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BUM BUM BUM IT'S HALLOWEEN

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“I personally feel like a cabin in the woods is way overboard,” Jeremy stated honestly. Jake just laughed softly and glanced over his shoulder to flash a beaming grin at Jeremy, amused. Jeremy was sat in the second row of seats of their rental van, which was super crowded by all his other friends. Michael was driving, Jake rode shotgun, and Jeremy was seat buddies with Rich and Christine. The rest of the girls sat in the back after designating it “the cool kid zone.”

“Dude, we all agreed on it a while ago. You said you liked the idea,” the jock pointed out, adjusting his seatbelt as he faced forward again. Michael snorted at the conversation, but otherwise remained focused on the unfamiliar road they were on. Rich and Christine were having an animated conversation about microwavable breakfast food, which made most of the noise in the vehicle. Chloe, Brooke, and Jenna were mostly on their phones behind them and stayed relatively silent except for the occasional huff of laughter at whatever they had on their screens.

“I said I liked the idea, but I didn’t think we were actually going to do it.” Camping out was never an issue for Jeremy, but this was totally beyond that. It was the summer after their junior year, and the group was on their way to some high-class cabin out in northeastern Pennsylvania. Rich was the one to insist they all go, and was immediately backed up by Brooke, who just seemed to enjoy agreeing with him. “You said there isn't even gonna be any phone service, right?”

“Yeah, but there's free Wifi and everything. It's not, like, shady or whatever. It's meant to be a vacation home, yeah, Rich?” Jake adjusted the rearview mirror to look at Rich, who was in the seat behind Michael's. Jeremy was between Rich and Christine, but ignored their breakfast sandwich talk the best he could. Rich looked up when he heard his name.

“Huh?” he said dumbly. Jake just laughed softly and Michael immediately reached up to adjust the mirror again. “Yeah, no, the thing said that there would be service in some parts of the place. Only one bar, though, which is enough to make a call and whatever. Sometimes the cell tower goes out, but that won’t matter. Plus, there’s this basement that's not even really a basement, it's mostly above ground. Honestly, though, the rest of it totally cancels those parts out! It's so new, it isn't even publicly listed yet. Connections, babe!”

“That's reassuring,” Michael quipped, nudging his glasses up. As if summoned by his voice, a few water droplets hit the windshield. Then a few more. Then it was drizzling over them enough that Michael decided to put the windshield wipers to their slowest setting. Jenna piped up from the seat behind Jeremy, the first thing she'd said in a good half hour.

“Pennsylvania gets some crazy storms during the summer. I packed hot cocoa mix if we need it.” Brooke, who sat behind Christine, made an “ooo” sound in response, not looking up from her phone. Jeremy eyed the light rain warily. Hopefully it wouldn't storm too hard for the week they were all living together. He loved his friends, but being cramped up in some rando's cabin for longer than planned wasn't a really pleasant thought. His hand moved to his stomach, then back to his lap. Jeremy tuned out and stared ahead out the windshield, ignoring the uncomfortable wrench in his gut and the killer headache he’d gotten from all the driving.

He didn't know when he'd fallen asleep, but Jeremy woke up to Christine gently patting the side of his face. Groggily, he lifted his head off her shoulder, looking around with the kind of confusion you only get after a really long, unexpected nap. Michael was cussing out his GPS, with Jake trying to correct their route with his own phone and his own wisdom. Rich had a full McDonald's bag in his lap, but just teasingly nibbled at a fry as Brooke protested quietly and reached to shake his shoulder. Chloe and Jenna were taking pictures of the window views with their phones having those obnoxious shutter sounds. It was kind of chaotic, and not at all pleasant to be bombarded with with after coming into consciousness. Jeremy felt his headache worsen.

“Wakey wakey, McGriddle eggs and bakey,” Christine chirped happily, a great juxtaposition to the rest of the car. Jeremy rubbed at his face, sitting up straight and looking around. Apparently, no one knew where they were. He tiredly sat through the noise of the car, slumping against his seat. It wasn't night yet, but it was pretty dark out. “We're close, I think. You were sleeping, but we found the town we're closest to and went past a drive-thru. You should've seen it, it was so cute! We didn't actually get McGriddles, though.”

He let Christine's happy chatter soothe him, and tapped his leg impatiently for the rest of the way. It took a short while, but they made it to the cabin. It looked pretty new, with big windows and clean walls and a balcony. It was built up on a foundation two meters tall, with tall steps leading up to it. To make it more private, it was built some ways into the woods, with a long gravel driveway. It was surrounded by tall trees, which looked grand in the deep sky. There weren't any lights on, but the headlights of their van lit up the outside well. Michael let out a very long exhale as he pulled in, quickly closing the GPS app on his phone. That probably meant he was glad to finally be here. Brooke politely clapped and Chloe hummed in acknowledgement.

Twenty minutes later, the whole group was trailing into the cabin, with Rich enthusiastically taking the lead. There were trash bags and umbrellas and stuff at the entrance area. It looked bigger than Jeremy thought it would be, though that was probably because most of the first floor was an open area. The big living room was the first thing they saw, furnished like a home decor ad except less minimalistic and more homey.

There were two loveseats and a few cushioned rocking chairs surrounding a shiny wooden coffee table a good distance from the huge fireplace. Small tables were between the seating, two of which holding a pristine lamp. A nice flatscreen TV was mounted on top of that, along with some tall candlesticks. The living room led into a kitchen that was cut off by a long counter lined with stools. There was a door leading to the back of the cabin and another door to the side that lead into a small bathroom.

To avoid lounging around on the couch the rest of the day to make up for the long car ride, the teens decided to head back upstairs and to the second floor. It was a tall place, so there were two flights up and a big wooden railing at the top to look down at the first staircase. Jake got some help from Christine and Brooke, but insisted he was an expert at using his crutches by now. There were four rooms, each with a large bed except for one with two twins. Immediately, Jeremy and Michael chose to room together. Chloe and Brooke shared another room, and Christine was rooming with Jenna. Jake and Rich chose the room with two beds.

There were two bathrooms upstairs, one with a shower and one with a bath. Everyone agreed that they should take a break after such a long car ride, and went into their rooms to put their things away and do whatever. Jeremy rolled his big suitcase into the bedroom he and Michael picked, his best friend trailing behind him.

“How do you think this week's gonna go?” He tried to start some conversation so they wouldn't be unpacking in silence. Michael hummed as he opened the windows, a cool breeze flowing through the room. Jeremy breathed in deeply, the unfamiliar Pennsylvania air feeling so much cleaner than New Jersey. The headache he’d had earlier really let up after getting out of that stuffy van.

“I hope it goes well,” Michael replied. He sat down on the carpeted floor and heaved his suitcase on its side to open it. “Wouldn't be surprised if everyone got bored of each other, though.” Jeremy didn't think Michael was unbiased in his opinion. He never got bored with his friends, but Michael was always more family-oriented. He couldn't blame him, though, as the Mell moms were always pretty comfortable and pleasant to be around.

“Nah, that's just you being lame,” Jeremy snickered, lifting his suitcase onto a wooden luggage rack with the thick straps across it. He opened up his suitcase and made sure he had everything in there. He'd brought two weeks’ worth of necessities, which were all rolled up too tightly and crushed together to avoid having to find a second suitcase. His laptop and its accessories were packed, too, along with some small snacks and emergency cash in case they ran out of food. “Wish we had our consoles.”

“If we had our consoles, we wouldn’t be talking to our other friends unless they were playing with us.” Michael started laying his stuff out on the floor around him, which Jeremy had to step over in order to reach the bedside cabinets. Hopefully the room wouldn’t get super messy the whole week they were here. This could be, like, a practice for when they were sharing a dorm room together. Except they could actually decorate their dorm room. Probably.

