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After Dawn

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Fuck! Crap! It's over! Thank God it's fucking over! 

I can hear the helicopter circling overhead. They'll pick us up soon... hopefully.

Is everyone here? Is everyone safe? Emily, Mike, Sam... where's Ash? I could have sworn she got out! Fuck! Oh my God! Ash!

Oh thank God, there she is, curled up behind the bench.

I limp around and stand beside her. I don't know what to do. All I know is I want to be near her.

Thank God Ash is alright. But no sign of Josh. Jessica and Matt haven't turned up either. Oh God Josh what happened to you? You stupid fuck! Why did I leave you outside with Mike? I fucked up so bad! I’m supposed to be your best friend. Worst best friend of the year award or what? Fuck that! Worst person of the year award. That guy helped us, he saved my fucking life and I just watched as he died. Oh God! I might throw up! I can still hear his head thudding down onto the snow. I've made a real mess of this night.

I feel a tug on my sleeve and look down. Ash is looking up at me.
“Chris? Did... did everyone get out? I can't look.”
“Everyone's out Ash, it's...it’s going to be alright.” My voice shakes as I say it.
Who am I kidding, how is anything ever going to be alright after a night like this?
“Here.” I hold out my hand to her.
She takes it and I help her up, pulling her into my arms. She turns her head, I follow her gaze, looking up at the Washington's burning lodge. Years of memories with Josh and his sister’s going up in flames. I sigh. There’ll be no more annual winter getaways now, not that anyone would want to go after this nightmare.
“It’s so sad.” Ash whispers.
I hold her tighter, pulling her in closer. She turns back to me, burying her face in my chest.

Sam walks toward us stiffly, a grim look on her face. “You guys okay?”
I gulp. What does okay even mean? Alive? I’m worried to death about Josh. He’s probably not okay. Where could he be? Does Sam know? Did Mike find him? I’m such a fuck up. I should have never left him.
Everything I think of gets stuck in the back of my throat. I just nod. Sam nods back and turns away to check on the others. But… she might know what happened.
“Sam…” I manage to find my voice before she gets too far away.
I need to know.
Sam stops, takes a deep breath and turns back around. Her shoulders are shaking.
I need to know.
“Sam... What...”
I need to know.
“What happened to Josh? D-did you find him?”
“We did, Mike and I found him. He…” She bites her lip. “He wasn’t himself, he was saying all these crazy things and he was scared, he was so scared Chris! Have you ever seen him like that before?”
I shake my head, apart from his insane ramblings when Mike and I took him outside I'd never seen him so messed up.
“I can't believe he didn't tell me that things had got so bad, I can't believe I couldn't tell.” She covers her face with her hands.
“Sam... what… what happened?”
“I shouldn't have left them, but we were worried about you guys, so I climbed out to come check on you. And... When I met back up with Mike again, Josh was gone. The wendigo took him.”
“Oh my God! He's... He's dead!”
My knees shake. My best friend is dead. And it's all my fault. Jesus! I shouldn't have left him outside. I-I should have believed him. I should have looked after him. He was in such a state. I feel my knees begin to buckle. I sink down onto the snow-covered ground, letting go of Ashley.
“No.” I look up at Sam in hope. “Not dead, or at least he wasn't. The wendigo took him, Mike didn't see it kill him.”
“I can't tell if that's worse or better,” I say quietly.
He could be alive down there, all by himself, going completely insane.
“I'm sorry Chris, we tried,” Sam says, wrapping her arms tightly around herself and gritting her teeth.

Fuck! Josh! I feel a hand gently placed on the back of my head. I slowly turn to look up at Ashley. She doesn't say anything, but she's there and that's all that matters. I sigh and lean my forehead against her stomach. I feel her slowly stroke my hair and I wrap my arms around her legs, feeling desperate. Shit! Josh, why did you have to go?

Sam turns sharply and walks away.

It's all my fucking fault. Maybe if I'd paid more attention to Josh instead of pining after Ashley all year I could have stopped him from spiralling and none of this would have ever happened. I guess this is the fucking butterfly effect for you. Why did I even say that stupid thing to Sam. Now, because of my stupid choices, Josh is dead or as good as! And... and I didn't even volunteer to help find him. Sam will never forgive me. The Washingtons will never forgive me. Hell! I'll never forgive me. I feel like crying, puking my guts and blowing my brains out all at the same time. I can't decide what's better. So I’ll just kneel here, in the snow, clinging onto Ashley for dear life.

The whirring of the helicopter gets louder and louder until it’s near deafening. A bright light flashes in my eyes, I put my hand up to shield them so I can see what's going on. A loud amplified voice comes out over the noisy whirring.

“PLEASE CLEAR THE AREA. WE ARE GOING TO LAND. I REPEAT. PLEASE CLEAR THE AREA. WE ARE GOING TO LAND.”

It doesn't quite reach my brain. I can't stop thinking about Josh and that head thudding into the snow, I wonder if Josh's head would make the same sound. Oh God! I might throw up!

“Chris!” Ashley is calling my name and I shake myself out of my thoughts. “Chris we need to move.”
She helps me to my feet. Ugh, I’d forgotten how much my chest hurts. I flinch as we start walking and I put too much weight on my ankle.
“Ah, fuck!” I catch myself before falling over.
“Here.” Ashley slides my arm over her shoulder.
She helps me to limp out of the way and over to the tree line.

We all stand silently and watch as the helicopter lands. Despite the fact that we’ve stopped walking Ashley keeps my arm over her shoulders and grips my hand tightly. I don’t complain, I need her right now.

The blades of the helicopter slowly come to a stop. It suddenly feels eerily quiet with the soft crackling and snapping of the fire in the background. I jump as the loud sound of the door sliding open punctures the near silence of the mountainside. A man in ranger uniform climbs out of the helicopter and comes toward us with a torch. It flashes in my direction and I shield my eyes. The ranger is inspecting us all, looking us up and down. He's wearing a thick dark green coat with dark green trousers, he has a serious looking face with a large moustache.

“My name is Ranger Adams.” He says. “We got a call saying there was a maniac?”
How do we explain what’s happened?
Ranger Adams sighs. “Are any of you in need of emergency care?”
None of us says anything. I look around at everyone, we're all injured, but none of it is an emergency.
“Can one of you tell me what happened? Is there any danger nearby?” He speaks slowly and clearly, with a touch of impatience.  
Again, we're all silent, how can we even begin to explain?
“Is there anyone else apart from the five of you?”
This one we can answer.
“Josh.” Sam and I call out. At the same time Mike calls out Jessica's name, and Emily calls out Matt's.
“Okay, let's get you all on the helicopter.” Ranger Adams nods and gestures for us to come forward.

We all slowly walk forward. Emily gets on first, avoiding the hand that Mike offers to help her.
“Keep away from me.” I hear her say through gritted teeth.
“Em…!” He begins, but she disappears inside.
Mike sighs and follows her.

