BY HANNAH WESTMAN
Avery couldn't sleep. Despite her pounding headache and the pressure behind her eyes, sleep simply wasn't happening. She tossed and turned in bed for hours, shoved her face into the pillow until she couldn't breathe, until she had worked herself up into such a mess that she couldn't lie still a second longer.
She didn't notice anything wrong until she was already out of bed, reaching for the glass of water sitting on the side table. Still reaching out, she paused, head tilted as she listened in the stillness.
Creaking floorboards across the hall. The gentle thud of footsteps on wood. They had all decided to move into the rooms upstairs, to stick together, so it could easily have been Daryl or someone else, but it made her heart quicken and her ears ring. They'd thought it possible that someone had hurt Aaron - what if they had come back for someone else?
No, Avery chided, that's ridiculous. It's just somebody else unable to sleep. Taking two generous gulps of water - half stale and papery - and set the glass down and got to her feet. Her own footsteps were silent as they padded across the room, her eyes darting into dark corners as if expecting to see someone crouching there. She was determined not to let paranoia take over; but as her hands clasped around the door handle, Avery found she couldn't bring herself to open it.
Outside, the hall had fallen quiet. Perhaps it was someone gone back to bed, or using the bathroom. Or, perhaps it was Aaron's murdered waiting in the hall, ready to strike.
Stepping away from the door, Avery swallowed. Suddenly she wished there was a lock on the door, or a wooden chair to jam beneath the handle. Yet there was no such chair in this room, and the only armchair was far too tall to find underneath a door handle without leaning it at a dangerous angle-
A cough rang in her ears, muffled through the door. Just like that the panic vanished, replaced by a flood of cool relief. She recognised those deep, hacking coughs - just Micah with a dry throat. After a moment they subsided, and the padding footsteps resumed.
This time, when Avery opened the door, she didn't worry about someone lurking in the hall with a knife.
Micah hovered in the hallway with sleep-heavy eyes, scrubbing at them as if to stay awake. It was the opposite problem that Avery had, who couldn't sleep no matter how much she wanted to. He stifled a yawn as he turned, eyes snapping wide before he realised who it was. "Look, if you're going to have a go at me-"
"I just wanted to see if you were all right," she cut in before he could argue, "what are you doing out here?"
He shrugged, embarrassment colouring his features. "Jodie didn't want me in the room, but I didn't want to sleep downstairs so... here I am?" He turned his gaze to one of the many bedroom doors, the one near Daryl's. "I was going to sleep in the main bedroom, the one the owners use, but its locked tight. I've kind of accepted just sleeping in the hall."
"We're not supposed to be in there," Avery reminded, "it's the one space that's off limits and I think that's fair."
Biting down on his lip, Micah winced. It was as if he was thinking, but didn't know whether to voice those thoughts. Of all things, Avery thought they would have been over that by now.
"What is it?" she whispered, "just say it."
"This is going to sound crazy, but I thought I heard someone in there. Like footsteps and things being moved."
"You definitely need to sleep."
His features crinkled in frustration, arms thrown in the air as if to say I told you! "You don't believe me, but I mean it. I definitely heard something, but we're on the second floor and the windows are painted shut, anyway."
"Maybe you just heard Daryl in his room." They were right beside each other, and Daryl had terrible trouble sleeping if he forgot his medication. Especially now. Yet a little voice at the back of her head warned that this was wrong, and she should listen to Micah. So, brushing hair from her face she asked, "do you have a bobby pin?"
"Uh, Jodie might. Why?"
"I'm going to pick the lock."
He simply blinked at her, expression owlish, and couldn't force himself to speak.
She shrugged, wandering over to the locked door and pressing an ear up against it. Silence. "I wasn't always innocent and middle-aged," she shot back, "I had weird hobbies as a teenager."
Micah hovered in the hall, mouth agape - and then disappeared into his - or now just Jodie's - room.
Meanwhile, Avery took the time to listen. The wind still howled, although perhaps not as strongly as it had before. It was difficult to hear much else, really, but Avery certainly couldn't hear anything that indicated a person inside. Just the groan of trees bent to their limits, and Caroline's soft snores.
Except, if she listened carefully until her ears strained, maybe she could imagine the shuffle of footsteps getting closer to the door. Maybe she could hear the soft breathing of somebody as they reached for the handle-
Jumping back, Avery let out a disgusted groan - and then tumbled into Micah as he materialised beside her. "Shit," she hissed, "make more noise when you walk."
"I didn't want to wake up Jodie," he replied, handing her something small and slim. Two bobby pins.
Now, Avery had done a lot of this in her early years. It had started when her parents installed a lock on the snack cupboard - and Avery, who'd always had an appetite, had learned her way around it. Unfortunately, it had been years since she'd done this, and she doubted it was like riding a bike.