Their conversation was always smooth and easy to carry on. It had taken a few months, but Jeremy was close enough to Michael again that he thought they’d only been brought closer together by the SQUIP stuff. Not even a quantum supercomputer could ruin over a decade of an awesome friendship. They got their suitcase contents organized on the small dresser against the wall and on the bedside tables, besides their clothes, which they shoved into the dresser drawers themselves. Their suitcases went under the big bed to save space, and Jeremy flopped right onto the sheets once they were done.

“Hey, no outside clothes on the bed. You’re dirty.” Despite this, Michael flipped face-first onto the bed, too. They both stared up at the ceiling for a while, thinking to themselves. It was kind of weird being in another house with just their friends. Jeremy suddenly thought of all their responsibilities and whether they’d be capable of them.

He’d heard the kitchen was supposed to have some dishware and water in it, but he had to check it out for himself and then figure out some kind of meal plan to feed eight developing teenagers for however long they were staying. Did anyone even know how to cook? Maybe they could live off Lunchables and mac and cheese for a week. They’d also probably have to figure out laundry schedules and make sure no one hogged or cluttered the bathroom too much. Did this place have spare toilet paper?

Living with friends he’s never lived with before had to be an interesting journey. Like, Jeremy knew everyone kind of well, but he didn’t know their daily habits. He was excited to learn about them, though. This was some Team 10 shit.

“This is some Team 10 shit,” Jeremy stated. Michael guffawed and swung his arm over to hit him in the stomach. When thinking got boring, the pair got up and decided to explore the second floor of the cabin for now. They found a small closet with various bottles of Windex and bleach with a vacuum, a sketchy attic hatch with a note from the owner asking everyone to refrain from going up there, and extra toilet paper in a closet in one of the bathrooms. There were big sliding doors out to the front balcony further from the stairs, where Jenna was taking panoramic pictures with her phone.

“Oh, hey,” Michael said once they saw her. He then busied himself with leaning over the rail of the balcony and admiring the view. There wasn’t much to admire besides trees and the main dirt road that dipped into the cabin’s driveway. The nearest town was far enough that Jeremy couldn’t see it at all. He supposed the tree line was nice, though, especially when it was just turning nighttime and blues and purples swirled about the sky.

“Hey,” the girl hummed, turning away from the view to look at the photos she took. Jeremy shoved his hands in his pockets and leaned against the railing a respectable distance away from her, which she didn’t seem to mind. Some bedroom windows looked out to the balcony, with no one in their rooms visible. For a brief moment, Brooke looked out her window, and Jeremy happily waved to her as she smiled at him before ducking out of sight.

“Do you think everyone will get tired of each other here?” Jeremy asked, trying to start a conversation. Jenna noticed this and clicked her phone off, leaning against the rail herself to look over at him. He didn’t remember really talking to Jenna alone since their flight, which was a shame. She was really easy to talk to. He figured that was one of the reasons people would spill all their secrets to her. “I mean, that’s what Michael thinks. I think we’ll be able to have fun as long as no one suddenly starts shit with someone else.”

“I think living together is kind of overrated, so I get where Michael’s coming from. I didn’t even really want to come, since I have summer homework and I’d take my own room over this place anyway. Still, since we’re only here a limited time? Definitely. Everyone would want to make the most of it before we have to go back to our own families. That’s why overnight trips in elementary are always really looked forward to, even though most people would prefer their own beds.” Jeremy nodded along. He and Michael never really went to overnight field trips in elementary. They were always freaked out by them as kids and Jeremy never really regretted not going.

“I get that,” he said, picking at some splinters on the side of the wooden rail. “Before anyone gets bored, we should dub someone in charge of backup bonding shit in case we aren’t making the most of our time here.” He looked up at Jenna, who was nodding thoughtfully. She seemed interested, but she also fidgeted with her phone a lot. She probably really wanted to take advantage of this prime time for pictures.

“I think you should talk to Rich and Brooke about that. Brooke comes up with good ideas and Rich is good at forcing everyone to participate until he doesn’t need to force them anymore,” Michael joined in. He had wandered over just then and inserted himself into the conversation, most likely satisfied with inspecting the chairs and tables on the balcony as well as how the trees looked. Jenna pointed at him and nodded in agreement. She finally held up her phone with a lazy half-smile and Jeremy understood, pushing off the railing.

“I’m gonna take some more pictures and post them here. Balcony gets the best cell service.” The boys said goodbye to Jenna for now as she turned back around with her phone camera ready and both of them wandered down into the living room. Rich was trying to figure out how the unfamiliar cable system worked, with Chloe and Brooke trying to tell him what shows to stop at before completely losing interest five seconds later. The McDonald’s bag sat forgotten on the coffee table. Jeremy let Michael sit down on the couch to dig through the bag and he wandered into the kitchen by himself, eyeing how much space they had in the pantry and cupboards. Christine and Jake came down from upstairs right then, holding a pleasant conversation about the wood of the cabin’s walls.

“Oh, hey, Jeremy!” Christine greeted once they came into the kitchen. Jake followed at a good pace, looking around at the area. Immediately, she started searching through the cabinets and peeked into the fridge. “We came down to see what food we should get. I don’t really cook, but we can probably figure something out. I used to watch a bunch of Gordon Ramsay videos, so I’m kind of well-versed in the idea of cooking, did you know that? Do you guys want water?”

“I can cook,” Jake offered, managing to lift himself up onto the kitchen island. Jeremy pretended not to look at his biceps. The taller teen made sure his crutches wouldn’t slide off the edge of the counter and held his hands up for Christine to toss a water bottle at him, catching it easily. “I’ll just need someone to help pass stuff to me. These crutches are kind of annoying when I have to move around for the stuff I’m doing.”

“Really? I didn’t know you could cook,” Jeremy hummed, walking over to Christine to grab a bottle of water she held out to him. It was very thoughtful of her to remember he had no depth perception and never caught anything that was thrown at him at all. He felt like the little things she knew about him really solidified their friendship even before they broke up. He thanked her briefly as she got a water for herself. “I can only microwave cups of ramen. Maybe we should just stock on that, get a real taste for college. How’d you learn, Jake?”

“Ah, can’t name any one specific way. I guess I’ve just liked making my own sandwiches and stuff as a kid, which led to me making my own breakfast, which led to me making breakfast for my parents, and then other meals, too. My parents were real good cooks. Obviously I won’t be going into cooking as a career or anything, but I think I’d want to learn how to make more stuff and just have those skills handy.”

“Right! Like today. I can help you out, Jake,” Christine chirped as Jake finished his monologue by drinking most of his water. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand afterwards and gave Christine a heartstopping smile. Meanwhile, Jeremy had to get her attention to ask her to open his bottle. “So, I was thinking. I know we’re all tired and stuff, but we should head to town tonight to go grocery shopping and fill up our van’s gas. McDonald’s isn’t really filling, so we could include TV dinners and stuff like that to make sure we have food to eat while we work out a meal plan and everything else we need to do. I don’t want to waste money on food we’ll have to throw out before we have to leave and the next vacation tenant comes or whatever.”

The boys agreed, and Jeremy was really impressed with how Christine took charge of a problem they didn’t even really talk about yet. She was kind of a mess when it came to starting conversations and having to take tests and stuff, so it was always cool to see her excel in things no one else in the group really bothered to get into. For example: Christine was good at planning and helping people follow through on their own plans. She was always so willing to help others while still being independent. Jeremy tried not to delve any deeper into his thoughts about her, instead just looking away from her beaming face and taking a small sip of his water.

Everyone gathered together in the living room sometime after, chatting energetically as an episode of Forensic Files played on the TV. Jake and Brooke got the rocking chairs, while Jeremy and Jenna sat on the floor rug and leaned against the loveseats. Everyone else was sprawled out on the loveseats, eating the few leftover fries and nuggets from the fast food bag.

“Black Mirror is boring, Chloe, and you know it,” Rich argued, pointing a fry at the girl before promptly eating it. He’d been quick to call dibs on the middle spot. Chloe rolled her eyes, arms crossed. She used Netflix way more than anyone else in the group and didn’t usually go on long rants about the shows there, but they weren’t ever surprising to hear. Jeremy wondered how she balanced school, a social life, and Netflix. He remembered Michael joking she was just too powerful for sleep and eyebags. “The only fun ones were the first episode and the number rating one.”