Ashley, with the help of Ranger Adams, gets me inside and sits me down next to Mike.
“Thank you.” I nod to Ranger Adams who nods back and turns away.
Ashley sits down next to me. She takes hold of my hand and squeezes tight, I squeeze back.

Sam gets in last and sits on the opposite seating, where Emily's seated, leaving a seat in-between them. No one wants an earful from Emily right now, and even though for once she doesn't seem very talkative, none of us wants to risk it.

“Right, now if you'll all get strapped in, we'll be off.” Ranger Adams says while he closes the doors and heads into the cockpit.
He sits down and gets himself belted up while we all do the same.
“You ready back there?” He calls.
None of us say anything.
“I’ll take that as a yes.”
The pilot starts the helicopter.

Chapter Text

We spend the helicopter ride in silence. Too shell-shocked to speak. I just keep thinking about Josh, about how I failed him. I worry that I'm squeezing Ashley's hand too tightly, but she doesn't complain. Oh God, I'm just so glad that she's here, that she's okay, that she survived the night. She leans her head on my shoulder, I can feel her breathing, and each breath reminds me that I still have one good thing in my life. Even if that kiss was just a moment of fear, I'll take it, I'm just thankful that she's alive. Although, once again, no thanks to me. I can't believe I didn't wait for her when we went down into those tunnels, something could have happened to her, and after she waited for me. I really should have been there for her, but no, I just mindlessly limped on after Sam and Emily. Oh, Josh, fuck! I'm so sorry man. I can't believe I let this happen to you, and you probably think that I hate you, or thought, depending on your fate. I don't know what I'm hoping for, do I want him dead and at peace or alive, alone and freaking out down in that hell hole. I know I'm just thinking the same thoughts over and over, but I can't help it, they just keep going round and round and round.

Ashley is pulling on my sleeve and telling me to get up.
“Come on Chris, we're here.” She stands up and holds out her hand to me.
I take it and slowly pull myself up, groaning at the pain.
“Come on.” She pulls my arm over her shoulder again and gently helps me out of the helicopter. 

When we get off we find Mike yelling at Ranger Adams.
“We don't need a police station, we need a fucking hospital! Look at that bite!” He points to Emily's shoulder, she quickly covers it with her hand and takes a step away from the raging Mike. “That needs treating! And Chris can barely fucking walk.”
“I'm fine.” I cough out, shrugging my shoulders, flinching as I do.
“Ashley’s got a black eye. We're all cut up and bruised and hell we've probably inhaled something toxic down in those God-forsaken mines and you're dropping us off at a fucking police station! You going to lock us all up for the arson that saved our asses?”
“I'm sorry.” Ranger Adams says calmly “but I'm under orders that if there are no emergencies to take you to a police station where you can all make statements about what happened, you were, after all, claiming that you were being stalked by a maniac.”
“No! It wasn't a maniac, I was wrong! It was a monster, a fucking monster!” Emily yells.

“What's going on here?” A policeman comes out looking at us all suspiciously.
“This asshole,” Mike gestures to Ranger Adams, “decided to bring us here instead of to a hospital which is what we fucking need.” Mike is seething.
The policeman presses a button on the walkie-talkie that he has attached to his vest. “I think I'm going to need some help with this lot, over.”
There’s a garbled response from the other end that I can’t make out.
The policeman presses the button and replies. “Great, thank you, over.” Then he turns to us. “Come on, get away from the copter so Ranger Adams can go look for your friends.” He smiles beguilingly.
“I’ll tell you where you can stick that fucking helicopter.” Mike starts.

Two more policemen come out of the station door and grab Mike, pulling his arms behind his back. Mike struggles and kicks out.
“I would appreciate it if you would calm down and come inside.” The policeman says.
“Fuck you!” Mike spits.
The policeman sighs. “Take him in.” He nods toward the doors.
The two policemen begin to force Mike towards the doors as he yells profanities at them.
“If you fucking find Jessica and bring her here instead of straight to a hospital I swear there'll be hell to pay.” He shouts.
We all watch frozen in place as he's pushed inside the door.
“Come on you lot, and no more trouble please.” The policeman holds the door open for us. 

We all slowly walk towards the entrance. I hear the whirring of the helicopter starting up and turn to watch it take off. Please let them find Josh! 
“Come on Chris,” Ashley says softly, gently pulling me through the door which the policeman let's swing shut behind us.

The policeman leads us down a corridor and into what appears to be a waiting room. It’s small with three doors on the opposite wall and chairs down the sides. I hear the door close behind us and the click of the lock. I look around, Mike's not here. Did they lock him up?
“Where's Mike?” Ashley asks.
“Like I care.” Emily snorts. “That dick tried to shoot me!”
“Sam?” Ashley turns to her instead.
“They took him in there.” She motions to a plaque on one of the doors that says 'Interview Room 3' on it.
We're going to be interviewed? What did we do?
“Emily please would you come in here.” A policewoman sticks her head around one of the other doors and beckons her in.
“Why do I need to be interviewed? I haven't done anything wrong.” Emily protests, crossing her arms across her chest.
“We'd just like to hear your account of the night.” The policewoman forces a smile.
“Fine, but anything more and I'm calling my lawyer.” Emily concedes, gets up and walks into the room.

The policewoman shuts the door behind them. Sam, Ashley and I all sit in silence. Ash and I still holding each other's hands. I'm hoping desperately that they find the others. I even pray to every God that there is, despite not being at all religious, that they're all found and safe.

When Mike comes out he looks defeated and exhausted. They instantly escort him out of the room, so we don't conspire or something stupid. Ashley is called in by the policeman that just interviewed Mike. She gives my hand a squeeze and then gets up. I don't let go until she's out of reach. She keeps looking back at me the whole way to the door and then she's gone. My anchor to this world is gone. My thoughts spiral out of control, reliving this nightmare in my mind. I obsess over all the choices I made, over all the choices I was forced to make. I'm forced to relive those moments of sheer terror as the wendigo leapt at me and I had mere seconds to shoot it before it would have ripped me to pieces. One false move and I would have been dead.

“Chris!” I'm suddenly snapped back to reality to find Sam standing in front of me.
“What?”
“You're up.” She gestures to the door where the policewoman is standing waiting for me.

Chapter Text

Sam goes and sits back down. I slowly pull myself up from my chair, wincing slightly at the pain.
I limp over to the door and into a small room with a table and a chair either side of it.
“Please sit down.” The policewoman gestures.
I do as I'm told. I look around the room as she sits down opposite me and opens up a file with a few forms in it. There's a camera in one corner. This seems serious. 

“I am Constable Roberts. I’m just going to get your details from you and then I'd like you to tell me in your own words what happened on Blackwood Mountain tonight. This is a filmed statement and I ask that you please tell me the whole truth.”
I nod. In my own words! Who else's words am I meant to use?
“Full name.”
“Uh... Christopher Hartley.”
It goes on like that for a few minutes, date of birth, address, yadda, yadda, yadda. I'm not really listening, but I answer all the questions.