It didn't help that Micah hovered over her shoulder as she knelt, stretching out a bobby pin and easing it into the lock. All she had to do was push in the springs in the correct order, and the lock would spring free. Easy in theory, but now she had an audience. Closing her eyes, Avery forced her mind to focus, and began gently prodding at the lock.
A minute later she felt a click - and when she tried the handle, it eased open.
They both peered into the dark room, nervously hovering by the doorway without quite going inside. Avery made out the shape of the bed; a huge lump in the middle of the bedroom, bordered by two squat side tables. The curtains were closed, billowing slightly with the force of the storm, but it was completely empty.
Just for good measure Micah turned on the switch - light flooded the room, streamed into the hall, and he grunted as it assaulted his eyes.
Blinking back the urge to wince, Avery looked around the room. There was a built in wardrobe on one side, and a laundry cupboard by the bed. Photos on the wall showed an elderly couple with two younger men, and one with a teenaged girl. The owner's family, no doubt, because the youngest man was a clone of who Avery assumed was his brother.
"See?" she murmured, "no one here. Sleep here tonight, I'm hoping we won't be here another."
"Yeah," Micah agreed softly. He settled on the bed, nudging open the laundry cupboard with his foot. It was tall and wide, taking up a decent amount of space, but inside there was only one extra set of bed covers. "I was hoping for an extra blanket," he replied with a huff.
"I can get you one from downstairs?"
"Don't; it's creepy down there at night." He stood, stretching out before reaching into the cupboard to nudge away the folded bed clothes. Behind them was a single blanket, fluffy and red - Micah tugged it free with a grunt, and then froze.
Avery's heart leapt. "What is it?"
"Just a laundry shoot," he replied, shaking his head, "I didn't even know this place had one."
"Yeah, but it's in the basement and that's only accessible from outside," Avery offered. "Come on, let's just sleep-"
"Wait." He frowned, tossing the blanket aside to peer deeper into the cupboard. Shifting bedding aside, Micah reached in and she heard something jostle - then he pulled back, holding something all too familiar.
Aaron's padded jacket.
Avery's blood froze. Her mind blanked. She could only stare, wondering if what she saw was real. How had his jacket ended up inside a cupboard, in a locked room? Her wide eyes swivelled to Micah, a heavy sense of dread settling deep in her gut. "How..?"
"I don't know," he murmured solemnly, "but that isn't all. His winter wear is here too, and a box with his name on it."
The words caught in her throat, and although she wanted to run over to confirm it, her legs refused to move. She was rooted to the spot, horror dawning as she stared at that single coat.
Micah leaned in, and when he came back out he was holding a hefty box - the heavy cardboard kind used for moving house. When he flipped it open, Avery gasped.
Inside was Aaron's favourite jumper, the one she couldn't find before. There was also one of his books, the one he had been reading on the drive here - his phone, his wallet, a photograph of him at their last night out. Hadn't that been kept inside his backpack too?
"Someone's been here the whole time," he murmured, "look, half of his stuff is in here."
Nobody had been inside his bedroom since Avery had left his bags there, but now almost all of it was inside this box. Almost all of Aaron's clothes, folded neatly in piles. Even his Switch, the child that he was, and the greasy finger marks on the screen indicated that it had been used recently too.
"My God," Avery whispered, reaching out to gently lift the sweater from the pile. There was something underneath the clothes too - a little plastic box of photographs. She didn't want to look through them, couldn't bear to know what they were - but she couldn't help it. Delicately, she lifted up the box and took the first photo.
Aaron and Daryl unloading their suitcases from the mini van. Aaron walking to the house. Aaron hanging up decorations, the photo fuzzy and unclear - as if it had been taken through a window. Worst of all, there was a photo of Aaron outside, fumbling with the generator as Avery stood behind him.
And then one more, of Aaron trudging through the snow, after Avery had sent him back to the house. Probably only minutes before his death.
Avery threw back the photos with a gasp, and they floated onto the bed face-down. "He was being watched this entire time. We were being watched. What kind of sick people live here-"
"It can't be the owners," Micah insisted, "I've known them for years, not to mention they're over seventy now." His voice was rising, panic rising, "but someone is here, and now we have proof."
"Proof doesn't mean anything when we're stuck out here without help," Avery shot back. She felt freezing and boiling all at once, her breath beginning to come in short rasps, "so we know someone is here? What can we do about it? They've avoided being seen this entire time, and know they probably know we've figured it out."
Micah put a calming hand on her shoulder, his eyes dark and serious. "We have to wake up the others, tell them what's going on, and figure out a way to get out of here."
Avery was right - they couldn't afford to ignore this any longer. It was time to face the truth - and the truth was far more horrifying than she dared to admit.