“Those are, like, the only ones you’ve watched, dipshit. Honestly, you’re completely uncultured. I didn’t give you my Netflix login for you to rewatch the same two movies once every full moon.” Her tone was sharp, but her expression was teasing, so her words held no bite. Brooke was thoroughly entertained, looking between her two friends with owlish eyes as she nibbled on a nugget dipped in honey mustard sauce.

“I liked the episode where the Wi-Fi connected pet cobras were utilized by deep web hackers to strangle their owners,” Michael piped in, scrolling through his Twitter feed. A few chuckles rang around the group, though most of them were only half paying attention to the conversation. Rich looked up at him, suddenly interested.

“Is that really an episode?” he asked curiously, sitting up. Brooke finished her nugget and moved to grab another, dipping that in the ranch sauce. She looked like she regret that decision just a moment later.

“No, Rich, you’re just stupid,” Chloe retorted. Jenna laughed softly, glancing up at the girl, then moved her eyes back down to her phone. “You couldn't even open my pocket knife the first time I showed you. It took you, like, ten minutes.” The blond male huffed and waved a hand in Jenna’s direction.

“I’m not a violent guy and it's equal parts frightening and awesome that you even own one of those. And hey, you’re not even a part of this conversation, Jenna, watch your laughter.” His words were more jokingly dismissive than rude, but no one besides Jeremy seemed to notice Jenna’s lips twitch into a frown.

Eventually, Christine ended the bickering by proposing her food plan to everyone. They procrastinated by talking about what food they all wanted, then each of them clambered into the van once they were ready admit they were set to go. Michael was able to take a break from driving when Brooke took the wheel. Him, Jeremy, and Rich sat in the back row after the girls insisted they should feel how carsick the backseats got. They were right.

Jeremy got another headache once they’d started driving. It went away once they were wandering through the store, so he chalked it up to just being inside such a cramped space for so long. When they got back to the cabin, everyone helped unload the groceries and organize everything they’d bought with their collective money. They sat together again, eating TV dinners while watching TV, and then drifted into actual conversation.

“Anyway, I stole the cat’s catnip and tried smoking it myself. Didn’t work out. The cat started to, like, hiss at me, and then wrapped around my foot and turned into these killer Gucci slides,” Rich explained through a mouthful of some cheap pasta dinner.

“Your dreams are freaky, dude,” Jake commented, finishing off his fourth bottle of water that evening. No wonder the guy had such clear skin. It was kind of unfair. “How do you even wake up and remember them? My dreams are, like, dead to me every morning.”

“I dunno, I eat my veggies? Guess it’s just a me thing.” Rich shrugged and Christine hummed thoughtfully. Most of their friends seemed too invested in either Law and Order or their phones to offer their own input, but Jeremy watched the interaction in interest as he nibbled at the cookie spoon from his own TV dinner.

“I heard that dreaming of cats is bad luck, though.” She had finished with her Kid’s Cuisine plate a few minutes ago and was currently mooching off of Michael’s, who didn’t seem to mind. Jeremy reached over with his cookie spoon to take some chocolate pudding from his best friend’s matching blue tray as Christine sat up slightly to elaborate more. “Like, they’re auspicious and whatever. I read it on Facebook.”

“Well, I don’t even know what that word means, so it can’t hurt me.”

“What, auspicious?”

“No, cats.”

Brooke laughed at that, and Rich grinned at her as he twirled pasta around his plastic fork. It was getting late by the time the Law and Order episode had finished and everyone was pretty tired, so Christine, Michael, and Jeremy collected everyone’s trash. Well, Christine and Michael had it covered. Jeremy just kind of had them insist he didn’t need to help and then led them to the kitchen.

“Is anyone else having that gut feeling?” Michael asked once they were alone. The other two glanced at each other, then to him. Jeremy found the trashcan after a quick look through all the cabinets and pulled it out for his friends to dump their trash, including the empty McDonald’s bag from earlier.

“Uh, no? Why, what’s up?” he asked, starting to get kind of nervous. He knew almost everything about Michael, including the fact that he had killer instincts. Every time he suspected something to happen, it happened. If he thought something good was coming his way, he’d probably get a great grade on a test he thought he’d bombed. If he felt the opposite, his car might break down for a few hours or his moms would get on his ass about the state of his basement. Michael had some power of premonition or something. If he felt strongly about a situation turning out good or bad, he was probably right. Probably. “Good or bad?”

“Terrible.” Jeremy watched his friend calmly run a hand through his hair, a nervous tick he'd picked up from one of his mothers. Christine grabbed Michael’s trash from him and dumped it before sliding the trashcan back. “I don’t know. Jenna mentioned it gets crazy flooded in PA, right? I feel like this cabin’s whole ‘being super fancy and isolated in the woods’ thing won’t be convenient if a storm comes. Lightning's attracted to trees, y'know. And umbrellas, I think. Rich showed me a video.”

“Well, we’ll just have to wait and see,” Christine hummed, going over to the sink to wash her hands. “You boys sleep well, okay? We’re probably heading into town again tomorrow for snacks, then we’ll go sightseeing somewhere. This place is nice, but I really don’t want to get cooped up in here. Goodnight!” Jeremy and Michael returned the sentiment, watching Christine leave. When the shorter boy turned back to look at his friend, Michael was frowning at the floor, already lost in thought.

“Hey, you want some water? We could probably get a few emergency packs of it tomorrow, if that makes you feel better,” he offered, making Michael look up at him. Jeremy was at the fridge within a few seconds, grabbing two water bottles. They were meant to be for both of them, but Michael was the type to wake up in the middle of the night and chug water until he passed out again. “I mean, I also really want to. Mainly ‘cause I have a killer headache and I think water should help.”

“Yeah. Thanks, dude.” Jeremy handed one to Michael, made sure the fridge was closed, and gestured towards the exit. He followed Michael out of the kitchen and they both bid goodnight to the few friends left in the living room before heading to their beds, changing, and conking out for the night.

Jeremy hoped this week would be great.

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Initiating data retrieval procedure.

Data corrupted.

Data retrieval procedure complete.

Loading . . .

It was so peaceful. The night sky illuminated the room, apart from the soft colors of the television. There was little breeze, but each one was cool enough to send goosebumps over their skin. Stars were visible through the window from where they sat, the twinkling lights as mesmerizing as can be.

They’d waited for the rest of their friends to go to bed. “I don’t mind being left alone, just get some rest,” they’d said. With a false promise to head to sleep soon, their friends had gone. They had sat there for hours, with the TV on low volume, before moving.

They’d seen that kitchen knives were available to use, which was far more convenient than searching for scissors. Once they had one of the sharp knives in hand, they made their way downstairs.

They’d gotten familiar with the basement while everyone else had been unpacking. Most of it was above ground, with the house elevated on top of it, so there were only a few steps down. It was carpeted and cozy, obviously well-kept. A cool breeze came from an open window just a few feet off the ground, slightly cracked open.

They made it down the steep stairs, careful not to make any noise, and opened the closet at the bottom. The spare bedsheets were folded neatly. Had they not found them earlier, they would have had to waste time finding another alternative.

They hopped onto the washing machine, keeping the knife safely pointed away from them, and started cutting the bedsheets into strips. The cloth would usually have to be twisted and braided tightly to be of any real use, but they wouldn’t have to pay much attention to that.

Hanging never really appealed to them.

Data retrieval complete.

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Jeremy and Michael had set an alarm for themselves the night before to make sure they wouldn’t sleep in till noon or be rudely woken up by one of their friends. Brooke and Chloe were taking an awfully long time in one of the bathrooms, so Jeremy let Michael lay in bed while he made himself look less Doc Brown and more Jeremy Heere in the bathroom. He had a bit of a headache again, but it wasn’t bad enough for him to bother mentioning it. By the time he was done, the girls were finished and Michael had gotten ready in that bathroom. It really made him wonder how long he was usually in the bathroom every morning.

