Actions

Work Header

The (Almost)s

Chapter Text

Friday, January 31, 2014
6:28pm

“I just have a good feeling about this weekend,” Hannah said, thoughtfully twisting a piece of hair around her finger. “Just a really, really good feeling.”

“Oh yeah?” Sam glanced over her shoulder, pausing in hanging up her coat. “Any reason in particular, or just cuz?” She cocked an eyebrow in Hannah’s direction and smiled knowingly—it did feel like it was going to be a good weekend, she had to admit. Winter break hadn’t lasted nearly long enough, and the thought of spending a few days far, far away from textbooks and early morning classes sounded like absolute paradise. But of course, Sam knew Hannah, and so she knew her excitement was hardly from the promise of clear skies and the smell of mountain air.

No, she knew exactly why Hannah had been all but trembling with anticipation since they’d first climbed into the cable car at the base of the mountain. Sam knew her, and that was why her playful smirk lacked a matching, playful laugh.

“Well…I mean…you know…” Hannah’s demeanor suddenly became impassive—an act so obvious that it was almost painful to watch. “Cuz, like…Mike’s coming…” She let her voice trail off, shrugging jerkily in punctuation.

Sam sighed, zipping her coat so that it wouldn’t slip off the hanger. She shut the closet door slowly, considering her words very, very carefully. This was the minefield she’d been trying to avoid the entire trip up to the lodge, and now it seemed she had stepped directly into the blast zone. “Yup,” she agreed, “Mike is definitely coming.” Pausing for a beat, she folded her arms across her chest. “Aaaaand so is Emily.”

The color of Hannah’s face paled and then darkened with embarrassment. She averted her eyes, looking down to the puddles of melting snow gathering around her boots. “But…” A corner of her mouth tucked in, as though in concentration. For a moment, she seemed to consider saying something else, but seemed to think better of it. Instead, she bent down and began painstakingly unlacing her boots.

“But?” Sam prompted, toeing her own boots off, wobbling in an awkward dance to keep her socks from getting wet. When there was no immediate response, she tried again. “But…?”

But Hannah’s attention had been riveted by something else. Eyes wide, boots in hand, she stared at the mat by the door. It was only then, it seemed, she had realized just how many other pairs of shoes sat there, caked with mud and salt. “Oh my God,” she muttered, voice hardly louder than a frantic whisper. She ran the numbers in her head, trying to play a strange matching game between boots and owners. “Who’s already here? Are we the last ones?” And then, even quieter, “Shoot! Is Mike here already?!”

Sam rolled her eyes to the ceiling. And so it begins, she thought to herself, resisting the urge to sigh again. With a soft, albeit very tired, smile, she added her boots to the pile on the mat, reaching over and setting a hand on Hannah’s shoulder. “Han,” she said calmly. “Please chill.” From the other side of the door, almost as if on cue, a gust of wind whistled by, shooting an icy draft through the cracks of the front door. “Oof! Bad choice of words!” she laughed, relieved when Hannah joined in. Sam slid her hand down to Hannah’s elbow, guiding her further into the lodge. “God, I always forget how cold it gets up here…”

“Yeah…I just hope that the storm the weather channel was talking about doesn’t hit until we’re back in class…” Hannah cast one last look out of the entryway’s window before stepping into the warmth of the living area with Sam. “Wouldn’t that be a bummer? If we got totally snowed in?”

“Hmm…getting stuck in a luxury resort instead of going back to class? Yeah, that would definitely be a bummer.” Sam rocked onto the balls of her feet as they paused in front of the coffee table, brow knitting. Save for everyone’s boots on the mat and coats in the closet, there really wasn’t sign of anyone else in the lodge. The shutters were drawn on the windows, barely letting in any of the fading daylight, there was no fire in the grate, there were no cups leaving watery rings on the tables. More to the point, there was no one in the dining room, as far as she could see, no one in the hallway…and even as she strained her ears, there were no voices to be heard. Weird. Could they have been upstairs? Maybe picking out bedrooms for the weekend? They’d find out one way or another, Sam figured, turning back to Hannah as she folded her arms across her chest. “But no more avoiding the question. You were going to say something about Mike and Emily.”

Stepping into the heated room had caused Hannah’s glasses to fog up, but still, Sam could see her eyes dart from one side of the lodge to the other as her own had only a moment ago. Even though there was no one to be seen, she lowered her voice to a tense stage whisper. “I just…I don’t think the whole Mike-and-Emily thing is going to last, that’s all. I don’t think…I don’t think her being here like…necessarily means that nothing’s going to happen. With him, I mean. And me.”

“Because…?”

“Because…I don’t know. They like, fight on Facebook a lot. Not fight-fight, but they get into very stupid, very public arguments. And Mike’s…” Her gaze focused on middle space, becoming more far-off as she thought. “He’s just so much more mature than she is, you know? He’s in college now! He’s probably been figuring himself out and like…” Hannah shrugged, “I don’t know…going on some sort of journey of self-exploration. Maybe he’s realizing that Emily isn’t great for him, and—”

“The only ‘journey of self-exploration’ guys like Michael-Fucking-Munroe ever go on are the kind that involve a pinky up the ass.”

The voice was sudden and unexpected, and close enough behind them that both Hannah and Sam jumped. “Ugh! Josh!!!” Hannah turned around and smacked her brother’s shoulder with a little too much force to be playful. “Don’t do that! And don’t say stuff like that! You’re so gross!”

“Is that the only hello I get? After all I’ve done for you? Ungrateful, that’s what you are,” he turned to Sam, grin wide and self-satisfied. “Sammy!” he said in the same way he had since they had first met—slow, deliberate, and drawling, sounding more like ‘Sam-may’ than anything else. “Girl, how you doing?”

“Get away from us, creep!” Hannah groaned, trying (and failing) to shove him away.

“We were waiting on pins and needles for you ladies!” Josh said, entirely unperturbed as he slid an arm around each of their shoulders, leaning forward to rest all of his weight against them. He smirked good-naturedly as he tightened the arm around Hannah into a joke of a chokehold. “Took you long enough to get up here. We were all starting to worry that you got lost. Or froze to death. Or ran off with a yeti.”

“Hi Josh,” Sam said with a laugh, heart slowing back to its usual rhythm.

“Don’t ‘Hi Josh’ him!” Hannah scowled as she wrestled against Josh’s grip, though she found she was unable to squeeze herself out of it. “Why would you say something like that?”

“What? About the yeti? Look Hannah, you’re my little sister and I love you—dearly—but can you really blame me? Your taste in guys is…well, the polite word is ‘bad.’ The honest word is ‘fucked.’ I think you’d be cute with a yeti.” He chuckled to himself, but feigned confusion when Hannah only glared back at him. “Oh wait, did you mean the pinky thing?” He furrowed his brow in mock concern before leaning in closer to her, almost cheek-to-cheek, knocking her glasses slightly askew. “Oh! Well that’s because, see Hanners, the pinky is the smallest of the fingers—circumference-wise, of course…” as though to illustrate, he held his own pinky up in front of her face, wiggling it slightly. “Which means it’s the easiest to really just…jam right on up your—”

Ugh!” Hannah shoved him again, this time successfully disentangling herself. “Could you not talk like that in front of everyone this weekend, please?” She frowned and folded her arms across herself.

Josh leaned over to Sam, eyes still on Hannah, “Do you think she means that I shouldn’t be dishing out sweet pinky facts? Or do you think she means the whole fingers up the ass thing?”

“Couldn’t tell ya,” Sam joked, picking up Josh’s hand with her own, undraping his arm from her shoulders before letting it drop. “So where’s the rest of the gang?”

“Guess that depends on the gang you’re talking about.”

Reaching up and fixing the clasp of her hairclip, Sam shot him an impatient look. “Uh, you know. The gang. All of them?”

He waved a hand dismissively before folding his arms across his chest and jutting out a hip in a clear mockery of Hannah’s posture. “Gotta be more specific, Sammy. You looking for Friday Night Lights? Or Ferris Bueller’s Day Off?

She would’ve asked for some kind of clarification on that—demanded, really—had there not been a sudden movement from just behind Josh. As if on cue, two figures crested the staircase leading up from the first floor.

Josh frowned for a moment at Sam’s sudden silence, but followed her line of sight, turning to glance over his shoulder. His grin returned immediately and he clapped his hands once. “Cameron, babe! What’s happenin’?”

“Seriously dude? Seriously?” Throwing his arms out to his sides, Chris stopped in the middle of the room. “Why am I always Cameron? I’m funny! I’m charming! I could be Ferris!”

From beside him, Ashley sighed, pursing her lips. “At least you’re not Sloane.”

Sam couldn’t help but snicker quietly to herself as they joined up in their typical triangle formation. The three of them cut a less-than-imposing image together. ‘Awkward’ was the word that occurred most when they were around, and it was ‘awkward’ that made itself comfortable at the forefront of her mind as she watched them riff off of one another.

“Look, I don’t make the rules, you guys,” Josh was saying, holding out a hand in a gesture that seemed nearly parental, “Assigning movie character roles to your friends is a sacred art. Do you have any idea how much effort it takes?” He chuckled to himself, “Speaking of, I thought it was movie time down there. Running away for a little breather? Maybe a little…romantic tête-à-tête?” He quirked a brow and deepened his smirk into what was probably an attempt to look suave.

“Yeah, funny thing about that,” Chris started, covertly checking to make sure Ashley was looking elsewhere before unceremoniously flipping Josh the bird. “Movie time sort of became makeout time.”

Josh reeled back dramatically, spreading his hands wide. “Wait…makeout…oh, oh! Oh congrats! Mazel tov! I’ll keep my eyes peeled for the wedding invite in the mail. And now, what, you’re coming up here to rehydrate? You crazy kids and your hormones. Go, dampen your tongues—the beer should be cold by now.”

It was Ashley’s turn to glare, tucking the corners of her mouth inwards in a show of annoyance. She said nothing, but sucked a breath through her teeth reproachfully.

“Yeah, you can tell cuz my lipstick’s all smudged and shit. Let me just fix that in your mirror real qui—no not us, dingus. Emily and Mike. Like Jesus. It was untenable, the frigging noises they were mak—” The rest of his sentence was lost, though, as the breath was knocked from him with a low ‘oof!’.

Ashley pulled her elbow back from Chris’s side quickly, tensely clearing her throat. “Hi Hannah,” she said pointedly, shooting a lightning-quick glance up at Chris before looking back to the others. “Hi Sam.”

To his credit, Chris had the good sense to appear immediately horrified, and he cast his eyes down toward his shoes. “Oh, yeah, hey guys.” He lifted a hand in a half-hearted wave, still avoiding eye contact. “Did not…see you there…” he muttered under his breath. And then, even quieter, “Behind…Josh…”

Of course, the damage was already done. The moment he had said it, Sam had cringed so hard that she had feared imploding. She looked quickly to Hannah, who had already turned away and bustled herself into the kitchen. Turning back to the others, she drooped her shoulders and mouthed an indignant ‘Really?!’, getting no reply other than three sheepish shrugs. “You could’ve just said everyone was downstairs,” she said to Josh, lowering her voice to a harsh whisper.

“Well, I could’ve. But I think Cochise did a better job, honestly.” He patted Chris on the shoulder in a show of approval.

Dude.”

Helpfully, Josh pointed to the staircase. “Everyone’s downstairs, by the way. Movie room, if you didn’t glean that much.”

“You don’t say.” Sam dropped him one last exasperated look before following after Hannah, stepping into the kitchen. For the time being, the counters were almost suspiciously clean, the room smelling vaguely of lemony cleaning products. It wouldn’t last another couple of hours. She peeked into one of the grocery bags Hannah was rifling through and surreptitiously organizing, stifling a groan as she saw the junky contents. “A weekend of beef jerky and kettlecorn, huh?”

“Oh, that’s just snacks.”

For the second time, Sam startled, yanking her hand away from the bag’s edge. She hadn’t realized Ashley had pulled away from the boys until she had spoken up behind her. It was a special talent of Ashley’s, really, being able to blend into the background so easily.

“Oh, sorry! Did I…shoot, I thought I was making more noise than that.” The apples of her cheeks darkened, and she momentarily bared her lower teeth in a grimace. “My bad, sorry Sam.” Her lips tightened into something resembling a sheepish smile as Sam waved it off, and she briskly walked over to the kitchen island and sat on one of the stools, pulling her feet up to rest against one of its rungs. “We stopped by the store on our way up…the fridge is already packed with stuff so that we can actually cook, but there’s also a bunch of frozen things, too, just in case.” Lazily, she looked over her shoulder to where Hannah had flitted, half in and half out of the refrigerator as she pretended to be entirely riveted by the selection of soda. Ashley’s brow creased, Sam noticed, and there seemed to be a flicker of pity in her expression before she turned back. “Oh, but don’t worry—we made sure to get plenty of vegan-y things, too.”

Sam smiled back, though inwardly shuddering. ‘Vegan-y things,’ in her experience, could mean a lot of stuff. Sometimes it actually meant vegan, sometimes it meant organic, but usually it just meant there was a picture of a tree somewhere on the label. “Thanks,” she said all the same, tapping her fingers against the island. Then, louder, trying to draw Hannah’s attention, “Soooooo. What movie are we watching?”

Shrugging, Ashley slowly dropped one of her legs, letting it swing like a pendulum. “Beats me. Everyone was still arguing over it before Chris and I came up. There are so many to choose from.”

“Please tell me it’s not one of Dad’s.” Hannah finally closed the door to the fridge, cracking open a can of ginger ale. She didn’t quite meet Ashley’s gaze, nor Sam’s, but her expression was nothing short of exhausted. “I don’t think I can like…handle looking at everyone’s faces if we watch one of Dad’s. They don’t…ugh, they don’t need to know what he’s like.”

“What, you think they won’t love watching Blood Monastery?” Sam nudged Hannah with an elbow jovially. “What’s not to love about that?”

“Everything,” Hannah said flatly.

Taking her by the crook of her arm, Sam began leading her back out of the kitchen, nodding towards the staircase. “Then we better get our votes in before Josh and Chris cancel them out.”

“I will never get them,” Ashley sighed from behind them. There was a click, and the lights flicked off, leaving them to navigate the stairs in the half-light. If Ashley took any notice of her mistake, she showed no sign, instead continuing with a sigh, “They’ve watched that stupid movie like…a hundred times, I swear.”

The door to the cinema was wide open as they reached the downstairs landing, and it was then that a murmur of voices could finally be heard, growing louder with each step.

“No! Absolutely not!

“What’s the big deal? It’s a good movie!”

“We said no chick flicks. We’re not watching a chick flick.”

“It’s not a chick flick, Michael.”

“How is The Notebook not a chick flick, Em?!”

With all the lights on, the cinema looked very much like an extremely comfortable rec room of sorts, full of huge, plush bucket seats, overstuffed beanbag chairs, and even a few well coordinated ottomans to use as footrests. To either side, the walls were decorated with full-size movie posters from Mr. Washington’s extensive collection (most featuring bloody and terrifying faces promoting horror titles Sam had grown familiar with, but had never actually sat down and watched). It was the gargantuan screen and speaker system that gave away the room’s true purpose, though currently there was nothing being projected.

As they walked in, one of the earlier voices called out. “Oh thank God, finally some civilized human beings. Sam! Hannah! Will you please inform the class that The Notebook isn’t a chick flick?” From where she was, couched low in one of the rows near the front of the room, Emily was little more than a head floating over the back of the seat. She had all but turned around entirely, fixing both of them with a knowingly contemptuous smile.

Next to her, Mike groaned, his arm still stretched across the back of her seat, despite the fact her shoulders were now entirely out of his reach. He didn’t deign to turn himself at all, instead choosing to let his head loll backwards onto the headrest. “It’s. A. Chick. Flick,” he said, punctuating each word with an emphatic chop of his hand.

“It’s a romantic drama,” Jessica piped in, primly uncrossing and re-crossing her legs. She sat to Emily’s other side, and lifted a hand to finger-wave back to the others. “Just because you don’t understand romance doesn’t mean it’s just some stupid movie.”

“Oh, I understand romance. Don’t I, Em?” he asked, lowering his voice as he turned back to her, waggling his eyebrows suggestively.

A gasp, and Emily turned back to him, playfully smacking his shoulder. “You’re incorrigible!

“I assure you, dear lady, that I don’t know the meaning of the word.”

Sam grit her teeth as Hannah seemed to shrink beside her, looking down to the floor as she cupped a hand around one of her elbows. This, she wanted to say, is why I didn’t want you to get your hopes up. Not that she actually said it aloud (she never did) but the sentiment hung in the air, all the same.

“That’s not a joke. He really doesn’t know what it means.” Beth had since hoisted herself out of one of the giant beanbags, joining them near the entryway. When she caught Sam’s eye, she winked. “They’ve been going at it like this for an hour. Please, kill me now.”

“Nah, Mike’s definitely right.” Matt sat on the floor, flipping through an inordinately huge collection of movies with the concentration of a man trying to defuse a bomb. “It’s definitely a chick flick. My vote’s no on that.”

With the entire group of them talking over each other as they were, the room had the feeling of a hornet’s nest someone had just rudely shaken; there was too much movement, too much chaos, and not a shred of the serenity Sam had been hoping for.

The lights flickered between bright and dim, bright and dim, flashing out a theater’s warning that a show was about to start.

When she turned around, Sam realized the door to the projection room, usually very well camouflaged in the wall, stood open. Chris and Ashley leaned against either side of the doorway like gangly, uncomfortable gargoyles, Chris’s arm hidden as he ostensibly messed with the lights. “Can we make some kind of decision, please?” he called to the rest of the room, cupping his free hand to his mouth to help his voice carry. “Some of us have popcorn to eat."

Whether it was triggered by the lights or the noise, it was difficult to say, but suddenly Hannah stood up a bit straighter, squaring her shoulders. With a surge of determination none of them had expected, she split off from where she’d been standing with Sam and Beth, sidling her way into the row of seats already partially taken up by the others. Before she could think too hard about what she was doing, she took the empty seat to Mike’s right, managing a nervous, excited smile when he turned to her. “Hey Mike,” she said, hoping the dimmed lights would hide most of her flush.

“Hey Hannah,” he smiled back, voice smooth, but not interested so much as entertained. “How you doing?”

Sam felt her stomach drop just slightly as she saw Emily and Jessica pause mid-conversation to watch Hannah take her seat. They turned back to each other with sharp, unreadable smiles—the sort of thing that was immediately recognizable as best-friend-telepathy. Whatever message they had shared, Sam doubted it was of the sweet and understanding variety. She winced as though tasting something sour, hoping that they would keep their snickering to themselves. They were all friends, after all.

But maybe ‘friends’ was a bit of a stretch.

Beside her, Beth sighed quietly. “Looks like another weekend of this, huh?” she asked from the side of her mouth.

“Who knows…maybe…maybe things will work out.” Sam could feel Beth’s disbelief radiating from off of her without having to look at her face. “Hannah said she had a good feeling about this weekend. Maybe she’s right. Stranger things have happened.”

“Mhm,” she hummed noncommittally, dropping her arms to her sides before making her way back to the beanbag she’d been sitting in earlier. “They better watch themselves,” Beth said quietly as she passed Sam. “They know the drill, right? Mess with one twin, the other’ll eat ‘em alive.” She jokingly bared her teeth, flexing her fingers like claws.

Laughing quietly, Sam walked alongside her, opting for the beanbags as well, wanting to let Hannah have her time with Mike. “Sorry I can’t help with that one.”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah, meat is murder, blah blah blah…”

“Well, that, and I’m not too sure anyone here would taste that good.”

“Stringy, probably.”

Before Sam had time to laugh, the projector clicked on at the back of the room, quietly whirring. Everyone grew deathly silent, then, looking to the bright circle of light being projected onto the screen.

“Okay!” Josh called out, immediately riveting the room in that way that he had, holding his hands out to either side. He stood directly in front of the screen, casting a crisp shadow against it. “We are a democracy! We listen to what the people want! And the people have said they do not want chick flicks, so. No chick flicks.” He waved his hands again before anyone could so much as groan, calling for perfect quiet. “We’ve also had recommendations for…” at that, he paused, making a great ordeal of pulling a crumpled piece of paper out of his back pocket and unfolding it. He squinted melodramatically, like an old geezer who’d forgotten their bifocals. “No vampire movies, regardless of how dreamy the main character is! No heartwarming sports movies where the group of loveable misfits wins despite all odds! No movies where the dog dies—oh come on, guys, for real? And lastly…not Frozen.” He folded the paper back over, sucking a breath in through his teeth. “Well, I can, in all honesty, say that I agree with at least one of those.”

