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Cabin In The Woods

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There’s this one cabin, at Camp David, that’s set slightly apart from the others. I think the original idea was to provide some extra privacy – it’s larger than most, not as big as the one for the first family, but if another staffer brought their kids there’d be plenty of room… and I’m sure it’s been chosen for many a discreet side-meeting (and probably the odd indiscretion). But for whatever reason, it doesn’t get used much anymore, and it hasn’t been as well looked after as the buildings in the main compound.
And so it was inevitable, really, that when half the DNC invited themselves along to what was meant to be a quiet midterms strategy retreat and we ran out of space, that I’d get moved up there. I didn’t even draw a short straw – Leo hadn’t finished getting the words out, saying that someone would have to take the old place, when CJ yelled my name. I’m not absolutely sure what I’d done this time, but I don’t really mind. It’s clearly going to be the party house. I should have brought some tequila or something.
When I discovered the place had several bedrooms I invented an excuse to bring Donna up to Camp David. I wasn’t about to share a wooden shack that only has one bathroom with some jumped up wannabe from the national committee. And it scored me some major boss points. She’d been sulking for a week about not getting to come along. Usually, she sulks when I make her work at the weekend, but I give her the weekend off and noooooo. Women.

Whether it was the almost complete lack of cell phone signal for anyone to get pressured from inside the Beltway, or the basketball grudge match dispute resolution system, we actually got a lot done, except for this one fight Toby and I got into with Joss (what kind of a name is Joss, I ask you?) from the message strategy team about violence in Hollywood. Typical Toby, he’ll go thirteen rounds with any of us over this any day in the office, but outside the White House and he wipes the floor with anyone who dares challenge our position. This guy would. Not. Shut. Up, though. He kept insisting that gory films had become boring and predictable which meant that filmmakers were going to have to go even further to get an audience reaction. When Toby started yelling about the Godfather, I went over to see what Donna was doing (she was trying to convince CJ to ask some schmuck from congressional recruitment out for a drink. I was doing them both a favour by making her come talk to me instead).

Either because we’d mostly done OK or because he was tired of us bickering, Leo dismissed everyone before dinner on Sunday to give people time to drive back. But then the President refused to leave. It was one of their particularly domestic fights (we hid in the kitchen and eavesdropped while stealing everything sugar-related we could find), but it ended with the First Lady guilting Leo into not only letting us all stay, but also him having dinner in the family cabin with them – and turning the rest of us loose for the night.

With everyone else gone, I could have moved back into my usual cabin between Sam’s and Toby’s, but by then I’d found the fire pit. Definitely the party cabin. I’m totally calling this one every time from now on.

We ate dinner in the common room. Mordecai, my favorite steward, offered to go and get us stuff to grill outside, and I was about to say yes when Donna did that thing with her eyes that lets me know that she knows I was about to do something inconsiderate but that I just needed a little reminder not to do it and that she’s really proud of me for not doing it. Sometimes having her around makes me feel a bit dizzy. The chili he served up was fantastic, though – apparently he made it with lamb, which I tried not to think too hard about - and it tasted suspiciously like what the President serves up when Zoey isn’t around to help (I’ve never actually seen Morty at the White House but you never know). After that, though, we foraged for s’mores materials and beer (I really would have brought tequila if I’d known), bundled up (except for Toby, who took CJ’s scolding without comment and then sheepishly explained he wanted to smoke, and that Andy would yell if she smelled cigar smoke on his coat – and why and how she was still allowed to make him promise to give up smoking utterly eludes me) and trooped out to what I now think of as our house.

Turns out our pyromaniac reputations had preceded us, because while we were at dinner someone had laid a fire out in the pit, and there was a box of firelighter tapers with a large safety warning printed on the side sitting on a nearby log. CJ took one look at me and Sam eyeing up the matches and ordered us back to the main kitchen to get ice. By the time we made it back they’d got a nice blaze going and Donna was making the girliest looking s’mores I’ve ever seen. Without even thinking, I moved in behind her and took the stick out of her hand.