They went down together, more awake than ever since they were in such new surroundings with their other friends. The group had had sleepovers a few times before, but the knowledge that no one would have to spend time packing their stuff to go home was exciting. It was a pleasant reality to know that they'd really be living together, that all of this was real rather than some longing dream. True to his word, Jake was already in the kitchen making breakfast.

Everyone else had a seat at the kitchen bar, which separated the living room from the kitchen. Brooke and Christine were talking happily, a bowl of washed berries between them. Chloe was chatting with Jenna while Rich sat nearby, playing some puzzle game on his phone. He insisted they help him wake up in the morning, but Jeremy felt like he just enjoyed it when his friends watched him be a real smartypants at sudoku.

“What are you making, dude?” Michael asked, moving around the bar to peek at whatever Jake was doing. Jeremy followed, but quickly stepped over to the fridge for water. When he woke up this morning, Michael had immediately gone for his water since he’d finished his. Jake sidestepped slightly to let Michael look at the pancakes he was watching. He’d been one of the easiest to accept Michael into the group, besides Jenna. It was definitely endearing to see the former nobody (Michael’s words, not Jeremy’s) become close friends with the most popular guy in school. “Do we have chocolate chips?”

“If we didn’t, I would be out of this cabin, buying some,” Jake replied, grabbing the bag of milk chocolate chips off the counter and handing it to Michael, who looked at the bag like it was the moon. He thanked Jake as he opened it and took a big handful, vacuuming them up with his mouth. Jeremy laughed at him and subsequently choked on his water, which was terrifying to him and hilarious to everyone else.

One chocolate chip pancake-filled breakfast later, the group spent the day outside. They explored the small town closest to their cabin, window shopping and eating lunch at some restaurant they’d never heard of before wandering around again. All of them had been given a shit ton of money from their families for fucking around and didn’t really care about saving it for this first full day here. Afterwards, around early evening, they brought some food back to their cabin and camped out on the back porch, which had a great view of nothing but trees.

“I almost wish we had a fire pit, but it’s not like we have s’mores or anything,” Jenna mentioned. Rich glanced at her, his previous smile growing a little tense. Jeremy saw Brooke place a hand on the blond’s back, rubbing it gently.

“Or sticks,” Jake added, currently eating a candy bar. The guy was fit, but he had the biggest sweet tooth out of everybody Jeremy knew. He once ate a dozen Boston cream donuts by himself when they were hanging out and everyone else was too full. “I guess they wouldn’t be too hard to get, though, since trees are basically giant sticks.”

“Branches. Tree branches would work fine, not the whole tree.” Michael shook his head after speaking, finishing off his Dr. Pepper. He glanced up warily to the sky, which was cloudy and grim. It was getting kind of dark, but they’d left the back light on for a reason.

“Anything can be a branch if you try hard enough,” Jeremy piped up. He hadn’t gotten any snacks other than a few bites of Christine’s 3 Musketeers bar. A quick glance at Rich confirmed he was okay. Chloe finished her granola bar, crumpling the wrapper and standing up.

“Great conversation, excellent participation, but I’m heading inside to check out the news report. I chose to carry a jacket around for a reason,” she stated promptly. Brooke gathered her own trash and followed suit.

“I carried your jacket for you. Well, I wore it, ‘cause I’m always cold, but same-same. See you guys, we’ll let you know if it’s actually going to rain tonight!” The two girls waved as they went into the cabin, their friends bidding temporary farewells as they disappeared. Rich stayed for a few more minutes before leaving himself, claiming he also wanted to check out the news.

“And then there were five,” Jake hummed, grinning when that drew a small laugh from Christine. “This is a pretty chill trip so far. I had fun today.”

“Me, too,” Christine agreed with a nod. She fiddled with her candy wrapper as she looked around the group that was left. Jeremy did as well, happy to see that everyone was relaxed and enjoying themselves. Especially Michael. He hadn’t ever done anything like this, and it was super cool. He relayed this to his friends shyly, and they all agreed.

“Nothin’ like hanging out with my favorite people for a week,” the jock of the group chirped, finishing the rest of his candy bar and tossing the trash beside his lap to grab later. “We should’ve done this way sooner.”

“I know you said you wanted to stay home, but I think it was good that you came, Jenna,” said Michael with a kind smile. The girl looked up from where she was spacing out, registering his words and giving an awkward grin in return.

“Yeah, I guess so.” Her voice was soft and kind of shy. Christine patted Jenna’s arm, earning a small pat in return. The conversation continued for a while until they decided it was getting dark enough to make the woods seem creepy. Everyone went inside and ate the rest of their TV dinners, happily chatting until the subject of the weather came up.

“It’s supposed to start storming real late at night,” Rich explained, seeming much more cheery than he should be. “It’s gonna be thunder and lightning and all that shit. I’m probably gonna stay up late to see it and try to get a pic of the lightning.”

“Just don’t keep anyone up, alright?” Jake chuckled and spooned instant mashed potatoes into his mouth. Jeremy really didn't know why and where he bought such a large container of it.

“You could literally sleep through everything, Jake,” Rich teased, kicking back into the sofa and taking a sip of his root beer. Chloe murmured something about Jake sleeping through the Fourth of July, which Brooke laughed at.

Once everything was cleaned up and the conversation was wrapped up, they all returned to their respective beds. Although, for some reason, Jeremy couldn’t sleep. His headache had been mild throughout the day, but now it was more noticeable. It wasn’t, like, a migraine or anything, but it was weird how it got worse just before going into the room. Michael was already asleep beside him, drooling unattractively. He was able to drift off around midnight, but woke up some time later.

With Jeremy’s luck, the headache just became more prominent when he came to. Outside, the rain came slowly at first, then sheets of it just came pouring down onto the cabin. Not long after, lightning flashed through the window, followed by booming lightning. He groaned and lifted his head to grab his pillow, shoving it onto his face. Of course, it did nothing to mute the sound. He probably laid there for half an hour or so before deciding to get up and do something about his head. When he looked at the alarm clock in the room, though, it was blank. He tried the lamp next to his side of the bed, but it didn’t turn on.

Of course the power was off. Honestly, he would be more surprised if this obscure cabin managed to keep its power five seconds into light rain. Jeremy figured he’d just get some tap water from the kitchen, since the bathrooms were definitely not a place to drink from. Connotation and all. He tried creeping out of bed, but Michael jerked awake, making him jump.

“Huh?” the teen grumbled confusedly. Jeremy was kind of frozen, one foot on the floor as his best friend fumbled for his phone on his bedside. He turned it on to light Jeremy’s face, then squinted at the screen himself. “Jeremy? What are you doing up at two in the morning?”

“Uh, pee.” A beat passed. “I mean, I just wanted a drink since I can’t sleep, but peeing is usually my go-to answer. I’m doing both now.” Michael kept his eyes squinted, pointing the phone light at his friend. Jeremy doubted it made him see better, he was blind as a bat.

“Whatever, dude, just don’t drink your own pee,” he said tiredly, clicking his phone off. Jeremy snorted and crawled the rest of the way off the bed. He didn’t realize it was two o’clock. His headache was, like, warping time or something. Jeremy unplugged his own phone, checking the battery, and deciding to just use the unlocked screen as his flashlight in hopes of conserving it.

The cabin was dark, as expected, the only light besides his phone being the dim moonlight coming through the balcony doors. All the bedroom doors were closed. The only thing that was odd was the dampness of the carpet right next to the sliding doors. Jeremy avoided it, furrowing his brow at the gross feeling. His headache very much did not enjoy that, as a particularly harsh pulse rattled the base of his skull. He placed a hand on the stair banister as he passed, guiding himself to the stairs. The smooth railing contrasted greatly against the crashing waves in his skull at the moment. It seemed to be getting worse, and the thunder really wasn't—

Jeremy paused suddenly. His hand had bumped against something. He shone his phone light onto it curiously. It was a rough, white cloth, tied to the railing. It continued down, on the other side of where Jeremy was standing, swaying ever so gently. He leaned over the rail, peering down, trying to see where the cloth led. Just then, his phone screen went black. He cursed and clicked it on again, but didn't get to enter his password before a flash of lightning illuminated what was attached to the cloth. Who was attached to the cloth.