There were a few laughs from the crowd at that, and Josh’s smirk only widened. If there was one thing that could be said of Josh Washington, it was that the man enjoyed having a captive audience.

“With this in mind! I would like to make my own suggestion—a suggestion, I will point out, that meets all the requirements you lovely people have set forth already.”

“Not Blood Monastery.”

In the light, his eyes seemed to catch a spark, glinting brightly. “Not sure which of my sisters that was, but they can kindly shut the fuck up. Blood Monastery is a work of genius, and—”

“Isn’t that the one where the nuns start murdering people?” The sneer was evident in Jessica’s voice. “I don’t want to watch anything gory!

There was a general rumble of approval, and Josh threw his arms up. “Firstly, priests. It was priests killing people. Secondly, you people have no culture. No class. Wouldn’t know fine cinema if it came out of the ground and bit you on the ass. I hope you all recognize that.”

“Yeah, we’ll live!” Beth snickered, pulling her knees up to her chest as she sank further into her beanbag.

Finally, he gave in, walking over to the comically thick folder of movies Matt had been flipping through, grabbing a disc at random. “Fast & Furious?” he asked the room, spreading his arms out wide once more, not unlike Russell Crowe in Gladiator. “Will that entertain you peasants?” He waited for roughly half a second, and when there were no immediate protests, he took a few steps forward. “Hey, Cochise, you know what to do.” Flicking his wrist, he sent the disc flying over the rows of seats, spinning towards the projection room like a frisbee.

“I—oh shit oh shit oh shit…” Chris missed the disc by a country mile, reaching for it just a second too late. It bounced off the wall with a small, unimportant sound, and flew another few inches before falling impotently to the ground. There was a smattering of applause as he had to bend down to grab it, but instead of showing any sign of embarrassment, he favored them all with a sweeping bow and a blown kiss before disappearing into the room to load the movie.

Making herself comfortable, Sam let her eyes fall back to Hannah, who was occasionally leaning over and trying to steal a few seconds of Mike’s attention. She released a slow huff of breath, turning her gaze instead to Josh as he sauntered his way to the very last row of seats, making himself comfortable smack dab in the center-most spot. Ashley tentatively stepped over the back of the chairs, plopping down into the one next to him. Though Sam couldn’t hear what they were whispering about as the screen suddenly burst to life showing the movie’s menu, she could guess well enough as Josh gestured towards the backs of the others. He pantomimed yawning widely and stretching his arms out before pretending to subtly drape one across Ashley’s shoulders. Sam watched as Ashley laughed, momentarily pressing one of her hands to her cheek and batting her eyelashes at Josh. An instant later, she was rolling her eyes, both of their shoulders shaking with titters. As soon as the anti-piracy warnings came onscreen, Chris slid from out of the projection room, hopping over the back of the chairs as well, sitting on Ashley’s other side.

She turned back to the screen, grabbing one of the blankets from the floor and wrapping herself in it. In no time at all, they were all reacting as one unit, laughing and groaning and cheering in turn, and her earlier apprehension melted away.


***

11:15pm

By the time the party was in full swing a few hours later, Sam was already exhausted. It was some horrible cocktail of school stress, traveling, and cheap rum, she thought, clouding her brain and making everything in the room feel too…real.

There was a very loud game of flip cup happening in the kitchen, made all the more loud by the tooth-rotting bubblegum pop Jessica was blasting through the Washington’s speakers. Earlier, there had been attempts to get her to play along too, but she’d laughed and shrugged them off until they’d left her alone. It wasn’t that she didn’t want to play, or that she didn’t want to hang out with the others, but there was a numb sort of ache she’d been nursing since the movie ended and Hannah had continued tagging along with Mike. If anything, she just didn’t want to watch Hannah keep trying, knowing how futile it all was. She also didn’t want to keep pretending she didn’t see the way Emily and Jessica kept whispering behind their hands or cups or slices of pizza. It felt like high school cafeteria drama all over again.

Staring down into the remnants of her plastic cup, Sam suddenly felt way too warm. She tightened her lips and decided she was done for the night, walking back into the brightly lit kitchen just long enough to empty the rest of her drink into the sink. If she’d been worried anyone would try and pull her into the game again, those fears were misplaced; everyone seemed to be moving in some way, all blurs of color and loud voices, but no one so much as looked away from the table when she made her appearance. Not one to look a gift horse in the mouth, Sam exited just as quietly, glad for a sliver of alone time.

The rest of the lodge seemed almost unnaturally still as she wandered through it, casually running her fingers along the banisters or pausing to look at family photos. She’d only been to Blackwood Pines a handful of times since meeting Hannah freshman year, and each time it seemed to feel as though the lodge grew bigger and bigger, the vaulted ceiling of the great room higher with each passing visit. She had crossed the entire first floor before too long, walking in a wide, curving path, and once she made it to the staircase, she paused.

Sam wasn’t drunk, not exactly, but the thought of going up or down the polished, shiny, slippery stairs wasn’t terribly appealing, either way. Instead, seized with her earlier dreams of fresh air, she weaved her way back over to the mat where her boots sat, stepping into them gingerly. Her coat was still hanging in the closet, but she was so hot…She stepped outside before thinking too deeply on it.

Almost immediately, her eyes fluttered shut and she took the deepest breath she was capable of, filling her lungs with the cold, crisp mountain air. When she reopened her eyes, she was met with the startling beauty of the woods. Though the sky was completely black, the lack of lights made each star stand out like a white-hot pinprick, freckling her view with constellations. The storm the weather channel had warned about was still some ways away, the horizon beginning to dim with menacing grey clouds, but the faintest flurry had already started, fat snowflakes lazily drifting down to dust the tree branches. This was what she had come out here for—not ridiculous crush drama, not getting shitfaced, and especially not the questionable food choices—the majesty of the mountain, getting closer to nature.

Leaning against a banister, Sam craned her head to get a better look at the surrounding trees, trying to catch a glimpse of any sign of wildlife. But there were no eyes shining in the darkness, nor were there any howls. But if she strained her ears…

Well that was weird.

Furrowing her brow as if it would help her better make out the sound, Sam leaned even farther forward over the rail. It wasn’t the party inside, and it definitely wasn’t the buzz of any electrical generator the lodge might’ve needed, but it was…familiar.

She glanced over her shoulder to the door, and then, likely due to having just one drink too many, made up her mind to investigate. Carefully, she walked down the icy stairs until she landed on solid ground, well aware that only minutes before, she had decided the indoor stairs were too risky to attempt.

Narrowing her eyes and slowly creeping along the side of the lodge, she followed the strange hum. As she walked, she began to hear something else, as well—a voice. There was a moment where her heart sank, suddenly reminded of an offhanded comment Beth had made earlier about ‘some weirdo hanging around the property lately.’ The memory triggered an awful moment of clarity in her. This was how people got murdered in shitty movies! Was she really the moron who died in the first ten minutes? What did she think she was doing out there in the middle of the woods? Why on Earth was she just wandering around, alone, in the dark, following random noises?

Her only answer was that she was tired. And maybe just a little bit tipsy. The combination of those two facts seemed to make it imperative that she figure out what the sound was. With the lightest footsteps she could manage, she continued on, reaching into her pocket for her phone, just in case.

The humming grew louder and louder in the dark, and as she focused, she picked up on a new sound. Splashing? Her brow knit further. Everything on the mountain was frozen solid…there shouldn’t have been any free-running water. Even the ponds near the lodge had been glassed over with ice, so then what…

Her careful steps weren’t careful enough, apparently, as something brittle snapped under her boot.

“Oh shit,” came the voice, whispered and frantic.

“Shut up—shut up!!” came a second.

There was more than one person out there?!

Steeling herself, Sam charged forward, thumb flicking on her phone’s flashlight. She wasn’t sure what she had expected—someone casing the lodge, trying to find a way to break in, maybe—but she was still caught off-guard.

Christ! Could you not shine that directly in my eyes?”

“Oh, phew…it’s just Sam.” Ashley had slid down further into the bubbling water of the hot tub at the intrusion, but sat up a bit straighter as she made the realization. She squinted against the phone’s light, raising a hand to shield her eyes. “Hi Sam,” she added, twiddling the fingers of her lifted hand in a half-wave. Her hair was tied up in a little knot at the back of her head, but a few loose tendrils hung wet behind her ears.

“Yeah, hi Sam—again, light is…directly in my eyes. Am I not blind enough for you people?” Chris had both hands covering his face, and only let them drop once Sam toggled her flashlight function off. In the quick glimpse she’d gotten in the light, the lenses of his glasses had seemed entirely fogged over. “Thank you.”

Josh turned to look over his shoulder, the only one of the three who’d had his back to her. “Busted, huh?” he chuckled, “Well, that sucks.”

Relieved, Sam blew out a deflated raspberry, raking her hands through her hair. She hadn’t even realized the three of them were missing from the kitchen. “Are you guys kidding me? I thought you were like…burglars or something.”

“Burglars,” Josh said, fixing her with a look that was caught somewhere between amusement and disbelief. “Mountaintop burglars.”

“I don’t know!” And then she was laughing, folding her arms across her chest. She could see the hot tub steaming, even in the dark, and the air around them suddenly seemed much, much colder by comparison. “What are you even doing out here?”

“Oh, you know,” Chris said, leaning his head back and closing his eyes as he sank down deeper into the water. “Discussing taxes, considering 401k options, trying to really nail down how to optimize those retirement funds. The usual.”

“We were just trying to get some quiet, that’s all. We figured everyone had, like, forgotten this was out here, so…” Ashley shrugged, shivering at a faint gust of wind, ducking back down until only her head was above the water. “Thought we’d enjoy it before everyone wanted to.”

“Before Mike and Emily started exchanging fluids in it, you mean.” Chris grimaced at the thought.

Sam rolled her eyes, walking up to the edge of the tub and leaning down to test the water with her hand. “They are kind of gross with that, huh?”

“Hey, Shouty McShoutsalot, maybe keep your voice down, huh?” With a flick of his wrist, Josh sent a fine spray of water in Sam’s direction. “The whole plan was not having other people find us. So. If you could join the Whisper Brigade, that’d be…well, it would just be swell.” He smiled wide, spreading his arms out along the edge of the tub. “Looks like you needed a little quiet time, huh? A little Sammy Siesta, if you will.”

True though it was, she wasn’t about to admit it. “Maybe I just thought I’d pop out here and check out the stars. We never get skies this clear at home.” She craned her head back, looking up at the sky, but already those grey clouds had crept in on the wind, obscuring the stars and clearly pregnant with snow. She doubted that the storm would be holding off for much longer. “Aaand apparently we don’t get them too clear up here, either. Not for long, anyway. I swear, just a minute ago, I could see everything.

“Y’know Sammy, if you’re tired of the Peanut Gallery, you’re allowed to say so,” Josh dropped her a knowing wink. “We’re all big boys and girls here, and I think we can all admit that sometimes, uh…sometimes big parties are more fun in theory than they are in practice.”

It was hard to tell over the bubbling of the hot tub, but Sam thought she could almost hear Ashley make a small, contemptuous noise of agreement.

“You wanna join?” Chris asked, mirroring Josh and spreading his arms out over the sides. “Water’s fine. Only downside is…you gotta listen to these two shmucks argue about movies.”

“It’s not arguing if one person is right and the other is wrong,” Josh said, and something about his tone suggested he was picking up the conversation from where Sam had interrupted. “Then it’s just education.”

Across from him, Ashley stuck out her tongue. “For the last time, there’s more to visual storytelling than just shock-value, Josh!”

“If you don’t get a reaction, then it’s not art, Ash!”

“Yelling at a jump scare isn’t even in the same universe as having an actual emotional response!”

“Since when does being scared not count as an emotion?!”

Now who’s shouting?” The two silenced immediately, abruptly turning back to face her, and it was Sam’s turn to smirk. “Seriously, you guys don’t have to worry too much about the noise level. They’re…pretty oblivious, in there.” As though to reassure herself, Sam momentarily glanced in the general direction of the kitchen. It was probably just her imagination, but she could’ve sworn she heard distant cheering. “And I don’t think so. I’m not really dressed for the occasion.” She smiled, “I don’t think I even brought a bathing suit. It’s cold as all getout, out here!”

Josh waved her off. “Bathing suit, schmathing suit. None of us brought suits.” He leaned in towards Sam confidentially. “Between you and me, I’m actually naked in here.”

“No he’s not,” Ashley said firmly, offering Sam a tired look.

“No he’s not,” Chris agreed before leaning forward, moving closer to Sam as well, “But I am.”

“They’re not.”

“Yeah, I think I’ll leave you guys alone now that I know you’re not gonna burgle the place.” Sam paused, “That really is a fun word to say, isn’t it?” It became very hard not to laugh out loud as all three of the others muttered it to themselves in turn. “You guys enjoy your dorky spa treatment, I guess.”

“Ah,” Chris held up a finger admonishingly, “We are not dorks, madam. We are nerds, thank you.”

You’re a nerd,” Ashley mumbled.

“Your mom’s a nerd,” Chris countered without missing a beat.

Josh turned to Chris, “You leave Ash’s mom out of this. She is a fine, upstanding, bangable lady, and I won’t have you besmirching her name.”

Ew! Seriously?”

“Your mom is hot, Ash, this is something you’re going to need to come to terms with. Especially once I am your new step-dad.”

She shoved her arms outward, sending a wave of water splashing into his face. “You’re so sick.”

Chris angled himself more towards Ashley, “Don’t you talk to your father that way, young lady.”

Step-father,” Josh corrected, shaking his head quickly from side to side to get the water out of his eyes.

Sam simply watched them, brow furrowed as the exchange took place. In another strange moment of clarity (not unlike the sort usually triggered by looking into a stranger’s bathroom mirror after a night of drinking), she had the strangest impression that she was seeing them—really seeing them—for the first time. She had known Josh about as well as anyone knew their friend’s siblings, and she’d had a class or two with Chris and Ashley in the past, but up until that very moment, she hadn’t realized how little she actually knew them. They were their own unit, a self-contained group with their own in-jokes and history. Without fully knowing why, the thought warmed the space inside her chest.

“You guys always communicate in skits like that?” she asked, smiling despite herself. “Yeah, well, now I’m definitely gonna say ‘no’ on the joining you thing.” She stood back up, hugging her arms to her chest against the cold. “Oh, but what do you want me to say if anyone asks where you are?” As if on cue, all three looked back to her with matching expressions; You know better than that, those looks said. And she realized she did. For all of their ridiculousness, the three were fairly skilled at not being missed. They did their own thing, and, as she thought about it, none of them really regularly hung out with any of the others at the party. The chances of anyone asking where they’d gone were slim to none. Sighing, she laughed again. “What if. One of you, at least, has two sisters in there who might come looking for you.”

In another strange show of synchronicity, the three answered in almost perfect unison.

“We took a walk,” Ashley offered with a slight shrug.

“Decided to perform a Satanic ritual in the woods,” Chris said, flashing Sam two quick finger-guns before dropping his arms back into the water.

“Orgy,” came Josh’s curt reply.

There was a moment of silence before they all snickered amongst themselves.

“Okay, okay, no, hang on…we gotta get our story straight, guys. So Sammy…if anyone asks…” Josh tilted his head back up to her. “We took a walk into the woods, where we’re having an orgy as part of a Satanic ritual.”

“No we aren’t,” Ashley insisted. When Josh shot her a glance, she raised an eyebrow, “You definitely need four or more people for something to be considered an orgy. I think. That…sounds right, doesn’t it?”

Sam had the impression that Josh had been ready to drag Ashley for being a stick-in-the-mud, but at that, he brightened up considerably. “Aw fuck. Hey Sammy, you sure you don’t wanna get in on this, then? Think about it: you could be our number four.” He dropped another salacious wink.

She narrowed her eyes, letting her head tilt to the side in a mockery of contemplation before she pulled her lips up in a humorless smile. “Yeah…no. You guys go ahead without me.”

“Shit guys, you heard her. No orgy.”

Chris gasped loudly, audibly clapping his hands to his face, dragging his fingers down his cheeks. “But the ritual!!!

There was more laughter and another loud splash, but Sam had already turned around and begun the walk back into the lodge. It had been a nice little break from the chaos inside—if not strange—but she thought she was ready to face the group again. She couldn’t keep from smiling to herself, though. At least there were some people having fun together. Maybe if everyone kept being weird, and if Hannah couldn’t let the Mike thing go…well, maybe she’d take them up on their next offer, and join the nerd table for a while.


***

Saturday, February 1, 2014
12:47am

There was a rumble of laughter from downstairs loud enough that it could be heard even through the closed door. It was the kind of sound that inspired serious FOMO, suggesting that the rest of the group was having a grand ol’ time as they partied it up in the lodge, but the most it inspired in Ashley was a brief glance towards the floor. She marked the line of her book with a finger, craning her head around to check that the bedroom door was still shut.

It was.

She took the interruption as an opportunity to reposition herself, letting out a slight ‘oomph!’ of breath as she dropped onto her stomach. The springs of Josh’s mattress groaned slightly as she propped herself up on her elbows, wriggling this way and that to attain peak comfort levels. Once the guys came back and it was time to crash for the night, she’d be relegated to the futon along the far wall, per the usual; however, left to her own devices as she was, she was able to sprawl out however she pleased across the bed. She planned to take full advantage of that.

In a matter of moments, she had been sucked back into the story, the party below her already long forgotten. It was difficult to say how much time passed like that, the combination of Josh’s thick comforter and her warm pajamas lulling her into the early stages of snoozing, the dark mystery of the novel unfolding before her eyes, but she figured it had to be considerable, given how very sleepy she was when interrupted next.

The door clicked shut behind Chris as he walked in. He was mid-yawn, but did nothing to cover it, instead opting to make as much noise with it as he possibly could. “Oh, sorry, are you trying to concentrate?” he joked, flopping down onto the bed beside her. He rolled over onto his stomach to mimic her, and it was only then that he turned to see the expression she was watching him with. “What, am I unwelcome?

“You’re half on top of me, you lug.”

“So move over.”

“I was here first, Chris,” she protested, making a point to whine as childishly and nasally as possible.

“And it’s a full-sized bed, Ash.”

“Whatever…” Already, though, she was scooting to give him more room, keeping her page marked. “You’re obnoxious…” she muttered as he tossed and turned, purposely making the bed bounce under them. “So much for my me-time, huh? Right out the window.”

Chris laughed, momentarily contorting himself to grab one of Josh’s pillows. “I will be as quiet as a dormouse if you want me to be.” He brought the pillow up to the foot of the bed where they were lying, hugging it under his chest to get more comfortable. “Okay, that’s a lie. I can’t go around making outrageous promises like that.”

“Mhm,” Ashley hummed, leaning over to nudge him affectionately with her shoulder. “Well you better try, because I’m almost done with this chapter, and it’s literally impossible to stop reading mid-chapter.”

Literally? Is it literally impossible?”

“I’m literally going to push you onto the floor.”

He gasped loudly, both of them chuckling afterwards. Pulling his glasses off, he pretended to inspect a smudge on one of his lenses until the exact moment Ashley opened the book and lowered her gaze again. “So, what’re we reading, tonight?”

Making no attempts to hide her groan, she tapped at the book’s cover with her index finger, trying to bury her face in the pages.

“Hmm…Rebecca, by…Daphne du Maurier,” he attempted a French accent as he read the author’s name, and the results were tragic, at best. “I’m gonna make a guess, okay? Gonna test my psychic abilities.”

Quickly realizing that she absolutely was not going to finish the chapter, Ashley lowered the book to the bed again, swiveling her head to meet Chris’s eyes. “Okay,” she sighed expectantly.

He slid his glasses back on and screwed his eyes shut, rubbing at both temples with his fingers. “Hmm…hmm…okay, I think I’m getting a message from the spirit world. The spirits say…”

“Are you supposed to be a psychic or a medium right now?”

“The spirits don’t like being questioned!

She snorted a laugh, rolling her eyes. Ashley remained silent besides that, just watching his little show.

Chris’s brow furrowed and his lips tightened into a thin slash. “The spirits are telling me…that you’re reading…a murder mystery…with…with…wait, hold on…ah, yes, I see it clearly now…a lady protagonist who…who…who…oh come on, spirits, don’t let me down…who ends up being romanced by the culprit!” He opened his eyes again and offered her a shit-eating grin. “How’d I do?”