“Right. Now, can you please tell me, in your own words, what happened on the night of the 30th January 2015?” 
There it is again, that phrase, ‘in your own words', what is she expecting? I sigh, I'm going to have to relive it all again, and there's no avoiding it.
“I-I don’t really know where to begin.” I frown. “I guess- the first thing would be that I came up on the bus and-” I begin.
“Could you please state why you were going to the lodge this week?” Constable Roberts asks without looking up from her papers where she’s jotting down notes.
“Josh-”
“As in Joshua Washington?” She interrupts again.
“Yes.” I nod tersely. “He invited us all up to his parent's lodge-”
“Who would be included in that invite?”
“D-don’t you already know all this?”
“I’d just like to get all the details from you. It’s protocol I’m afraid.” She smiles sympathetically.
“Alright," I sigh, "Ashley, Sam, Mike, Emily, Jessica and Matt. He invited us all up to his parent's lodge for the  ‘annual winter getaway’.”
“And how did you feel about that?”
“Sad doctor.” I pull a sad face.
Constable Roberts does not look impressed. Apparently jokes are not appropriate in a police interview. I probably should have known that.
“Sorry." I gulp "Shocked... I guess? We all were. It's the anniversary of Hannah and Beth's disappearance and he wanted to go back to the place they went missing. That’s a little odd right?”
“And did everyone feel that way?”
“I don’t know... I-it seemed so. Sam and Ash felt it was weird to be back.”
“Did you ever question Josh on his decision?”
“No. He-he seemed really excited and after what he’s been through, I... well, I didn’t want to put a damper on it.”
“Okay now start from the beginning of the night.” She nods for me to start.

I take a deep breath. “I-I came up on the bus and walked to the cable car. I was... meant to be meeting Sam. When I got there she hadn't arrived yet, so I had a look around and found Mr Washington’s shooting range behind the cable car station. Sam arrived and I showed her the shooting range. Shot a couple of cans.”
“Did you have permission from Mr Washington?” Constable Roberts asks.
“Well, no but...” I stammer, “we’d been given free run of the place, so I assumed it would be fine.”
“And did Samantha join in?”
“Nah, she’s like a pacifist or something silly.”
“You think pacifism is silly?”
“N-no... B-but we all make fun of her for her moral high ground all the time.” I shrug uncomfortably.
“Did you see anything strange at this point, see anyone who wasn’t part of the party?”
“I dunno, Sam spotted this ripped wanted poster on the side of the station.”
“And did that worry you?”
“Not really, it was just a little creepy.”  
She gestures for me to continue.

“The cable car was getting near, so we went inside to wait for it. We got on and chatted and then walked up to the house together. Josh, Ashley and Matt, (who was in a bit of a mood), were already there. The lock-”
“Why?” She cuts me off.
“Sorry?”
“Why do you think Matt was in a mood?”
“I think he'd just seen Emily and Mike talking through the telescope or something, it was just a bit of ridiculous drama. Normal when Emily's around.”
“Do you think that might be why Matt left Emily when they were in the mines together?”
“Uh... I don't know... Yeah, maybe... I don't know what was going on inside his head.”
She’s scribbling everything that I'm saying down, it's making me nervous. What if I say something wrong? Or remember something wrong?
“Thank you, continue.”

“Okay, so, the lock was frozen shut. I thought it would be a good idea to break in, see if I could get it open. Josh and I went around the back and I climbed in through a window. Josh came up with the idea to melt the ice with his lighter and a deodorant spray. We used to do it to those little army men when we were younger.”
“I would appreciate it if you stayed on topic.”
“Sorry.” I look down at my lap. “I found some in the bathroom and this rat, wolf thing jumped out at me from the cupboard and ran out of the house when I got the door open.”
“Did anyone else see the animal you're describing?”
“Uh... Yeah... Ashley and Sam and maybe Josh, I don’t know.”
“And do you have any idea how it could have got there?”
“No.” I shake my head and move on “We all got inside and then Jessica and Emily got into an argument, of course. So Josh-”
“Why do you say ‘of course’?”
“There was this drama because Emily used to be Mike’s girlfriend and she and Jessica were pretty good friends until Jessica started going out with Mike after he split with Emily. It's just normal teenage drama.”
“You sure one of them wouldn’t have lashed out over it.”
“Maybe a slap, I don’t know? Nothing serious. Anyway, Josh sent Jessica and Mike off to the guest cabin to stop the fighting.”
“So you don’t think Emily and Jessica would have come across each other again during the night.”
I shake my head.

“So what happened next?”
“I think Emily had forgotten a bag or something like that, so her and Matt went off to find it.”
“Where do you believe they were headed.”
“Didn’t Emily already tell you this?”
“Yes, but I’d like to hear your version.”
I sigh. “I think... They were going back to the cable car or in that direction anyway.”
“And what did the rest of you do?”
“Sam wanted a bath, so she and Josh went off to turn on the hot water. Josh sent Ashley and I off on a hunt for a spirit board that he wanted to play with. He was always doing that.” I smile, saying it more to myself than Constable Roberts.
“Playing with spirit boards?” She looks at me dubiously.
“No, no. He was always getting Ash and me to do things together, trying to set us up.” I sigh, and now he's gone and it's all my fault.

“Let’s continue with your account of the night.”
“Okay. So Ashley and I went in search of the spirit board but couldn’t find it so we split up. Eventually, I found it in the basement, Mr Washington’s got all this cool movie crap down there and I found this really creepy monk costume. It was just the perfect opportunity, I could not resist pranking Josh and Sam. So I put it on and chased them around the basement, making stupid sounds and then I caught them and revealed myself, they got monked!”
I look for a glimmer of laughter from Constable Roberts but it seems she has no sense of humour. And I suddenly feel silly for laughing at my prank after everything that’s happened.