Jeremy screamed, almost dropping his phone. His heart was pounding, blood rushing to his head, eyes wide and horrified and what the fuck what the fuck what the fuck. He only paused in his shock for a millisecond before rushing around the railing to the staircase, the delayed thunder booming through his core and sending terrifying vibrations into his brainstem. In his panic, he briefly heard a door open, then another, and another. The confused and concerned voices of his tired friends went ignored by him as he stumbled down the stairs, this time actually dropping his phone as he went.

“Help! Get down here and fucking help me!” His skin was cold, he was shaking, he couldn't breathe, he didn't know what the fuck to do. Jeremy made it to where his friend hung, just a meter above the last few stairs. He couldn't get them up, they looked so pale, they were limp, how long had they been hanging there? His head felt battered, like someone had beaten it in with a metal bat and stomped it into the ground and compressed it into a crushed little mess.

He jumped the rest of the way down the stairs, running to the kitchen and quickly grabbing a knife out of the holder. He could hear his friends shouting in alarm, sharing his horror, and Jeremy couldn't remember a time he ran this fast. It took seconds for him to bolt up the stairs, knife in hand, rush to the banister, and start stabbing and slicing and sawing at the knot of the cloth.

Someone registered what he was doing and they quickly ran to the stairs, another soon following. Jeremy put all his arm strength into getting the fucking cloth to rip and tear until it finally gave way and the weight tugged it down. The people on the stairs caught their friend, all panicky shouts and desperate pleads. The rest hurried down to help haul them to the bottom of the stairs. Jeremy stayed, exhausted and petrified and in immense pain.

He screamed again, dropping the knife and clutching his head as the voices and the thunder and the realization became too much. Shrieks tore from his throat. He could hear everything, feel everything, sense everything, but nothing at all. Jeremy's skull was being twisted and crushed and jumpstarted altogether, an unbearable cacophony of nothing but incredible pain.

And then there was nothing.

And then there was something.

Initiating system reboot.

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-

Initiating data retrieval procedure.

Data corrupted.

Data retrieval procedure complete.

Loading . . .

Rich never really knew whether he was a morning person or a night owl. He guessed it was just kind of interchangeable for him. He stayed up late and slept in sometimes, and other times he'd have a great night's sleep and be bright and ready early in the day. Being a night owl sounded more cool, duh, but he wasn't sure it was something he should call himself.

Whichever one he was, he had no problem being awake tonight. In fact, he’d had no trouble staying up for the past week. The anticipation was this trip was so exciting to him, and actually having the trip was even more exciting. How could he sleep when all he wanted to do was pull an all-nighter with his friends and then pass out at eight in the morning? So yeah, here he was, hanging out on the balcony by himself. The moon was big and bright and the huge clouds didn't quite block it, allowing it to make him glow in a way he thought was super cool. It was supposed to start raining soon, and he could already hear the distant booms of thunder at a distance.

As he got his phone ready to take pics once it started storming, he heard the balcony doors slide open from behind him. Rich whipped around, surprised, before laughing softly at his own shock.

“Oh, it's you. Me and the moon were having a chat, but I guess we wouldn't mind some company,” he joked, keeping his voice quiet for the others still sleeping. The other person laughed softly and his face lit up at the sound. They left the doors open and made their way to the railing beside Rich, propping an umbrella at their feet and then leaning on the railing with both arms. “What are you doing up?”

“Couldn't sleep. Thought I could convince you not to get electrocuted trying to get a selfie with lightning,” they hummed, voice tired. The storm had barely hit yet and the rain kept going from light drizzles to no rain at all. Rich shook his head, glancing at his friend cheekily.

“Sorry, you're shit outta luck. Storms and I are in a very committed relationship.”

“I'll have to find some way to get between that, I guess.”

The comment was witty and said with such a charming smile, Rich snorted and found his heart swelling. He did have feelings for this person, once upon a dream. Those were pretty over with now, though, and he was glad they got to be friends.

“Careful there,” he teased, chuckling. His friend raised a brow at him. “‘s pretty romantic under the moon like this. I might take your words to heart, y'know.”

“Romantic? Maybe I was the one to ask Lady Moon for a favor tonight, you'll never know,” they teased right back. Rich turned his body some to face his friend better, and they did the same. He eyed them for a moment, their gentle smile, their relaxed posture. “This is coming out of nowhere, Rich, but I'm really glad we got to come here together. I mean, our friends, too, of course, but you're probably the main reason I came. I didn't think I'd ever get around to telling you that.”

Rich was entirely taken aback. Heat crawled up his neck at the confession, and he had to look away from the piercing eye contact his friend made. A flustered chuckle made its way out of his throat, the sound making him wince. He wasn't really sure what was happening right now, but he found himself not hating it. This was new. This was… really chill, actually.

“O-Oh, well, there you go. You told me.” His hand that wasn't holding his phone came up to scratch the back of his neck. The person hummed in reply and turned to look at the sky again. Rich was grateful. No way he could stand looking at them straight-on. “Um, I'm… glad, too. You're cool. I'm, uh, I'm flattered. Thanks.”

“No need to thank me,” they sighed softly, almost silently. The only reason Rich caught it was because of the night's quiet. “You always seem to like storms. Why is that?”

“Yeah.” He could talk about storms, this was something he could do. “You know I don't exactly have the number one dad. When I was a kid and mom was gone, my old man never really stepped up to comforting me whenever there was major thunder and lightning. Can't remember a time I even saw him during one of ‘em. Mom, though, she… I had this nightlight, right, and it was in the shape of a lightning bolt thing. And my mom, what she would do during storms, was plug that thing in and have my head in her lap and just run her hands through my hair to, like, calm me down?

“And whenever I was propped up like that, head in her lap, I just got the perfect view of that nightlight. When she was gone, I—it wasn't like I had her to lay my head in her lap and fall asleep real easily, y'know? But I still had that nightlight. I'd just stack up some pillows, prop up my head, and there it was. Lightning bolt, right there, right in my line of sight. I think I want to pass it down or find something just like it, just to get rid of my future kids’ fears at some point. Plus I think lightning is really cool when you look at it. Benjamin Franklin was onto something there.”

He glanced to the side and his friend was listening intently, a small grin on their face. Rich laughed again, soft and polite and flustered.

“Uh, sorry. I just dropped, like, fifty pages of my autobiography on you,” he apologized. His friend shook their head.

“I like hearing about you. You're a good guy, Rich.” It was so genuine, so kind, so gentle. How could he not believe that they meant it? He looked away again, blushing noticeably. Hopefully the soft moonlight didn't make his flush look awkward.

Just then, it started to rain. Well, not really, but the drizzle was much more noticeable than the previous times. Rich grinned and raised his phone, turning around to take pictures of the rain visible by the balcony light. His friend jumped in surprise at the droplets on their skin and they quickly grabbed the umbrella they’d brought, raising it above their head at the same time that they opened it.

“You know lightning is attracted to umbrellas, right?” Rich asked, shielding his phone with his body to check out the pictures he took. An idea popped into his head and he grinned at his friend. “Hey, strike a pose with that thing. Maybe you won’t get struck by anything and I can catch a picture of you when the lightning comes.”

They looked reluctant, but before they could answer, a flash of lightning lit up the sky. Rich insisted and took a few steps back, pointing his phone camera back at them. His friend seemed to soften and leaned against the railing again, looking up at the moon and stars. Thunder rumbled again and it started raining heavier. Rich barely noticed the balcony light going out, but kept his camera focused on the dark figure that was his friend. He started to hold down the shutter button until thunder flickered over them.

