BY HANNAH WESTMAN
In a rush Daryl was scrambling to his feet, tripping over the blankets scattered across the floor. Avery, too, kicked back her blankets and tried to stand, legs wobbling and hands shaking.
"What's going on?" Micah questioned, his voice thick with worry. He had jolted upright at Caroline's scream, but looked around blearily, still not fully awake.
"It's Caroline," Avery snapped - Daryl was already rushing ahead, fumbling in the dark, but there was no time to try and find the light switch. Avery darted after him without another word, cold feet slapping against the hardwood floor, and skidded to a halt as they both reached the kitchen.
What she saw made her blood run cold. Caroline, backed up against the kitchen counter, her face paperwhite. And a man, tall and wiry, brandishing a knife. The back door, the one Avery was so certain no one could get to, stood wide open, the fierce wind tracking in snow and mush, door banging against the wall.
"What the-" Jodie and Micah appeared behind them, crowding, trying to see.
The man turned then, and Avery saw dark grey eyes glaring at them from the darkness. The outside porch light offered only the dimmest illumination, but it was enough. Enough to see the coldness in his gaze. The hardness.
"Let Caroline go," Avery spoke - and her own voice shocked her, somehow steady despite the rapid hammering of her chest. She felt sick, panic creeping into her, but she refused to look away.
"I didn't want to hurt anyone," the man snapped, and his voice was eerie, the wind howling behind him, "but you figured it out, so now I don't have a choice."
"Ross," Micah muttered, and he forced passed Avery to stand in the middle of the kitchen. Arms raised, he tried to reason. "You don't need to hurt any of us. Even if you do, the police are coming - and where can you go? You'll be caught either way."
So it was him. It sent a jolt of fear down Avery's spine and she shuddered, tears springing to her eyes. She locked gaze with Caroline, who had pressed herself so tightly into the counter it must have hurt, but she didn't dare to move. You're all right, Avery tried to convey with her gaze, we'll keep you safe.
The man - Ross - clutched his knife so tightly it turned his knuckles white. Yet his smile revealed something dangerous, something Avery didn't want to think about. "It was only supposed to be Aaron," he hissed, "when I left his stuff for you to find, I thought it would frighten you all out of investigating. But you're all just too smart for your own good." He recklessly waved the knife - and as one, everybody flinched away. One man wasn't much - but there was something unsettling and menacing about the glint in his eyes.
"You killed Aaron," Jodie breathed, "where is he? Where did you leave his body?"
He was damp from the snow, soaking really, but didn't even seem to feel the cold. Even with the door wide open, rattling in its hinges. Instead of answering, Ross grinned. "I saw you with him, you know. Months ago. Kissing Caroline one minute, you the next. How is it, that the most horrid people get all the women?"
"He isn't awful," Jodie snapped - and then Ross' eyes narrowed and she stepped back, into the safety of the archway. Using Avery as cover.
"Look. Ross, isn't it? Why don't you put the knife away, and calm down?" Avery came to stand beside Micah, shivering as the open door dusted her with soggy snow. Yet she forced herself to make eye contact, forced herself to keep him busy. Maybe, with his attention on them, Caroline could slip away. "I don't know what happened between you and Aaron, but I know he didn't deserve to be killed over it. No one else had to be hurt."
Ever so slowly, Caroline began edging sideways, sliding her feet across the floor to avoid making a sound. Avery watched her from the corner of her eyes, heart lurching with every step. If she could slip around Daryl and take cover behind him, she'd be safe.
Ross snapped her attention back into focus with a sharp, humourless laugh. "You think I'll just lie down and accept this? Give up now because I've been caught. Please. I've been planning this for months - I knew Micah would want to come here since my parents put the place up for rent. All I had to do was pull some strings, make sure Aaron tagged along. I just didn't realise there would be so many of you."
Avery shuddered, the fight leaving her. It was impossible to think that this man, wild-eyed and frantic, had orchestrated this from the beginning. It made her want to vomit, but she was too afraid to even move.
Finally, Caroline slipped behind Daryl, unseen. He stood in the archway, blocking the way into the house, covering both Jodie and Caroline. It was a small blessing, really.