I continue with a more serious tone. “Josh found it funny but Sam thought it was a little juvenile so she went off upstairs for her bath while the rest of us set up the spirit board and got ready to play. Ashley was the medium and we started using it and I’m really not superstitious, I don’t believe in ghosts and all that crap but it was like Hannah was actually talking to us. I guess it was all part of Josh's stupid prank but at the time I didn’t know what to think.”
“Hannah, Josh's sister?”
“Yeah, she said – or I guess in reality Josh made it say we'd find proof in the library.”
The woman raised her eyebrows but didn't say anything.
“Josh got pissed that we were messing with him, which we weren't, and stormed off.”
“But I thought you said it was Josh doing it?”
“Yeah, it was all part of his fucked up prank, he was acting I guess.”
“So did you go to the library?”
“Yeah, Ashley and I did. We found a hidden switch-”
“A hidden switch? What do you think that was doing there.”
“I don’t know, it’s an old building, Josh's dad produces horror films, I guess Josh might have just had it installed to mess with us.”
“That’s a little bit extreme just for a prank don’t you think?”
“You would, but then you look at the lengths that he went to and everything he bought and set up and to be honest it wouldn’t surprise me.”
“So what was inside?”
“It was a picture of Hannah and Beth with a really creepy threatening note on the back, talking about killing them, Josh must have made it and put it there. Ashley and I began to think there was some maniac up on the mountain with us.”
“Were there any other things that were making you feel that way? Like the wanted poster you mentioned?”
“Yeah, we'd found all these clues, there was this note by Mrs Washington and a policeman on the answering machine and Sam had said she felt like she was being followed, other things too. It was all a little bit too neat and convenient now that I think back to it. Too set up, but Ashley and I felt like this maniac was messing with us. Then we heard Josh calling out and Ashley ran to find him and was grabbed, I ran after her but couldn't get the door open and when I did I fell and this man in a mask, Josh, bastard, punched me and knocked me out. When I came to, Ashley and the man were gone so I started looking for her. I found blood and I heard her calling so I followed her voice and ended up in the shed. Oh gosh!” I put my face in my hands thinking back to it, knowing it was fake doesn’t make the memory any easier. “They-they were both tied up and I-I couldn't get to them, I tried, but there was nothing I could do, the door was locked."

I feel like I can't breathe, thinking back to it, thinking back to the choice I made.

"There was a saw going toward them, and I-I had to choose who to save and who to die. They were both screaming at me. I didn't know what to do. I-I told Ashley I'd save her and I took hold of the lever, I didn’t even know what I was going to do. I couldn’t kill my best friend. But before I'd even turned it the voice said 'you have chosen to save Ashley' and the saw went right through Josh and tore him in two. I thought I must have knocked it slightly, I thought I’d killed Josh. The door unlocked and I got Ashley out of there as fast as possible. I didn’t want her to see that.”

I pause for a second, my head reeling. Remembering the sight of Josh sawn in two. The crushing guilt that I thought I’d killed him, the current guilt that the choices I’d made probably had.

“Go on Chris.” Constable Roberts softly encourages.
I gulp. “We-we found Emily and Matt outside and told them what happened. They went to get help while we went to find Sam. We couldn't find her upstairs so we went to look in the basement. Ashley thought she saw a ghost down there and there was a set up in this dolls house of the stupid prank that they all played on Hannah last year, but we also found these... these faked newspapers and some timers and it looked like we were just being messed with by this psycho, it must have all been a part of Josh’s prank. Then we found this dummy in Sam's clothes all tied up and the psycho grabbed me and put this gas thing on my face and I passed out. I woke up tied to a chair.”

I freak out thinking back to waking up opposite Ashley, seeing the fact that he’d hurt her, I wanted to kill him for that.

“Ashley was opposite me and he'd given her a black eye. These saws started whirring above our heads and the voice said... it said I had another choice to make. There was a gun on the table in front of me. I could either shoot Ashley or myself or we would both die. I knew I couldn't hurt Ashley so I put the gun to my chin. She begged me not to but I pulled the trigger and boom. Nothing happened. The psycho appeared and I shot at him. He told me it was filled with blanks while taking off the mask and revealing that it was Josh.”
“I thought you said Josh was sawn in two.”
“Yeah, I thought so, but it turned out to all be an elaborate trick. He’d used a fake body with pig's guts to pretend he was dead.”
“So what happened next?”
“Mike and Sam rushed in and untied us and Sam told us about everything she'd found and how he was planning on putting everything that had happened all over the internet. And then Mike said that Jessica was dead and he hit Josh. We didn't want him to cause any more trouble and we thought the danger was over, it had just been a stupid prank, so... so Mike and I took him outside and tied him up.”
I’m trying very hard to keep it together, this was the choice that meant I lost Josh.
“He-he was talking all kinds of crazy and trying to get us all riled up. He wasn’t well...”
And I left him.
“Mike stayed...”
And I left him.
“And I went back to check on the others. Then Emily burst in screaming like crazy about some monster and Mike rushed in because he heard the screaming. Then there was a knock at the back door and it was this old guy and he told us about this thing called the wendigo that wanted to kill us all.”
“Was it originally him that you thought was stalking you, and messing with you?”
“I guess, I didn’t really know exactly who was stalking us until Josh revealed himself.”
“So what did you think about what he told you?”
“I wasn't sure I believed him, but I was worried about Josh, so I went out with this guy to find him. We found Josh gone and then this monster, this thing, it was skinny with long limbs and sharp claws and teeth and these milky soulless eyes. And it came at us and he held it back with his flamethrower, but, it-it just... cut his head... clean off...”
My voice shakes, I’m not going to cry, I flinch as I hear the sound of his head hitting the snow play through my head again.
"Would you like to take a break?"
"No," I gulp. "H-he'd given me a shotgun so I shot the monster and ran, shot it and ran all the way back to the house, I tripped at one point but kept going and Ashley let me in. We all went down to the basement like the old man had told us to. Ashley and Mike got paranoid about Emily’s bite-”
“What bite?”
“Didn’t you see it when she was in here?” I sigh.
“I want your version of events please, Christopher.”
“When she turned up she had this bite from a wendigo on her shoulder.”
“A wendigo?”
“The monster, that’s what it’s called. So Mike saw the bite, lost it and almost shot her.”
“What do you mean by almost? Did he miss?”
“No... no... he just couldn’t bring himself to do it.” I feel absolutely exhausted recounting all this.
“And what exactly were they paranoid about?”
“That it would be infectious, that she might turn into one.”
“Into one what?”
“Into a wendigo.”

“So did you all stay in the basement?”
I shake my head. “No, Mike went off to find Josh to get the key for the cable car so we could all leave.”
“And the rest of you stayed?”
“For a bit, until Sam found a note in the old man’s journal that made her worried. So we all went off to find Mike together. We went down into the tunnels but there was a bit where we couldn’t go any further.”
“What tunnels?”
“There’s this old hotel under the Washington’s lodge and its linked to the old sanatorium and there are these old mines. I’m not really sure what part we were in.”
“And did you find Mike?”
I shake my head. “No, there was a missing staircase so we couldn’t go on but Sam's good at climbing so she went on while we headed back. It was slow going because I was limping because I’d hurt myself when the wendigo was chasing me but Ashley helped me.”

Yeah, thank God for Ashley, who I would not have survived this night without.