“Okay! Uh…” He opened his photos and looked through the more recent ones. When he found what he was looking for, a swell of pride rose in his chest. “It worked! Look!” Rich rushed over to his friend to show them the photo, their relaxed expression glowing in the natural flash of light. It wasn’t a picture of actual lightning, but it looked damn good. His friend agreed and looked over it with a proud, smile. Rich could see it was a little tense and decided he should quit the photoshoot before it actually started pouring. “Let’s head back inside now. Wouldn’t want you to get a cold.”

He led them back into the cabin, letting them shake off their umbrella before bringing it inside. The rain had kind of leaked inside, wetting the carpet, but Rich just closed the sliding doors silently and hoped the floor wouldn’t get moldy. When he turned around, he was met with his friend, standing right in front of him.

“What is it?” he asked, backing up some. His back hit the glass door. They stared at him for a moment, serene. After a moment of eyeing his confused expression, his brown eyes, the faded red in his hair, they smiled softly. “You okay?”

“I’m fine. Great, actually,” they said at a whisper. Before Rich could say anything else, they moved in closer and their lips were on his. He was surprised; of course he was surprised! But almost on instinct, almost like he’d wanted this to happen, Rich dropped his phone on the floor with a very quiet thud and raised his hands up to his friend’s shoulders. He was kissing back, careful and smooth, and his body was floating and his brain was fuzzy. Where was this coming from? It was pretty nice.

The moment was soft, tender, and peaceful.

And then it wasn’t.

Rich’s skull exploded, right from the brainstem, engulfing his entire head in familiar, excruciating pain. He broke away with a gasp, clutching his temples. He hissed and looked up at his friend, about to gasp out for help, when the lightning flashed again and he saw them. Really saw them. Their face was cold, emotionless. A hand came up to cover his mouth, and he could barely suck in a breath to scream at the raging fire in his skull before the damp umbrella came to his neck and pressed right against his windpipe. The scream was stopped before it even started, turning into choked breaths and desperate croaks. His hands clawed at his head, then the umbrella, then his friend’s arms, trying to get them away, get away, let go of him, let him go—

Thunder boomed and boomed and lightning flashed and rain came down heavily and his brain hurt and his throat hurt and he couldn’t fucking breathe what was this what was this what the fuck was even happening right now—

They gave one hard push against Rich’s neck, against the glass, and his legs buckled. They dropped the umbrella then to replace it a millisecond later with their own hands, tired of his struggle. He could wake other people up if they weren’t too quick with it. They’d had their fun. They clutched at the sides of his throat, really cutting off his air, and put as much pressure at they could on his hard windpipe. They knew the exact spots to press on, the exact way to apply pressure. There was a crack, then a broken breath, then nothing. Rich collapsed fully, limp and wide-eyed and jaw hung open. They held their hands there for a good few minutes, then released one to check for a pulse.

Initiating data transfer procedure.

Insufficient energy. Data transfer corrupted.

Shutting down . . .

Nothing.

They took their other hand off his neck and wrapped their arms around his (was it really even a “him” anymore?) waist, carrying him to the banister. They’d twisted the sheets the night they cut them, then knotted them to the railing when they came back upstairs with the umbrella. It was a good place to set up, where Rich’s body would be one of the first things for everyone to wake up to. Everything was set up without anyone suspecting anything. It was easy.

A noose was already tied at the end of the cloth. They’d made sure it was at a good height earlier. A quiet and quick run to the bathroom, then two minutes of clean-up time to get his expression more suitable and their fingerprints off his skin was all the extra time they needed. They looped it over the corpse’s head, testing whether it would tighten, and lifted Rich’s body again with a near-silent grunt. He was heavier than he looked, but still easy for anyone else in their friend group to maneuver him over the railing. They let him go. He dropped quickly, another cracking noise coming from below, weight straining the cloth, but they weren’t fazed. They moved down to the stairs, bringing the umbrella with them.

He was swinging from the fall, almost comically. They chuckled to themselves and watched him there, eyes closed, mouth set in a thin line, arms idly following the swinging. They pushed his legs aside with the umbrella to walk past and dry the umbrella off before placing it right back where they found it, then ducked around Rich’s body when they went back upstairs. Careful not to wake anyone, they changed into dry, comfortable clothes and carefully got back into bed, relaxing immediately.

They were so unbothered by what they’d just done, they fell asleep within minutes.

Data retrieval complete.

-
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-

Jeremy wasn’t in as much pain as he was before, but it still hurt like a bitch. That, or the adrenaline was still pumping. Either way, the fear was still there even after the pain went. What had just happened? What did he just see? What was going on? His surroundings flooded back to him.

Welcom e ba _k.

“Fuck, fuck, no, no, no, this can’t be happening,” Jeremy whimpered to himself, pulling at his hair. His friends were clamoring on the lower floor. “Rich. Rich, what did he—? Why are you back? You’re not supposed to be back!”

E ner __ l e ve l i nsuc f f icie n t . Pro c e s __n_ po w e r d e l a ye d.

“What the fuck?” Jeremy was at a loss. He had just seen Rich dead. He had just been swinging there, from the railing, just meters away from his room. The SQUIP was back, and it sounded staticy and broken, like a glitching computer. What the fuck?

“Jeremy! Get down here!” Michael called from below. Jeremy quickly scrambled up, headache completely gone now. He rushed around the railing yet again and basically launched himself down the stairs, nearly falling as he made his way to his friends. Everyone had rushed down, even Jake with his crutches. They were gathered around their friend, fully awake and fully horrified.

“One of you help him!” Brooke cried, face red and wet from tears. She was crying the most out of all of them. Jeremy didn’t even realize he’d been crying himself. “Please, oh my god, Rich—” She started sobbing openly, and Chloe was too paralyzed to even comfort her. Jeremy felt pressure in his chest, around his lungs, but he tried to keep himself together.

“Fuck, fuck, okay, just-just give me space. Give him space.” He squeezed into the group and kneeled beside Rich’s chest. His friends had already removed the cloth from his throat, and it had fallen in a pile over Rich. His neck was something out of a haunted house; blues and purples and almost black. The bruises there were uneven and fresh. He reached up with shaky hands to find a pulse, but jerked back when Rich’s head just lolled to the side far easier than it should. Hesitating, Jeremy place his fingers again and searched for a pulse. He kept moving his hand around, using the other to keep his head still, trying to find something, anything, but there was none. “He-He’s dead.”

Saying it aloud felt heavy on his tongue. Brooke wailed, others were crying, Michael demanded to figure it out himself and scooted in closer to try what Jeremy had. When Rich’s head proved to be unnaturally easy to move, the boys shared a scared look. Jeremy reached down again and resisted the urge to retch as he cupped the back of Rich’s head with his hands and moved it somewhat.

“His neck—oh god, fuck.” He couldn’t even finished. Everyone else caught on at the exact same time, and Christine and Jenna even scrambled up to rush away. The sounds of them puking in the kitchen sent chills down Jeremy’s spine and he gently set Rich’s head down. “He-He was limp when I saw him, but I didn’t fucking realize this.”

Ri g o r m or t _ s .

“What?" Jeremy asked.

“Huh?” Michael asked.

The SQUIP went silent again. What did it say? Something about processing power? Jeremy shook his head and decided not to bring it up yet. He shouldn’t overwhelm everyone with more than one problem at once.

“Rigor mortis, w-when does rigor mortis set in?” he asked, more to himself than anyone else, He tried to remember what he’d read in some human physiology book years ago. Jake’s eyes snapped to him quizzically, wide and lost and scared, and he quickly explained, “when a body stiffens up after… yeah.”

“Rigor mortis,” Chloe repeated, barely loud enough to hear. Jeremy looked at her, but her gaze was glued to Rich. She looked incredibly pale, even in the dark of the early morning, and her whole body was shaking. “Uh, a-around two hours after death, I think. Is it…?”