If it was possible for a human face to look less impressed than Ashley’s did at that precise moment, it would’ve been a sight to see. “I don’t just read mysteries, Chris.”

“Uh, yes you do, Ash.” Moving a bit closer, he peered over her shoulder, trying to make out the print. “You’re not answering, which means I’m right. I am, aren’t I? Here, let me…Jesus Christ that’s a tiny font.” Setting his chin on her shoulder, Chris skimmed a few lines, “Hmm…no one’s talking about a murder. But I’m still willing to put money on it being a murder mystery.”

“It’s not.” She heaved another weary sigh, shoulders slouching. “Okay, not…exactly. It’s more complicated than that.”

Aha! Never doubt the spirits. They know their shit. And, per chance, does the main character get romanced by the culprit?”

“Please stop saying ‘romancing,’” she begged with a laugh. “And again, no. Not…not exactly. It’s…it’s a complicated thing to explain. Like, yeah, okay, there’s a murder, and there’s a mystery, but it’s not really a murder mystery. And there’s a romance, but it’s not…romantic? It’s just…it’s got this foreboding sort of feel to it, and a kind of desperation, almost? And it’s mysterious, yeah, but it’s also really sad, and—” she stopped, feeling Chris’s eyes on her. “What?”

Snickering, he shook his head. “God, you’re a nerd.”

“Because I read? I’m a nerd because I read? That’s what you’re saying to me right now?”

“Did I say that? I don’t think I said that. I may have suggested it, or implied it, but…”

Going entirely boneless, she let her arms flop over the foot of the bed, smashing her face into the mattress in surrender. She felt Chris pull back to keep from falling with her, but he didn’t react otherwise, save to laugh. “You’re like a toddler who needs everyone’s attention.” Ashley turned her head so that she could be heard, though her hair covered most of her face.

“Not everyone’s,” he argued.

“Just mine, then?”

“Now why do you have to say it like that?” The flatness of her stare made him laugh again, and he released the pillow just long enough to raise his hands innocently. “I’m serious—okay, I’m done. For real. I will let you finish your chapter.” Chris watched she blew her hair out of her face to show him how high she had raised both eyebrows. “You want me to pinky promise?” When she said nothing, he put his hand out in front of her face, wiggling his pinky temptingly.

For a long moment, Ashley simply stared at his finger, watching him wave it around. Pushing herself back up onto her elbows, she briefly hooked her own pinky around it, shooting him one last reproachful glance. “Fine. Let’s see if you’re physically capable of silence.” She watched him mime zipping his lips shut before leaning in close again, head not quite on her shoulder, but definitely close enough to read what was on the page. Nestling herself back into the comforter, Ashley smiled, needing only a moment of skimming before she found where she’d left off.

There really wasn’t much of the chapter left, but she found it almost infinitely harder to read like that. She told herself that if Chris was actually reading along with her, it wouldn’t be polite to keep going at her usual pace, but that was bullshit and she knew it. No, what had really happened was that she had gotten about a paragraph in before registering how close the two of them were—she could feel Chris’s shoulder against hers, one of his legs against hers, could feel how warm he was. At that moment, it clicked that there was an inch, maybe two, separating them. If he suddenly decided to, all Chris would have to do was turn the tiniest bit, and he could kiss her.

Or, she realized, she could kiss him.

As soon as that scandalous thought occurred to her, a brilliant heat began to creep into her cheeks and needle at the tips of her ears. She swallowed hard around the lump in her throat, pointedly setting the book down as she turned away from him and towards the bedroom door. “Hang on, I just…uh, I thought you were helping Josh find the SNES? What happened with that?” Suddenly, the image of Josh walking through the door and finding them curled up together in his bed bore down on her like a ton of bricks. Ashley felt her face grow even hotter.

Chris pulled back for a second, jarred out of his own thoughts. If she had been looking his way instead of at the door, Ashley might’ve realized that the train of thought she’d interrupted had been remarkably close to her own. He cleared his throat slightly, his mouth feeling particularly dry. “I couldn’t find anything even close to the box he was talking about. He never showed up to help me look through the storage room, so I guess I figured…” he stopped, eyes scanning the room as though he’d only just remembered what he was supposed to be doing. “He would be…up…here…already…” Chris frowned and hefted himself off of the bed, peering around the corner to the alcove where Josh’s closet was. “And he’s…definitely not.”

“He’s definitely not.” Ashley dog-eared her page before setting the book down, dropping her chin into her hands.

Silently, he stalked around the room, eyes narrowed in contemplation. Finally, he paused back in front of the bed, looking down at Ashley. “Is he under the bed?” he half-mouthed, half-whispered, pointing down towards the floor with dramatic, jerky movements.

There was no fighting her laughter, even as she rolled her eyes. It was always a relief to go back to joking around when things got…well, when things got close like that. Loath as she was to admit it, it was just easier than dealing with the butterflies swarming her stomach. “No,” she stage-whispered back. It didn’t stop him from immediately dropping into a crouch to check, though, and as he flipped the comforter up, he somehow managed to only narrowly miss smacking her in the face with it. “Nice,” Ashley joked, pushing it back to drape over the bed. “Real nice. Did you find him?”

“No.” Chris grunted with the effort of standing back up from his squat, brushing his knees off. “You were right—as always. God, he really needs to vacuum under there. Enough dust to bury a body in.” He leaned down, setting his hands against the footboard of Josh’s bed; he realized a second too late how very close that put him to Ashley’s face. He pretended very, very hard not to notice the proximity, or whether she was noticing the proximity. “So…wanna go make sure he’s not lost?”

She primly lifted an eyebrow as she looked up at him, again trying to tamp down the fluttering in her stomach. “Chris, if Josh got lost in his own family’s vacation home, he doesn’t really deserve to be found.”

He feigned shock, wagging a finger in her face. “You’re mean. I hope you know that, Ash. You’re fucking mean.”

“Mhm.” She pushed herself up from where she’d been lying, situating herself until she came to rest cross-legged atop the bed. “I’m not gonna go wander through the lodge in the middle of the night. He’ll be back.”

“This is what I’m saying—you’re mean. Do you not care for the welfare of your friend at all? He could be dead,” Chris admonished her. “Or worse, he could be playing spin-the-bottle down there. Without us.”

“Wait, wait. Exactly how is that worse than being dead, in your mind?”

“It’s worse, Ash, because without us down there, that means that, uh…hold up.” He stood back up and lifted both of his hands, lips pulling into a strange shape as he counted off names on his fingers. “Emily, Mike, Jess, Matt, Sam, Hannah, Beth…that means two out of the seven potential kissees are related to him, and honestly? Those are not great odds.”

She sighed even as she began to stand up. “Kissees?”

“Would you have preferred kiss-cipients?

Her head lolled back onto her shoulders as she stared up towards the ceiling. No part of her wanted to laugh—laughter only encouraged that sort of terrible behavior—but there was nothing she could do to stop it. “I would prefer that you never say that again.”

“That’s fine, I see how it is. You know, most great artists wander through life unappreciated. Once I’m dead and gone, you’ll regret saying that.” He made a grand show of offering her his hand to help her off the bed, bowing in a manner that was, in his opinion, most gentlemanly, indeed. “You’ll weep over my coffin and be all ‘Oh, I should’ve laughed at Chris’s jokes more! I should’ve told him how funny he was all the time, and also how handsome and charming he was! Now he’s dead, and the light of my life is just gone! Whatever will I do, now that the only interesting person in my life is totally done-zo?’

“Well, for one, I’d get to remember what silence sounded like for the first time in…ever.” Ashley had spent what felt like just a bit too long considering Chris’s hand before she took it, swinging her legs over the bed to stand up. “The second thing I’d do is probably bask in the relief that I wouldn’t have to pity-laugh anymore, honestly.” She paused, “Wait. ‘Light of my life?’

Pity-laugh?! Why don’t you just stab me right in the heart, Ash? Just fucking kill me, right here and now. Bury me in the dust trap under Josh’s bed. It’s where I belong.”

She made for the door, turning around just long enough to point accusingly at him. “If anyone down there makes fun of me for being in my pajamas, I will kill you. And I will hide your body under the bed. So remember that you asked for it.”

“Yeah, you in your super embarrassing t-shirt and sweatpants, I’m sure you’ll be the talk of the town.” Chris left the lights on but tugged the door shut behind them, matching stride with her once they were back out in the hallway. “Trust me, I think you’d have to do a lot more than that to get the Mean Girls’ focus off of Hannah.”

“That’s not funny.”

“I’m not trying to be funny! It’s painful to watch. It’s not just me, right?”

Ashley let her fingers dance along the railing as they reached the top of the staircase. “Definitely not just you.”

“I don’t get it. It’s like none of them have ever had it bad for someone who didn’t like them back.” The sentiment hung between them, making the air feel particularly heavy. “Anyway,” Chris muttered, clearing his throat, “Time for happy faces.”

They descended the stairs onto the second floor, immediately drawn to the noise filling the great room. The entirety of the huge L-shaped sectional was covered with bodies, some sprawling, some sitting, but all laughing. The coffee table was a mess of opened snack bags and red plastic cups, but it was clear that the craziness was beginning to wind down. It looked like there had been a game of Cards Against Humanity going, judging by the scattered piles of black and white cards on the couch and floor, but it had been forgotten somewhere along the line; now the others were swiping through their phones and occasionally showing the screens to someone else, laughing in that high, raucous way that suggested being overtired. Only Hannah and Sam sat away from the group, having their own quiet talk on the piano bench on the far side of the room. Every so often, Hannah would let her fingers crawl across the keys, and a tiny, tinkling melody would undercut the buzz of conversation.

Chris peered across the room for any sign of Josh. When he found none, he folded his arms across his chest and approached the couch. “Oooh, and what’re we doing here?” he gasped in lieu of a greeting. He bent down to the coffee table and grabbed a handful of chocolate candies from a large dish. Without even looking, he reached his hand behind himself, offering some to Ashley before popping a few in his mouth. “From the way you’re laughing, my guess is you’re going through Beth’s class photos from middle school. My personal fav? Sixth grade.” Once he caught her eye, he flashed Beth a particularly horrible open-mouthed smile and looked distantly off to the side.

Beth shot him a glare that was nothing short of withering, taking an unnecessarily loud drink from her soda’s straw. “At least I’m only ugly some of the time, Hartley.” She stuck her tongue out at him, but her tone was more playful than insulted. Still, she took the time to shove Jessica’s shoulder when the other girl leaned over and giggled.

“We were playing cards,” Matt cut in, “But someone kept throwing theirs when they lost…”

Mike lifted his drink into the air in a toast, Emily curled comfortably up against his side. “Guilty as charged!”

“So we stopped.”

Chris snickered and shook his head, letting Ashley pluck a couple more candies from his hand. “Aw man, and here we were, expecting to join in on the world championships of spin-the-bottle. Or I mean, at least truth-or-dare. You guys aren’t very good at sleepovers, huh? Posers.”

At the mere mention of the games, Jessica and Emily whipped their heads around to give each other gleeful looks. At the precise moment they started to laugh, Beth fixed her stare fully on Chris again, lips tight in poorly restrained frustration. She flipped him off, waving her other hand elaborately to draw attention to it as a game show hostess might.

He grinned and popped the last of the chocolate in his mouth before brandishing two finger-guns at Beth in return. “For real though, any of you guys see Josh come through here? He was supposed to be looking for some video game shit, but we’ve been waiting upstairs for like…everrrrrr,” he drawled jokingly.

“Mmm, no Josh, huh?” Emily asked. She leaned herself back against Mike, drumming the fingers of her hand absently against his leg as she gave the both of them a quick once-over. “Sure wonder what you two have been up to, all alone upstairs.” She smirked and lifted her drink to her lips, not breaking eye contact for a moment.

“Reading.” Ashley answered curtly, posture going tense. She had already averted her eyes, feeling the others’ stares like red-hot lasers, and she should only hope that her face wasn’t half as flushed as it felt.

Mike snickered at that, lifting both of his hands so that the group could see the air-quotes he made with his fingers. “Ah yes, reading. I know that one.”

“Yeah, cool, real funny.” Chris, who was in fact twice as red as Ash’s face felt, quickly turned to Hannah instead, eyes plaintive. “Where might he go looking for video game shit?”

“Um…storage room?” she offered, glancing to Sam briefly. She covered her mouth to hide the fact she was eating as she spoke, “You know, at the end of the hall?”

Becoming increasingly aware of the barbed laughter from the others, Chris tried his best to keep from reacting any further. It was hard, though—it was real fucking hard. “That’s where I was earlier. No-go. Anywhere else?”

That time, she glanced at Beth before shrugging. “Basement? Probably. That’s where Mom and Dad put everything that doesn’t fit in storage.”

“Basement it is. Thanks.” He nodded jerkily back towards the stairs, but Ashley was already five steps ahead of him, doing her best to slip away from the group as quickly and quietly as possible. Chris puffed out his cheeks with a huff of a sigh, uncomfortably scratching at the nape of his neck as they made their way down to the first floor. “Ever think we’ll get invited to the popular kids’ table?” he asked humorlessly.

It was difficult to say whether she heard him or not, as Ashley’s only response was a tense, “God, I hate the basement.”

He reached over and lightly patted the back of her shoulder. “Everyone hates basements, Ash.”

“Yeah, but I hate them the most.” They stood framed in the open doorway, looking down the dimly lit stairs, wearing identical expressions of dismay. The lights were already on, from what they could see, suggesting that someone was already down there. Or had been recently. Though she knew it was entirely psychological, Ashley couldn’t help but rub at the chill that had crept its way up her arms. “Josh?” she called down, barely leaning over the threshold. “Josh?” she tried again, louder, straining her ears for any reply.

They exchanged a tired look when the only voice that came back to them was a faint echo of her shout.

“I mean…” Chris sighed, “It is a big fucking basement. Think about how big the lodge is, and it pretty much runs under all of it…stands to reason that it’s huge.”

“Sure is.” She grimaced as Chris started descending the stairs, following very closely after him. Thank God she had worn her thickest, fluffiest Christmas socks to sleep in. The thought of walking barefoot through the frigid, cobwebby basement was almost enough to give her a fit. “Remind me why you guys couldn’t just use the stupid Playstation again? It’s already hooked up to the flat screen.”

“I don’t know, it sounded like a good idea at the time! Sometimes you just wanna play EarthBound.” With one last groan, he shook himself out mentally, paying careful attention to each of the concrete steps as they walked down. “Hey, watch it, one of these things is broken in a few spots…”

“Of course it is…”

“Josh? You down here?” Chris took the lead, coughing as he got a lungful of cold, dusty air. “Motherfuck…gonna need to call one of those mesothelioma hotlines after breathing this shit…Josh, come on, bro! This isn’t…” he stopped and turned back to Ash, laughing through his coughs. “Jesus Christ. I literally just almost said ‘This isn’t funny, man!’ Could you imagine? In a creepy basement? How much more cliché could you get?”

That was when the lights cut out. They didn’t flicker, they didn’t dim, they were simply on one second and off the next, plunging them into immediate darkness. Ashley screamed (a good, solid slasher movie shriek if ever there was one), grabbing hold of Chris’s sweatshirt and burying her face into his back without any trace of her earlier embarrassment. Chris swore under his breath, patting his pockets as he tried to remember where he’d put his phone. He grabbed it and fumbled with the lock screen for only a moment.

He let out a relieved breath once he managed to flip his flashlight app on, filling the space in front of them with a faintly bluish light. “Hey, we’re good,” he said gently, reaching back and jiggling Ashley’s arm from where she had glommed onto him, hoping to get her to look up. Slowly, her grip became less constricting, and she chanced a glance from out of the safety of his sweatshirt; when she looked back up and around at him, blinking owlishly, Chris felt his chest thrum with a wave of sympathy. He should’ve gone down there alone, he realized. Sometimes it was just so easy to write off Ashley’s fear of the dark as a quirk of character and not what it actually was—a full-blown phobia. “See? It’s fine! You got your phone?”

A second later, there were two cones of light scanning the basement instead of just the one. The beam from Ashley’s phone was a little shakier than Chris’s, cutting jagged arcs through the blackness as she quickly searched around them. “Oh, fuck this…” her voice was soft, as though it were caught in her throat. “God. Ugh. I hate the dark. I hate it I hate it I haaaate it.”

“I know.” Chris realized her free hand had found its way down his arm and into his own, gripping his fingers tightly. He gave it a reassuring squeeze, glad for the cover the darkness provided—it meant she couldn’t see the doofy grin he found himself absolutely unable to suppress. “It’s probably just a short…everyone’s got all the lights and shit on upstairs, Jess has the speakers going, they’ve got the tv on, blah blah blah. I bet if we find the fuse box, we can—”

Something clattered to the floor with an ear-shattering bang! and they both jumped, pulling in simultaneous gasps of surprise.

Ashley let out a pathetic moan, hunching herself closer to Chris. “Oh I don’t like this…” Her voice was little more than a breath displacing the dusty air. She kept shuffling forward as Chris walked, but her breathing was quickly becoming ragged. “This is such bullshit…”

“It’s really not a big deal, Ash…shit falls! Look, like I said, we’ll find the fuse box, get the lights back on, and—”

Somewhere in front of them, something bigger and heavier came crashing down. They whirled towards the source of the sound just in time to see a shadow disappear around a corner, oblong and misshapen.

“Can we go back upstairs?” Her knees were shaking badly enough that she felt she might fall if she took another step. “I think I’d really like to go back upstairs.”

Before Chris had time enough to reassure her that the most frightening thing they were likely to come across was a pile of forgotten clothes donation bags, Josh’s voice caught their attention. It sounded distant and slightly muffled, as though he were behind a wall.

“’Ey, Cochise? Ash? What’re you guys doing dow…what the fuck? Oh what the FUCK is that?! Shit!” His voice fell off again, punctuated by a loud crashing sound that seemed to come just to their right—much too close for comfort.

“Josh?!” Ash’s beam of light anxiously flicked from one side of the path to the other, her grip on Chris’s hand becoming nothing short of bone-breaking. Her chest rose and fell shakily as she made futile attempts to slow her breathing. When there was no response from the bowels of the basement, she tried again. “Josh? You better not be messing around! This isn’t—” Frightened as she was, it was obvious she still had enough wherewithal to stop herself before she spat out the words that had been on the tip of her tongue. “Oh my God…I just almost said—”

“See? See?! It’s just…so tempting to say, right?!” Chris directed his own flashlight towards the water heater, brow knitting as a flicker of movement caught his eye.

Oh shit—HELP!

They exchanged a brief, panicked look before bolting towards his voice, the jostling of their phones making the shadows of the basement’s boxes and fixtures warp unnaturally. When they came across the water heater and its casings, they felt their muscles go rigid

There was something standing just behind it, its silhouette dark as a shadow but entirely unmoving. After a moment of hesitation, one of their flashlight beams slid to it, immediately illuminating the scene.

“Oh ha ha, real funny, Josh.” There was relief in Ashley’s voice, but a slow blooming anger, too, as she came to realize it had been another stupid joke. She rolled her eyes when he didn’t answer, sighing loudly as she stared at his back. “Real spooky. You’re a master of your craft.”

Still no response.

Another prickle of uncertainty began to creep its way down their spines as they watched him standing there, unresponsive, unmoving.

It was Chris who took the first tentative step forward. “…Josh?”

He turned from the wall with one sharp motion, giving them less than a second to process what they were seeing: eyes rolled back in his head, blood gushing from his mouth and onto his chest, head cocked unnaturally to the side. He let out an unearthly shout, another disgusting glut of dark blood spilling from over his lower lip, hitting the concrete floor with a sound like vomit.

They both screamed that time.

There was a clatter as Chris dropped his phone onto the ground, its light juddering out and plunging them back into semi-darkness as Ashley instinctively spun around to escape.

The lights clicked back on just as they had started to realize Josh was laughing. As the overhead tubes buzzed back into life, they both watched Josh close the fuse box with a flick of his wrist, shoulders shaking with deep, guffawing laughter. He grinned widely at them, a sight that was grisly, to say the very least. “Fuck me, I wish I had a camera going for that! Oh…oh God…I actually—guys, for real though? For real? You fell for the fucking Blair Witch bullshit? What the fuck. I thought you were better than that. For shame.”

There were tears streaming down Chris’s cheeks before he could do anything about it, his own relieved laughter so intense that his stomach ached. “Holy shit, fuck you. Fuck you, dude. God damn…” He bent down to pick his phone back up, straightening just in time to return Josh’s high-five. “If my screen’s cracked, you’re fronting the bill, you son of a bitch.”

