Josh extended an arm to the only vacant room left in the house, grinning at the couple.
“Here’s your room. Hope it suits your needs and comforts,” he gave Mike a wink, who shook his head with a grin.
“Thanks, Josh. And, uh, thanks for having us over again.” He shifted his gaze from Josh to Jess, who was gripping his lousy, three fingered hand, blue eyes large and sad and glowing but at least she was maintaining eye contact with the others. She smiled. Mike couldn’t help but smile, too.
“No problem, guys. I’m just glad you came. It means a lot.” He nodded to the both of them, sidestepping to allow them in the room. “If you need anything, I’m right down the hall. Sleep tight. And, uh, condoms are in the nightstand, just in case.” He winked at the pair before leaving, hearing the two laugh behind his back and the click of their bedroom door. Josh made his way to the next room, knocking twice and waiting.
Emily opened the door slowly, her eyes widening when she realized it was Josh standing there.
“Hi Josh,” her voice was dropped to a whisper, and she looked behind her into the room.
“Hey, Em, everything good? You guys settled in alright?”
She gave him a weak smile. “Yeah. Matt, uh, Matt’s out already. It’s been a long day, you know?”
Josh nodded, looking away from Em. He hadn’t been particularly close to her, having hated her since the night Hannah and Beth disappeared, angry that she had participated in the prank. But that was five years ago, he reminded himself. It’s different now.
He turned again to face her, surprised at her suddenness. She had a different look on her face, one of sympathy, of guilt. Emily swallowed hard, crossing her arms over her chest. Her dark brown eyes seemed to glisten in the light of the hallway, and when she spoke again, her voice was wet, shaky.
“I never… I never got to really apologize to you for Hannah and Beth,” she stopped, inhaling, a hand going up to bat away tears from her eyes. “I just want you to know that I’m sorry. It was stupid. We were stupid.”
Josh stood there in stupor at the apology, having not expected Em to admit to that, years ahead now. She had always seemed so sure of herself, her actions, and an apology felt so out of place, yet so final, as if this was what he needed to finally start getting closure. Without another word, Emily turned and walked back into the room, shutting the door behind her, leaving Josh to stand there.
“Thank you, Emily.” He finally said aloud to the door.
He thought he heard a “I don’t deserve to be thanked,” on the other side, but he shrugged it off and moved down the line, across the hall, to tentatively knock on Chris and Ashley’s door.
“Who is it?” came a voice from the other side.
“Your sexy pizza delivery man,” Josh responded instantaneously, grinning. The door swung open and he was face-to-face with Ashley, who looked more pissed off than amused at his joke.
“Real mature, Joshua.”
“Just trying to lighten the mood, Ash. Where’s your knight in shiny, nerdy armor?”
Chris then appeared behind Ash, slipping a hand around her waist, grinning at the other.
“Right here, my good sir. To what do we owe the presence of our esteemed, noble lordship?” His English accent was downright insulting.
“Cool it, loser. Just making sure everyone’s in bed and comfortable.”
“Oh, we were definitely in bed. Almost comfortable.”
“Good enough for me, Cochise. There should be condoms in the nightstand.”
Ash rolled her eyes again, pulling away from Chris and disappearing into the bedroom without so much as a “goodnight.” Josh raised an eyebrow at his friend. Chris shook his head a little.
“Sorry, man. Ash still isn’t all that good with you, yet.”
“Nah. Totally get it. Totally deserve it, too.”
The two men stared at each other, unsure where to take the conversation. Chris coughed a little, looking away.
“Be honest with me, Josh. Are you really okay?”
Josh wasn’t surprised at the question. He had been waiting all day for someone to ask it.
“I…” He hesitated. A flimsy answer wouldn’t fly with Chris. “I hope so, bro. I fucking hope so.”
“Take care of yourself, Josh.”
Chris disappeared behind the door, and Josh found himself raising his fist to knock again, to talk to Chris more, to catch up with him one on one, without having to worry about what the others were saying, what they were thinking. He stopped himself, stepping away, turning to face the last door, the last person he had to say goodnight to.
Yet, something stopped him from knocking. It was probably best to not disturb her, for now.
“Goodnight, Sammy.” He said to the closed door. He waited a few seconds, then disappeared into his own room.
Her phone read 4:06 AM, and Sam regretted hitting the hay so early. She closed her eyes, hearing the wendigos howl in her ears again. She was getting real sick and tired of having nightmares. She was getting real sick and tired of waking up early on Saturdays.
Slowly, carefully, Sam extracted herself from the warm bed, surprised at the comfortable temperature of the room. Josh really had that luxury of letting the heat run into the night, keeping every room toasty. It felt alien, strange to wake up and feel overtly warm when she had gotten so used to the chill.
Hannah lifted her head at Sam when she got up, perking her ears. Without a word, Sam stroked the dog’s head and then left the room, tiptoeing down the stairs. She was thirsty, hungry, and she wished she ate a little more for dinner than a few chips and guacamole.
Sam felt a little awkward rummaging through the Washington’s fridge, but she reminded herself that she used to do this all the time, back when sleepovers at their house was normal and the girls wanted to devour something at two in the morning when sleep wasn’t calling and shitty movies deserved snacks to go with.
She heard footsteps come down the stairs behind her, and Sam glanced behind her, wondering who was also awake at this hour.
Josh stopped at the bottom of the steps, tired eyes still sunken, his lips pressed together. She stood up straighter out of instinct, closing the fridge.
“Sorry to, uh-- did I wake you up?” she was whispering, despite knowing they were probably the only two awake.
“No, not at all. I just…” he stopped, looking away. “I was already awake, actually.”
She blinked, unfazed. She understood, that maybe he felt it too, maybe he was still having nightmares, too.