“It’s not affecting Rich yet,” Michael piped in, filling the silence. Even he was tearing up. He had to take his glasses off to wipe his eyes. Jeremy’s throat was dry. “He was completely slack when we caught him. He was—this was so fucking recent. Fuck.”

They sat there, not knowing what to do. The night was too silent, even the pouring rain starting to slow. Jenna eventually came back with her phone out, and tried to contact 911. When she was unable to, the others scrambled for their own phones and tried themselves with no luck. Christine came back eventually and didn’t even look at Rich as she rushed upstairs. She came back down with her blanket and Jeremy helped her lay it over their friend. Michael seemed to be in deep thought as he stared at the body until it was covered. He volunteered to help move him and ended up carrying him upstairs to his bed since there was really no other private spot to put him, with Jeremy following to move the bedsheets out of the way. They gathered all of Jake's things from the room and brought it all to the hallway, closing the door behind them.

Afterwards, the group stayed in the living room together, silent and at a loss of what to do. It was starting to rain heavily outside again, but the thunder seemed to get further and further away. Water was rushing down the driveway outside and as horrible as the situation was, no one wanted to try driving the van through rushing water. Until the storm let up or the service magically reappeared, they were stuck here. Jeremy would be lying if he said he could breathe correctly.

“It doesn't make any sense,” Michael said suddenly, looking through some drawers in the kitchen. A few people, Jeremy included, jumped at his voice and their heads snapped to him as he stood behind the kitchen bar. He'd been searching for matches to light the candles on the mantle and managed to find some boxes around the first floor. He gathered the small boxes and brought them to the coffee table where the group was gathered.

“What do you mean?” Christine asked from her spot beside Jeremy. Michael lit a match with a quick flick, leaning against the side of the loveseat they were on. Jeremy knew the lack of sitting to mean that he didn't want to lose his intense train of thought. Michael didn't even look up from the lit match for a few more moments, brow furrowed.

“Rich was one of the people to insist we come here. He was hyping this place up and bragging about how we landed a spot this great,” Michael started as he strolled forward. He blew some dust off the wicks and lit the candles carefully.

“And?” Chloe spat, obviously offended. Jeremy couldn't blame her. This didn't seem to be going anywhere besides criticizing Rich for what he did. Not only to himself, but for the friends he knew would find him.

“And so why'd he do it?” the teen continued, finally lifting his gaze. His eyes were sharp and narrowed, as if trying to figure out some AP Calc lesson he was absent for. He waved the match to get rid of the flame. “Why lure us all out here if he was planning this? If he was, why choose to put time into shredding whatever he shredded to make a rope to make a noose? Why in a spot literally everyone would have to pass by? Why would he subject us to that?”

“Why’d a famous comedian kill himself, huh? Why do famous musicians kill themselves, even though they're supposed to be so content with their lives? Rich was depressed and we didn't fucking see it and he fucking hung himself in plain sight to punish us.” Chloe was gripping the armrest of the seat, glaring daggers. Brooke was on the other side of the loveseat, still crying silently. The middle seat was empty and no one wanted to point it out.

“Why would Rich jump from the fucking railing, Chloe?” Michael said, pushing off from the couch and towering over the girl at his full height. He might not have been an intimidating guy in general, but Chloe shrunk at the intense look on his face, shadowed by the dim candlelight. “No stool, no chair, no ladder. He was a meter above the step right below him. His neck is broken and he was almost totally still, so it's not like he hopped off the stairs themselves. Why would he jump off the railing to hang himself when there are so many other, easier ways to do it? Why on the railing in the first place instead of a ceiling beam above the main hallway?”

“What are you implying, Michael?” It was the first time Jake had spoken up during this whole thing, and he sounded absolutely broken. He and Rich did have a major falling out after Halloween, but Jake always let Rich know he forgave him. They were almost as close as they had been before the party, and now… Jeremy glanced at Michael, then kept his eyes on Jake. He couldn't imagine what the jock was feeling.

“There are so many fucking things that we didn't understand about Rich,” Michael said, eyeing the room with a wary and defensive look in his eyes. When he looked at Jeremy, he softened slightly. That expression was gone within a second as he addressed everyone else again. “But one thing we do know; he cared for his friends. He cared for us. He wanted us to have the time of our lives living together, if only for a week, and he ends up killing himself before the third full day? By leaping off the fucking second floor to a spot literally all of us would have seen him no matter who found out first? Rich didn't hang himself. I refuse to believe he did. No, this was fucking staged.”

A beat of silence washed over the group, Michael standing tall and pissed and determined in a way that Jeremy had never seen him. Brooke had a hand over her mouth, staring at the boy with wide eyes. Jake was shaking his head, though he looked torn. Jenna was staring, more stunned than anything else. Christine was looking at the floor, arms crossed, like she was in deep thought. Chloe shot up and started arguing immediately, as angry as the flame.

“Fuck that! Not everything's a fucking conspiracy, Michael, not everything is shady and has to be questioned and is the cause of some deeper meaning!” she shouted, almost muting the pouring rain. She was flushed out of anger, but her voice was different than usual, like she was holding back tears. Brooke looked at her friend like it was her first time seeing her. “Rich had the worst life out of all of us! A dead mom, a deadbeat dad, friends he felt like he had to put a mask on in front of. He killed himself because we couldn't see how much he needed help and he made sure we knew he wanted us to see!” She suddenly whipped around to look at Jake. “You were his best friend. Do you fucking think anyone here could have hurt him?”

Jeremy held his breath when Jake didn't answer immediately. He looked devastated, but contemplating, like he knew what he thought but didn't know how to say it. His eyes looked shiny with unshed tears as he looked up at Michael and he was blinking rapidly, trying not to let them fall. Chloe's face fell, and she looked at Brooke. The blonde girl avoided her gaze, instead staring at the lit candles. Michael frowned.

“You're all fucking psycho,” Chloe hissed. “You can't even respect Rich when he's dead.” Michael didn't let her start another fit.

“And you're outnumbered. Look, I know it's fucking terrifying to think about, but think about it. If you wanted to kill yourself, no matter how badly, you wouldn't hop off a railing and snap your neck just to be obvious about it. You'd use a chair or something, right?” Chloe didn't say anything, but after a moment she sat down. “He didn't do it under a ceiling beam, like I said, which would be the most obvious place to. His neck was—fuck. It was broken so obviously and bruised in different places, we all saw it.”

“Rich told me this one time, when we were walking,” Jeremy piped up quietly, glancing at Michael in support, “he would never kill himself by hanging.” The more he spoke, the more he remembered from a conversation they once had when they were feeling down. Everyone had gone silent, even Brooke. Jeremy started to fidget under all the attention. “We were talking during a bad day of ours. We were just venting, we never actually admitted to wanting to do it, but Rich said he'd never hang himself. He said it was too much effort for a guy who could barely tie his shoelaces. I still believe him.”

“I saw this PSA once,” Christine started suddenly, drawing everyone's gaze away from Jeremy as he gave her a grateful look, “something about domestic abuse or whatever. The victim's neck was all blotchy and different colors, depending on where the palm and fingers were squeezing. Rich looked just like that, but more… I guess more confident? Like whoever did it knew what to do. Hanging can’t replicate that even if he did jump that far, there's no way.”

“He was choked to death.” Jenna said it more like a statement than a question, voice tight. It seemed like everyone was either crying or wanting to cry. Jeremy felt sick again. Christine nodded, and Michael looked like it made complete sense. He took his phone out of his pocket and quickly opened the Notes app, starting to type without a title. Jeremy didn't know what to think.

“There we go,” the teen said grimly, taking notes right onto his phone. No one bothered to question it. If they had a Whodunit? situation on their hands and the cops would have to get involved, someone had to be recording everything.

“No one we know could've come in here during the storm, do that to one of us, then get out,” said Jake, running a hand over his face. He sat a bit straighter and crossed his arms. Everyone suddenly seemed more more tense. Jeremy glanced at Chloe to see if she would rebuke, but she looked just as wary and freaked as everyone else. No one spoke.