UGH! You guys are such idiots!” Ashley fumed, shoving Chris away from her with one arm, repeatedly smacking Josh’s shoulder with the other.

Still laughing, Chris raised his hands in self-defense. “Wait, wait, what did I do?” he asked, unable to sound even slightly repentant. “I had nothing to do with this, hand to God!” As proof, he lifted the hand Josh had streaked with fake blood as though delivering a spirited sermon.

“Then why are you laughing?!

“Because…because oh my God, that was objectively hilarious.” He guarded himself from another shove, rubbing his phone’s screen against his sweatshirt to clear away some of the dust. “Jeeesus. I thought the whole thing was fucking fishy.”

Ashley groaned again, loudly, before Josh snatched up the hand she’d been batting him with, pulling her close into a bone-crushing bear hug. “Look, Ash, it’s not my fault the two of you dweebs are so easy. And I mean so fuckin’ easy.” He smirked, his teeth streaky with syrupy red goo, “‘Oh nooo, help me! Heeelp! What’s going ooon?’” Mimicking his earlier shouts in a wavery falsetto, he laughed again, “Have I taught you fucking nothing?! You don’t go investigating weird voices in basements, that’s Rule Numero-Fucking-Uno. You turn around and you get help.” He turned to Chris, waving an accusatory finger, “You should’ve listened to Ash. Probably would’ve saved your life.”

Wriggling out of his grasp as best she could, Ashley pressed her lips so tightly together that they were in distinct danger of disappearing completely. “How did you do that? Are you actually bleeding?” She reached over and grabbed Josh’s face with one hand, squeezing his cheeks between her thumb and other fingers to try and get a better look at his teeth.

Taking a moment to cross his eyes and further pucker out his lips, Josh let his laughter taper off. “Nah, found a shit-ton of old blood capsules down here.” As proof, he reached down into his pocket, pulling out what almost looked to be a shiny black bullet. “When I say ‘old,’ though, I mean oooold. These shits are like cement, blood’s like Jell-o. Here, look,” and without giving her any time to respond, he yanked her closer again, smearing his pursed lips against her cheek in a quick, brutal motion that, to Chris at least, gave the momentary illusion that he was tearing into her face like a Romero zombie.

Ashley certainly yelled as if that was what he was doing, releasing her grip on his face and shoving him away again. When she reached up to her cheek and pulled her hand away, her fingers came back covered in thick gobs of tacky goo. “Ewwwwwww,” she sighed, stamping her feet in a decidedly childish manner before giving in and laughing as well. “That’s so gross,” she whined, staring down wistfully at her hand, clearly hesitant to wipe it off on her clothes. “Ugh, and it smells so bad.”

“You think it smells bad? At least you didn’t have a handful of ‘em in your mouth. This blood tastes like ass.”

“Yeah, I’ll take your word on that one,” Chris snickered.

“You’d think the old man would’ve splurged for the good shits,” Josh was saying contemplatively, looking down at the old capsule, turning it over in his fingers. “Unless these fuckers are literally from the 80’s…and don’t get me wrong, they just might be. Nowadays there are gel caps you can get—they melt in your mouth instead of you having to chomp down on them. A lot less work, the actors can actually talk…this is like trying to gnaw through an actual marble.”

“And just how many marbles have you tried to gnaw through, exactly?” Ashley asked.

Holding his hand out, Chris gestured with his fingers. “Lemme see about that, maybe you just have a weak jaw.”

“I have a weak jaw? Uh, have you looked at this face? The Washingtons are known for their strong jaws, Christopher.”

“Just give it, man.”

“These jaws could cut glass and break bones, Christopher.”

“Chris, ew! Don’t put that in your mouth!”

“If I had a nickel for every time someone yelled that at me...” He took the blood capsule from Josh and placed it between his molars, proceeding to bite down. When nothing happened, he pulled a face. “…Holy shit, it’s like the world’s oldest Milk Dud,” he said, voice slurred from the foreign object against his tongue. Josh folded his arms across his chest and nodded his head side to side in a juvenile show of ‘I told you so,’ and Chris tried again, biting down with all his might. There was a sickening squelching noise, and a small stream of gelatinous blood burst from his mouth, running down his chin in a thick gush. “Fuck! This shit does taste like ass!” he said, spitting the empty capsule to the ground like the shell of a sunflower seed. “Why did you let me do that?”

Rolling her eyes, Ashley reminded him jovially, “I told you not to…”

“Yeah, but you say that about everything, sooo…” He stuck his tongue out to get a better look at the damage, letting out a disgusted laugh as another goopy rush of red-stained saliva came with it. “Fucking sick. Man, if this is how much I got out of one, how many did you have to use?"

Josh grinned, his sheepishness clearly feigned, “Like three…or four. God knows the two of you were moving slow enough to give me time to gnaw through a box of them. By the way? That hurt. Next time you think I’m in mortal peril, maybe get the lead out of your boots, huh?” He chuckled. “Still got some more, though, if you want to join the blood club, Ash.” He reached back into his pocket and pulled out a couple more of the capsules, rattling them in his palm enticingly. “Come on, you know you want to. It tastes bad, it looks bad, it feels bad, but can you really go on living without knowing that for yourself?”

As though deep in thought, she set her chin on top of her hand, staring down to the blood caps with laser-like acuity. Her lips pursed from one side to the other, her stance changing as she jutted a hip out and leaned forward to get a closer look. “Hmm…on the one hand…you both told me it’s disgusting. But on the other hand…I could put some dusty old plastic in my mouth and stain my teeth for a week. Oof…decisions, decisions.”

“It’s a hard choice, right?” Chris asked, already in the process of biting through another capsule.

“It’s really not. Now can we go back upstairs, please? I actually almost peed myself. Legitimately.” She dropped her head into her hands, still shaking off her earlier nerves. “Did you even find your video game thing?”

Josh’s laughter tapered off and he turned back to Chris with an expression that clearly read ‘oops.’ “Well…shit. See, I knew there was something I was forgetting.”

***

1:06pm

“Wait!”

Sam glanced over her shoulder in time to see Hannah scurry towards her, eyebrows drawn together anxiously. “What?”

“You’re not…gonna come too?” she asked, nervously pushing at the frames of her glasses. “Out to the hot tub, I mean?”

She stretched her mouth into what might’ve, ostensibly, been called a smile, shaking her head decidedly. “Uhhh no. Not really my scene, Hannah.”

“Oh come on, please?” With a frustrated sigh, Hannah rounded on Sam, taking her by the wrists pleadingly. “I don’t want to be out there alone with everyone—”

“You won’t be alone, if everyone’s there,” she laughed, letting her hands go limp as Hannah shook her wrists. “Beth will be out there with you, and you’ll be fine. Remember: You guys invited everyone for a reason! We’re all friends here.”

Her expression seemed to sour at that, but she turned and pretended brush a piece of dust from off of her glasses. “Yeah…” Hannah said, voice morose.

“Look,” Sam bent forward, forcing herself back into Hannah’s line of view. “Last night turned out to be fun, didn’t it?”

Shoulders heaving once, she nodded, still avoiding Sam’s eyes.

“So you should believe me when I say it’s going to be fine. How can you not get along in a hot tub?” She smiled a warm, comforting grin, wrapping an arm around Hannah’s shoulders in a well practiced side-hug. “And, if nothing else…” she leaned in closer, jokingly scanning her eyes across the great room for any sign of eavesdroppers, “Shirtless Mike, right?”

At that, Hannah did meet her gaze, unable to help but laugh. “Oh my God, Sam.”

“Oh my God, Hannah,” she mimicked, giving her a good squeeze before letting her go. “Go have fun! I’ll want to know all the hot gossip after.” She bumped Hannah with her hip to urge her back towards the door.

“What are you even going to do in here?”

She rolled her eyes comically, giving her a long, pointed look. “What do you think I’m going to do?”

Hannah thought about it for a moment before groaning, looking up to the ceiling with a smile. “If you’re just going to be taking a bath, why can’t you just come soak in the hot tub with us? It’s literally the exact same thing.”

“It’s nothing like that! You know I’m very particular about my baths—”

“I think you mean you’re particularly weird about the lodge’s bathtub.”

There was no arguing with that. Sam beamed as she shrugged. “It’s not a trip to Blackwood if I don’t get a bath in. It’s a tradition! You know that!”

“I do know that. You’re so weird.”

“Look who’s talking.”

Waving her off, Hannah grabbed her towel from where she’d draped it over the back of the couch, wrapping it around her waist protectively as she prepared herself to dash out into the cold. “Whatever. Try not to drown in there.”

“I’ll do my very best.” Sam waited until Hannah disappeared out into the lodge’s yard before she made her own slow ascent on the stairs, humming cheerfully under her breath. She made a quick stop in Hannah’s room, grabbing a fresh change of clothes from the bag she’d stashed under the bed, taking a moment to unravel the knot her earbuds had tangled themselves into overnight.

Like she had mentioned to Josh and the others, there was very little about the whole hot tub thing that appealed to her. Sitting around in people-stew, getting buffeted by water jets…it wasn’t really her style. Now, the sprawling, almost Olympic-sized tub in the lodge’s master bathroom? Yeah, that was her jam.

Sam actually sighed a dreamy little sigh as she walked in, dropping her clothes down onto the dressing bench. She closed and locked the door, and the click of the lock was enough in itself to undo a fair amount of the tension she’d been keeping in her shoulders. The manner in which she set about running the tap, slitting the blinds, and lighting the candles around the bath was positively reverent.

She replaced the box of matches in the cabinet she’d found them in, rummaging around through the bottles and bottles of scented soaps before finding what she was looking for (Peppermint Twist, as a matter of fact), snatching it up with a pleased hum. The foam that appeared as she poured a great gob of the soap under the running water was immediate and luxuriously fluffy—perfect. Making short work of undressing, she popped her earbuds in, selected her relaxation playlist, and slid herself down into the hot, bubbly water. She let the tap run for another minute or two until her entire body was nearly submerged.

Some people found solace in prayer, others in meditation, but Sam found hers in any bathtub deep enough to cover her knees and boobs. It was one of life’s greatest joys.

The smell of the soap mixed with the light scent of the candles, wisps of steam caught the sunbeams leaking in from the blinds; everything intermingled and coalesced until the room had a dream-like quality about it. The peaceful tinkling of piano keys playing in her ears, Sam allowed herself to sink deeper into the water, closing her eyes. She willed her muscles to loosen, willed her mind to go blank, and it wasn’t very long before she teetered into the cottony place between waking and sleep.

It was difficult to say precisely how much time elapsed with her like that, half-dozing to the lilting tune of sonatas, but when she came back to herself, blinking the sleep from her eyes, a cursory glance told her all she needed to know. She was well and fully pruned. Sam smiled, stifling a monstrous yawn as she sat back up. Checking the time on her phone wasn’t as informative as she’d hoped, given that she hadn’t exactly taken note of when she’d started to snooze, but the water had begun to take a turn towards lukewarm, and that was good enough for her.

The drain was whisper-quiet as she delicately stepped back over the edge of the tub, burying her toes in the plush rug on the floor. She dried off and changed into her clothes, stretching out like a contented cat once she was wrapped up in her warm knit sweater.

It was amazing what a good bath could do for the soul.

A whorl of steam filled the hallway as she stepped out of the bathroom, and Sam took a moment to stop and let the cool air hit her face. There was something unspeakably magical about that tub, she thought again, almost mystical in its ability to soothe aches and relax tension. With a quick flick of her wrist, more muscle memory than anything else, she twisted her hair up against the back of her head and secured it with her clip before stretching her arms out. Quickly, she peeked back into Hannah’s bedroom, poking the door with a finger to open it only a sliver.

Empty.

The others must’ve still been out in the hot tub. She felt her lips tighten at the thought, but tried to push it from her mind. No way was she going to kill the chill she had just achieved. She turned back from the bedroom and padded down the hallway, humming quietly. Pushing through the doorway to get back to the main staircase, she found herself thinking mostly about whether there was anything in the fridge she might be able to eat, or if she’d have to resort to the crushed remains of the old granola bar at the bottom of her backpack. So absorbed in her thoughts, she didn’t realize the approaching shadow until it was too late.

A large, cool hand clamped over her mouth, and Sam immediately sucked in a panicked breath through her nose. Without thinking, she reached up, grabbing the hand with both of hers, making an attempt to wrest it off of her, but the only reward for her trouble was a sharp jerk as she was pulled back against a body.

“Oh my God, will you relax?

The whispered voice was familiar. Too familiar. Sam whipped her head to the side to get a better view of her attacker, and was greeted with a shit-eating grin. In a fraction of a second, she went from wide-eyed terror to muted exasperation. Narrowing her eyes and furrowing her brow, she did her best to communicate her anger with only half of her face visible.

Josh snickered, pulling a face of his own before pressing the index finger of his hand—the one not covering her mouth—to his lips. “Wanna see something really and truly pathetic?” he asked, raising one eyebrow, then the other, then waggling both comically.

With no resistance this time, she pulled Josh’s hand off of her face, blowing a tired breath up into her bangs. Of course the dorks would still be lurking around the lodge. They’d already gotten their hot tub time in, after all. The realization made it no less jarring to know that she hadn’t been half as alone as she’d thought. “If that—” Sam rolled her eyes as he shushed her, but complied, lowering her voice to a whisper as well. “If that was an attempt at flirting, I have such bad news for you.”

His laughter tapered off into something a little quieter, but no less amused, and he waved a finger at her like a parent might. “Samantha Marie Giddings, when I flirt with you, you will know it.”

“That’s not my middle name.”

“Do you want to see this or not? It’s precious.” When she didn’t immediately respond, save to continue staring at him with annoyance, Josh clasped both of his hands under his chin and widened his smile to show nearly all of his teeth. “What else do you have going on? All the cool kids are still outside.” Even whispering as he was, she could still hear the mockery in the comment.

Again she rolled her eyes, but waved him along, letting him lead the way. She followed, heart rate slowing back to normal as they crept along the upper landing of the staircase to the other hall, tucking themselves into the alcove that looked over the entirety of the great room below. For a moment she fought against a wave of vertigo; in the handful of times she’d been to the lodge, she’d never quite gotten over how upsettingly high up the third floor was. It didn’t help that they were nearly eye-level with the lodge’s chandelier, not to mention the giant, abstract metal sculpture that hung from the ceiling like some strange ball of tangled yarn. Hoping Josh wouldn’t notice, she braced her hands against the railing, trying to look out into middle space instead of focusing on the ground below. It was a trick she had gotten used to when climbing—don’t look down, don’t look up, just keep looking ahead.

Josh, on the other hand, had bent himself over the railing until he all but hung in the open air, forearms crossed atop the bar as he looked down at the room. Nudging her with an elbow, he glanced up quickly to meet her gaze before winking and nodding down to the couch where Chris and Ashley appeared to be totally passed out.

“Aren’t they just…adorable?” Josh spoke with the tone of a doting grandmother, pressing a hand tightly to his chest before making quiet, dramatic sniffling noises.

When she looked back down, Sam had to admit, there was something adorable about them, asleep as they were. They were near the crook of the L-shaped sectional, Ashley with her head lolling back slightly, open book laying forgotten on her chest, Chris’s legs stretched out along the cushions, a video game controller precariously close to falling out of his half-opened hand as the pause music looped, his head pillowed by Ashley’s shoulder. They were down for the fucking count, it seemed, despite the bright light filtering in through the lodge’s blinds in slits across the length of the room. It was sweet in the way internet videos of baby animals being nursed back to health were sweet. They were adorable, sure, but maybe Josh was right…maybe they were a little pathetic, too.

“Think this is the night?” she asked, letting her own head rest against her shoulder as she mirrored Josh’s posture, leaning against the rails.

He snorted quietly, “What, that one of them grows a pair and makes a move? Please. We got better chances of Mike leaving Emily for Hannah.” After a second of thought, he sucked a breath past his teeth, “Nah, we got better chances of Mike leaving Emily for me, come to think of it.”

“I don’t think you’re really Mike’s type.”

“No? He sure is mine, though. Those muscles? The brooding eyes? The stubble? Please.” He sighed wistfully, resting a cheek atop his fist. “Do you have any idea how ugly those kids are gonna be, Sammy?”

She pulled back, looking up at him with equal parts amusement and disbelief. “Emily’s and Mike’s?”

“What? God no, those babies would be in commercials. Chubby cheeks? Big ol’ eyes? Gorgeous skin? Gerber Babies. Nah, I meant these poor dweebs,” he flicked his hand dismissively towards the couch. “So ugly. So awkward. Like baby giraffes, just wobbling around on legs they don’t know how to use. And pale! God, don’t get me started on pale. Gonna get sunburn from computer screens.”

Sam laughed under her breath, shaking her head. She knew Josh well enough to recognize it was just good-natured ribbing, but it didn’t stop her from asking her next question. “Not rooting for a big, romantic reveal, then? Musical crescendos and doves flying off into the sunset?”

He swiveled his head towards her, looking up at her through half-lowered eyelids. “Sammy. Sam. Samantha. No one on God’s green Earth is more desperate for those two morons to get it on than me. They don’t even have to date! Just, for the love of fuck, they need to like. Makeout a little. Or something. The whole giggly, nervous, sugary sweet, daytime tv, Boy Meets World, back-and-forth bullshit has just got to end, know what I mean?” He popped his eyebrows up and down once, “Pfft, look who I’m talking to. You have to deal with Hanz. You get what I mean.”

“I get what you mean,” she agreed with a nod. There was a moment of silence between them that stretched over the better part of a minute, and then, “They are kind of cute, though.”

“I do know, Sammy. I know, and I hate it,” he said with a grin that proved how very little he actually did. “Because even before their genes absolutely fuck over those poor, poor, hypothetical kiddos in the looks department, one way or another, one of them’s getting fucked over in the name department.”

She raised an eyebrow when there was no further elaboration. “…care to explain that one?”

Holding up both pointer fingers, Josh nodded first to the left, “Okay, so let’s say we have Ash…” A quick nod to the right, “Hartley. Ash Hartley. Ashartley. A-shart-ley. Not ideal.”

“Oh my God.”

“I know! But no, wait, it gets worse. Because I know what you’re thinking. ‘Josh, this is the 21st century! Maybe Chris will take Ash’s name!’ To which I say to you: Yes, he would do that, but also, Chris Brown.” He looked at her with somber, knowing eyes. “Also not ideal. Albeit for markedly different reasons.”

She stared at him for what felt like an eternity, but was likely closer to just a few seconds. Sam blinked in tired exasperation before putting her head in her hands. “You are actually out of your mind, and I hope you know that.”

“I know who I am. I’m living in my truth. But my personal journey isn’t why I accosted you in the hall. Are you a betting woman, Samantha Leigh Giddings?”

“That is also not my middle name, and you know I’m not.”

“Again, yes, I do know, but I was hoping maybe you’d lighten up and humor me.”

It was her turn to nudge him, jamming into his arm with her shoulder. “What’re we betting on?”

He bridged his fingers under his chin like a cartoon super-villain, chuckling lowly. “Why, which one of them is more humiliated when they wake up, obvs. Measured by intensity of facial flushing.” Turning to her again, he pursed his lips arrogantly. “That’s what we, in the psychological field, refer to as operationalizing our measures.”

“We’re going to stand here and watch them, like perverts, until they wake up?”

Josh contorted his face, “Sammy, you act like you don’t know me at all. I am a great many things. An intellectual? Yes. A prodigy? Perhaps. An asshole? Definitely. But a pervert? Never.” Looking back to the couch, he pressed his tongue against the tip of an incisor in contemplation. “Place your bet, please.”

“What’re you going to do?”

“Madam, please place your bet.”

Sam rolled her eyes but laughed all the same, “Okay uh…I go Chris. Looks like he’s the one who fell asleep on herand he’s probably drooling, so he’s gonna freak.”

“Leaving me with Ash. Tsk, tsk, tsk…” he clucked his tongue, “Odds are always on Ash, Sammy.”

“Josh,” she started again, “What’re you going to d—”

But before she had enough time to get the word out, Josh had answered in his own way. Cupping his hands around his mouth, he barked out a sharp, earsplitting “HEY!” at the top of his lungs. Below them, the other two reacted immediately, Ashley sitting up quickly enough to send her book clattering to the floor, Chris startling so badly that he, himself, fell off the couch with a dull thud.

“Majestic, aren’t they?” he asked Sam flatly, before craning his head over the railing further, beaming down sweetly at them. “Good morning, my darlings! And how did we sleep?”