“No, look, sweetheart, you’re being too careful, see…”

At first I was too busy setting fire to my marshmallow to notice everyone’s faces after I called her that. I don’t usually do that, but she looked really cute sitting there concentrating. As I blew it out and smooshed it onto a cracker I noticed CJ making faces at me, but when I gestured “What?” she didn’t say anything and hit Toby – who had been about to say something – instead. So I gave Donna my s’more and made myself another one, which Sam traded me for a beer. I gave that to Donna too, but before I could get one for myself she took a sip and gave it back. I guess sharing beers is one of our things now. I mind it much less than when she steals my food, and even that I don’t really mind that much, except that she never eats anything of her own that I want to steal back. Soups and salads and endless, endless yoghurts.

Through the flames I saw CJ hit Toby again, presumably because he was about to say something about the beer sharing. I can’t figure her out sometimes. Over the years, she’s yelled at me taking Donna for granted and for being mean to her, and also for giving Donna too much access and being too touchy-feely with her. I have no idea what Toby would have said if she’d let him, but she seemed determined that he not call me on my behaviour or tease me or whatever. He probably thought I should cool it - but I also know he adores Donna and wouldn’t have wanted to embarrass her. He doesn’t think I know that. I should start using that to my advantage more. I was about to put my arm around Donna’s shoulder, mostly to see what happened but also because, hell, I wanted to, and it was cold out there and she was wearing that stupid adorable hat and it was just us and it was our night off and I was getting really tired of this being held over my head as a thing when the President lied about his MS, Leo’s a recovering drug addict, CJ makes out with the Post’s main guy at the White House, Toby’s still sleeping with his ex wife who is also a congresswoman, and Sam’s friends with a hooker.

But then CJ did say something. Not about me and Donna, but it caught my attention.

“Does anyone know any good scary stories?”

I don’t have time to read a lot these days and when I do it’s usually the obligatory political memoirs, but there we were sitting here with two of the best writers in the world - and CJ herself is arguably a professional storyteller and whether she’d agree with that or not, she’s the best in the business. I handed the beer back to Donna then because if I’d gotten drunk I would’ve ended up saying stuff like that out loud. She clutched my hand for a second longer than usual when I passed her the bottle and I nudged her with my shoulder.

“You OK?”, I whispered.

“I don’t like scary stories,” she whispered back. I did put my arm around her shoulders then, although CJ didn’t notice my defiant glare.

“I’ll protect you.” That came out sounding as ludicrous as you would expect, and she giggled, which was probably a better outcome than her actually trusting me to ward off any mythical monsters. She shifted next to me, getting comfortable, her face relaxing into an attentive expression.

Toby spoke first.

“There’s this one about the economy that will keep you up nights…”

CJ threw a marshmallow at him. He caught it without looking and Sam whooped, and then spoke up.

“I actually don’t.”

“You were a boy scout!”

“I was an Eagle Scout, thank you very much.”

“And you never once heard a scary story?”

“You asked for good scary stories.”

“I’m not asking you for Poe, Skippy. I just want you to scare me.”

Sam gave her an odd look – I think he has a little crush on her and I know he’s still a bit scared of her sometimes. He sighed, looking genuinely saddened at offering anything other than the finest quality of spooky story, and settled back against the log. After a moment he summoned a rakish grin.

“You’re going to regret saying that, Claudia Jean.”

CJ picked up a marshmallow to throw at him too but thought better of it and ate it instead.

“It was a dark and stormy night…”

He trailed off, and looked around expectantly.

“What do you reckon, guys? Campers? Honeymooning couple?”

CJ grinned delightedly.

“You’re making it up?”

Behind Sam, Toby smiled warmly. He blusters and shouts but I know one of the things he values the most is Sam’s uncanny ability to spout prose on his toes.

Prose on his toes. Jeez. I wasn’t sure if I should stop drinking or urgently have more.

CJ thought for a moment and then straightened up, brightening and pointing at the house behind us.

“Cabin in the woods, Sam.”

He smiled and nodded, forgetting his earlier misgivings, accepting the beer Toby handed to him without breaking his concentration.

“It was a dark and stormy night, and the cabin in the woods looked forbiddingly uninviting, as our heroes pulled up, hours later than planned. It was Spring Break and…” He paused and looked around, smiling fondly at each of us. “…and the unlikely group of friends, three guys and two girls, had barely even known where they were going before they set off. They were borrowing the place from someone’s cousin—“

“Uncle,” CJ cut in.