“Please go on.”
Oh, I hadn’t realised I'd stopped talking.
“We got back to the basement and we hadn’t been there for long when we heard noises. I think Ashley called out to see who it was and then we saw them, crawling down the hall toward us and we all just ran.”
“Saw what?”
“The wendigo.” She raises her eyebrows again but motions for me to go on, it’s useless, she doesn’t believe me. I might as well finish now though, I’ve got this far.
“We passed Sam and Mike on our way and yelled at them to run. When we got upstairs we all froze. There was one of them hanging from the chandelier and if it saw one of us move we were as good as dead.”
“Why’s that?”
“The wendigo don’t have great vision, they can only see you if you’re moving.”
“So what did you do?”
“I ran out as soon as I could when they were distracted.”
Coward.
“And one at a time everyone else ran out too. Sam was last and as she came out the house burst into flames behind her, burning the wendigo with the lodge. And then you guys came.”

“And what happened to Josh?”
“The wendigo took him, that’s what Sam told me. I should have looked after him better.” I shake my head.
“What do you mean by that?”
“He was going crazy, completely off his head, and I left him outside with Mike. I should have been trying to look after him, he clearly wasn’t thinking straight.”

“And Matt and Jessica?”
“I don’t know. Probably the wendigo as well.”
“Do you think perhaps something could have happened between Mike and Jessica, maybe they got in a fight, you said he tried to shoot Emily.”
“No.” I shake my head. “Last I knew they were happily off to the guest cabin together.”
“And Matt and Emily, you don’t think Emily could have done something.”
“Jesus! What are you suggesting? Matt’s ten times stronger than Emily. Why are you asking me these questions?”
“We're just trying to get the truth, I’m sorry, but it’s my job to ask these kinds of questions. May I continue?”
I nod reluctantly.

“Could you tell me about the old man you mentioned?”
“The old man... I, er... I don't know how to describe him I mean-”
“You said you thought he was stalking you at first. Did anyone else in your group think that?”
“Well yeah-”
“Is it possible they could have killed him?”
“What? No, no you don't understand. Don't you underst-”
“If he attacked you -”
“He saved my life. And I watched him die.”

I watched him die. I left Josh. And I was no help in saving anyone, I ran out first chance I could, like a coward.

“Do you think you could give a physical description of him?”
“I don’t know, I guess. He was wearing a-a green coat with fur around the hood, I think. He had these weird goggles around his neck and a hat... I don’t remember what it looked like though. He had a flamethrower to keep the wendigo away...”
“Anything else, any distinctive scars or anything.”
I flinch as the vision of his head falling to the ground flashes through my head again.
“He had a scar across one of his eyes, a receding hairline and... I-I can’t remember anything else.”
I might be able to think of more if I tried but I don’t want to think about him anymore.

“Now Chris, is there anything else you’d like to tell me, anything you think you’ve forgotten or maybe something you want to correct?”
“I- I can’t think of anything.” It’s all such a blur. “Are you going to find Josh?”
“We’ll do our best.” She nods. “If you’re happy with everything you’ve told me please sign here and then I’d like to take your fingerprints.” She hands me a pen and points to the paper.
Fingerprints? Why do they need my fingerprints? I haven’t done anything!
“You think one of us hurt Josh, don’t you?” I ask as I sign the paper. “You think we killed the old man. You don’t believe us, any of us.” I say quietly, dejectedly putting the pen down.
“You’ve all clearly been through a lot and we’re just doing our jobs trying to work out what happened and make sure that everyone is safe and upholding the law. Now please press each of your fingers onto the pad and then place them in the correct places on the paper.”

I sigh and get on with it. There’s no use arguing with her, she thinks they’re the good guys. They’re the adults so they have to be right. A bunch of teens turn up on a mountain bloodied and raving about some monster so they must have been drunk or high or just lying because teenagers can never be trusted according to adults in authority.

“Thank you. Now if you'll please follow me.” She gets up and gestures to the door.
I follow her out into the waiting room.
“Jessica! Matt!”

Chapter Text

Jessica and Matt are both sitting in the waiting room. Matt has his elbows on his knees and his head in his hands, he's covered in dirt and his letterman jacket and sweatpants are pretty ripped up. Jessica is curled up, arms wrapped around her torso, eyes closed, head bowed. She's wearing nothing but some kind of mining jacket, she's covered in dirt and blood, she doesn’t even look up. I don't want to begin to imagine what they've been through.

Matt looks up from where he's staring at the floor. He attempts to smile at me but it turns out more of a grimace. 
“Please follow me, Christopher, you'll be able to talk to your friends later.” Constable Roberts insists in a no-nonsense tone.

I turn away from Matt and Jessica and follow Constable Roberts down some corridors and through to another room. It's a very similar small waiting room, but with only one door in and out.  Emily, Mike and Ashley are all sitting in silence. Constable Roberts shuts the door sharply behind me and I hear the clicking of a lock.

“Did you guys see Jess and Matt?” I ask.
Their heads all snap up to look at me.
“What!” Mike jumps to his feet and charges over to the door and hammers on it. “You fucks, she needs a hospital, not a fucking interrogation! Come on, open up and face me, you cowards!”
“They’re not going to listen to you, asshole,” Emily says inspecting her nails.
“Shut the fuck up Emily.” Mike snaps.

I wish Sam were here, she’s good at keeping the peace. I shouldn’t have said that thing about her pacifism.

I leave them to it and limp over to Ashley. She smiles weakly and shifts so I can sit down next to her. She wraps her arms around my arm and holds on tightly. 
“They think we killed him.” She says quietly.
“What if we did?” 
It’s all my fault.
“What?” Ashley looks at me, glassy-eyed.
“I mean, what if our choices, what if my choices, caused this?”
Ashley's grip on my arm gets tighter as she struggles for a reply.
“Oh, I don’t know Chris.” She buries her face in my shoulder.
Crap! Now I’ve upset Ash. Why can’t I do anything right? 

Mike is still hammering on the door. I wish he’d stop, it’s giving me a hell of a headache. He slowly comes to a stop and then defeated, turns to me.
“How was she, did she look okay?”
“I don’t know, she was pretty beat up, she looked absolutely exhausted.”
“Fuck.” Mike gives the door a kick and then throws himself back down into a chair. He crosses his arms and stares at the floor, every now and again glancing at the door and muttering to himself.

We all fall into silence. I keep running the interview in my mind, worried that I’ve given some false piece of information or accidentally implicated an innocent person of a crime that wasn’t even committed. Why couldn’t they just believe us?

After a while, Sam comes in fuming. She doesn’t sit, just starts pacing up and down the room.
“Sam... Are you-” Mike starts.
“I’m fine.” She cuts him off and continues pacing. 

I focus on the feeling of Ashley beside me, to keep myself from reliving the night again. I notice the pace of her breathing, the smell of her perfume mixed with the awful stench of pigs blood that’s covering her clothes. I feel how tightly she’s clinging to my arm. Jesus, she’s probably spiralling as much as I am. She moves her hand and links her fingers with mine. I turn and kiss her forehead softly.
“I’m sorry,” I whisper.
“What for?” She frowns looking up at me.
I shrug, I’m not really sure. “Everything.” I sigh.
For letting Josh go, for watching as that guy died, for being absolutely useless when things got real, for running out of the lodge without her, for not being good enough for her, for being a fucking coward.
“Chris.” She squeezes my hand. “You have nothing to be sorry for.”
I smile at her, it’s nice that she believes that even if I know it’s wrong.

