BY HANNAH WESTMAN
Avery had a pounding headache settling into the back of her skull, caused by too many sleepless nights and the constant stress of... well, everything. She felt sick, too, except there wasn't actually enough in her stomach to throw up, so she was stuck with a queasy feeling and no way to get rid of it.
It was only made worse by the muffled shouts from the hallway, words she couldn't understand and didn't want to. Eyes pinched shut, she rolled over in bed and stuffed the pillow over her ears - it didn't block out a single thing. She understood, really, but what did fighting do to solve anything?
The shouting petered out after a moment, silence filling up the space - and then Jodie's voice cried out what the hell?
Avery bolted upright, gaze fixed on the door as if she expected someone to come bursting through. That didn't happen, of course, and the door stayed firmly shut. Slowly, Avery rose from the bed, feet cold against the floor, and peeked out into the hall.
Caroline was picking herself up off the floor, Daryl's arms wrapped firmly around her waist. Jodie looked on with a dark scowl etched into her features - but for once it wasn't aimed at Caroline, but Micah.
Sliding into the hall, Avery asked, "what's going on?"
"That's what we're trying to figure out," Daryl answered gently. He had never been particularly soft, gentleness not in his nature, but he cradled Caroline as if she was made of glass. When she turned her head to look at her, Avery saw why; a bright red mark bloomed across her cheek, her eyes stinging with tears.
Anger flared in her chest, face set in a scowl as she stormed over. She shoved past Micah, stalking right for Jodie as she hissed, "what did you do to her?"
Daryl caught her around the wrist, tugging her backward before she could do something stupid. "It wasn't Jodie," he murmured into her ear, "Micah did it."
Her brain faltered for a second and she ground to a halt with Daryl's fingers still wrapped around her wrist. "Micah?" She turned to him then, realisation dawning as her brows furrowed. "Are you insane? We're supposed to be in this together."
His cheeks flushed scarlet, but his breaths came in deep gasps, whole body stiff. Avery knew the look of a man coming down from his anger - she had just never expected to see it in a man like Micah. He was always so composed, perfectly dressed and with the attitude to match.
Heat still simmering under her skin, Avery wrenched her arm from Daryl's grasp and jabbed an accusing finger at Micah. "You can't go around hitting people. Explain yourself."
He at least had the decency to look embarrassed, his face turning a deep shade of red as he ducked his head. "I-I don't know," he admitted, "we were arguing, and then she brought up Jodie and I just lost it. It's her own fault for antagonising me."
"You were the one getting aggressive," Caroline snapped, but there was no real venom in her voice. Swallowing thickly, she dropped her gaze. "There was no need to lash out."
Micah was still scowling, arms folded defensively across his broad chest. Although he didn't seem much like his wife on the surface, they both shared a deep hatred of admitting they were wrong. So deep, in fact, that Avery had only heard Micah apologise twice in all the years of knowing him.
Her headache was really stabbing now, little needle pricks in the back of her skull. Pinching the bridge of her nose, Avery let out a groan. "I don't know what you were arguing over and I don't want to, because it's only going to start a whole thing that nobody has the energy for. Micah, just get out of here."
He looked like he was going to argue, his eyes narrowed and chest heaving - but then after a moment he stormed off down the hall, wrenching open his bedroom door and letting it slam shut behind him.
In the following silence, nobody could quite force themselves to make eye contact. Even Jodie looked embarrassed, staring off after Micah like she wanted to go after him. She didn't though - and no one else moved either.
It was Caroline who spoke first, her voice barely above a whisper, "it isn't his fault," she muttered, "I pushed him too far."
"It still wasn't right of him to slap you," Daryl replied, a hardness in his voice not directed at Caroline herself. Then he sighed, running a hand down his face and pinching his eyes shut. "This situation is getting to us all, but it's no excuse to get violent."
"I'll go talk to him," Jodie muttered. She trudged off toward the bedroom, as if the effort of dragging her own feet was just too much. She paused by the door, taking a deep breath, and went inside.
"I don't think it's going to be pretty," Caroline said with a wince, "I'm out of here."
Avery followed her into the living room, mostly just because she didn't want Caroline to be alone. Their two-person rule didn't work now without Olivia, but something told her that she needed to stay with Caroline; if only for the moral support. They collapsed onto the sofa side by side, head tilted back to stare at the ceiling.
"I can't believe he did that," Avery hissed, "I've never seen Micah do anything like that before. You should put something cold on that, in case it swells."
Caroline only shrugged, sinking further into her seat. "It doesn't hurt so bad," she muttered, "besides, it hardly seems important compared to what could have happened."
Meaning what happened to Aaron. For that, Avery had no reply, so she simply nodded solemnly and kept quiet.
It wasn't long before Daryl joined them, collapsing into the armchair closest to the fire. His body cast a dark shadow across the far wall. something vaguely human-shaped, but twisted into something else, too. When he leaned back, the shadow disappeared, and it was just a normal wall again.
"I really didn't mean for this to happen," Caroline murmured, "but now Micah and Jodie are both angry at me. It seems silly to worry about it with everything that's going on, but... I can't help but wonder what's going to happen once we get out of here." She looked as if she wanted to add something else, and Avery had the sinking suspicion it was if we get out of here.
Wrapping a slender arm around Caroline's small frame, Avery pulled her in close. They sat like that for a moment, Caroline's head on Avery's shoulder, staring into the depths of the crackling fire.
It wasn't long before voices drifted up from the hall. Quiet at first, as if making an attempt to be quiet - and then louder, echoing down the hall as any pretence of subtlety was abandoned. The words were muffled, barely words at all, but Avery didn't have to guess to know what they were fighting about.