“Uncle fluffy,” Toby muttered darkly.

Sam ignored them.

“…and had got lost so many times on the drive, they weren’t even sure they could find their way back again.”

“They hauled their stuff onto the porch…” He looked me in the eye, then, with a guilty expression, and I knew what was coming. “But before going in, they walked over to look at the lake.”

Donna noticed the unspoken exchange and turned slightly towards me, her brow furrowed in confusion.

“What was that about?,” she asked quietly, while Sam began to describe his characters and CJ yelled at him about one of the girls being a virgin. “It’s tradition!” he yelled back, and I tuned them out, trying to formulate an answer that didn’t sound weird – something years of therapy hadn’t managed to achieve, but I really didn’t want to freak Donna out. I nodded towards the flames.

“Have you never thought it’s odd that I’m not scared of fire?”

It took a moment for comprehension to dawn, and then she gave me a look of such concern I hastily changed tacks.

“I mean I’m, you know, safety conscious…”

It took an effort on her part to overcome the worry I saw in her eyes, but she grinned and shook her head at me.

“You’re the least safety conscious person I know, Josh. You nearly burned the White House down.”

“I know. Because I’m not scared of fire.” I took a deep breath. “I’m actually kind of… fascinated by it.”

She stared at me for just long enough to make me squirm.

“That makes sense.”

She was the only person to whom it ever had, but that was barely even a surprise, really.

“But here’s the weird thing.”

“You’re scared of water.”

“Yeah. And Sam… well, he really, really isn’t.”

“He sails.”

“Yeah.”

“He took you sailing?”

I shuddered at the recollection.

“Yeah.”

“Did you fall in?”

I ran a hand over my face.

“I never even made it onto the boat.” I took a deep breath and decided to spill. “Turns out, my biggest fear is that there’s… something. Underwater.”

Her lips twisted as she tried to take me seriously.

“Like Jaws?”

I closed my eyes.

“That was pretty scary. But I guess I’m imagining something that could, like… grab me.”

She gave up, and giggled at me.

“Like a mermaid?”

I feigned indignation.

“I could fight off a girl, Donna.”

She raised her eyebrows.

“I doubt that, but OK. A merman. A big, strapping merman.”

I shook my head, grateful to be laughing about it. I might have ended up telling her more specifically what frightened me but the yelling from across the campfire got too loud to ignore. We looked over to where CJ was now on her feet, gesticulating wildly at Sam, and I took advantage of the distraction to move a little closer, wrap my arm a little tighter. She brought her hand up to where mine rested on her shoulder and squeezed.

“But why does these girls’ sexuality even have to come into it? That’s preposterous! Just because one of them’s more promiscuous doesn’t mean she should have to die first!”

“No one’s died yet!” Sam exclaimed.

“No, but you said, that’s why we need to know, the blonde is the floozy so she’s going to die first! And the other one, the mousy one—“

“Redhead,” Toby cut in.

“—the red… What?”

She spun around and turned her ire on Toby, who was gnawing on an unlit cigar and finally looking like he was enjoying himself.

“The other one should be a redhead.”

“So you’re OK with her sexuality being exploited for narrative purposes as long as she has red hair the way you like?”

Toby chuckled.

“No, I think she should sleep with whoever she wants to,” he gave her a pointed look, “and not be judged for it, but I think her hair should be red because redheads are feisty.”

Sam buried his head in his hands. I kissed Donna on the cheek, figuring either I’d get away with it or at least I’d get CJ to snap out of it.

“Joshua!”

She gave me an almost manic smile.

“You only ever went to Government camp—“ Donna beside me convulsed with giggles, I knew I was ever going to hear the end of that, “but surely you must know some scary stories, so tell us. What happens next?”

I had no idea what had happened already but I was quite keen to get everyone away from the lake.

“They go into the house.”

I glanced down at the bottle in my hand.

“And, uh, get drunk.”

CJ raised a skeptical eyebrow at me. I thought of what I was doing with Donna, the way I was edging as close as I could to something I could actually get reprimanded for without ever fully committing, and how tired I was of that but of how many things would have to be untangled before anything would change. I took a deep breath.

“And they play truth or dare.”

Sam rubbed his hands together, a gleeful expression on his face; Toby rolled his eyes and went back to ignoring us. CJ got a positively predatory gleam in her eyes.