“So one of us did it,” Jeremy said when no one else wanted to. Everyone's eyes shot to him, wide and teary and utterly afraid. He shakily stood up and stood beside Michael. His throat closed up the more he stayed quiet, so he tried to speak at a good rate. “Let's all just state our alibis, okay? Just to get an idea of what we were doing.” Everyone stared at him, so he decided he should start.

“I had a headache. Well, that's—I've had a headache since the car ride here, and I mentioned it to Michael. I dunno if I brought it up when we were buying all that water.” The more he spoke, the more he realized how shitty his alibi was. They'd have to trust Michael. Otherwise, they'd have to come up with reasons why their own alibi was better than his. “I could barely sleep. I managed to at midnight for a little but, then I woke up again and accidentally, uh, I woke Michael up when I was trying to get out of the bed to get water. That's why I was out of my room, why I was… the first one there.”

He could tell he sounded like he was bullshitting. He could tell everyone else could tell, and they could probably tell he knew they could. No one said anything, they just thought to themselves. Jeremy leaned down and grabbed the matches, deciding to busy his hands. Michael took a deep breath, exhaled, and spoke.

“I was asleep until Jeremy woke me up. I remember I took my phone and I looked at him and then at the time, and I asked what he was doing up at two AM. He told me he was going to use the bathroom and get water, in whatever order, and he left and I went back to sleep. It was just a few minutes later that he—that everyone else was woken up.” He looked around the room expectantly once he finished, phone ready to take notes.

“I fell asleep around half-past midnight,” Jenna volunteered. Jeremy couldn't help but glance at Michael, and his face was screwed up in concentration as he typed, with little pauses between bullet points to look at the speaker. He looked like he was trying to take in every syllable. “I know it was half-past midnight because I was playing some offline crossword puzzle on my phone and I set my phone alarm to half-past eight so I could get good sleep. I always do that before bed. Christine was already sleeping by then.”

“Yeah, just a little while before that. I'd just read up to act three of Macbeth and decided to continue it in the morning.” Jeremy trusted Christine immediately. He remembered her saying she'd read one act of that play every night. She was one to believe looking at your phone right before bed would make you have a much harder time sleeping.

“Me and Chloe went to bed at the exact same time. We turned out the light at eleven and put on our sleeping masks together and everything,” Brooke whimpered. She looked at her best friend, finally. “We wake up early together for breakfast, it's what we always do. It wasn't like we could stay up looking at our phones anyway. No internet.” Chloe confirmed this by nodding, but didn't contribute. Everyone looked at Jake. He was the one sharing a room with Rich. Jeremy wanted to know what the guy was thinking.

“He came into our room for just a bit. Ten, twenty minutes.” No one pointed out the fact that Jake couldn't even say his name, or that he raised the back of his hand to swipe under his nose very briefly instead of sniffling audibly. He looked too close to losing his composure and one word about it might have him tipping over the brink. “Said it again, reminded me, he wanted to try for a picture of the lightning. Told me I didn't have to leave the light on for him, he'd be taking long to figure it out. I told him to stay safe and he smiled at me and he closed the door on his way out. I slept at eleven, like I usually do. I know ‘cause that's what my phone said when I plugged it in to charge.”

Besides whoever killed Rich, Jake had to be the last person to see his friend alive. Feeling grim, Jeremy took another glance at Michael, who looked satisfied with what he’d typed and was just adding to some parts of it. He could never imagine how he'd feel if he spoke to him for the very last time and didn't even know it. Michael looked his way and caught his eye briefly, and the brunet wondered whether he was thinking the same thing. He shook the thought away and cleared his throat quietly, lighting a match. Suddenly, the SQUIP's glitched-out voice rang in his head, nearly making him drop the thing.

P h_ ne .

Phone? Who's phone? How was that relevant? The SQUIP didn't answer. It didn't seem to be very helpful here. Maybe the Mountain Dew Red damaged it rather than shut it down completely. He didn't have time to wonder, just focusing on lighting a candle before the match burnt to his fingers. Michael ran a slow hand through his hair and then let it drop to his side, shoving his phone in his pocket again.

“Who would want to kill Rich? What was their game plan and their goal? Obviously, they had it ready. They made a rope out of cloth and tried to make it look like he killed himself. If he hadn't been so upbeat this whole time, and if we left the thing around his neck, I would've thought he really did commit suicide,” he admitted. Everyone glanced around at each other uneasily. It was only now sinking in that one of them was a murderer, and no one knew who to trust. Christine sighed softly and stood up along with Michael and Jeremy.

“Okay. Okay. The flood should go down in a bit, once the rain’s over. We have lots of water and food that should last us for the rest of the week, maybe longer if we don't eat as much every day. We should all keep track of each other the whole day, just stay in a big group and watch everyone else with our eyes peeled.” There was a lot of hesitance as they thought it over, but eventually everyone agreed.

There wasn't much to do for the next few hours besides blow out the candles once it became daylight. When lunchtime rolled around, Christine let Jake help her with making instant ramen after she found an emergency gas stove in one of the cabinets, most likely as a distraction for him. The rest of them pretended not to notice the suspecting glances they caught the others making as they waited for their food. They all tried to pass the time for the rest of the day, but no one was up for any games or conversation. Jeremy just stared out the window for longer than he ever had. Dinner came by too quickly, and Christine made tea along with some chips they'd stocked up on.

She, Jeremy, and Michael didn't have much appetite and volunteered to set up the living room for the night. They held quiet conversation as they moved the furniture, heads bowed and hearts aching. The day had gone by so fast, yet so slow. No one was sure what to do.

“We have to find a motive,” Michael insisted as he carried a rocking chair to lean against the wall. Jeremy carried the other one and peeked out the window when he got the chance. The rain had almost let up a few times during the day, but never quite stopped. He was glad the cabin was built on a porch. “Whoever did it put so much work into it. It's like they planned it out from the beginning.”

“Thing is, Rich was the most excited for this trip. He even hyped up the basement, which, by the way, has gotta be super flooded by now,” Jeremy said, tossing some of the couch’s throw pillows onto the floor in case someone wanted to use them to sleep on. He bent down and hooked his hands beneath the loveseat as Michael did the same, and the two of them lifted at the same time and set it down a few feet back. They repeated this with the other loveseat, then Michael and Christine grabbed both ends of the coffee table. “They probably underestimated how happy he'd be here. No one wants to die on vacation.”

“I don't know about you guys,” Christine said, huffing as she lifted the table carefully, “but to me, that means Brooke and Chloe are off the table. They were just as excited as Rich, even if they didn't outwardly show as much enthusiasm.” She and Michael set the table against the wall, near the rocking chairs. Jeremy was able to move the lamps and the stands they were on by himself, getting them out of the way to make a big space for everyone. Two people would probably want to sleep on the loveseats. Michael was skeptical and looked at Christine like he was trying to figure out whether she was guilty or not, right on the spot. The girl didn't seem to notice or care.

“We don't know who might be putting up their act. Everyone is acting like they're expected to. They're in shock, or they're suspicious, or they're a complete mess. One of them is lying, trying to mimic the behavior of mourning to cover their tracks. They didn't prepare for everyone to realize this was a homicide. They should be caught off guard.” Jeremy was only silent for a moment before coming up with an idea.

“Then let's take advantage of that,” he said, gathering the pair's attention. “We-We can ask questions. While they're still scrambling to hide everything. Maybe we can find inconsistencies in stories, maybe ask everyone individually and see if everything lines up with their roommate.” Christine and Michael looked at each other, then back at Jeremy. He hated to put himself on the spot, but at least it was in front of the two people he trusted the most in his friend group.

“What about Jake?” Michael asked. The other two knew what he was going to say before he even said it. “How can we account for him?” They took a few moments to think. Rich might have been his best friend, but that didn't mean Jake was off the hook. They didn't want to say it out loud, but he was a big suspect.

“We can't,” Jeremy concluded, fiddling with the hem of his shirt.

“Then I guess we know who we're interrogating first,” Christine said solemnly.