There was a rumble of confused, disoriented anger from below, both Chris and Ashley simultaneously struggling to wake up and swear up at them. The yells were mostly unintelligible, but the sentiment was clear: Fuck you.

“Is this all you do?” Sam asked, turning her head lazily to watch Josh hustle down the stairs. “Jump out and scare each other?”

“Pretty much! Builds character.” He stopped at the base of the stairs, immediately set upon by Ashley, who he effortlessly restrained in a sweeping bear hug. He glanced down at her face, and then over to Chris’s before craning his neck back to call up to Sam. “Hey Sammy? Looks like you were right! Think about what you want your prize to be, yeah? We can settle up later.”

She raised an eyebrow, shaking her head as she watched the three of them, pausing to give a quick wave to Chris as he looked up at her.

“Can we maybe—maybe—go ten minutes without a frigging jump scare?” Ashley asked, her voice muffled as Josh’s hug forced her face against his sweater. He had taken to swaying them gently from side to side as though they were a couple at a middle school dance, but if he had been intending to soothe her ire, he was out of his head.

“How about this. How about you scare me, and then we call it even?” He released his hold on her just slightly, offering a wide, wolfish grin. Josh let go, letting her scamper back to the couch to try and find the page she’d been on before she’d dropped her book. After a moment, he leaned his elbows back against the banister of the stairs, nodding curtly. “All right then, c’mon Hermione, Ron. We got plans, us three.”

There was an accommodating sigh, and then Ashley marked her page and set her book down, zipping her vest up as she went to find her boots. Chris, however, didn’t move from where he’d settled back onto the couch, instead narrowing his eyes and folding his arms over his chest. He looked Josh up and down appraisingly, setting his lips into a harsh line.

Used to this sort of song and dance, Josh returned the stare before setting his hands on his hips. “What? Did you not hear me? Get a move on. Time’s a-wastin’.”

Chris’s eyes narrowed again until they were little more than slits behind the lenses of his glasses. “How…dare you,” he breathed, drumming his fingers against his arm. “How dare you compare me to Ron Fucking Weasley.”

“Actually, I’m pretty sure his middle name is Bilius, you uncultured buffoon. Read a book, Cochise. Tell him, Ash. Tell him to read.”

“No. No! I have sat idly by and taken your abuse for too long, man. Too long! I can handle just about anything you throw at me, but Ron Weasley? That’s just cruel. It’s mean, is what it is. Insulting.”

Josh looked to Ashley, gesturing to Chris. “You believe this shit? Would you have preferred Crabbe and Goyle? Cuz that was my second choice, if I’m being honest.”

It was Ashley’s turn to bristle, turning on Chris, too. “Can we just go? I’d really rather not fight over which of us would be Lug Number One and which would be Lug Number Two. I’m happy with Hermione as it is—”

“Of course you are!” Chris whined as she pushed himself up from the couch, slinking off to get his coat and boots. “Hermione’s great! Gets good grades, solves everyone’s problems, probably kissed Krum…Not like fucking Ron.”

Sam had only just made it to the landing, watching the three of them mill around as she made herself comfortable on the as-of-then unoccupied sectional. “Wait. I’m sorry…would you have wanted to kiss Krum?”

Chris favored her with an exasperated look. “Famous athlete, broody eyes, accent. Who wouldn’t want to kiss Krum?"

No arguing with that logic.

“Fair point. I guess.” She sat back as the others pulled on their winter gear, but took her time folding her legs under herself and finding the most comfortable spot before prying further. “So…off to have that Satanic orgy in the woods after all?”

“Might as well.”

All four of them looked up at the sound of one of the side doors crashing open, a cacophony of distant voices beginning to fill the lodge. With that last jag of motivation, Chris, Ashley, and Josh all managed to lace up their boots, quickly slipping out through the back door. Chris flashed Sam a quick salute through the glass, and then the three of them were disappearing outside, their footsteps fading quickly.

***

4:39pm

There you are!”

“Where have you been?!

Josh slowed his stride, eyes flicking from Beth to Hannah, both somehow managing to look angrier than the other. He could feel Chris and Ashley drop back a few paces more than he could actually see from his periphery, and it was then that the uncomfortable smile began to tug at the corners of his mouth. For a moment, he toyed with the idea of answering with a smartass quip of the usual variety, but there was something in his sisters’ expressions that told him in no uncertain terms that it would be a mistake. “Guest cabin,” he shrugged. “Was just showing these two the weird shit people’ve been writing in the guest book lately.” He watched them carefully, seeing very little change in their stormy moods. Josh glanced over his shoulder briefly, “Hey. So. This looks like it’s gonna be a sibling thing. Maybe you guys should…?”

“Loud and clear,” Chris said, giving him a bracing pat on the shoulder as he walked past him towards the door.

“Oooh, you’re in trooouble…” Ashley sing-songed, skirting past Josh as well. She gave the twins a wide berth as she joined back up with Chris, arcing around them to slip into the warmth of the lodge again.

Once the door clicked shut, he groaned, running both hands through his hair. “All right, I give up. What’d I do this time?” With the cool acceptance of a man walking to his own hanging, Josh marched up onto the landing to join them, sighing quietly through his nose as Hannah and Beth continued to glare coldly up at him. “You know, when you guys do shit like that, you almost look like the twins from The Shining. Can’t say it’s a great look, but—”

“Why does everything have to be a joke, Josh? For real, though!” The embarrassed flushing of Hannah’s face had faded to two dark splotches of color in the pits of her cheeks. “It’s not funny, none of this is funny!

Oh boy. He fought the impulse to roll his eyes, quickly realizing the gravity of…whatever it was he had walked back into. “Okay. I’m sorry. Now, can someone please explain to me what all the anger’s about? I literally just took a walk—didn’t realize I had to ask permission.”

It was Beth’s turn to pipe in, arms folded across her chest, all of her weight resting on one hip so that it jutted out in a clear warning of the verbal smack-down she was preparing to lay on him. “Seriously? We tried calling you like a hundred times, but there’s no service. We tried looking for you but you were just nowhere, and when we asked Sam, she just got this look on her face and said ‘the woods.’ Like…what were we supposed to do with that?”

“Why did you need me?” he asked again, drawing each word out in exasperation. “Did someone die? Did something break? I can’t apologize for fucking up something I’m unaware of.” Something clicked in the back of his mind, and Josh straightened up, serious for a moment. “Was that guy Mom was talking about sneaking around up here again? Did you see him?”

Why did you have to invite them?” Hannah whirled on him, arms flying out to her sides, cheeks still brighter than the cold should’ve made them. “It’s not even fun, do you realize that? None of this is fun, and now I just want to go back to school.”

He opened his mouth before shutting it again, taking in a calming breath and counting slowly to five. They’d put the fear of God in him for a second there, but if it was just more of this bullshit, he could deal with it. “Okay…clearly something happened. If I don’t know what it is…I can’t help. You guys do get that, right?”

The girls exchanged a glance that was difficult for him to read, broken only when Hannah let her arms drop down. She shoved her hands into the pockets of her jacket, casting her gaze down and away. “My suit…caught on something in the hot tub.”

Josh stood there, waiting, and when it again became clear that no direct answer was forthcoming, he waved his hand in a curt, circular gesture to try and goad them on. “Oookay? And?

Beth rolled her eyes. Hannah kept staring at the ground. He could almost literally see the bulge of her throat as she swallowed. “My top almost came off,” Hannah mumbled.

“Oh. Gross.”

Josh,” Beth cut in sharply.

A cloud of fog formed around him as he blew out a frustrated breath. “Yeah, I get it. That would’ve been crazy embarrassing. It really would’ve. But it didn’t come off, so this feels like a whole lotta energy you two are expending on what would’ve been just a really unfortunate accident—"

“It wasn’t an accident.” Beth spoke deliberately, one corner of her lips tucked in angrily.

He blinked. “It wasn…what, it was sabotage? Jesus Christ, you guys! Shit happens! The world is an imperfect place.”

“All we wanted,” Hannah had started again, sounding alarmingly close to tears, “Was a fun weekend where everyone just hung out! But none of this is fun, Josh! They’ve been doing this shit to me since I got here!”

“Hannah. Who is doing what?” He looked between the two of them again, shaking his head. “Is this a Mike thing? Could we…can we maybe just stop with the Mike shit? Is that a thing we can agree on?”

“Why did you have to go and invite Emily?” In the blink of an eye, Beth was in his face, poking an admonishing finger into his chest. “You know what she’s like, you knew she was going to be a problem, and now she and Jess are just—”

Pinching the bridge of his nose, Josh squeezed his eyes shut. “Oh, you are not lecturing a psych major on the ins and outs of group dynamics—I know you’re not doing that. Don’t start conversations you aren’t handled to participate in, Beth.”

You’re the one who invited everyone. You’re the one who asked these idiots to be here, so why—”

He lowered his hands from his face, fixing her with an exasperated stare. “Okay. Here’s the thing. Number one, don’t act like the two of you didn’t give me a very specific guest list for this weekend. Please don’t pretend that you weren’t excitedly scribbling down notes in your journals with cute little hearts and swirlies every time someone RSVP’ed, because I know both of you well enough to know that’s exactly what you did.” Both sisters were glaring at him, but he continued anyway, his tone terse, but clearly more tired than angry. “Number two, I’d like to remind you how social politics work. Hannah, my love, you wanted—nay, needed—Mike to be here. Needed it. Well, if you invite Mike somewhere, you need to invite Emily. Sorry, them’s the breaks.” Turning to Beth, he cocked his head to the side thoughtfully, “But let’s say for a second that’s not the case! Well then, Beth, darling, you wanted Jessica here. Well, guess what? If you invite Jess somewhere, you also have to invite Emily! But wait—there’s more! If you invite Mike, Emily, and Jessica somewhere, you gotta invite Matt too. You can’t just invite part of the group, or people get pissed.”

Hannah seemed to consider responding, but then paused, crossing her arms in a reflection of Beth’s posture instead.

“How absolutely furious would you be, Hannah, if Beth and Sammy got invited to a party and you didn’t?” Josh waited only a second for her to answer. When she didn’t, he swept his hands out in front of him like a magician uncovering something wondrous and surprising. “There you go! When you split the group, people get pissed. And who would they get pissed at? Me. Yeah, see, they’d be pissed at me, because, as you so kindly pointed out, I’m the sap who sent out the invites. Besides, Christ, I thought you were friends with Em, Hannah!”

Her expression darkened noticeably. “I mean…we were, but…”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah. Mike. I get it. Always Mike.”

“Don’t be fucking mean!” Beth aimed one well placed shove at his solar plexus, sending him back a step. “You don’t get it. You haven’t been around at all to watch this shit happening. You have no idea what they’ve been like, because you keep running off and being antisocial!”

He rolled his eyes up towards the eaves of the lodge, watching as the snowfall began to grow heavier. “You’re using that word incorrectly.”

“I’m sure you and Chris and Ashley are having a whole lotta fun playing grab-ass away from everyone else, but don’t stand here and act like we’re the ones being unreasonable when you’ve spent all of ten fucking minutes with everyone else, Josh!”

“Do you want me to go in there and tell everyone to go home? Is that…is that what you want me to do?” Josh cocked his head to the side as he fixed Beth with a pointed stare. “You want me to go climb up on the table, banging some pots and pans together like ‘Hear ye, hear ye! Turns out none of us actually like each other here, so, if everyone could please vacate the fucking premises, that would be most appreciated! Form an orderly queue at the door!’” He bent down slightly to be closer to Beth’s eye level, “What do you want me to do?”

Her eyes narrowed into slits, and she gave him one more good, hard shove. “I want you to spend five minutes thinking about someone other than yourself, for once, you absolute tool.” With a loud, frustrated grunt, she briskly turned and all but tore the door off of its hinges.

Josh watched wordlessly as Beth stormed her way back into the lodge, keeping his face stony all the while. Only once the door slammed behind her did he move, turning away from the lodge and sucking a loud breath through his teeth. “That could’ve gone better.” He held a hand out as Hannah made to leave as well, effectively halting her. “Nope, hang on a sec. I’m not done with you yet.”

She huffed, but the wind had clearly been knocked out of her sails. The anger, the embarrassment, the hurt she’d been feeling seemed to have effectively been replaced by something else. Now she just looked uncomfortable, almost unwilling to meet his gaze. “Josh, just forget it…”

Josh crossed the few steps separating them, cupping her face in his hands before jokingly smooshing her cheeks together. “Hannah,” he said slowly, the usual curve of his mouth still strangely serious, “You know I love you, right?”

Hannah averted her eyes, looking up to the snow-covered roof with a quiet groan. “Gross,” she murmured, but made no immediate attempts to escape.

“I love you. And despite popular opinion, I do not, in fact, want you to be upset. I don’t want you to feel bad, and I don’t want your feelings to be hurt, okay?”

She said nothing.

“Do you really want me to say something to someone?” he asked, not particularly excited at the prospect. “Because if you want me to, I can and will go in there and tell people to pull their shit together. I can be very convincing when I want to be.”

Still nothing.

Sighing, he released his hold on her face, giving her an appraising look. “I’m gonna hit you with some brotherly advice right now, and if you wanna ignore it, then fine, that’s your prerogative. But. Here’s what I know about people. Sometimes…whether you like it or not, you have to just stick to your own kind, you know?” He held up his hand before she could interject, shaking his head brusquely. “I’m not saying this to be a dick, okay? I’m saying it because I’m a little older than you, and I know a thing or two about making seriously shitty life decisions, all right?” At that, she relented, turning her eyes away from him again. “Mike and them? Sure, they’re fine, whatever. They’re all popular and hot and all that teenage dream bullshit, but if you’re more embarrassed around them than you are happy around them, then maybe they’re just…maybe they’re not your people, Han.” He set his hands on her shoulders, giving her one playful shake, “Look, you’re a fucking dork, okay? You didn’t hear that shit from me, but it’s true. The tattoo is cool and all—I mean, who doesn’t like butterflies—but God you’re a freak.”

Josh…”

“But I happen to have it on good authority that freaks tend to be the coolest people to hang with. Yes, even freaks like you, I know, it’s a shocking revelation.”

She rolled her eyes again, but the faintest hint of a smile had appeared, replacing her earlier distress.

“There will always, always, always be freaks like you and like me. And they will always have other freaks who’ll put up with their freaky shit. Here’s what I’m saying. You got Beth, you got me, you got Sammy. All objectively pretty cool people who, for whatever reason, like you. And, special buy one, get two deal here—since you got me, I can tell you right here and now that, whether you believe it or not, Chris and Ash? Definitely like you too. So if you’re sick of feeling like everyone else is being an asshole, then fuck ‘em. We can be your wolf pack, Hanners. Consider it.”

Hannah was quiet for a while, fingers absently picking at the faux-fur lining of her pockets. “Thanks.”

“Of course.” Without warning, he palmed her head with one hand, tugging her close enough for him to plant a loud, dry kiss on her forehead. “Now, unless you want to get in another couple minutes of yelling at me, what say we get back into the warm, huh?”

She nodded, following him to the door. As she rubbed away the spot where he’d kissed her, Hannah laughed, and Josh couldn’t help but smile in return.

***

9:30pm

When the sun had begun to set, someone floated the idea of a bonfire. It was met immediately with unanimous approval and a mad rush to find as many s’mores ingredients as possible. There was a sizeable fire pit smack dab between the lodge and the woods, encircled by rocks and large, rustic benches that were little more than wooden logs split down the middle.

Glad for yet another excuse to separate themselves from the others, Josh, Chris, and Ashley had made it their job to get the fire going; by the time everyone else made it outside and down the path, it was an impressive blaze. Even with the snow falling and the wind really starting to kick up, the fire was big enough to stave off the worst of the cold.

There had been a tenuous moment when Hannah had seemed to be making some attempt to nab the space next to Mike, only for Jessica to swoop in and drop herself onto the bench daintily. It passed as quickly as it happened, though, and before long, the woods were full of laughter and the echoes of embarrassing stories about classmates.

Only when it got dark—or as dark as it could get, given the snow-bright sky—Josh licked one last smear of melted chocolate from off of his fingers. “All right, people, now for the main attraction.”

“Oh boy,” someone muttered, mouth clearly full of marshmallow.

“Here we go,” sighed someone else.

Beth groaned loudly enough to scare a small group of birds from a nearby tree.

“Oh, fucking bite me,” Josh laughed, momentarily standing up from his bench, nearing the fire. “Welcome…” he said, spreading his arms wide in a slow, dramatic gesture, “To a very special meeting of the Midnight Society.” He reached behind him, scooping up a handful of pine needles before throwing them into the bonfire with a flourish; it resulted in a loud, delicate crescendo of popping noises and Josh’s smile faltered for a second. It hadn’t quite had the intended effect, but he thought it would do.

There was a low, tittering collection of chuckles, then a cough, and then Mike’s voice from across the fire, “Uh…dude, it’s like nine thirty.”

Josh’s expression dropped for the barest of moments as he took inventory of the other’s faces. “It’s…oh my God, can any of you watch a show? Enlighten yourselves, take in some culture! Ugh. Anyway.” He hunkered back down onto the bench, elbows on his knees, dangling the bottle in his right hand for emphasis. “Tonight’s story is an oldie but a goodie, kiddies…it’s the story of the Blackwood Sanatorium. Or Sanitarium. Honestly, I don’t know the difference, and I’m not even sure there is one, but I can’t be assed to care.”

Now, instead of laughter, there were groans. From their bench, Hannah and Beth rolled their eyes and Sam dropped her head into her hands. “Not this again,” Beth sighed, rocking herself backwards until she was in danger of falling off entirely. “Let’s not bore everyone to tears, huh?” Though there had been an awkward apology and an even more awkward hug a couple hours back, their earlier argument hadn’t been entirely forgotten, and her voice still carried a bit of an edge.

“Please ignore my sisters, as they have no taste, as can be proven by the company they keep.”

“Or maybe they’re just scaaaared.” Chris’s voice was a strange sing-song, warped by the rim of his drink as he took a swig. He only needed to make momentary eye contact with Josh before the two of them were guffawing to themselves, Chris knocking the knuckles of his empty hand against Josh’s when he extended his fist.

A spark seemed to glint in Emily’s eyes just then, completely removed from the bonfire. “Oooh…scared of what?” she asked, leaning in closer with a smile that seemed anything but well intentioned.

Smirking, Josh looked in the girls’ direction before turning back to Emily. “Ah, ah, ah. While I appreciate your enthusiasm, I really must ask that everyone save their questions until the end.” With another low laugh, he swept an arm out towards the mountain vista, guiding their attention. “Not too far from here, on this very mountain, is the Blackwood Sanatorium-slash-Sanitarium. Or, for those of you who didn’t do so well on the verbal portion of your SATs, the Blackwood Insane Asylum.” He waggled his fingers to emphasize how very, very spooky this was. “Only it didn’t start out that way. See, sanatoriums used to be a big thing, back in the day…they were like spas, sort of. Usually they were built in places with dry air and high altitudes,” another sweeping arm gesture, “With the idea that lots of fresh air and heights would help cure whatever ailed ya, so long as what ailed ya was the good ol’ consumption. Blackwood was built back in 1922 for the fabulously wealthy and beautiful to come and fight off that nasty bout of tuberculosis they caught from Grandmámá…but a quick little history class reminder, the Great Depression was right around the corner, so that whole glamorous rich people thing? Eh, didn’t last.”

“Is the scariest part of this story how boring it is?” Jessica asked, heaving a loud sigh as she twisted a pigtail in her fingers.

Josh let his gaze fall on her. “Madam, you wound me.” He took another drink, bobbling his head in contemplation. “But fine, fine, I’ll fast forward. So like a lot of old health facilities, once the money stopped, shit got rough. Real rough. Now, instead of old fogies coming for fresh air treatments and shit, people have just straight up started dumping their unwanted relatives in Blackwood. Dark shit, right? Essentially, this place goes from being a health retreat to a holding facility for the mentally insane.”

“Not true.”

“Okay, you know what? Do you guys want to tell the story? Because I could just not tell the story, Beth.”

She waved her hand, “No, go on. God knows you’ll whine if we don’t let you.”

“Makes you glad to be an only child, huh?” Chris asked Ashley, leaning in her direction though making absolutely no efforts to shield his voice from the others. When he deemed the response from the rest of the group unacceptable, he sighed, carefully setting his bottle down into a nearby snow bank to chill it. He did lower his voice, then, angling himself closer to her. “While he’s doing this boring shit, I’m gonna run back inside for a sec, gonna grab another bag of marshmallows. Need anything?” She shook her head and he pushed himself up, casually walking back towards the lodge. When his back was to the others, he briefly looked to Josh, raising and lowering his eyebrows in some secret sign.