“Let me guess.”

I think I must have flinched because Donna squeezed my hand tighter. CJ’s gaze flickered to where our fingers tangled together on Donna’s shoulder, and she tossed her head.

“The pretty, desirable blonde does something forbidden?”

Donna froze. I cast Sam an imploring look, and he cut in.

“Actually, when they’re about to give a dare…” I could practically see the cogs in his brain turning, like he was mentally reviewing a file neatly labeled “horror story tropes” that he’d kept for just such an occasion. Always be prepared, right? His face lit up.

“A trapdoor in the floor flew open with a bang.”

Suddenly curious, CJ sat quietly back down. Toby had lit his cigar, but I could tell he was paying attention.

“They dare the redhead,” he nodded at Toby, “to go down…” He blushed. “Downstairs. They dare the redhead to go downstairs.”

He paused to think for so long CJ nudged him with her foot.

“And what does she find when she goes downstairs, Skippy?”

“All kinds of things.” He was stalling for time, clearly not happy with whatever he was coming up with. “A music box and, uh… an old necklace and, um, a puzzle… and a diary,” he finished triumphantly, finally happy with the plot he was sketching out in his head. Donna’s hand twitched almost imperceptibly.

“Isn’t that rather a lot?”

He gave CJ a confused look.

“That’s a lot of maleficent objects, Sam. You said you were doing this by the rules.”

He made a face at her.

“Never mind the other stuff. The redhead opens the diary.” He looked around us all, making sure we were paying attention, and was visibly gratified that every last one of us was hanging on to his every word. “It’s a little girl’s diary. It describes some terrible things that happened in that very house. And on one day… it just stops.”

A loud bang echoed through the forest around us and we all jumped about ten feet in the air. In about three seconds flat we were all on our feet, pointing flashlights in different directions.

“Is anyone there?”, CJ called.

Then the beam of Toby’s torch found the door of the cabin, which had blown open and was flapping in the wind – he kept the light trained on it as it slammed and banged again. He laughed, and took a step away, turning to illuminate us. With his cigar in one hand and his flashlight in the other he looked like the protagonist of a pretty scary story himself, and I bet we look no less ridiculous, CJ and Sam back-to-back and gasping for breath, Donna still pressed against me, armed with beer bottles and marshmallows in our thoroughly unsuitable urban winter clothes.

“The Vanity Fair reporter should be here!,” Toby roared. “This right here, this is what they should be writing about!”

He threw his hands up.

“I need some pie.”

He started to walk away but doubled back, almost reluctantly.

“Wait… would you, ah, please wait for me. I want to hear what he comes up with.”

He gave Sam a look that was part exasperation, part affection, and Sam glowed almost as brightly as the fire.

CJ chased after Toby, promising to bring back liquor.

“See if you can find some tequila!”

“That sounds dangerous.” She grinned. “I will!”

“Uh oh,” said Sam.

He waited until they were out of earshot and then leaned forward.

“What’s CJ scared of, Josh?”

“Snakes,” I answered immediately. He looked disappointed. I leaned over to pat his leg, not letting go of Donna, with the end result that she was practically sprawled in my lap. Sam gave us a weird look but said nothing. She spoke up then.

“Curses.”

“What?”

“She thought she was cursed, once.”

“By what?”

“An Egyptian goddess. A cat named Bast. She broke her statue.”

“The diary could be cursed.”

Donna burst out laughing, and Sam looked slightly offended.

“What?”

“That’s Harry Potter!”

Sam and I exchanged an apprehensive look. Every so often, Donna would take us to task for our complete lack of awareness of current popular culture. She frequently used Harry Potter as an example, after one particularly embarrassing incident where I recognized the name on a quote someone used and spent half the day trying to work out which branch of government he was from.

“I’m pretty sure that book wasn’t the first one to use a cursed diary as a plot device.”

She grinned sweetly.

“Great writers steal, Sam.”

He chuckled at that.

“But in this case, CJ has nieces, she’ll recognize the reference and you’ll never hear the end of it.”

“What if the house was cursed?”

Donna cast a nervous look over her shoulder at the cabin behind us, where the door was still flapping around, but didn’t object, and Sam warmed to the idea.