Eventually, Matt and Jessica are brought through. Mike rushes over to Jess and wraps her up in his arms.
“Mike.” She smiles feebly.

“We’ve got a couple of ambulances outside to take you all to the hospital, to get you all checked.” The policeman from earlier, who's entered the room behind them says.
“About time,” Mike mutters.
The policeman shoots him a dirty look. “Come along then.” He gestures for us to follow him.

Mike puts his arms around Jessica and leads her out of the room, slowly, following the policeman. Emily rushes up to Matt.
“Em, thank God you’re alright.” He holds her at arm's length checking her up and down. “Jesus, what happened to your shoulder.”
“That thing, the wendigo, it bit me and then Mike tried to fucking shoot me!”
“He what?”
“He was going to shoot me.”
“But he didn’t.” Ashley butts in.
“Shut up bitch! If you’d had it your way I’d be dead by now.”
“Come on Em, let’s go out to the cars.” Matt puts his arm around her and heads out the door.
Sam walks silently behind them. Ashley helps me up and we slowly follow them.

We're lead outside, where two ambulance cars are waiting. There’s some argument going on. I hold on tightly to Ashley’s hand, suddenly worried that we might get split up.
“Emily if you don’t want to be in a car with Mike just get in the other car,” Sam explains exasperatedly.
“But I wanna be with Matt, he saved me, I trust him.”
“Matt’s already in the front seat of the car with Mike in it, so make a choice, either Mike and Matt, or neither.”
“Fine.” Emily pouts and gets into the front seat of the other car, slamming the door behind her. 

Sam sighs, looks at us and then rolls her eyes in Emily's direction. She gets in the car with the others while Ashley and I get into the back of the one with Emily in it. I sit in the left-hand seat and Ashley slides in next to me, opting for the middle seat so we can stay close. We sit in silence, holding hands all the way to the hospital. I feel Ashley slowly drop off to sleep on my shoulder, we're all exhausted, after all, none of us has slept for like twenty-four hours.

“Hey, idiots!” I wake up with a jolt, Emily has turned around in her seat and is yelling at us. “We’re here.” She gets out the car and slams the door behind her.
“Come on Ash.” I nudge her. 

She groans but follows me as I get out the car. We follow the others inside the hospital. The large, empty, white halls feel sleepy and lethargic, only just waking up. A nurse is there to greet us and takes us all into a small private room and sits us all down. Jess is immediately carted off somewhere and to Mike’s annoyance, he isn’t allowed to go with her. Emily is taken off to get stitches where she was bitten. Then the nurse begins to examine each of us, cleaning and treating cuts, applying ice packs to bumps and bruises. 

After giving Ashley an icepack for her black eye the nurse turns to me.
“And what’s your name?”
“Chris.” I sigh. 
“Can you tell me about any injuries or pain your experiencing?” 
I clutch Ashley’s hand tightly, I don’t want us to be separated.
“I’m fine,” I say flinching as I feel a stabbing sensation in my side.
The nurse raises her eyebrows. “You don’t look fine.”
“Jease, thanks nurse, and here I thought you were giving me the eye.” I joke. 
Ashley rolls her eyes at me.
“Chris.” The nurse says sternly.
“Fine, I’ve got this pain in my chest on this side and I think I twisted my ankle or something.” I cross my arms and flinch at the pain.
“Can I please have a look at your chest, Chris? If that's alright with you.”
“I thought you’d never ask.” I attempt a charming grin as a joke but it turns into more of a grimace as I grit my teeth at the pain as I begin to remove my coat. 

Ashley helps me pull off my coat and then starts to help me with my sweater too, why did I decide to wear so many freaking layers? My chest aches and smarts as each layer comes off, until I'm just in my t-shirt. It's cold in this room, I shiver and then flinch from the pain of the movement, ironically making it even worse. I gently lift up my t-shirt, feeling a little exposed with the whole group there. Well not the whole group, if Josh were here he’d probably make some stupid joke about a strip show. Oh God! Josh! Where are you?

“I can see you’ve got quite a bit of bruising here.” The nurse points to some dark red patches on my chest.
She gently puts out her gloved hand and presses.
“Ow, ow, ow, Jesus nurse, at least warn me before getting rough.”
She gives me a look.
“Okay, okay, I’m sorry, I’ll stop.”
She continues examining my bruised chest, I breathe in sharply every time she touches a tender area. She gets a stethoscope and listens to my breathing for a while, the metal is freezing against my chest.

“Okay, Chris," She straightens, removing the stethoscope. "I believe you have a bruised rib, but just to check it’s not something more serious I’m going to send you for a scan.”
“When?” I ask as I begin pulling my shirt back on.
“Someone will come by to pick you up in a minute.”
I look at Ashley, I don’t want to leave her. There’s a part of me that worries if I let her out of my sight something will happen to her, despite the fact that I know the danger is over.
“Can I go with him?” Ashley asks.
“I’m afraid not, I need to keep you here under observation. Don’t worry he shouldn’t be too long.”
Ashley holds tightly onto my hand and I hold her’s tightly too.

A male nurse enters the room about ten minutes later.
“Christopher Hartley?”
“Yup.” I put my hand up and wince.
“Please come with me.”
I sigh and get up slowly, wincing as I do.
“Would you like some help.” He offers.
“I’ll be okay.” I refuse.
“You better be,” Ashley says seriously.
“I will be.” I nod and follow the nurse out of the room.

I follow him, limping down the corridor and into an elevator. The nurse presses the button and the door close. The elevator is quiet and dark. I feel confined, there’s no escape here. I grip the rail in the elevator tightly. I don’t understand why my chest is tightening and that freaks me out even more. I glance around, for some reason, worried that I'm going to come face to face with white, milky eyes. The elevator stops. The doors open. I let out a breath I didn’t even know I was holding in.

I'm lead into a small room where I'm told I have to put a stupid hospital gown on, which is an absolute plain as all the movement of changing causes a dull throb to rise in my chest. I'm then taken to get a CT scan, it all goes very quickly, but at the same time, I feel like I’ve been away from Ash for far too long. After the CT scan has been done a doctor comes in with the results in his hands.

“Hi Chris, I’m doctor Hudson.” He shakes my hand. “I’ve got good news for you, you don’t have any breaks or fractures just some bruising. So I’ll be prescribing you some pain medication and asking that you rest up a lot over the next few weeks. Be sure to let us know if the pain gets any worse or doesn’t start to fade though.”
“That’s it?”
“That’s it.” Dr Hudson nods.
“Can I get back into my clothes and go back to my friends then?”
“I don’t see why not. Here's that prescription.” He hands me a slip of paper “and please do get touch if your symptoms worsen.”
“Thank you, doctor.” I nod.
“No problem Chris, now if you’ll excuse me I have other patients to see.”
I nod and he leaves.