"What did Aaron do to you that was so terrible? What on earth made you think that this made sense?" Avery was shaking now, without a way to hide it, and the cold was seeping into her very bones. When she looked down, her fingers were bright red from the frigid air. swallowing, she continued, "you don't want this, really. So please, just put the knife down." Perhaps she could have reasoned with him, as doubtful as it was, but then Avery made a fatal mistake. She stepped forward, hand outstretched, hoping to ease him into a sense of safety.
In a flash, Ross snatched her by the wrist and yanked her forward with enough force to send pain shooting up her arm. Then his arms were around her, something cool pressed against the side of her neck. He was wiry and thin, but there was hidden strength there she hadn't expected.
Securely locked in his arms, Avery couldn't so much as budge.
"If anyone takes another step, she's dead."
They shouldn't have tried to talk to him, Avery realised. They should have knocked him out, damn the risk, overpowered him while they had the chance. Heart thundering against her ribs, Avery blinked back tears.
No one dared to move. Not even Daryl, who was always the bravest of the entire group. They all stood frozen, eyes flickering from Ross to Avery, unwilling to risk hurting her. It only made her panic rise as she squirmed against his grasp, without luck.
"Do you want her to end up like Aaron?" Ross snapped. He was shaking, badly, and even in her muddled state, Avery knew it wasn't entirely from the blizzard. Yet he continued to hold her painfully tight, the knife mere centimetres from cutting into her tender neck. "Do you want to know how I killed him?"
Somewhere behind Daryl, Jodie whimpered.
Micah, eyes dark and furious, clenched his fists. "I think I know why you're so angry with him," he said, voice rough, "he did to you what he did to me, right? Cheated on you with someone else. Someone you knew." He licked his lips, nervous eyes darting to Avery, "I know how you feel - I hated him too when I found out. Then I realised there's no point in being angry over something that can't be changed."
Silence. The wind screamed, Avery's pulse rushed in her ears, but nobody moved or spoke. Her breath came in short rasps now, but she didn't dare to move in case he decided just to finish her here.
Finally, Ross spoke. His voice was pitched, uneven, giving away far more emotion than he wanted to let on. "For him to cheat on me, he would have had to go out with me first. He wouldn't even do that. I knew he was into men - he told me so himself - but he wouldn't tell anyone the truth. Wouldn't give me the time of day, really. How is that fair?"
Maybe he just wasn't into you, Avery thought fleetingly - but in his anger, Ross had pressed the knife against her skin and suddenly all other thoughts fled her mind. Pain tickled at her neck, the cold blade digging in, and she prayed he didn't move again. Any closer and she'd be cut.
"You killed him because he wouldn't go out with you?" Daryl breathed, incredulous, his breath hitched. Yet even as he spoke, his eyes were fixed on Avery. Was he coming up with a plan?
Ross let out another of those dark, raspy laughs, and it made Avery's skin crawl. "I was in love with him, had been since college. Twelve years I'd been in love with him, and he knew all that time. What did I get in return for those feelings? Absolutely nothing. He abandoned me, locked me out of his life, but I did nothing wrong."
The pressure on her neck was painful now, warmth dribbling down from where the knife dug in. Tears dripped down her face, splashed against her cheeks, blurring Avery's vision.
"If he didn't love me, I would have made him, but then he went and abandoned me."
"You can't make someone love you," Caroline mumbled from behind Daryl. She inched forward, her eyes steely, lip caught between her teeth. "You think you're the only one hurt by him? You aren't special just because you're acting out."
His grip tightened around Avery, crushing her back against his chest until her ribs and spine screamed to be let go. She sucked in a breath but he wasn't thinking about her any more. Probably didn't even remember she was there. "Don't you see that this was the only way? I thought moving away would help me forget him, but that didn't work. So I came back to Scotland, my home - and what do I see? Aaron, doing what he always does. Ruining lives. So I knew what I had to do."
All of this, over unrequited love? Had Ross always been this terrifying, or was it a new development? The tears continued to stream down her face, soaking into the fabric of her pyjama shirt, mixing with the droplets of blood that fell from the knife. It was hopeless now - if she tried to get free, he'd kill her. If someone tried to rush him, he'd kill them. No matter what anyone did, the only outcome was somebody getting hurt. Her stomach rolled, vomit rising in her throat.