“It doesn’t actually matter what any of the stuff in the cellar does or what it is that comes out of the woods – it’s the house itself!”

It sounded a bit shambolic to me. You need to be organized about these things. I’m not sure a curse could really account for every eventuality. But Sam was off to the races.

“They’ll never get out alive!”

I was suddenly very glad there weren’t any reporters, from Vanity Fair or anywhere else, within earshot.

“But what’s the monster?”

Sam frowned.

“Rednecks,” I muttered, still smarting from our great trans-American trek. Donna elbowed me in the ribs. “OK, fine. Zombies.”

“Pain worshippers.”

Sam shot Donna a surprised look. She shrugged, but looked genuinely rather nervous. “The scariest story I’ve ever read was about pain worshippers.”

Of course Donna’d read a bunch of scary stories, even though she doesn’t like them. Donna’s read a bunch of everything.

“You should be telling this.”

She just shook her head, looking down and hiding behind her hair. I considered moving her onto my lap but I didn’t want to provoke an end to CJ’s peculiar protective streak.

Meanwhile, Sam had just hit upon an idea he liked.

“Pain-worshipping redneck zombies.” He smiled wider. “A zombie redneck torture family.”

“That’s better than Pilgrim Detectives.”

He pulled back the beer he’d been about to give me. I held up my hand mock defensively.

“Zombie pain-worshipping pilgrim detectives would have been cool.”

He gave me one of those trademark self-deprecating Sam looks that always remind me that he got a call girl to sleep with him for free and she nearly got busted for his sake and she’s still friends with him anyway. I tighten my grip on Donna and offer up a quick thanks to the… whatever that she’s impervious to the obvious things about both of us (his charm, my lack thereof).

Crashing sounds from the direction of the compound heralded the return of CJ and Toby, toting several bottles and a large dish. Toby paused for a moment by the fire, surveyed us with a curious look in his eye, and then retreated back to his rock with the pie and a bottle of bourbon. CJ, on the other hand, nearly toppled over Sam, and handed round coffee mugs before spilling large amounts of vodka almost everywhere but in the cups. Sam narrowed his eyes at her and hurriedly started the story again, possibly concerned she was no longer very likely to remain conscious until the end.

Keeping one eye on CJ to see how she was reacting, I bent my head low and close to Donna, lifting my mug of vodka.

“What are we drinking to?”

She leaned back a little so she could look at me, and studied my face for a moment before smiling.

“To not being scared anymore.”

Suddenly I wasn’t sure I could swallow, but she just grinned and knocked her drink back and I followed suit, managing not to splutter at the burning sensation.

CJ hooted delightedly as Sam dramatically described the zombie redneck torture family lurching out of the woods.

I tuned out as Sam described the gruesome deaths of the kids in the cabin – the floozy first, of course, then the stoner kid. Sam looked a little hurt when he had to repeat his joke about the potato bong before I laughed and I tried to pay closer attention, but I was distracted by Donna, who seemed to be trying to take her own toast to heart and was listening raptly, smiling proudly as Sam embroidered ever more elaborate chases and feints, but absently, anxiously twisting the fabric of my coat in her hand, just above my knee. I had no idea whether she was even aware of what she was doing. I shifted against her and she flashed me a smile.

CJ laughed gleefully as the biggest zombie lost an arm to some kind of sailing-related weaponry – Sam was truly in his element now – and to my surprise flounced over to Toby, plopped down next to him, and threw an arm around his shoulders. I’m pretty sure she was just trying to steal his pie, or maybe his liquor, but I caught his eye through the flames and the look on his face went some way to explaining why CJ was now determinedly keeping her nose out of my thing with Donna. Danny had been gone for a while, after all.

For a moment I felt sorry for Sam, pacing alone, but he was enthralled in his own story, building a complicated network of rooms, each holding more gruesome torture devices than the last, under the cabin.

I glanced behind me. Mercifully, our own little wooden house had no cellar, or I’m not sure even I’d have slept OK after hearing about something completely disgusting to do with a hook, a chain and a circular saw. Donna looked queasy, and I looked over at CJ. Finding she was basically propped against Toby, drinking what I’m pretty sure was the President’s very expensive bourbon straight from the bottle, I decided I could take her if I had to, and pulled Donna onto my lap. She emitted a quiet little squeak of surprise but didn’t resist, and murmured “thank you” as she buried her head against my shoulder when Sam moved on to the annihilation of the final surviving pair.