I limp back to the room where I changed earlier and because of the pain, very slowly get changed back into my own clothes. I put the prescription in my pocket and feel my phone sitting in there. I pull it out and look at it, going on twitter seems kind of trivial right now. I sit there for a minute, wondering if anyone will come to take me back. No one shows up, they’ve probably got more important things to do. I sigh and begin to slowly make my way back to where I came from. I get to the elevator and look at the stairs and then at my ankle, I probably shouldn’t risk the stairs, I'll only hurt myself. But I don’t want that feeling of panic that I had earlier. I take a deep breath and press the button, it will only be a few seconds. The doors open and I get in. As soon as the doors close and the elevator begins to descend I feel the need to run. It feels as if the walls of the elevator are closing in on me. I just breathe and concentrate on getting back to Ashley. I flinch at the memory of the strangers head rolling across the snow. The doors open. I stumble out into the corridor breathing heavily. I stand there for a few moments, recovering, I notice I'm sweating despite the cold. I take some deep breaths and then slowly make my way back to the others, leaning against the walls for support. 

I enter the room where everyone is and am almost knocked off my feet. 
“Chris!” Ashley rams into me, wrapping her arms around me. 
“Ow! Ash, I appreciate the sentiment, but shit that hurt.”
“Sorry.” She releases me, an embarrassed blush creeping up her cheeks, and helps me into a chair.

The nurse turns to me. “What did the doctor decide then?”
“Bruised rib.” I croak, still recovering from the force of Ashley's hug. 
“Just as I thought.” She nods. “Now let’s get some ice on that ankle.”
“Please.”

Chapter Text

After a while, we're all discharged and asked to sit in the cafeteria to wait for our parents, or, emergency contacts, seeing as we aren’t minors anymore. We sit there in silence, holding ice packs and nursing injuries. Emily's back from her stitches, but Jessica’s still being treated. I look around the table, everyone is quiet. Sam is sitting opposite me, her hands balled up into fists, knuckles white, her face looks like it’s set in stone, jaw tensed, eyes hard. Suddenly she stands up.
“I can’t just sit here. I have to go get him. I can’t just... Just leave him there.” She begins to stride away.
Mike springs up and grabs her, catching her by the waist. She struggles against him, trying to kick him away but he withstands her battering and holds on tight.
“Let me go, Mike! I need to...”
“To what? Get yourself killed?" Mike yells "No! You are in no state to go back up that mountain. Now sit down.”
Sam stops struggling, defeated and sits back down. She bows her head and refuses to look at anyone. We all return to silence. 

Emily’s parents arrive first and quickly whisk her away, giving Mike a couple of glares on their way out. I wonder what they've been told? Next, Jessica's parents rush in and are swept off to go see her before Mike, despite his best efforts, manages to talk to them. I wonder what the Washington’s have been told? Do they hate me yet? Matt’s next, he nods to us all and makes a quick exit. I can't stop thinking about Josh, left down in the mines, going completely crazy. Ashley spots her parents from afar and instantly takes off toward them at a run. My hand feels cold without hers, I’d got so used to it being there. I watch as she tearfully embraces them. I sigh and turn back to the silent Sam and Mike. That’s probably the end of it, it was all just fear and adrenaline. Suddenly I feel her lips against my cheek.
“I’ll call you.” She whispers and runs back to her parents.
Did that just happen? If only Josh were here to see this, I wouldn’t even mind his mockery.

We sit in silence for ten more minutes. Mike’s dad storms up to us and roughly pulls him up by one arm.
“What’s this I hear about you causing trouble with the police?” He gives Mike a shake. “What have you done? How are you going to get anywhere with a criminal record?”
“Jeez dad, I didn’t do anything.”
“Didn’t do anything my ass, come on, out to the car!”
Mike sighs and follows him.
“Bye guys.” He nods to us. “Don’t do anything reckless.” He points at Sam.
Like going to get Josh. Poor Josh. Stuck down there. The police didn’t find Hannah or Beth, can we really trust them to find Josh? Would they be able to deal with the wendigo? What’s going to happen now that old guy isn’t there to keep them under control. His head thuds down onto the snow, I feel sick. 

“I can’t stand it, Chris,” Sam says so quietly I wonder if I’m imagining things.
She quickly wipes tears away from her cheeks, that I hadn’t even noticed.
“We left him, down there, all by himself.” She desperately tries to stop herself from crying.
“I know. I-I can’t stop thinking about it.” I nod, clenching my fists.
She takes a deep breath and says resolutely. “I need to go get him. They don’t believe us. I don’t trust them.”
My chest tightens thinking about going back but I know she’s right. I can’t live with the idea of Josh down there, going crazy and turning into a wendigo. I can’t leave him to that fate. And I don't trust the police either. 
“I know Sam. B-but Mike's right. You can't help him like this. Go home, sleep, then get everyone together and maybe a group of us can go get him.”
She sniffs and nods. “You’re probably right.” She sighs.
“I’m always right,” I smirk.
She laughs half-heartedly. “How come you can always make jokes?”
“Joke master.” I remind her, glad that I’m managing to lighten her mood a little, God knows we could both do with a laugh.
She smiles. “Promise that you'll help me find Josh.”
“I promise, we'll have that son of a bitch back in no time.” I hope.

“Samantha?”
“Mom!” she throws her arms around her mom who's just walked up to the table.
“Let’s get you home.” Her mom begins to lead her away.
“Sam,” I call, she turns, “it’s not your fault. Don’t do anything without us.”
She nods and goes with her mom.

I’m left by myself. I put my head in my hands and take deep breaths. I can’t believe this has happened. Any of it. I flinch thinking about the stranger's death again. And groan as the movement hurts my chest. I wish I could just go home by myself and sleep, try to forget about it all.

“Chris?” It's my mom's voice, she gently puts her hand on my back. “Are you okay?”
“Fine.” I nod hoarsely.
“Come on, Annie's in the car.”
“I’m coming.” I pull myself up, trying not to wince and worry her.
I start limping with her toward the exit.
“Are you sure you’re alright?” She raises her eyebrows doubtfully. 
“It’s just a sprained ankle.” I brush it off.
She looks at me worriedly but doesn’t say anything more.

She leads me out to the car. I see Annie sitting in the back, she waves at me excitedly, I make the effort to smile and wave back. I get into the back of the car with her. 
“Hey, nugget.” I grin at her as I strap myself in.
“Hello, Cwis!” She beams. “Have you been naughty?” she whispers loudly.
“No.” I frown.
“Mommy said you were at the powice.”
“Don’t worry nugget, you’re still the naughtiest one here.” I squeeze her cheek
She giggles. “I’m not naughty.”
“All strapped in?” Mom asks.
“Yup.” I nod and she starts the car and begins to leave the hospital car park.

