BY HANNAH WESTMAN
"So you're telling me that someone's been hiding Aaron's stuff in a locked room?" Jodie accused, her green eyes staring at the cardboard box in disbelief. "How would they even manage it?"
They had brought the contents into the living room, placed it on the coffee table for everyone to see. The thought of staying up there, of staying in that bedroom, made Avery's skin crawl.
"I don't know," Micah answered honestly, "they've probably been wandering about the house at night, and we've assumed it was somebody else."
"Octavia complained about noise at night," Avery admitted, "I told her she was paranoid."
Caroline's face scrunched as she folded her arms, peering into the box with a nervous expression. "I heard stuff too," she mumbled, "but I didn't expect this."
Jodie and Caroline shared a look across the coffee table - Avery winced, expecting an argument to blow up - but it seemed they both recognised the bigger issue. For once.
"So what do we do? They could be upstairs right now for all we know."
Avery turned to Daryl with a frown. "Is there anything we can do? We've opened the door, moved this creepy little trophy box. he or she will figure out we know eventually."
"And we can't go anywhere, not until Octavia gets back with the police."
They could attempt to track out into the snow, make it into town themselves. The storm had loosened up, and although wind still howled through the sparse trees, the snow had died down enough to at least see outside. Yet could all five of them risk going out there, or were they setting themselves up for danger?
"They might have only wanted Aaron, but now we know they might try to hurt us, too," Daryl spoke. He pinched the bridge of his nose, eyes squeezing shut. "We just don't know, and that's half of the problem."
Caroline's lower lip was wobbling, tears shining in her brown eyes. She reached up to swipe them away, dislodging her glasses in the process. No one had exactly bothered to take care of themselves these last few days, and Caroline had forgone her usual contacts. Somehow, that struck Avery as a sign of how bad things were. "Whoever this is... do you suppose it could be the owners?" she mumbled.
"No way," Jodie snapped, "they're friends of our parents. They're, like, seventy." her frown increased, marring her usually pretty features. "Although they do have two sons. One lives in Australia with his daughter now, but didn't Aaron know the younger son?"
"Yeah," Micah replied softly, "they met in college. We had no idea it was the same guy as the Wilson's son until Aaron invited him to a dinner party one time years later."
"But he's in Ireland," Jodie finished - although she looked unsure, rocking on her heels as she peered into the box. She looked pale, exhausted, and utterly unlike herself. With her hair a mess, she probably looked like Avery on a normal day, but on her, it looked disastrous compared to her usual perfection.
Shaking her head, Avery tried to muffle the anxiety rising in her chest. "So it could be the Wilson's son or it could be someone else. A squatter or something. Does it really matter?" She rifled through the box, trying to find the little wad of photos from before. She found them, sifting through until she found the one of Aaron on the day they arrived. "See? They've been here since the beginning."
Caroline shuddered, retreated back to press herself against the unlit fireplace. "We've been watched since we arrived." Not a question; a statement.
Daryl shivered too, arms folded sternly across his broad chest. "Well, shit."
Avery couldn't have said it better herself. Running a hand through her thick hair, she sighed. No matter how they looked at it, they were screwed. All things considered there should have been more of a reaction - shouting, panicking, the lot - but by now everyone was just so tired.
"Should we put it back? The box, I mean," Jodie offered, "maybe if we leave everything how you found it, whoever it is won't notice." She fidgeted with the hem of her pyjamas, wringing the sleeve around her wrist.
"Too late for that," Micah decided, "besides, do you want to go back upstairs?"
Flushing under his accusatory tone, Jodie shook her head. "No," she admitted, "I'm staying down here from now on."
"That's what I thought," he replied cooly - despite the fact that he wasn't offering to go upstairs either. He sat down, tugging a thick blanket over his shoulders, and cast a look about the room.
This late, it was dim even with the light on, and the edges of the living room were cast in shadow. Avery couldn't blame him for being nervous, but his attitude was beginning to stir irritation deep in her gut. Clenching her teeth, she forced herself to keep quiet, desperate to avoid another argument. If they fought, she just knew everything would unravel.
"I think we should all hole up in one room, and barricade the door," Caroline piped up, "just in case. One of the bedrooms, with a lock on the inside."
Aaron's bedroom - the one he never got to use - had a lock. If he hadn't gone outside with her, and had slept in that room with the door locked, would he have been okay? Would he be alive right now? Suppressing a shudder, Avery winced. No use thinking like that now. "And how long would we have to wait it out? Someone will need the bathroom eventually, or we'll need to eat. Besides, we haven't even seen anyone yet, so maybe we'll be fine."
Jodie sent her a pointed glare. One that clearly said you're ridiculous if you think we're safe. She said nothing, but she didn't have to.
It made Avery feel stupid for suggesting it, and uncharacteristic anger bubbled in her chest. "Then what do you want us to do?" she snapped, "barricade the windows like we're in some zombie apocalypse movie?"
"It doesn't sound half bad," she shot back, "it's better than doing nothing."
"The threat is from inside," Micah cut in with a scowl, "and we don't even know what that threat is. We can't protect against someone we haven't seen."
Jodie parted her lips to argue, her eyes narrowed into slits - then she snapped them closed with a huff. Spinning on her heel, blonde hair flying, she collapsed onto the nearest chair with a sigh. Even now, in the midst of disaster, she still had to be the most dramatic.