When the redhead took a length of splintered plywood to the head, Toby abruptly stood up. CJ, who had been slumped against him, nearly fell face first into the dirt.

“I’m gonna stop you right there, Sam.”

“You’re standing up for the redhead, now, Toby?”

Toby looked piqued.

“I am standing up, Sam – literally standing,” he swayed a little, “standing up for narrative integrity!”

“Well you go, Toby,” mumbled CJ, practically horizontal, clutching the dish of pie.

“This girl, Sam, she’s got wits, she’s got cunning, she’s got…” he waved his hands in the air and glanced down at CJ for a moment at which point something occurred to him. “Legs! She’s got legs, Sam, she could run or hide or something…”

Donna had straightened up by now, giggling at Toby, but she made no move to get out of my lap.

“If they managed to kill the football star I think they’d catch her, Toby.” Sam was arguing his point with same seriousness he brought to policy.

“Maybe, but that’s…” Toby paused, whether for effect or because he couldn’t remember the word was unclear, “Monotonous! Which for a zombie redneck torture family is saying quite something!”

Sam looked chagrined.

“I wasn’t done yet.”

Toby looked somewhat mollified.

“There was a twist coming?”

Sam barreled eagerly on.

“Yes! The house is cursed. If she survives the zombies it’ll just be something else! Like…” he hesitated, and looked around for help.

“Snakes,” muttered CJ, shuddering.

‘Witches,” offered Donna.

“Sexy witches,” I added, earning me a gentle shove. I pretended to topple backwards, taking her with me, and she shrieked. For a moment I wished really, really hard that we were alone.

Toby glared at me before turning back to Sam.

“But don’t you see how pedestrian that is? You don’t just want some pre-ordained catastrophe, you want finesse… deliberation.”

Sam gave him a blank look, but it was one of those rare moments when Toby and I are completely in sync that can be kind of freakish.

“A puppetmaster, Sam. The zombies are basically animals. You want someone controlling them…”

“…who has a reason for killing these kids,” Toby finished.

I nudged Donna and she gracefully stepped out of my arms. As I stood to join Toby by the fire, she made her way round to CJ, grabbing a bottle of water from the stash of supplies en route. Sam looked from his boss to me and back and suddenly deflated. Having a deep sigh, he went and joined the girls. Donna moved over and he dropped down between them, each taking one of his arms and leaned their heads on his shoulders. CJ placated him by feeding him pie. He brightened up pretty quickly.

“Why would someone want to kill a bunch of college kids?” The opening question came from CJ. Toby got there first.

“It’s not because they’re college kids. It’s what Sam said before, it’s the whore, the virgin, the fool—“

I translated. “The floozy, the good girl and the stoner.”

Toby glared at me, but finished in my kind of words, “and the jock and the geek.”

“So like sacrificial virgins?”

“Yes, exactly.”

“SHE’S NOT A VIRGIN,” thundered CJ.

“It’s the 21st century, Claudia Jean. We work with what we can get.”

“We?” echoed Donna.

And that’s when it clicked.

“It might as well be – that’s it, Toby. Bureaucrats. In a bunker somewhere. Death by administration.”

He laughed appreciatively.

“Now you’re talking.”

“You’d need…” I searched my mind for what I knew of Hollywood. “Special effects. Animal wranglers.”

“Zombie wranglers,” Sam cut in.

“Chemists!” CJ added, “Maybe the floozy was just roofie’d!”

Toby smiled indulgently.

“And they’d be watching, right? And listening?”

“So the cabin’s bugged.”

“Like ours probably are,” he muttered darkly, and for a moment we all turned to look at the unassuming little wooden shack. I shuddered.

“So like a reality show?” asked Donna. Her eyes were wide, and for a moment I felt a stab of regret at upsetting her, but then I figured it would become less scary if we really blew it out of proportion.

“The reality show to end all reality shows. They’ve got, like, every monster you can imagine in storage.”

“Storage?”

“You’re worried about monster welfare, now, CJ? Cages, OK? Nice ones. Glass ones. With ventilation. And… food. Well, you know, stuff. For them to eat.”