Lights from the living room. No, from outside. For a moment the windows flashed blue. Belatedly, over the roar of the wind and her own heartbeat, the wail of sirens reached Avery's ears. Her heart lurched, eyes going wide, as realisation set in.
The police were here.
Ross panicked. He threw Avery away from him and she stumbled, feet numb from the cold. Micah rushed to catch her and they both tumbled to the ground in a mess of limbs.
Daryl was quicker, steadier, as he darted forward. He darted around them, slamming into Ross' much smaller body before he could reach the back door to escape. Together they slammed into the kitchen counter with a cry, Ross struggling against Daryl's iron grip - but Daryl was stronger, fitter, and in one swift move he had Ross' arms pinned behind his back, face pressed against the cold countertop.
The sirens were louder now, piercing through the night as lights flashed outside. Jodie ran to the living room, disappearing around the corner, and yanked the door open.
Caroline was the only one who didn't move, stood frozen in the archway. She was too weak to help restrain Ross and she looked dazed, her face ashy pale. It wasn't until Avery stood, Micah right beside her, that Caroline seemed to snap back to reality. Her eyes locked onto Avery's neck, face going slack. "Oh, you're injured."
"It can wait," she replied quietly.
There was no time to say anything else because soon enough two policemen barged through, their faces grim. "Is everyone all right?" the first one asked, eyes scanning over the scene. His eyes landed on Avery briefly, before landing on Daryl, still wrestling with the struggling Ross. "We had a report of a missing person, possible murder."
"Yeah," Daryl breathed heavily. "It was him. He did it."
And just like that, it was over. Avery was dimly aware of handcuffs being brought out; of the second officer saying something about medical attention, but it all drifted away into the background. She wandered into the living room, glancing outside to see two heavy police cars and... a snowplough? Ah. That explained how they got here in time. Plopping down onto the sofa, she stared into the fire.
Someone settled down beside her, the sofa dipping under their weight. Octavia. Avery managed a faint smile, scrubbing away the last of her tears. "You got here just in time," she mentioned, "you saved my life."
"It was that close?"
"I think so." In the kitchen the policemen were barking orders, Ross was being read his rights. It all seemed so far away, almost unreal. "Turns out someone had been hiding in here the entire time. An old flame of Aaron's. Well, sort of. He was completely obsessed with Aaron, would you believe?"
Octavia reached out to tuck loose hair behind Avery's ear. Then her face fell, and Avery knew why. "You're bleeding. There's a medic outside. I could bring her in for you?"
Avery didn't reply - and there was no chance to because at that moment the policemen appeared with Ross in their grasp. He spat and swore, struggling in their grip, but the policemen simply walked him outside. At the last moment, he turned to Avery, his eyes beady and narrow, before he was forced through the door and into the cold.
"That's him?" Octavia asked.
"Yeah." The energy was drained from her. Adrenaline seeping from her, the sleepless nights and days of panic left her exhausted beyond belief. She parted her lips to speak again, before realising she didn't have anything to say.
One by one, everyone else joined them. Caroline first, curling in on herself and avoiding everyone else's gaze. Then Micah, so pale he looked as if he might pass out. Jodie, her cheeks stained with tears. Finally Daryl, a bruise across his cheek. Had Ross struck him?
"They're going to look for Aaron's body when the snow dies down," he said, voice hollow, "and they need to question us, too. I don't know if we have to stay here or if they'll send a bigger vehicle to take us into town..." he trailed off, raking a hand across his face.
Silence descended over them. Thick. Tense. Awkward. Yet it was almost a relief compared to the chaos of before, and Avery relished it.
The group couldn't come back from this. Their friendship was changed for life, perhaps ruined, by what had happened. Yet they were safe and mostly unharmed, and Aaron's murderer was currently being shoved into a police car just meters away.
Idly, Avery glanced at the clock above the mantelpiece. The hands ticked silently, and as she let out a dull sight, as it hit midnight.
"Merry Christmas," Jodie murmured from her left, and let out a tiny chuckle.
Somehow that, of all things, made relief flood Avery's chest. It was finally over, and just in time for Christmas day.