Avery had never thought about it before now, but she really didn't like Jodie. Maybe never had.
Daryl, always the mediator, raised his hands and shot a look toward Jodie, then Avery. As if Avery had done something wrong.
"Look, all we know is that someone is in the house. Or at least, sometimes in the house. We have to stick close and not wander off. If anyone hears anything - even if it could be something else - be on guard." He took a deep breath, and Avery noticed he was shaking. "We should all stay here, I think, and have someone stay awake to keep watch."
It sounded ridiculous - but then again, what could one person do against five? It made her feel a little better, knowing they outnumbered their unseen intruder. Then again, if they were able to kill Aaron, the strongest out of all of them, and wander about unnoticed for days - well, her relief only lasted as long as it took to realise this. Heart sinking, she tried to stifle down the clawing anxiety.
"I'll keep watch first," Daryl offered with a frown, "I don't think I can sleep after this." He wandered to the fire, reached for the matches - but he was shaking so badly he couldn't even light one. In the end he tossed the matchbox aside, and settled for sitting with his back against the cold brick fireplace.
It was a sombre event as everyone readied for bed. With only one sofa and a handful of armchairs it wasn't ideal, but nobody complained. Caroline took the sofa, turning so her gaze fixed on the long, dark hallway up ahead. From there she could see the stairs too, and the archway to the kitchen - Avery knew why she had chosen it. The only way Caroline could hope to sleep was if she had eyes on everything.
Jodie and Micah settled on their respective armchairs - which were as far away from each other as possible - and they refused to make eye contact as Jodie gathered blankets and Micah adjusted the pillows.
Avery didn't mind the floor - the unease in her gut told her she wasn't going to sleep anyway. She settled by Daryl, who was still sitting awkwardly by the fireplace. She lay down across from him with a blanket jammed underneath her as a makeshift pillow, tugging a second one over her shoulders for warmth. "What do you think will happen?" she questioned.
"I don't know," he replied quietly, "nothing, I hope. The storm has gone down; maybe the police will get here before we have to worry."
Shifting, Avery cast her gaze to the stairs. "I hope so." She sounded about as convinced as she felt. Which was, to say, not even a little. Hunkering down, she brought the blanket up to her chin and turned onto her side. Around her, the others were still getting ready, but nobody else had said a word.
"Do you think it could be the owner's son? His name was Ross, I think... he always came across as kind of creepy, but he never struck me as dangerous. Then he and Aaron stopped talking, and I assumed that was that."
Avery only shrugged, an awkward move with one shoulder pressed into the floor. She shivered, but only partially from the cold. "I don't know. Aaron never mentioned him to me - but then again, he never was the type to talk about the past." She was still freezing, the room too big and too open to keep warm. The storm was louder out here too, battering against the slanted roof and echoing throughout the entire ground floor. Frowning, she buried deeper into her blanket.
"Just try to sleep," Daryl reassured, "I'm too wired, so there's no risk of me falling asleep on the job."
It did reassure her, knowing Daryl was keeping watch. If anyone could fight of a crazed murderer, it was him. Not that she expected someone to burst through the door wielding an axe or something, because this wasn't a horror movie, but she didn't entirely rule it out, either. Sighing gently, she let her eyes slip closed.
Somehow, Avery must have drifted off, because the next thing she knew there were footsteps padding across the living room and she jolted upright with wild, dazed eyes-
It was only Caroline, creeping across the room to duck into the kitchen. She was probably safe through there - no connecting door to the hall, only the archway leading right back here and the back door with no keys. Besides, Avery was pretty sure the door was snowed shut.
Relaxing, Avery lay back down. Micah and Jodie were sound asleep, the latter almost buried under her fluffy Christmas themed blanket. Daryl was awake, though, staring at the glow of his phone in the darkness.
"No," he whispered in reply, "I thought maybe I could sent Octavia a message, but no luck. I guess receiving her text was a blip."
In the kitchen, Caroline fumbled with the tap. There was the scrabbling of hands trying to find purchase, eerie in the otherwise silence, and then the flood of water as she filled a glass.
"How long has it been?"
Daryl shrugged, setting his phone down beside him. "Only an hour," he replied gently, "Jodie spent the first twenty minutes trying to convince me we should barricade the windows."
If Ross was here, and even if it wasn't him, the person was already inside. Barricading anything was useless. She understood Jodie's need to do something, though, even if the only purpose was to feel like helping. It kept the mind occupied, made it feel like they were doing something important.
Caroline continued to patter about the kitchen, her bare feet quiet on the wood. She got restless when she was nervous, unable to sit still or lie down, but Avery wished she'd come back through so they were all together.
"You should try and get back to sleep," Micah murmured, "even just for a while."
She hated to agree, but he was right. It wouldn't make her feel better, wouldn't fix this whole mess, but a few hours of rest could at least give her the energy to act if... if anything happened later on. Swallowing the sudden lump in her throat, Avery sighed. "Yeah. You sure you're all right to keep watch?"
"I'll wake you or Micah if I need to, but I doubt I will."
Avery hummed quietly, turning over so she could get a better look at the kitchen - just in case, she reasoned - before something made her whole body freeze. A sound, so quiet she would have missed it had she not already bee listening. The sound of a locked door clicking open. Then there was a beat of silence, broken only by Micah's soft snores as he slept-
And then Caroline let out an ear-splitting scream.