SO!” Josh continued. “With no funds, the doctors are desperate, right? They need money to keep the place up and running. That’s when the head honcho, one Mister Doctor Professor Jefferson Bragg Esquire, the Fourth, has an idea.”

Emily clucked her tongue loudly, cocking her head to the side. “He was a doctor, a professor, and a lawyer?”

“Yes, Emily, he was a very accomplished man, please don’t insult him by questioning his many accolades and achievements. Also, the next person to interrupt me is going into this fire, so help me God. As I was saying…Jeffy Boy has this big moneymaking idea, so sometime in the late 40s, they start experimenting on the patients. Seems like a good way to get some notoriety, and the more publicity they get, the more they contribute to the medical field, the more cashola they’re gonna be able to get their grubby mitts on.

“Shit starts off basic at first. They’re taking blood from healthy patients, putting it into sick patients, seeing if it does anything. It doesn’t, so they gotta move on to bigger, badder things as the years go on. Lobotomies come next—those were all the rage back then, by the way. You got yourself a wicked case of the epilepsy? Lobotomy. Feeling depressed, chum? Lobotomy. The missus isn’t doing what her hubby tells her to? Ohoho, we have a cure for that, friend—Lobotomy. Those go about as well as expected. Now you got a hospital full of people with scrambled eggs for brains. A lot easier to handle, though, I’d imagine.” With a flick of his wrist, he sent another handful of pine needles into the fire. “Then, when they realize their plan isn’t working all that well…that’s when the real sadistic shit starts going down.

“They’re doing Frankenstein stunts, now. They’re going down into the morgue—because of-fucking-course they got their own morgue in that place—and they’re taking body parts from corpses. In those days, families dumped you there because they were ashamed, so no one was gonna claim you, and no one was gonna complain if they took your eyeballs and tried transplanting them into wolves.”

There was another loud groan, this time from Sam, who narrowed her eyes in disbelief. “Why would they transplant a dead person’s eyes into a wolf?! That’s just disgusting.”

“I don’t know, Sammy. I wasn’t there, Sammy. Maybe it looked really cool, Sammy.”

“Was the idea that the wolves would see…better?” Ashley asked, also squinting as she looked across the fire to Josh. “Because I’m pretty sure wolves…already see better than we do.”

“They don’t see color, though,” came Matt’s voice, slightly muffled by the mostly-burnt marshmallow he was biting into. “So maybe that was it.”

“Why would they need wolves to be able to see color?” Emily sneered, snuggling herself closer into the crook of Mike’s arm. “Like what would the point be?”

“Maybe the government was hoping to use them to attack Nazis on sight.”

“Ah yes, Nazis. Known for their bright, colorful plumage. I’m sure that was it, Michael.

“I mean they had those bright red armbands, Em. Some of ‘em, anyway. Wait, can dogs see red to begin with?”

ENOUGH WITH THE WOLVES!” Everyone fell silent and turned as Josh threw his arms into the air. “Who cares why they needed the eyes—they were putting corpse eyes into animals, and that’s fucking messed up! Jesus, can no one appreciate good storytelling anymore? I swear. May I continue?” He sighed and momentarily hung his head, rubbing the back of his neck before launching back into the story. “They run out of money. Completely.” His tone grew suddenly serious, almost confidential as he bent himself closer to the fire. The light seemed to catch in his eyes, making them all but glow. “But they’ve still got all these patients. Not a lot—not as many as they were used to having…but enough. Enough that they realize they can’t pay to feed these people anymore. So the patients, locked up nice and tight in their little cells…well, they start to starve. All the while, the higher-ups are trying to figure out what to do. They could just let them starve, sure, but the media coverage on that isn’t gonna be great. But they don’t have the funds to keep buying them oatmeal and graham crackers, so what’re they to do?” He licked his lips to wet them, letting his eyes scan from one face to the next to the next before taking a slow, deliberate drink. “That’s when Bragg has an idea. A real gold nugget. See, he realized, they did, in fact, have plenty of meat for them to eat. Downstairs. Stacked neatly in cold, refrigerated drawers.”

A few disgusted noises, but the others quickly went quiet once more.

“That’s when the good folks of Blackwood Sanatorium decided they’d kill three birds with one stone: They’d empty out their overfilled morgue, they’d feed their patients, and they’d study what happened to them. Sounds pretty good on paper, right? Tidy, almost. Only here’s the thing, ladies and gents, the human body isn’t really supposed to eat human flesh. Craziest thing. Go figure. For a little while, it seems to be working out all right. No one’s running from the facility screaming ‘Soylent Green is people!’ so at least in that respect, they’re doing okay. But slowly…slowly, they start to see some real changes in their patients.

“For one, they’re noticing a lot of behavioral weirdness. People are just randomly sobbing or screaming with laughter, or they’re so angry that they’re slamming their heads into the walls just to work out some of the energy. But that’s not too weird…remember, we’re in a mental institution. It’s not until they all stop talking that anyone realizes something really, really wrong is starting to happen. None of them speak, not even a word, not even a grunt. When the nurses and the doctors come around, the patients just stand and stare, wide-eyed, never moving, never opening their mouths. It’s like they’re statues…catatonic. For weeks, it goes on like that. All of them just standing in place, the only part of them to ever move being their eyes…

“And then one night, when doing the usual rounds, one of the nurses, uh…Victoria…Something-Or-Other, she goes in to do a check of her patients. Patient Number One is fine, nothing changed. Patient Number Two is fine. Patient Number Three, though? Oh, Number Three is the problem child that night. She takes their pulse, checks their eyes, and then goes to take their temperature. Puts the thermometer in their mouth. Then, it happens so fast that she doesn’t realize what hit her…or what bit her, I guess…but next thing she knows, Vicky’s missing two fingers.” He lowered the index and middle fingers of his own hand, brandishing it for them all to see. “They’re just gone. She’s got these awful, jagged shards of bone coming out from the stumps where they used to be, and there’s blood everywhere. She starts screaming right about the time she recognizes the strange crunching sound in the room is the patient yummying-down on her fingers. It’s too late though…by the time backup runs into the hall, Patient Number Three is gums-deep in Vicky’s left leg. It’s a mess. Arterial blood spraying, gristle and meat tearing, bone showing through.”

Sam groaned loudly, turning to Hannah and sticking her tongue out in a show of disgust. Hannah returned the gesture, rolling her eyes as Josh kept talking.

“That’s when they realize that the silent wing suddenly isn’t so silent, anymore. No, now the patients—all of them—are screaming this high, horrible wail. Like hungry mountain lions, they’re just howling. And then the banging starts. The doctors, the nurses, the security team, it takes them a second to understand what’s happening, but the patients are literally throwing themselves against the doors. The metal is bending, it’s denting, and then impossibly, it’s giving way. They can hear the straining of it over the terrible, twisting screams. Then…ping! A bolt snaps. Ping! A second. Ping! Ping! Pingpingpingpingping! And then it’s like bullet fire, the sound of the metal hinges and screws bending and breaking and falling to the floor, the doors are crashing down where they had been standing and now…now…the patients are free. All of them. And just like Patient Number Three, they’re so…fucking…hungry.

“Security’s fucked. They’re the first line of defense, and stupid enough to think that they can hold back a small army of bloodthirsty cannibals. So while the big, strong dudes in white coats are getting themselves thoroughly wrecked, some of the docs and nurses—the smarter ones, anyway—well, they take off running. They figure if they can get out of the patient wing, then they’ll be totally fine. They run and run and run, but even as they do, they can hear what’s happening behind them. They can hear the screams, they can hear the sound of meat being torn off of bones, and worst of all, they can fucking hear the footsteps behind them, getting closer and closer. A few nurses get picked off. Those old fashioned high heels get slippy, after all, so some just fall, and once they fall, that’s all she wrote. The patients just descend on them like starving rats. Some of the older docs get got, too. Just too slow. A hand hooks around the back of a jacket or grabs the chain of a pocket watch, and they’re down for the count.”

A few of them, he noticed, were shifting around uncomfortably as they watched him. Ashley, in particular, had scrunched her knees a little closer to her chest, her fingers anxiously tapping against her plastic cup. She wasn’t a big fan of the guts and gore, Ashley Brown. Ah, but the best was yet to come!

“And with that, we got us a small little group of survivors, now. Maybe five or six. Couple nurses, couple doctors, and the big man himself—Jefferson Bragg. They hole themselves up in Bragg’s office, bar the door, and just…wait. Bragg’s got a phone in his office, but this is the 50s, remember, or the late 40s, so a fat lot of good that thing’s gonna do them. The line’s dead, to start with, and then after an hour or two, the lights cut out, too. Maybe someone flipped a switch, maybe someone chewed through the power lines, either way, these poor saps are locked in a tiny, cramped room with no phone, no food, no power, and all they can do is sit and listen to the screams of their fellow employees as they get the skin stripped from them, piece by piece.

“After a long, long time, they start to nod off. It seems ridiculous, doesn’t it—falling asleep in a situation like that? But it happens. Too much stress, too much trauma, and the human brain just sort of needs a reset. Maybe they sleep for a couple minutes, maybe it’s an hour, maybe it’s a whole night, no one’s really sure. What they do know is that all of a sudden, they’re all awake again, and not sure why. But then they hear it.” He paused at that, taking another long, deliberate drink from his bottle.

The air around them fell silent, save for the crackling of the fire. And then, quietly, Jessica’s voice could be heard again. “What did they hear?”

Slow grin returning, Josh leaned in towards the fire. “Hard to say, exactly…At first, it’s just a quiet scratching, almost like hearing rats on the other side of a wall. But then it gets louder; that’s when they realize it’s deliberate. Something…or maybe someone…is on the other side of the office door. The scratching gets louder, and louder, and louder…and then stops. It just…stops.” He held his hands out, fingers fanned out on one, still grasping his bottle in the other. A moment passed, then two, and he had to fight a laugh when he realized how attentively they were all listening to him. “Everything gets very, very, very quiet in the room. No one wants to say anything, no one wants to make a single sound, because whatever’s on the other side of that door…well, it sure isn’t a rat. And more to the point, it sure doesn’t sound like help. They all just freeze, staying as still as they possibly can. These are the survivors, remember, and that’s what they want to continue to be—survivors. Alive.

“They all look at each other, waiting to see who’s going to be brave enough to make the first move. The noise on the other side of the door is getting louder, and it almost sounds like the wood is starting to splinter. No one gets up, at first. Who can blame ‘em? I know I wouldn’t…but eventually, everyone’s eyes fall on Bragg. He’s the boss, after all, and it was his big idea to start feeding the stiffs downstairs to the patients, so it only seems fair that this is his problem to deal with. It takes him a while, but Jeffy Boy finally does the right thing and stands up. Bragg slowly walks forward to the door. He walks so slowly and so softly, trying not to make a single sound, and when he gets close enough, he reaches for the latch covering the peephole. Carefully—so fucking carefully—he touches it with a finger, and he pushes it away. He leans in, moving closer and closer to the door terrified of what he’s going to see. He puts his eye to the peephole, and he—”

RAGH!

There was an almost musical chorus of screams from them all as Chris jumped out from behind Sam and Hannah—who, even though they had been fully expecting that particular breed of ass-hattery, found themselves yelling. Instinctively, Hannah whirled around, blindly lashing out in Chris’s direction. She missed by a good bit, managing to do little more than bop him on the side of the neck, but Chris coughed and spluttered as if she’d stabbed him.

“Jesus fuck, Hannah!” Laughter rang out in Chris’s voice, even as he feigned agony, cupping both hands to his neck and rubbing where she had hit him, “You could’ve knocked my freaking head off, oh my God.”

“Ha ha,” Sam drawled, rolling her eyes in his direction. “Hi-larious, you guys. For real. What are we, fifth graders?”

Entirely unaffected by the angry grumbling coming from the others, Josh and Chris nearly collapsed into a fit of laughter, Josh literally slapping his knee, Chris leaning a hand against Josh’s shoulder to steady himself as he walked back to his spot.

“God, that shouldn’t still be so funny…”

“Fuckin’ right?

From across the fire, Emily managed a sharp, breathless, “That was so stupid.”

“You guys are assholes,” Jessica agreed, and she shared a long-suffering look with Emily that seemed to suggest they’d be having their own story time, later.

Chris took his seat again, picking his bottle back up, and pretended to recoil when Ashley smacked his shoulder. “Shoulda seen your face.” He pantomimed wide-eyed terror, splaying out his empty hand near his face as he silently screamed. “Don’t worry,” he added, lowering his voice conspiratorially as he leaned in closer to her, “It’s all pretend. Promise. Scout’s honor.”

She scowled, one hand still firmly pressed against the front of her jacket. “You’re such a dolt, oh my God.” Once her heart began creeping back down into her chest from her throat, a high-pitched, nervous giggle escaped her. “I think you took ten frigging years off my life with that. God, I hate you guys…”

When Josh was finally able to collect himself, he set his own bottle down, clapping his hands together. “So! I believe earlier, someone asked what it was that scared my dear sisters and my dear Sammy so badly, last time I told this story. That’s its own story. And a funny one, at that. Okay, so it was a night just like tonight…”

Josh…” Hannah said warningly, face still burning hot from the surprise.

“The girly girls over here were having a slumber party on a dark and stormy night, braiding their hair, painting their nails—you know how it goes—anyway, they get bored somewhere between Titanic and The Proposal, and decide they want to be edgy. You know, as you do.”

Beth swung her legs back to right herself on the bench, looking out across the sea of faces with an expression of amused exasperation that only those with siblings could ever understand. “Every word out of his mouth is a lie. I have never in my life watched Titanic.”

“Oh, you should—very romantic,” Chris confided, looking at her from over the frames of his glasses before snickering again, nudging Josh to continue. Under his breath, he hummed a few bars of My Heart Will Go On until Ashley reached up and pinched his nose, causing him to cough out a strange, choked noise.

“And so they come to me like ‘Oh Josh, tell us a scary story, Josh. We want ghost stories, Josh…’ So I—being the primo brother that I am…” at this, he paused to take a long drink, “Of course obliged them. I get to the part with Bragg opening the peephole, and this motherfucker right here—” He slapped Chris’s shoulder good-naturedly, “Just slams himself against the outside of the sliding door and shrieks like a goddamn banshee.”

Proudly posturing, Chris took a drink. “Waited out there for fifteen minutes. Got about ninety mosquito bites. Almost died of blood loss. Probably still nursing a case of Lyme. Worth it.”

“So they don’t like the Blackwood story.”

Folding her arms tightly across her chest, Hannah burrowed down deeper into the fluff of her jacket, dourly looking down into the fire. “We don’t like the story because it’s stupid and that’s definitely not what happened there.”

Josh shrugged noncommittally, craning his head back to let the chilly air cool him off again. “Prove it. Go up there and ask all the zombie ghosts, yourself, if you don’t believe me.”

“So wait…are they zombies? Or are they ghosts?”

“I thought they were just cannibals?”

“You didn’t say anything about ghosts in that story.”

“Besides,” Josh continued, ignoring the backchat, “It’s not like any of you chumps have anything scarier.”

***

11:43pm

“Okay…you can do this.” Ashley straightened up from the sink, getting a good look at herself in the mirror, and realized with a sinking sensation that she was significantly drunker than she had anticipated. “Oh crap…ugh…you can…still do this.” She took in a deep breath, watching her shoulders rise and fall in the reflection. After a moment, she attempted to find a halfway decent angle at which she could hold her head, trying different smiles along with it. “Not like it’s brain surgery…you just…sit back down, and say…something. Just like…‘Hey!’”

“Hey?”

With a shuddering gasp, she whirled around, the earth tilting on its axis and tumbling around her as she tried to keep her balance. She stared goggle-eyed at the door (which she had apparently left open), where Sam and Beth were peeking in, watching her with equal parts amusement and confusion. Immediately her face lit up with brilliant heat, and she wondered how likely it was that the floor would split in two and swallow her up whole. “Oh. Um. Hi.”

“If you’re talking-to-yourself-in-a-bathroom-mirror drunk, you should probably consider moving to the downstairs bathroom,” Beth suggested, disappearing around the doorframe again.

“Um…yeah. Yeah, maybe…” Painfully aware of Sam’s gaze, she looked down to the floor, making her way to the door as quickly as she was able to.

Sam leaned over as she approached, nudging Ashley’s arm gently with her elbow. “You doing okay?”

“Fine,” she said quickly, cheeks burning as she joined them out in the hallway. “It’s nothing. Are, uh…are you guys…having fun?” Ashley winced as it came out of her mouth. It seemed like the right thing to say at a party, but then again, she was never really entirely sure. She reached up and rubbed at the side of her face, hoping against hope that she could get rid of some of the flushing before rejoining the guys.

“Oh, a blast.” Rolling her eyes in Sam’s direction, Beth made her way down the stairs, stopping one she’d reached the first landing, putting them smack-dab between the third and second floors of the lodge. “Watch it, watch it…” she said, spotting Ashley about to slip a solid second before she did, reaching out and grabbing one of her wrists to keep her on her feet. “We should’ve roped the stairs off, I swear to God…”

“Drunk people and freshly-polished wooden stairs—what could possibly go wrong?” Sam laughed, taking hold of Ashley’s other arm and guiding her to the landing as well.

The three of them leaned against the railing, clearly in no real rush to get back to the chaos in the great room; the landing allowed them to look out over nearly all of the second floor of the lodge, and though it was difficult to hear the others’ voices from over the music blasting through the speakers, there was no missing the reek of cheap alcohol in the air. Tomorrow, of course, they would all begin the arduous trip back home, whether that be a university campus or their parents’ houses, and as party law dictated, it was only expected that they go all out before that.

“Uh oh,” Beth said, craning her body until she was almost doubled-over the banister. “Lost visuals on Hannah. This can only spell trouble.”

Sam rolled her eyes but laughed all the same, grabbing a fistful of Beth’s sweater to keep her from losing her footing. “If you fall from up here, you’re going to break your neck and die.”

“Well at least you’ll all have a very exciting story to tell, back at school.” She wriggled a bit, hands clutching at the rail as she scanned the party. “Ah! There she is. Who would’ve guessed—orbiting Mike like a tiny, sweaty comet.” Beth let Sam pull her back onto her heels, shaking her head with a sister’s weary sigh. “She’s so predictable.”

“I don’t get it.” Ashley rested with her cheek against a hand, her other arm folded underneath. She watched the group in the living room with a detached sort of interest that felt much more appropriate for a bio classroom than a party.

“Don’t get what?” Beth poked her head out over the railing to look around Sam, “Spending the night flitting around your crush?” She hooked her thumbs together and waved her fingers in what was probably supposed to be some imitation of a bird (or, God help her, a butterfly), but ended up just looking like tentacles.

Ashley sighed as she swiveled her gaze to Beth, a crease appearing in her forehead as she ostensibly tried to figure out what she was doing with her hands. “No, I get that—” She froze, mouth still open in a contemplative ‘o’ as she realized what she had just said. Her eyes flicked to Beth’s, and then to Sam’s, and she pursed her lips in resignation when she saw the same knowing, teasing look there. “You know what I meant,” she added, lowering her voice but offering no denials. “What I was going to say,” she began again, “Is I don’t get how Hannah can like Mike, of all people.”

“Wow Ashley, judgy much?” Sam turned back to watch the party, appraising Mike as he gestured grandly, saying something to Emily that was just too hard to make out over the music. Whatever it was, it must’ve been hilarious, given her reaction. “I don’t know, does it really not make sense? I mean,” she shrugged, “Look at him.”

“Yeah, that’s just it, though—look at him.” She had wrinkled up her face as though smelling something unpleasant, shifting her weight to her other foot. “The big, bad, macho deal is just…not what I thought Hannah would be into, I guess.”

As though she could hear them, Hannah happened to glance up, managing a small, perplexed smile. She offered a tentative finger-wave, and the three returned it. “Yeah,” Beth said, blowing her sister an exuberant air-kiss, “I gotta admit, I don’t get what she sees in him. But hey, who’m I to say?”

“She’s just so…smart,” Ashley continued, aware on some level that this was not a conversation she’d normally have with anyone, much less the two people in the world closest to Hannah, but absolutely and utterly incapable of stopping the words from coming out of her mouth. “And athletic! And pretty. She can do so much better than…” She trailed off, waving dismissively in Mike’s direction.

Sam laughed, “Drunk Ashley has some opinions about Mike, huh?”