"You would think with everything, fighting would be the least of their worries," Daryl mumbled. He was scrolling through his phone, refreshing the same page over and over. "Still no signal. I hope Olivia's all right."
Even with the fire blazing it was cold - freezing, even - and although the continuous noise of the storm was all but background noise now, the cold wasn't something Avery could get used to. She stood, reaching over to bundle herself into a thick, fleecy blanket, wrapping it around her narrow shoulders so it dragged out behind her. "I'm going to make tea," she announced, "anything to stave off this chill."
The mention of it made her frown, burying deeper into the blanket. Aaron hadn't had the choice to make tea, when he was stuck out there. He hadn't had extra blankets or fluffy slippers or a hot fire to keep him warm. He'd been alone, slowly freezing to death - or worse, he hadn't been alone at all.
"I'll take coffee," Daryl murmured from his spot by the fire, "it's the only thing keeping me going now."
"I'll have coffee too. Extra strong."
Avery frowned, thick brow quirked. "Should you really have that much caffeine, considering you're preg- oh damn." Hand clamped over her lips, Avery shot a wide-eyed look from Caroline to Daryl, but he didn't even react.
"It's all right," Caroline reassured. She looked exhausted, but she managed to wave away Avery's concerns. "Daryl knows. I told him earlier."
"Oh." Blinking, Avery took a moment to process - she'd always assumed she was Caroline's sole confidant, the one she went to with everything; but now everything was up in the air and Avery had to wonder if she knew anything any more. Scraping a hand through her dark hair, Avery turned to dart into the kitchen.
Their friendship had always felt so natural despite the considerable age difference. Yet now, after all of this, it felt so forced.
Making tea and coffee was easy enough, and Avery spent longer than necessary rummaging in the fridge for milk. It was nearly expired; another reminder of how long they had been stuck here, how much longer they could be stuck here still. Shoving it back into the fridge with more force than strictly necessary, Avery let out a sigh.
At the very least, through here the wind whirled even louder, thanks to the enormous ceiling length windows, and it blocked out the sound of Jodie and Micah down the hall. Truthfully, she had always seen them as the perfect couple - and while Avery had never been interested in romance, she had assumed that if she had been, she would have wanted someone like Micah.
Perhaps she had missed a bullet there.
When she wandered back into the living room carrying a tray of drinks, Daryl was on his feet. Hands held high above his head, he looked utterly ridiculous, and Avery sent him a questioning look as he brought his arms back down. He was holding his phone, a little notification popping up on the home screen.
"You have a signal?"
"Enough to get one, single text," he huffed, hands swiping across the screen. Olivia's name appeared, followed by a long list of their chat history. Avery peered over his shoulder as he anxiously opened the message, his hands shaking so badly it was difficult to see.
Made it to the police, but station is deserted. Said it's too dangerous to get to you until storm dies down. No rescue team; home for the holidays.
A second text buzzed in and Avery jumped, fingers digging into Daryl's shoulders.
Stay safe. I hope you get this.
It wasn't the good news they had hoped for, but Avery still felt a spark of relief knowing Olivia was safe. "When was this sent?" she asked, stepping back to give Daryl room. She wanted to hug him, to throw her arms around both Caroline and Daryl until they couldn't stand it any more. She just wasn't sure how much crowding anyone could take right now.
He shrugged, squinting at the screen. "It only says when I received it, not when it was sent," he replied with a frown, "it's good though, that she got to town all right. I wonder where she'll stay the night?"
Avery hadn't even thought of that. She had been so focused on Olivia just getting there, that the rest had sort of blanked in her mind. Collapsing back onto the sofa, she felt the relief drain from her. Well, that had been short-lived.
"Olivia's scarily resourceful," Caroline cut in, "she'll find somewhere, even if it means camping out on a strangers couch overnight."
"That's what I'm afraid of," Avery whispered. Here, the constant threat of the unknown loomed over them - but at least they were together, able to see whatever was thrown at them. But Olivia? If something happened to her, none of them could do a thing about it. They wouldn't even know.
Caroline shivered as she pulled her knees up to her chest. She reached for the coffee, yet when she took a sip her enthusiasm for it had vanished.
Avery felt the same, but dehydration nagged at the back of her mind and her thudding headache continued, so she forced herself to drink. "Olivia's fine," she said softly, "and we will be too. Nothing had happened to us since... since Aaron disappeared. So maybe the rest of us are perfectly safe and we've got this all wrong."
Daryl sighed, running a hand across his stubbled head. "I know you want to stay optimistic, Avery, but we also have to be realistic." Funny, since he was the one who had been trying to keep everything together since the start. He looked terrible, with dark circles under his eyes and the shadow of a beard beginning to grow. She doubted she looked any better, but it was difficult to see him so unlike himself.
Silence fell over them, broken only by the shrieking wind. Then the door down the hall flew open and Jodie stormed out, face red with fury. She didn't look at anyone as she stalked past, marching up the stairs without so much as a word. The stomping continued, following directly above them, before another door slammed closed somewhere above.
Micah slinked out a moment later, his features twisted into a frown as he sheepishly sidled over. "I'm sorry about earlier," he murmured, "I shouldn't have lost my temper like that, and I shouldn't have hurt you."
He sounded like a scolded child, only half sincere, but Caroline offered a nervous smile. "We're al under a lot of pressure right now," she answered, "which doesn't make it all right but... I understand."
"Thank you." He smiled back, but it looked forced. Then he ran a hand through his hair and retreated back to the bedroom, letting the door thud closed behind him.
The rest of the day passed in tense silence, with neither Jodie nor Micah making another appearance until the sun had already set and bathed the house in orange light. Everyone retired for bed without fanfare, lost in their own thoughts, and said goodnights with tired, sleep-rough voices.
It was Christmas tomorrow, and Avery didn't expect she would sleep tonight.