“Stuff?”

“I don’t know, do I? Body parts?”

I looked to see if Toby wanted to interject anything more but he gestured for me to go on.

“They’ve got everything in there, giants and vampire bats and evil ballerinas—“ CJ cackled, “serial killers in white masks and aliens and unicorns…”

“Unicorns?”

“Shut up, CJ.”

“No, seriously, unicorns?”

“I don’t know, Sam, they’ve got the big thing, and they make people go all gooey, maybe that’s like hypnosis or something.”

He gave me a slightly worried look but then CJ fed him some more pie.

“What about mermen?,” Donna suggested and I tried to glare at her but it didn’t work.

“Just the one of those. He’s pretty badass.”

She giggled and I swear something actually fluttered in my chest.

“Wraiths,” Toby added from behind me and I turned back to him. Trust him to have had an apocryphal term at the tip of his tongue even though he was kind of unsteady on his feet by then.

“I don’t even know what those are.”

He glanced down at Sam and CJ and Donna, and of course he was the one who’d noticed that Donna was scared.

“Extra scary ghosts,” he kept his explanation palatable.

I nodded briefly, unwilling to try and picture it.

“And vampires and werewolves and…” I shuddered, “clowns.”

Donna and Sam both gave me a sympathetic look that was so identical on both of them that I had to laugh. Sam decided I need distracting.

“So how do they pick?”

And then his face lit up and he answered his own question.

“The stuff in the basement! They… it’s all… they’re triggers!”

Toby smiled and nodded. It was fun, but I have no idea why he cared so much. Even if we‘d been writing this down – and thank goodness we weren’t – it’s not like it was for an audience. We’ve spent less time on speeches than that. I guess he couldn’t help himself.

“So the little girl who wrote the diary became a torture zombie, and the music box would have summoned the evil ballerina…”

He became unintelligible as he worked out the various connections, and I moved on to more important matters.

“And the guys in the room, they place bets.”

When I think of evil people I think of betting. I have no idea why.

“On what it’s going to be?”

I nodded.

“They’d need a board to write it all on.”

Now that Donna’s not allowed to enter betting pools for me anymore I use my blackboard to work out who to pick for March Madness. It gets complicated sometimes. With baseball it’s easy. Mets or die, baby. That can get expensive, but it’s a mortal lock.

“So these are seasoned professionals, not, like, mad scientists.” CJ looked skeptical.

“Yeah! Don’t you think that’s creepier? A bunch of bureaucratic stooges in cheap ties?”

“But why?”

I waved my hand impatiently, I was too attached to the idea to think about reasons.

“I don’t know, same as us? Prevent the downfall of civilization?”

“Oh, is that what we’ve been doing all this time?”

I made a face at her and she started with the marshmallow tossing again. They mostly ended up in the fire and I realised it was past time to wrap this party up.

“So Toby, your kickass redhead…”

He smiled.

“She saves the world, of course.”

Donna and Sam beamed, but CJ was still stuck on the earlier thing.

“They were screwing around placing bets while sending out monsters to kill people?”

Toby sighed.

“We screw around placing bets in the White House while the Joint Chiefs send out people to kill people, CJ, all the time.”

She tilted her head to one side in acknowledgement, and then put a smile firmly back on her face.

“So you think a redhead’s gonna save us all, huh?”

He smirked at her.

“I’m not particular. A smart woman with principles, of that I am quite sure.”

“I’m on it.”

He roared with laughter and pulled her to her feet. Sam and Donna helped each other up and we bustled about, putting out the fire and gathering an alarmingly large number of empty bottles.

And then it was time to say goodnight and Sam and Toby had one of CJ’s arms each and they half walked, half fell down the hill back to the camp.

And Donna and I stood on the porch of our little wooden house and I swear, I saw the future.

I looked around at the dark trees with the stars peeking through and thought how peaceful it was, but I tried my luck.

“Are you still scared?”

I caught a flicker of a smile for a split second but she recovered impressively and gave me a staggeringly convincing doe-eyed look and bit her bottom lip, nodding.

I tried to keep my voice serious.

“I’ll protect you.”

She managed to look grateful and helpless for long enough for me to get my arms around her but not much longer, and we dissolved into giggles together on the porch.