“Drunk Ashley doesn’t like jerks,” she sniffed. “Neither does Sober Ashley, in case you were wondering. Can’t stand the whole…‘alpha male’ thing. It’s gross.”

Yeah,” Beth interrupted, waving an arm grandly towards the kitchen. “Trust me, we caught on to that.”

They turned just in time to witness Chris dramatically throw an arm across his forehead and fall back against a stool, narrowly avoiding falling to the floor in the process. “Oh Edward,” he said in an extremely loud, strangely quavering falsetto. “Hold me.”

To which Josh, stoic and unblinking, raised both hands from behind his back, clinking together the empty bottles he’d stuck each of his fingers into. For a moment, he made a show of tenderly caressing Chris’s face, knocking his glasses askew with an errant tap, before broodingly responding, “I can’t.”

Chris made a noise of feminine distress high-pitched enough to be a real threat to the glass in the lodge as he pretended to swoon again, and both Sam and Beth turned back to Ashley with obvious contempt. She bared her teeth in what could’ve been a smile, before dropping her head into her hands.

Realizing they had an audience, Chris and Josh waved up to them, Josh’s fingers still clinking. “It’s Edward Fortyhands!” he called up to them, voice slurred terribly, entirely oblivious to Chris clumsily ducking out of the way of his hand. “Get it?”

Beth cupped her hands around her mouth, yelling over the music, “That’s not even how the scene goes, you morons!” Sighing, she dropped her arms back to her sides, “That’s not even how the scene goes.”

There was a loud sigh from Ashley as she pushed herself back up from the railing. “I should make sure they don’t—”

“Do anything stupid?” Sam offered.

She snorted out a tiny laugh. “Think we’re a few years late for that…” Ashley started down the stairs, clutching onto the banister for dear life as she slowly made her way back down towards the others.

It wasn’t long before Sam and Beth saw her reappear, tucking herself comfortably into the stool Chris has only just nearly knocked over. She glanced up to them briefly, raising her plastic cup in their direction before turning back to Chris and Josh, joining in on their animated conversation.

“Oh, they’re drunk,” Sam commented breezily, fighting back a snort of laughter as Josh went to sit down and missed his stool entirely, tumbling to the floor with all the grace of a newborn giraffe.

“Good. Maybe they’ll be bearable, for once.” Unlike Sam, Beth felt no need to keep from laughing, but was interrupted mid-chuckle by a wide, unavoidable yawn. “Mmm…I think I’m down for the count, though.”

She caught the yawn, covering her mouth with a hand before standing up straighter. “Already?”

“Yeah…think I might just like…go hole up in the screening room for a little. Catch some Z’s in one of those beanbags.” A placid smile spread across her face at the thought. “Yeah, okay, no, that’s definitely what I’m doing. Come get me if anything interesting happens?”

Sam flashed her a double thumbs-up, “You got it.”

They made their way to the second floor before splitting up, Beth rounding the corner to head down to the first floor, Sam instead opting to join up with Hannah.

It was hard for Sam to describe the music Jessica liked. When she really got down to it and tried, the words that seemed to come to her most quickly were ‘loud,’ and ‘shrill,’ and ‘bad.’ The others didn’t seem to mind as much, everyone eating and dancing and climbing up onto furniture they had no business standing on.

She picked up her cup from earlier—the one with a bold, curly S on it—tentatively sniffing its contents before taking a sip to wet her mouth. “Think she takes requests?” Sam asked, leaning in so Hannah could better hear her over the music.

“What, do you not like this song?”

There was no hiding her grimace. “Ugh, does that mean you like it?”

Hannah laughed, saying nothing to confirm or deny the accusation. She held her hands up as if to say ‘What can you do?’ and kept half-swaying to the music, looking around. “I’m so not ready to go back to classes on Monday,” she groaned, letting Sam lean against her as they moved along with the music.

“I hear that.”

“Do you think—” It happened quickly enough that Sam was confused for a solid few seconds, simply staring and blinking as Hannah’s eyes widened in shocked surprise, her mouth opening indignantly.

It was when Matt piped in from behind her with an “Oh! Shit, Sam, Hannah…Fuck guys, I’m sorry! My bad, oh man…” that it started to piece together.

She blinked down at her now-empty cup, eyes moving immediately to Hannah’s wet top, realizing belatedly that Matt must’ve bumped into her arm and jostled her. Sam fought the groan threatening to escape her, her eyebrows drawing up and together in concern as she looked apologetically up at Hannah.

Matt, to his credit, appeared genuinely distressed about the spill, apologizing to Hannah profusely. He wasn’t the sort to be antagonistic, so Sam had no doubt that it really had been an accident, but it didn’t do much to lessen the impact.

“It’s fine, it’s fine…” Hannah said, quickly turning away from them and towards the stairs. “Don’t worry about it, I’m just…” her voice was tense. “I’m just gonna go dry off…”

“Do you want me to come with you?” Sam asked, but Hannah was already halfway to the stairs, rushing away before anyone else could see what had happened. She sighed loudly, setting her empty cup down on the table, waving off another of Matt’s apologies with a tired smile.

She made a mental note to pop a couple aspirin before going to bed. Already, she could feel the menacing fingers of a headache beginning to tap at her temples. Sam craned her head back to watch as Hannah disappeared in the direction of her room upstairs. The threat of a headache became more pronounced.

Not unlike the night before, suddenly the music felt too loud, her head felt too swimmy, and it was all just too much. Sam decisively made her way back out of the great room and into the hall, making a beeline for the half-bathroom near the main entrance. There was very little she wanted to do more than tuck herself into a small, quiet space for a moment or two—maybe splash some water on her face or rinse her mouth out.

“Okay, y’got this. You got this. Yougot…this.

So much for finding a quiet space.

But oh, wasn’t this a familiar scene? Sam leaned herself against the open door of the bathroom, folding her arms across her chest as she looked in, watching Chris talking to himself in the mirror. What would Josh have called it? Cinematic parallels? She remained silent, drumming her fingers absently against her sleeve, wondering how long it would take him to notice her.

“Just…say something,” he was mumbling, lifting one hand from the edge of the sink to run through his hair, making it stand up in strange patches. “Cuz you got this, you deeeefinitely got this…”

“Whatcha got?” she asked, letting her head rest against the door as she grinned into the bathroom.

She had expected to startle him like she had Ashley, but on the contrary, Chris turned to face her with a nonchalance she wasn’t sure she had ever seen in him before. He leaned further against the sink, body nearly at a 90° angle, and it became immediately apparent why he appeared so calm—the boy was drunk out of his mind. “Ohey, Sam,” he said, words noticeably running into each other, “Having fun?”

Nodding, she pushed the door open the rest of the way with her foot. “Something like that,” she smiled, standing back up straight. “Are you having fun, Chris?”

“Eh, I’m pretty drunk.”

“I had noticed.” Still, she laughed, unable to remember a time she had ever seen him as inebriated as he was. Tipsy? Sure, she’d seen Chris and Josh tipsy plenty of times, stumbling over themselves and shushing the girls as they snuck back into the Washington house long after they’d been expected, but drunk? Wasted? Fucking sloshed? No, no she couldn’t seem to remember any instances like that. And Chris seemed to be gone, in that regard, leaning against the sink for stability, talking to his reflection, his usual dopey grin somehow even wider. “Whatcha got?”

A crease appeared between his eyebrows, “Huh?”

“A second ago, you were saying you ‘got this,’” she said, nodding towards the mirror. “So…whatcha got?”

He continued to stare for a second, uncomprehending, and then suddenly realization dawned across his face. “Oh, that. Yeah. I’m, uh…” he cleared his throat and stood up straighter, making a point of tugging his sweater down to smooth out the wrinkles. “I’m gonna talk to Ash.”

Sam raised her eyebrows, “Oh yeah?”

Chris nodded, then seemed to think better of it, pausing and narrowing his eyes to fight back what Sam assumed was a wave of dizziness. “Yeah,” he finally said, though he made no move to leave the sink’s relative safety. “Been thinking ‘bout it. Gonna do it. Gonna…gonna say something.”

Oh, she’d believe that when she saw it, but she just kept smiling.

***

Sunday, February 2, 2014
1:00am

The three of them had had…way too much to drink.

It was the reason Josh and Chris were both passed out, dead to the world, hunched over the kitchen island as they snored into their arms; it was the reason Ashley had found herself in the great room with everyone else, laughing and stumbling through a horrible attempt at dancing.

Her saving grace had been that she had never been able to drink on the same level as the guys, and always made sure to stay two or three drinks behind them. Still, she was probably as drunk as she’d ever been, her entire body pleasantly warm, her thoughts pleasantly muffled, her mouth tasting like absolute death.

“Hey Ashley!”

She turned away from Matt, her impromptu but wonderful dance partner, expecting that one of the twins or maybe Sam needed her for something. That wasn’t the case. Ashley stopped swaying, nearly having to suppress a gasp when she found herself eye-to-eye with Jessica, instead. “Hi Jess,” she said, unable to keep the uncertainty from out of her voice. Almost instinctively, she glanced quickly around the room to see whether Emily was anywhere nearby, watching them.

Jessica’s smile was huge and charming, full of perfectly white, perfectly straight teeth, and Ashley could already feel herself beginning to regret feeling any sort of suspicion about her motives. “Hey, so…you guys are like…super into pranks, right?”

Briefly, she looked to Matt, as though for some sort of confirmation. When she turned back to Jessica, she found herself returning the smile. “Oh, yeah! It’s…kind of our thing,” she laughed, punctuating the thought with a weak shrug. “I mean…Josh is the one who’s the best at them, but like…you know.”

Nodding, Jessica reached down and took Ashley’s hands in hers. “You wanna be a part of one of ours?

There was another blip of uncertainty, made dull by the buzzing in her head. For a moment, Ashley just looked at Jess, running the math in her head. If they wanted her to be a part of the prank…that meant they weren’t going to pull it on her, right? Jessica wouldn’t tell her about a prank if it was going to be at her expense, would she? Ashley’s brow furrowed as she thought, dimly remembering how many times that weekend she’d been startled or spooked or scared in the name of a good joke.

She squeezed Jessica’s hands in return. “Definitely!”

Jessica beamed.

***

1:45am

“Hang on, hang on…”

“Shut up!

“Oh my God, will you chill? You’re gonna love this!

“Mmm?”

“Guess who I got?”

“Oh, fun, a guessing game. I can’t wait…wait…seriously? No you did not!

Mhm!!!

“You got the almosts to go along with this?”

Sam paused as she heard the whispering, turning just in time to watch Emily and Jessica walk around the corner.

Jessica beamed, all of her teeth on display. “Well, like…one of them, at least.” She glanced up and caught Sam’s eye, quickly turning back to Emily and giggling before the two of them rushed past her.

She watched them go, narrowing her eyes in confusion before shrugging it off. Sam had made it halfway up the stairs before she realized how eerily quiet the lodge had grown. The music had been turned off, there were no heavy footsteps on the floor, and only the sound of the storm whistling outside broke the silence. A part of her wanted to ignore it and just go to bed; she glanced up towards the third floor landing, having been thinking of nothing besides getting into her pjs and burrowing deep into Hannah’s covers since things had begun to wind down. Still…as much as she had wanted to play it off as though it had been nothing, something about Emily and Jessica’s giggling had set her teeth on edge. She couldn’t say she had ever been fantastic friends with Jessica, but she knew Emily well enough, and when the two of them were grinning like that, usually it meant someone’s feelings were about to get hurt. Badly.

And with the way they had looked at her before scurrying off…well, she hadn’t totally understood what they had meant, but she couldn’t help the uncomfortable suspicion that they had been talking about her in some way.

Shooting another uncertain look up the stairs, Sam bounced on the balls of her feet. She didn’t know why she was pretending—there was no way she was going to be able to go to sleep. Instead, she turned on her heel and descended the stairs again, peering into the kitchen to find a mass of bodies hunched over the island. “What’s, uh…what’s going on here?” she asked.

Three pairs of eyes quickly snapped up to her, and then lowered back to the island. “Hiii Sam…” Jessica said musically, faintly wiggling her hips from side to side as she watched Mike doing…something. She lowered her voice, but not nearly enough for Sam to not catch what she said next. “Watch out guys, the Fun Police just arrived…”

She pretended not to hear as she walked up to them, realizing very quickly that, whatever was going on, it was only Mike, Jessica, and Emily who were participating. On either side of the island, Chris and Josh lay snoring, decidedly not part of the planning committee. Neither showed any sign of waking, despite the others’ laughter and proximity, and she had a pretty good inkling that when they did manage to wake up, they would be nursing monstrous hangovers.

“Seriously,” she tried again, “What’s happening?”

“Oh…nothing,” Emily smiled, offering Sam a fetching smile.

“Nothing…at…all…” Mike added dramatically, making a few flourishes with the pen before setting it down to admire his handiwork. As soon as he finished, Jessica and Emily erupted into another fit of laughter, Emily picking up the paper he’d been writing on.

Sam eyed them warily. “Sure doesn’t sound like nothing.”

Rolling her eyes, Emily looked back to her. “Sam, really. It’s nothing big. Just a funny little prank.”

“A funny little prank, huh? As in jumping out and scaring someone? Or something more…” she pursed her lips, “Involved?

“Oh, jumping out and scaring, definitely.” Jessica bobbled her head up and down as she took the paper from Emily, her grin widening. She reached over and patted Mike’s shoulder proudly, and it was at that precise moment Sam realized something bad was happening.

She held out her hand expectantly. “Can I see?”

The three exchanged secretive looks before Emily nodded, gesturing for Jessica to hand it over.

Cautiously, giving each of their grinning faces a studious once-over, Sam picked up the piece of paper and read it.

Hannah—

You look so damn hot in that shirt…but I bet you’re even better out of it. Come to the guest room at 2:00am ;-)

Mike

XXX

Oh.

Oh.

Sam’s brow furrowed, feeling her stomach clench with secondhand embarrassment. Before she could open her mouth to say anything, Jessica had snatched the note back from her, setting it down on the island in as conspicuous a place as she could. “And now…” she said, giving a playful little curtsey. “We wait! Come on!”

“Oh my God…” Emily whispered, her voice filled with laughter. “I can’t believe you actually did this!” Her eyes said something else, though, and she and Jess shared the sort of quick look and momentary giggle that suggested some old in-joke, or at least the strange breed of telepathy bred between friends. She covered her mouth with a hand as Jess shushed her, but it was still evident that her smile faltered for a moment when Sam cut in.

“Don’t you guys think this is a little bit cruel?” she had lowered her voice as well, but hers was a more parental tone—disappointed. “Can’t you just…leave her alone for five minutes?”

“Oh, come on…She deserves it!” Jessica was hardly dissuaded, setting a hand on her hip as she offered Sam a petulant look.

“It’s not her fault she has a huge crush on Mike.” Whatever humor she might’ve felt that night ago was gone, now. Sam looked quickly to Emily and Mike, her stare withering enough that they both stopped their silent laughter—until she turned back to Jessica, at least.

She shook her head, pigtails bobbing, “Nuh-uh. Hannah’s been making the moves on him all weekend. I’m just looking out for my girl Em.” Jessica flashed Emily a wink, Emily blew her a kiss, and the two began giggling again.

Sam watched the three of them sauntering off towards the staircase, mouth set in a firm line. Jessica and Emily skipped off in front of Mike, turning to go down to the first floor; when she saw Matt and Ashley join up with them, she literally stopped in her tracks, looking at both of them in cool disbelief. “Seriously?” she asked through grit teeth, “You guys too?

Turning to each other, Matt shrugged noncommittally. Ashley looked back to Sam, spreading her arms out, “It’s just a prank, Sam,” she said with a smile, still more than a little wobbly on her feet.

Sam scoffed and stormed her way up the stairs, shaking her head all the while. “This is just mean,” she muttered. It was the sort of thing she could—and frankly did—expect from Mike. She could see Jessica doing it, too, and Emily happily going along with it, but Matt and Ashley? Was everyone really so anxious to see Hannah humiliated?

Ashley took a few steps towards her before the room lurched underneath her and she grabbed onto the railing of the staircase. “Sam!” she called, her voice much too loud to be a whisper. “It’s just a joke! It’ll be funny! Come on!"

But Sam was hearing none of it.

She took the stairs two at a time, her socks slipping against the wood once, causing her to grip onto the railings to balance back out. “Hannah?” Sam called once she reached the top of the staircase. “Hannah?” There was no way in Hell she was going to let them spoil all the time and energy she had spent keeping Hannah from getting her feelings hurt too badly this weekend. She turned the corner, pushing her way into Hannah’s room. “Han—” she started, only to cut herself short when she realized how empty the room was. “Shit. Shit.” Sam whirled back around, sticking her head into the bathroom before going back to the hall, peering over the edge of the railings to make sure she couldn’t see Hannah approaching the kitchen below.

Nothing.

She pulled out her cell phone, meaning to text her a warning, but was immediately reminded of the storm.

NO SERVICE, read the spot where her bars usually were.

Nothing, nothing.

Shoving it back into her pocket, she walked to the other side of the hall, making her way towards the other bedrooms. “Hannah?” Sam called, hearing the echo of her own voice and nothing else.

Nothing, nothing, nothing.

The way she saw it, there were two options: Go back downstairs and look for Hannah there, or double-check the rooms lining the corridor. Inwardly, she groaned—either way, she’d have a lot of ground to cover in a short amount of time—but no matter how hard she tried to wrack her memory, she could not remember Hannah coming back downstairs after she’d gone to dry herself off. So she had to be up on the third floor, right? She spent another second agonizing over it before she made her first real mistake of the weekend. Sam entered the hallway and started opening doors to check for Hannah.

Had she been a little less tipsy, maybe Sam would’ve remembered the smaller staircase leading down from the library. Had she decided to go downstairs, she would’ve almost literally bumped into Hannah as she entered the great room from the foyer. Had she not been so angry, she might’ve been able to stop what was about to happen.

***

1:57am

“Hey Han, have you seen—” Beth stumbled as Hannah rushed out of the kitchen past her, accidentally knocking their shoulders. “Wow, where you off to, Speed Racer?”

“Uh, tell you later!”

Beth craned her head over her shoulder, watching Hannah disappear towards the staircase. “Whatever, weirdo…” she laughed, stretching out with a wide yawn. The party had officially worn out its welcome in her book, and truth be told, and while her catnap in the cinema had been exactly what the doctor ordered, it had also been a cruel tease. Now, there was nothing she wanted more than to get into bed and sleep like the dead. As her eyes fell on Chris and Josh’s slumped figures, it became apparent that she hadn’t been the only one thinking along those lines.

“How cute…” she cooed mockingly, picking up one of the bottles by Josh and giving it a quick once-over before setting it back down. “Man, I’ll say this for you dorks…you do know how to go all-out.” She made her way over to the counter, trying to determine whether there were any leftovers worth snacking on before crashing for the night.

That was when the note caught Beth’s eye.

She looked over the paper, turning it over once before puffing out a breath that could’ve been a laugh. Beth rolled her eyes as she let the paper flutter back to the counter. “Oh Jesus. Come on, Hannah…” Turning over her shoulder, she gave Josh another look. “You really asleep?” In a few quick steps, she had walked back around the island to Josh, prodding him none-too-gently in the shoulder with her fingers. “Josh,” she tried again, louder, “Are you sleeping?” When there was no response, she bent over, grabbing one of his hands by the index finger, lifting it up off the table a few inches before releasing it. It fell back down with a slap, but Josh didn’t move—and neither did Chris, she noticed, looking back up. With a hefty sigh, she patted Josh’s shoulder. “Gotta hand it to you, brother…you’ve outdone us all once again. Per the usual.”

There was a sudden noise from below her—something like a burst of voices—and Beth jumped, looking down at the floor as though she might suddenly be able to see through it. Had she not been staring so intently at the paneling, she might’ve noticed the sudden pattering of footsteps coming down the stairs. Sam had heard the noise too; even through the floors, it had carried through the vents well enough, cutting through the silence of the lodge like a gunshot.

Then, from the corner of her eye, Beth noticed a flicker of movement. Still startled, she turned just in time to watching something vaguely human-shaped disappear outside one of the lodge’s windows, fading into the snow. “What the…” she started, heart hammering in her chest. The noise from downstairs suddenly became louder, more frantic, and then there were footsteps slamming on the staircase. In the confusion of it all, Beth connected the two, figuring the others had seen the same strange silhouette outside. That was when Hannah ran past the window, cutting through the snow like a bullet. “Oh shit,” she breathed, “Shit shit shit…Josh, Josh come on.” She tried rousing him again, grabbing his arm by the elbow, shaking him with all the force she could muster. “You’re still sleeping?! Ugh! Fuck!” Hurrying from out of the kitchen, she grabbed her coat from off one of the nearby pegs, tugging it over one arm.