“Nightmares?” it was lower than a whisper.
“Yeah,” he was quiet too, still avoiding her gaze. “Worst than usual.”
She stepped away from the fridge, forgetting her appetite to stand beside him, looking up, peering into his face. Had he been crying? It was hard to tell in the dark.
“Want to talk about it?”
He turned to gaze into her face, contemplating for a moment before nodding slowly.
“Not here though. Care for a walk, Sammy?”
Sammy. Her heart ached.
“Sure, just let me get some shoes. And Hannah.” She added the last part as an afterthought, thinking that the dog needed to go for a walk anyways. Josh nodded, stepping aside to let Sam up the stairs, and she bounded up without looking back.
The sand made it hard for her to walk in flip-flops, and in the end Sam opted to go barefoot. Hannah had already leapt ahead of the pair, who were still standing on the far end of the beach as the lab ran straight to the sea. The clouds were few and far apart, revealing the dark blue of the early morning sky, the sun beginning to peek out over the horizon. The beach was empty. It was dark, cold, and peaceful.
“Let’s get closer to the water. It’s great,” Josh seemed to light up like the sun itself out here, a white beanie pulled over his hair, hands digging deep into the pockets of his sweatpants. He began to stride with confidence out towards the beach, and Sam followed close behind, surprised at his quick pace.
“You could probably slow down a bit, Washington,” she fumbled over her words a little, but the point was made, and Josh soon was walking side by side with her, their elbows crashing into each other every few steps, and with each accidental touch they seemed to pull further away from the other, unsure of what to say or do. When they got close to the water, Josh bent down to roll his pant legs up, and Sam did the same with her leggings, allowing the wet, cold wind touch her bare calves. Ocean spray grazed her legs as waves crashed into the wet sand, and Sam couldn’t help but dig her toes into the beach. She raised her head to look for Hannah, who was bouncing in and out of the water, barking at the waves. It was so relaxing, then, in that moment.
“So, nightmares, huh?” Josh’s voice pulled her back to reality.
“Yeah,” she laughed at her own expense. “Thought if I went to see you, I wouldn’t have so many here.”
His eyebrows perked at the comment. If she came to see him, huh?
“I don’t think that’s how nightmares work, Sammy. But thanks for thinking about me.”
She gave his arm a punch-- she was still strong, definitely-- and the two began to laugh, beginning a slow stride down the shore.
“We don’t have to talk about the shit we dream up, Josh. We can talk about other things,” she spoke gently, watching her steps in the sand.
“Like how cliché we are, taking a long walk on a beach.” He laughed at that. “Or we can talk about how you’re feeling. How are you, Josh?”
There was sincerity in her voice. He swallowed around the knot in his throat. “I’m fine. I really am, Sam. You guys keep asking me if I’m fine but I swear, it’s all okay.”
She didn’t respond immediately, and that urged him to keep going.
“Sorry. I’m okay, thanks. How ‘bout you, Sam? Are you okay?”
She stopped walking, and he turned around to stare at her, her hands opening and closing as she struggled to come up with things to say.
“I don’t know, actually.”
Josh didn’t remember Sam being anything but confident with her answers. Uncertainty wasn’t Sam. She always knew what to say, was always honest with her feelings. But this was different. She was different. Only then did it strike Josh how long four years really was.
“Sammy--” he stopped himself when her face distorted into something broken, something fragile. She shook her head, lifting a hand to her face to wipe away any sign of weakness she was showing.
He didn’t deserve to see her cry.
“I’m-- It’s okay, Josh. It just…” she breathed in, shakily. She couldn’t remember the last time she cried about this, but suddenly it felt all too real, standing here at the beach, standing in front of him, and all the memories and fear and uncertainty flooded her, threatening to burst. She was Sam, she couldn’t be like this in front of him, but once the tears had left her she couldn’t stop them from flowing, and she covered her mouth with her hands to stop the whimpers because at least she could keep quiet while she cried--
“Sammy,” it was his turn to be the supportive shoulder to cry on. His arms wrapped around her shoulders and she couldn’t help but bury her face into his chest, breathing him in, almost collapsing into his embrace. Her hands left her face and were around his waist, clinging to the back of his hoodie, her chest aching from sadness and from guilt and from joy all at once. “It’s okay to cry. I’m here.”
And she did, for who knows how long. They stood there by the sea in each other's arms as Sam wept into his shirt and she let herself be loud and messy and upset. She babbled incoherently between hiccups, words of apologies and what-ifs and should-haves and with each word Josh seemed to hold her tighter, and all the weight of four years of pain seemed to melt off her anxious, tired shoulders.
She stopped, suddenly, cried out and feeling almost weightless. She pulled her head back to look into Josh’s face, and was startled to find he had been crying, too.
“Josh, I’m--” she stopped, sniffling, pulling one hand away to wipe excess tears from her cheeks. She reached up and wiped away Josh’s, gently touching his cheek, his jaw, and he leaned into her touch, sighing softly.
“It’s no big deal. We can, uh,” he pursed his lips, searching for the right words. “We can go back to acting okay again.”
And then Sam pulled her hand away, eyes widening, mouth opening to respond.
“You know we can’t.”
Josh gave her a reassuring smile, pulling away to grab her face with both hands, brushing excess tears and hair from her face. He leaned down and pressed his lips to her forehead, then pulled back to take one of her hands in his, intertwining their fingers, pulling her back down the shore, back to the house.
“I know, Sammy! But pretending to be okay is pretty easy when you actually are.”
A laugh bubbled out of her, and she quickened her pace to walk side by side with her friend, thankful to have the early morning to themselves, to reconcile, to heal.
She tried to ignore the electricity she felt where he kissed her, where their hands met. It’s not the right time to feel that way, not yet.