell his part of the story." She was rambling now, the words flying from her lips of their own accord, and she wasn't stopping. "I know he's dead, and I know it's a horrible thing to say but... I'm glad it's over. That it's all out in the open."
For the first time in perhaps his entire life, Daryl was speechless. Words refused to form, and so he stared across the room at Caroline, blinking owlishly as his mind attempted to catch up.
"Only Avery knows. And Aaron, although I suppose that doesn't matter now." Her nose crinkled into a grimace, and suddenly her youthful features aged by decades. "It's just; I loved him too much to break it off, you know? We never went public because it wasn't his thing, but then I realised it was because of Jodie, too. The entire time he had been with me, he was with her behind my back. I only found out two weeks ago and- and sometimes I got so angry I wanted to hurt him, you know? In a twisted way, this is my fault."
They sat there for a moment, simply staring at each other. Out of everything, Daryl never saw this coming. Somehow he managed to stand, closing the space between them in mere seconds before bundling up her small frame into a tight, warm hug. Maybe he needed it as much as she did because soon enough they were clinging to each other like the world was ending.
In a way, it was.
"This isn't on you," he murmured against her auburn hair, "you didn't do this, had no idea it would even happen. Until we know what happened, none of us is to blame."
When they pulled away, Caroline's eyes were watering. She offered a smile, lips trembling, and burrowed deeper into her chair. She was wearing one of Aaron's jumpers - not his favourite one, which was still missing - but a navy blue one with a high collar.
"Where did you get that?"
Caroline tugged at the sleeve, which almost entirely covered her hands. "I found it on the bannister this morning, abandoned like someone had left it in a rush. I figured it was Avery moving Aaron's things into his room."
"She already did that," Daryl replied. First things started appearing, then disappearing just as suddenly - Daryl couldn't help but feel like someone was testing them. Mocking them. He shuddered, and not from the cold.
Arms wrapped around her knees, Caroline cast her gaze aside. "Do you think this place is haunted?"
She wasn't the first to suggest it. As a child, Daryl had believed in ghosts - the old flat he used to live in was creaky and spooky. Floorboards moved on their own at night and he swore he heard voices in his kitchen when nobody was there. As it turned out, it was just a poorly structured building with walls paper-thin, and Daryl had only been paranoid.
"If anyone is to blame," he said slowly, "Its a person. I'm just not convinced that's any better."
Murmuring soft words of agreement, Caroline retreated into Aaron's oversized jumper.
The quiet didn't last long, though, because moments later Micah strode in. Beelining straight for the kitchen, he only stopped when his eyes fell on the two currently occupying the living space. "Don't mind me," he muttered, "I don't want to start anything."
A pause, eyes drifting to the hall. "No guarantees for Jodie though, so watch out." Then he disappeared into the kitchen without another word.
There was barely time to share an awkward glance before Jodie followed in; her blonde hair was a mess, and there were dark circles under her eyes, stained with half-dried tears. She glared at Caroline before dropping down to her knees by the fire. "I'm just trying to warm up the house," she snapped, "the central heating is garbage. Don't talk to me."
Too stunned to reply anyway, Daryl kept his lips sealed.
"I don't want to be here with her," Caroline murmured. It took every ounce of effort for her to stand upright, her glasses askew, and she trudged upstairs without even looking Jodie's way.
Micah followed after, disappearing along the hall, leaving Jodie and Daryl alone.
During normal times, it would have been odd for them to be alone together. Since she and Micah married, they'd been inseparable, glued at the hip. Never one without the other. Now, she barely even acknowledged her husband as he stormed past. Sparking a match, she threw it onto the logs and newspaper, watching it catch.
Golden light lit up the fireplace, but Daryl felt a kind of bone-deep chill that couldn't be warmed away by fire.
"I know what you're thinking," Jodie said with a sigh. Daryl hadn't said a thing, and yet she still fixed him with a glare as she stood. "You think I did it because he didn't love me enough. Or maybe it was Micah, the jealous husband."
"I never said that-"
"You don't need to, Daryl, that's the point. I blamed Caroline, so now everyone wants to blame me because my secret is out, so now everyone hates me. Right?"
"Sure." The logs for the fire were kept in an old wicker basket, and Jodie kicked it with enough force to send two logs tumbling. She tossed them aside with her foot, glaring into the flames. "I know nobody likes me, not really. Caroline thinks I'm stuck up and Avery thinks I'm a slut, and whatever Aaron felt for me was only temporary because he was scared of his feelings for Caroline." The deep scowl carved away at her features, turning her from a soft, elegant woman into something darker. "I'm not as oblivious as everyone thinks."
He was floundering now, searching for the right words that, quite frankly, didn't exist. Instead, he stared openly at her, wondering who she was and what she had done with the real Jodie. "I've never once thought that," he managed after a stretch of tense silence.
"Then you're the only one." The fire was blazing now, casting flickering shadows across her face, her glare more intense than ever. "People love to blame other people for stuff that isn't their fault. It makes people feel good. Productive."
"You should become a therapist," Daryl snapped - only for guilt to immediately swell within his chest. Now even he was losing it. Glaring at nothing in particular, he stepped away from Jodie.
"Look, Octavia will return soon enough, and we can deal with the fallout then. But please, try to keep it together until that happens."
"Easy for you to say. You're always in control."
Not any more, he thought sourly, only to discard the thought as soon as it entered his mind. What about this was helping anyone? Helping himself?
"Do you believe what everyone said?" Jodie asked after a moment - and that anger peeled away to reveal something new. Something vulnerable. "About there being someone out there, in the storm?"
Daryl had read a story once, about a man who moved into a new house and found his leftovers going missing. A homeless woman had been living in his basement for weeks, and he never knew because he didn't bother with the basement. This was different, though - this was a house in the middle of nowhere being attacked by a storm, and the only place someone could hide was in the barn or outhouse around the back. Neither of them was insulated enough to survive in.
"Well, do you?"
Daryl didn't think so, but the alternative was even worse. "I think, that if the only other option is that one of us is doing this, then I'd rather believe there's someone lurking out there. I'd rather believe a monster wants to pick us off one by one than think even for a second one of our friends is capable of murder."
She relaxed then, shoulders slouching, and whole body collapsing in on itself. Just like that, she was a different woman. "So you really don't believe it was Micah or me?"
"I told you that."
"Right." Casting her gaze to the fire, she seemed to debate something with herself. The one thing about Jodie was that she never apologised, and that didn't seem to have changed. After a moment she said, "I don't think Caroline hurt Aaron either, you know. I was just angry and confused, and... I lashed out."
"We all do," Daryl replied gently, "but as I said, we can't focus on that now-"
His words were cut off by a clatter from the hallway, followed by a strangled gasp and the thud of something heavy falling to the ground. Daryl and Jodie stared at each other for a long moment, hearts leaping in their chest before Daryl was on his feet, and darting into the hall. Jodie was close behind, her short legs considerably slower even in her panic.
Daryl had no idea what to expect when he turned a sharp corner, but what he did see had him halting in his tracks. Caroline on the floor, staring up at Micah with tears streaming down her face. And Micah, hand outstretched as if he had just thrown her to the ground.
For a long moment, the three of them simply stared at each other - and then Jodie wheeled around the corner with a gasp, a hand clapped over her lips.
"What the hell is going on?"