When she crossed the threshold and saw all of the others rushing out into the snow, she was seized with the innate sense that something very bad was happening—or had already happened.

Hannah?” Sam called, hands cupped around her mouth. She had been the first to run after Hannah, the first to watch her burst through the doors, and had only had time enough to pull her boots on before following out into the night. Even then, the pause had set her back just a moment too late. Wherever Hannah had run off to, she couldn’t be seen. She turned to see Beth shoulder her way past Mike and Matt, eyes wide with confusion, but face already beginning to twist with anger.

“What’s going on? Where’s Hannah going?” she directed the questions at Sam, but her eyes were over her shoulder, scanning the ground for any sign of footprints.

From behind them, there was an impatient sigh. “Ugh…Beth, it’s fine. Hannah just can’t take a joke…” Jessica said.

“It was just a prank, Han!” Emily called out into the snow, voice full of the sort of malice usually kept quarantined to middle school playgrounds.

At that, Sam watched as Beth’s head snapped around. She fixed an icy stare on Emily, before whirling back around and settling her eyes on each of them, in turn. “What. Did. You. Do?” She didn’t need to ask the question—she’d seen the note, she’d seen the guilt on their faces, she’d told Josh that inviting these fucks had been a bad call. Beth knew, and when she met Sam’s eyes, she knew she wasn’t the only one.

“We were just…messing around, Beth…” Mike had started to say, reaching for her arm, “It wasn’t serious or anything…”

She twisted her arm away from his brutally, brandishing a finger in his face before turning again, eyes flitting somewhere between Sam and Ashley, face alight with fury and blame. “You let this happen?” she asked, brow furrowed. Whirling again so that she was facing the entire group, she began moving backwards, almost jogging, as she spat, “You’re all jerks, you know that?!” Beth turned for the woods, and then began to run in earnest, zipping her jacket up against the brewing storm. “Hannah!” she yelled, voice barely carrying above the wind. “Hannah!

Sam watched until Beth disappeared entirely, reaching up and pressing her palms against her temples. So much for avoiding a scene. She sucked her lower lip into her mouth and gnawed on it anxiously, throat and chest churning with guilt. Hannah had been sobbing when she’d run past her; Beth had been so angry. The worst, though, was the sharp echo of her voice replaying in her head: You let this happen?!

“Should we, uh…should we go after them?” Mike asked.

“Y’know…I’m pretty sure you’re the last person she wants to see right now, Mike,” Sam spat, not so much as turning her head to face him.

In the back of the group, Ashley was finding herself sobering up with a horrible speed. She had felt her stomach drop and clench the second Hannah had seen them all, but it was only then, after being frozen by Beth’s furious glare, as she stared down the fading trail of prints the twins had left, that everything fell into place in her head. The woods immediately ceased being the calm, peaceful vista she’d looked out over for the past couple days. Now, they seemed every inch the haunted, hungry forest of a storybook. From off in the distance, something howled. Her head snapped in that direction, her vision wavering with a wave of vertigo, and it felt as though she might simply collapse.

The next moment, she was back in the lodge. She couldn’t remember turning around, couldn’t remember slipping away from the others, but she was already in the great room, stumbling around the railing she’d leaned against earlier. Why had she drank so much? Why had she thought that would be a good idea? Why had she gone along with the others?! Ashley pushed herself off from the railing and staggered into the kitchen, blinking hard as Chris and Josh took shape right where she’d left them, passed the fuck out on the island.

Outside, Jessica was the next to give in. “Ugh, whatever. Let them wander around out there, I’m freezing my ass off…Hey Matt? You’re gonna send us that video, right?” She turned on her heel, nose in the air, and Emily followed close after her, the two flouncing back into the lodge, whispering all the while.

“Video?” Sam asked, watching disappear back into the lodge. “Wait, video? What video?” When she turned back around, it was only Mike and Matt that remained. They looked to her, then to each other, and shrugged before returning inside as well. “Cool, guys…” Sam muttered under her breath, looking out to the woods one last time. “Really cool.” Rubbing her arms against the cold, she stepped back into the house behind the others, taking a moment to flick the switch for the exterior lights. Hannah and Beth would need all the help they could get to find their way back in the dark, after all. Sam paused for a moment as she crossed the threshold into the kitchen, where she found Josh slumped onto the table, still snoring, and Ashley rousing a very bleary, very confused, very drunk Chris from a similar state.

Wrong move, Ashley, she thought to herself. Wrong move.

Not that she was surprised—not by a long shot. Ashley having Chris on her side would help soften the blow of explaining the situation to Josh. But of course that wasn’t the real reason she went to Chris first, or the obvious one. And that’s why Sam sighed and kept walking, beginning her journey of turning the lodge into a bright beacon of light the girls would be able to find through the snow. She had actually tried to stop them all from their mean little prank, while Ashley had more than happily gone along with it, so Sam could let her deal with the guys’ reactions, let her explain why it had seemed so funny to torment Hannah at the time.

“It was just supposed to be a joke,” Ashley was saying, frantic words spilling out of her like vomit, mouth numb and stomach churning. “But then Hannah started running, and Beth went after her, and now—”

“Ash. AshAshAsh…” Still blinking hard and trying to wake himself up, Chris sat with his elbows on the table and his head in his hands. The world was spinning around him his and chair, and he had a lingering suspicion if he shifted even the slightest bit, he’d be swallowed by the vortex and spat out somewhere near the cable car station. “Just…one sec, okay? One sec.” He rubbed his eyes before tentatively chancing a glance around the room, perplexed at his inability to see. His eyes just would not focus on anything, turning the fridge and cupboards and Ashley into little more than muted smudges of color, and…when he rubbed his eyes again, he realized he was not, in fact, wearing his glasses. Ah. That would do it. Feeling around the table like Velma Dinkley, he managed to find them through his haze, putting them on and breathing a heavy sigh of relief as the world grew sharp and defined again. “What about Hannah?”

With his glasses on, it was clear to see that Ashley looked just about as sick as he felt in that moment, eyes wide and worried, face the color of curdled milk. She opened and closed her mouth a couple times before burying her face in her hands, trying to take steadying breaths. “They said it was just going to be a joke…but she was so upset…”

The gravity of the situation had begun to settle in around him, driven home by Ashley’s distress, obvious even in the darkened room. “Hey, hey…” He reached for her arm, missing and swiping at open air once before finding the fabric of her sleeve and gently tugging her closer to the table. “Sit, okay? Sit down and breathe, Ash.”

But she just shook her head, pressing her lips together in a tight line. “Josh is going to be so mad,” she said quietly, looking to the other side of the table, where he was still out cold.

“Ash,” he tried again, words still heavy on his tongue, “Okay, you gotta…you gotta tell me what happened. But slow, all right? Slow. I feel like aliens are trying to eat their way out of my brain through my eyes, ugh…” Had he been more in his right mind, Chris would’ve been mortified to find his hand had found Ashley’s; moreover, had he been more in his right mind, he would’ve noticed how tightly she was squeezing his fingers.

Still, she wouldn’t sit. If she sat, she’d surely puke—or worse, start sobbing. “I don’t know what they told her, they just said it would be a joke, so we went and we hid in the back room—”

“Wait, wait…who’s they? Who’s we?” Chris was trying to wake himself up, trying to follow the story, but he still felt sleep tugging at the back of his brain, making his thoughts soupy. When he watched Ashley’s eyes flick back towards the living room, it only muddled things further. “Like, Jess and Emily? What were you doing with them?” he asked, wincing against another stab of pain in his head. It was creeping threateningly close to his migraine spot, and even through the garbled mess of his thoughts, he couldn’t fight the innate sense of knowing that one way or another, tomorrow was going to suck.

“Hannah came into the room, and I guess she thought she was meeting Mike? To talk? Or something? And she…” The hand that wasn’t holding Chris’s immediately flew to her face again and she covered her eyes as though trying to shield herself from the thought. Her cheeks and ears and neck felt hot, burning with shame and, sickeningly, secondhand humiliation. “She just…” her hand moved down, gesturing to the front of her vest in a gesture that Chris absolutely could not begin to translate. “And then Emily and Jess started laughing, and Matt had a camera, and Sam was so mad…”

“What?”

“And then she ran into the woods, Chris! Without a coat!

“Sam’s in the woods?”

“No! Hannah!” There was a hitch in Ashley’s voice, a tiny crack threatening to become a break, “And Beth went after her, but it’s really starting to snow, and…” She swallowed hard, looking towards the door the girls had run out of. “They should be back by now, don’t you think? They should be back. Why would they still be out there when it’s so cold?”

He straightened up as best he could, groaning inwardly at a stab of pain from falling asleep in such a strained position. Josh was farther from him than he had expected, and as he reached to smack at his arm, he ended up slapping the table instead. It was enough to send one of the bottles spinning on its side before rolling. Chris and Ashley both winced as it fell to the floor, thick glass cracking, but not shattering. Still, Josh remained asleep. “Aw come on, dude…” Chris sighed. “Josh. Josh!” He futilely hit the table again, lolling his head back onto his stiff shoulders. “Christ in a canoe…” Easing himself up onto his feet, he leaned further across the table, shaking Josh’s shoulder. “Josh!

What?” From where he lay, arms wrapped around his head, Josh’s muffled voice came through. He sounded groggy, he sounded disoriented, but mostly, he sounded angry. Slowly, very slowly, Josh lifted his head, eyes little more than slits as he fought to keep them open. “What the fuck, Cochise? Can’t a lady some fuckin’ beauty rest?” His mouth wasn’t making the right shapes for his words, and it all tumbled from him in a nearly unintelligible tangle of syllables. “Fuck sake.”

“It was just supposed to be a joke.” It came out in a furious rush, and Ashley felt her entire body begin to burn with shame again. She had been practicing what she’d say in her head, had been trying to find the words, the details that would’ve explained the most while saying the least; she was a writer, after all, it was supposed to be the one thing she was good at. Instead, her mouth was numb, running of its own accord. “I’m so, so sorry, Josh, it was just supposed to be a joke, they said it was just a joke…”

“Oh my God, Ash, shut the f—” Without warning, he sat bolt upright, eyes wide. Josh had precisely five seconds to realize what a grave mistake he’d made that night before he found himself on his feet, lurching to the kitchen sink. The other two stumbled back out of his way, clearing a path to the double-basined sink, and just in time! His body, apparently, had realized something that his mind was not yet capable of processing. He retched once, twice, three times, and proceeded to barf his fucking guts out.

A sympathetic puker by nature, Chris leaned back against the countertop and looked up to the ceiling, trying to take steadying breaths and ignore the terrible, wet sounds from the sink. He felt himself fighting with his own gorge and closed his eyes.

Arms shaking, Josh kept his head hanging over the sink, spitting repeatedly to try and clear his mouth of the awful taste. “Yeah. Thanks…for the wakeup call, guys. Real fine shootin’ there, Tex,” he said, voice tight and shaky in his throat. He felt another warning clench in his lower stomach, and spat again. A few seconds passed, then a few more, and when he felt it safe enough, he swiveled his head to look at them again. “Why. The everloving fuck. Did you wake me.” There was a strange, detached quality to his voice that Ashley did not entirely like, and which Chris did not entirely recognize.

Chris looked back to Ashley, eyes imploring, mouth curled in a grimace. “It’s, uh…”

“It was just a joke,” she said again, feeling the tears rising once more. “I swear, I didn’t think that they would do that! I thought…I don’t know, we were gonna like…jump out and scare her, or just surprise her, or something, because Jess said it was just going to be a funny prank, but…” Then she was crying, from fear, from exhaustion, from dejection. This was not how the weekend was supposed to go…it wasn’t how the night was supposed to go. Chris’s thumb rubbed soothingly back and forth across her knuckles, but she didn’t notice.

Josh’s eyes moved from one to the other jerkily, almost disjointedly, his confusion palpably evident. Had they not just seen him spring up, Chris and Ashley might’ve thought he was sleepwalking. He opened and closed his mouth as though he had thought better of whatever he’d wanted to say, and continued to simply stare at them for a long moment. When he did finally speak, it was to yell “Sammy!

As though on cue, the lights in the kitchen snapped on above them. Chris swore loudly and shielded his eyes like the world’s dorkiest vampire; Ashley jumped at the suddenness of it, casting an anxious glance from one side of the room to the other; Josh flinched and covered his face as well, though his movements were clearly delayed.

Sam stood leaning against the wall, hand still resting near the light switch. “You rang?” she asked, setting her head against the wall as well. She had wanted to be angry, had wanted to return wielding her righteous disappointment like a weighty baseball bat, but as she stood there looking over the three of them, drunk and confused and uncertain, she found she couldn’t quite manage it. Now there was only concern—for the twins, mostly, but for the rest of them as well.

Steadying himself against the countertop, Josh blinked heavily. “Ah yes…good evening, Clarice,” he smirked, his horrendous Hannibal Lecter impression made somehow miraculously better by his slurring. “Would you mind…” he swayed, as though about to fall, “Kindly telling me what in the blue fuck is going on?”

She exhaled a deep, whooshing sigh. “Why don’t you ask Ashley? She was there. I was just supposed to be damage control—like always.” Sam regretted it as soon as it was out of her mouth. Across the way, Ashley had flinched like Sam had slapped her before dropping her eyes back to the floor. The rational part of her knew the accusation hadn’t been entirely fair…but her stomach was knotted with dread and frustration.

Josh continued to watch her, expression inscrutable. “I don’t want to ask Ash,” he said slowly, words thick and clumsy on his tongue. “She’s busy holding hands with Chris.” His speech took on a juvenile, matter-of-fact tone.

Off to the side, Chris and Ashley sprang apart, both immediately finding something innocuous to occupy their hands with.

Not for the first time that night, Sam noted, they also made it a point to avoid each other’s line of sight. An hour ago, she would’ve found it endearing, but just then, she wanted to grab them by the shoulders and shake them until their stupid heads fell off. She wet her lips with a sliver of her tongue, realizing Josh wasn’t going to be understanding much until he managed to sober up. “Hannah and Beth ran into the woods, Josh. And the storm’s coming in.”

Silence.

Slowly, Josh pointed to the window. “Those woods?”

“Those woods,” Sam nodded.

“The ones…outside?

“Yes, Josh. The ones outside.”

With a loud, phlegmatic sound that was probably meant to be a laugh, Josh waved it off. “Aw, c’mon. They’re fine.”

From where she’d been absently fiddling with the coffee machine, Ashley exhaled a silent breath of relief, every muscle in her body immediately relaxing.

Sam’s brow furrowed. “No,” she said slowly, suddenly a teacher lecturing oblivious children, “No. It’s dark out—”

“So turn on some lights.”

“I did,” she continued patiently. “But the storm—”

Repeating his curt wave, Josh shook his head. “We…grew up here, Sammy. They’re fine. No Washington has ever gotten lost out there in those woods.”

“They should’ve come back by now.” She paused, turning her gaze from Josh to Chris, instead. “They should be back.”

He shrugged helplessly, hands opened wide. “Josh is right—they’ll be here. They’ll get cold. Or hungry. Or something. It’s not like the lodge is hard to find.”

She went to say something else, to argue with them, to suggest they head outside and start looking for them, but in a flash, Josh had his head in the sink again, vomiting loudly and violently. Slumping against the wall, she watched Ashley turn the tap on before placing a hand on his back, rubbing slow, comforting circles through his sweater. “Can you go talk to the others?” Sam asked Chris in a low voice as he removed himself from the scene, looking nauseous, himself. “If Hannah and Beth aren’t back in ten, we’re going out there.”

Me?” He was quickly becoming sober, he realized, and the thought of having to go out into the other room and deal with the others was…well, that was not a task for Sober Chris. Not that he currently was Sober Chris. Really, he had turned a corner and was approaching Sober Chris, but there was still a bit of work ahead of him before he quite got there. But even then, Drunk Chris would’ve had some hang-ups with the order, in all honesty. “Why not you? They like you better,” he said, though he meant something more along the lines of ‘They like everyone better than me.

But there would be no arguing with Samantha Giddings in that moment. Still looking just beyond him to Ashley and Josh, she shook her head. “Because I just might kill them, Chris,” she said airily enough, forcing a chilly smile. “I might literally kill them.”

Rubbing some of the soreness from the back of his neck, Chris nodded. Sounded about right. He was still foggy on the details—all of them, really—but he’d known Sam long enough to know that if she was worried, shit was real. More than real. Like fifteen minutes past real o’clock. “And what should I say…” he paused, tongue caught between two very, very different words. “…if they say no?”

The other word, the one that had almost won, was ‘when.’ As in ‘What should I say when they say no?’

Sam seemed to understand, all the same. “Then you remind them that whatever happens out there is on them. See if that changes their minds.” She turned to meet his eyes, raising and dropping her shoulders in a noncommittal shrug. “It was their ‘prank.’ It was a shitty thing to do, and they should feel shitty about it.” Chris flashed her a jaunty little Boy Scout salute before starting for the great room, where the other four were still chattering in loud stage whispers. Before he could get too far, she gently grabbed the shoulder of his sweatshirt, tugging him back. “Hey, uh…” Her eyes traveled back to the other side of the kitchen, where Ashley was trying to get Josh to drink some water. “Should we be worried about how much he drank? He’s acting…weird.” Her voice was low again, almost conspiratorial.

Chris glanced over his shoulder towards the sink as well, “What? Josh? Nah, he’s fine. Just overdid it, I guess.”

Chris.” Sam looked back up at him, lips set in a firm line.

His smile faltered for a second, replaced by an uncomfortable uncertainty. Even though he knew, somewhere deep down, time was of the essence, he couldn’t help but give her a brief, suspicious look. He was still too drunk to try and figure out how much she knew (or didn’t know) about the situation with Josh. Things went blurry again as he removed his glasses and pinched at the bridge of his nose, massaging the spot just under his eyebrow that seemed to throb with the promise of tomorrow’s migraine. “It’s…” he sighed, putting his glasses back on. “It’s probably a good thing he’s puking everything up.”

Vague though it was, it was all the answer Sam needed. She released Chris’s arm, watching him disappear into the next room and around the corner before dropping her head into her hands. She couldn’t remember where she’d left her jacket. She couldn’t remember where the Washingtons kept their flashlights. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d felt so afraid.

***

Ten minutes later

Two by two, they laced their boots and zipped their coats and checked the batteries of their flashlights and phones, setting out into the brewing storm.

The cold seemed to snap Josh back to life, and it was he who gave each pair directions, sending them off into the woods like the silent commander of an old war movie. Mike and Emily, along with Matt and Jessica, were kept to the areas closest to the lodge. Outside of a visit or two apiece, their knowledge of the area was slim and none, and sending them deeper into the tree line would just be asking for more trouble. It was up to the remaining four to creep into the darker, thicker portion of the woods. None knew them so well as Josh, but they had all taken their fair share of walks and adventures over the years.

Of course, those walks had typically happened during the daylight hours and when the weather was nice. In the dark, in the snow, the woods seemed to take on a different ambiance entirely. In turn, each had a moment where they remembered with sudden alarm that animals lived on the mountain. Some large, some with long teeth, some with claws, most hungry.

Even then, they pressed on, the wind carrying their calls of “Hannah!” and “Beth!” like the baleful howling of wolves. For the first fifteen minutes or so, they could hear the others’ shouts as well. Soon after, the trees seemed to absorb all sound. Chris and Ash navigated their way around a mostly frozen pond, Sam and Josh hoisted themselves over the trunk of a newly fallen tree. They walked and walked until their feet were numb and their legs shaking; they shouted until their voices croaked. And still there was no sign of the girls.

Before much longer, their paths crossed again, Chris waving Josh and Sam over to him and Ashley. They agreed, mostly through hand gestures and pointed looks, that they would continue on. Rationally, the twins couldn’t have gotten much farther. There just…there wasn’t anywhere else to go. But by the time they reached the cliff, the storm was raging around them with a ferocity that was almost animalistic, lashing at their skin and freezing their eyes until their only option was to turn back to the lodge’s promise of warmth. Even with hands cupped to their lips, faces close, they could only just barely hear each other’s voices above the furious howling of the wind. Though none wanted to admit it, if the girls could hear them, if they could respond, the four of them would never know.

At least…not until it was far, far too late.