“Mommy, mommy, tell Cwis what I did!”
“Mommy’s busy driving Annie, why don’t you tell him.”
“What did you do nugget?”
“I made a snowman!”
“Oh wow, there’s snow way I believe that!” The pun is lost on her but I don’t mind, she’s taking my mind off, well, everything.
“I did! I did! And I made, I made a snow angle.”
“How many degrees was it?”
“Chris.” Mom chastises.
“Sorry. Tell me about the snowman.”
“He’s really big and his name is Snowy and he's, he's my new best fwiend.”
“What happened to Charlie?”
“Charlie doesn’t have a cawot nose.”
“Is that an important thing for a best friend to have?”
“Yes! You, you should, you should get a snowman and tell, tell Josh to go away.” She giggles.
I gulp. “No need to tell him to go away,” I mutter.
“Huh?”
“I feel a trip from the tickle monster coming.” I reach out and tickle her sides.
She screams and laughs.
“Chris!” Mom chastises again.
“Sorry.” I stop.
“See, you are naughty.” Annie points at me.

I focus on entertaining Annie the whole way home. She's a great distraction, she never stops taking. Chatting with her is a lot easier than trying to process everything that’s happened.

We finally get home and walk through the front door. I take in the house, that at some points over the last twenty-four hours, I thought I would never see again. I feel so relieved to be somewhere safe and familiar.
Mom kneels down and helps Annie take off her coat and shoes. “Annie, why don’t you go upstairs and play with your dolls. Mommy needs to talk to Chris.”
“Okay.” She bounds off up the stairs once she's free of her coat and shoes.
“Mom, I promise, I’m fine.” I try to reassure her, hoping that I can just go upstairs and sleep.
“That’s not what I want to talk to you about.” She gives me a look and I know I’m in trouble.

She takes off her own coat and boots and walks into the lounge, I follow her slowly. I think I’m about to get an earful. I mean, I deserve it, for leaving Josh. But how would she know about that? She shuts the door behinds us and turns to me. 
“Chris, I-I really don’t know what to do with you.” She sighs.
“What?”
“Lying to the police, you know that’s a serious crime, right?” She crosses her arms and frowns at me.
“Who told you that?”
“Someone from the police station rang me and explained everything.”
“I didn’t lie. Why would I lie?”
“You told them there was a monster in the mountains. A monster! Monsters aren’t real. I expect those kinds of fairy tales from Annie, not you.”
“I’m telling the truth!”
“Come on! Whoever you're protecting, or if you did something, we can work this out. We can go back to the police and you can change your statement. I can’t help you if you don’t stop lying.”
“I’m not lying!” I yell.
She jumps.
“I'm not... lying.” I say softly.
She sighs. “Oh, Chris.” She puts her face in her hands. “I hope you know what you're doing.”
“Can I go now?” I ask, irritated.
“Fine.” She sighs and flops onto a chair.
I leave the room and storm up the stairs, slamming my door shut behind me. Why does no one believe us?

I look down at my dirt and blood covered clothes. I need to get rid of them. I never want to wear any of this ever again. I quietly run down to the kitchen and grab a garbage bag, then head back up to my room. I strip off and stuff everything into the bag and chuck it in a corner.

I stink. I can feel a layer of grime and sweat covering my skin. I need a shower to wash away the nightmare. I lock myself in the bathroom and turn the shower on, really hot, hoping to burn away any trace of what happened. I stand under the water for a while letting everything melt away. Then I get a flash of the old man’s head hitting the ground and flinch. I’ll never be able to forget that horrific image.

When I get out the hot shower, the world is spinning slightly, so I sit down and wait for it to stop. Maybe the hot shower wasn’t such a good idea. I leave the bathroom with a towel wrapped around me. I go into my room and get changed into an old t-shirt and some pyjama pants.

“Christopher! Dinner!” Mom calls.
I sigh, I hope I don’t get any more accusations. Hopefully, Annie’s presence will prevent that.

A tense and quiet dinner punctuated by Annie's bubbly ramblings ensues. It’s awkward, but I’m starving, so I shovel food into my mouth and focus on giving Annie all my attention. I ask for permission to leave the table as soon as I’m done but get told off for not bothering to help clear up the table. So Mom takes Annie up to bed while dad and I clear up. I know what’s coming.

“You know you’ve really upset your mother.” Dad sighs.
I don’t say anything. Perhaps I shouldn't have yelled at her. But perhaps she should believe me. 
He sighs again. “Lying to the police is one thing, but lying to your mother, shouting at her. It’s not acceptable. You understand that, don’t you?”
I nod solemnly.
“You know you can tell me if something happened, I'll be on your side.”
What am I meant to do? Lie to make them happy? No. I can’t do that to the others.
“Dad. I-I know you guys don’t believe me, but I promise I’m telling the truth.” I say as earnestly as possible.
Dad sighs and frowns but doesn’t say any more. We finish the dishes in silence and I head up to my room. As I shut the door I hear the beginnings of an argument brewing, caused by me no doubt. I hate myself.

Chapter Text

I hear a buzz. It must be my phone. I look around for it, but can’t find it. Dammit! It’s in my coat pocket. That's uncharictaristic of me, I always have my phone on me, the mountain must have really fucked with my head! I quickly open the bin bag that I chucked all my bloodied clothes into earlier and dig through it until I manage to get it out. Crap! Three missed calls from Ashley. I quickly call her back, she picks up immediately and I hear sobbing on the other end of the phone.
“Oh my God Chris, I'm so glad you called back, I feel like I’m going crazy, my parents and last night and the wendigo and Josh and everything’s so messed up!”
“Hey Ash, Ash, slow down, breathe, just breathe with me, Ash,” I say getting her to take deep breaths.
My phone beeps at me.
“Damn.”
“What is it?”
“Low battery. How about I Skype you?”
“Okay.”
“Hold on a sec, I'll just turn my laptop on.”

I sit down at my desk and open up my laptop.
She’s gone quiet. “Still breathing for me Ash?”
“Uh-huh.”
I hold the phone with my shoulder and quickly type in my password. I open up Skype.
“I can’t see you online Ash.”
“Give me a sec.” I can still hear the remnants of tears in her voice.
“Ah, there you are.” I click 'call'.
Within seconds she’s answered and has popped up on screen. It’s dark in her room, she’s only got the desk light on. Her face is tear-stained, her black eye is a mess of blues and purples and she looks miserable. She’s put on a different beanie, this one a dark green.

“Is that my sweater?” I frown, noticing the familiar burgundy knitted sweater.
“What?” She looks down and wipes away some tears with the sleeve. “Oh, yeah. You left it here after studying once.”
“You know, that doesn’t mean it’s yours.”
“I was gonna give it back, but, it’s just so comfy.”
“Sure you were.”
“Anyway, finders keepers, losers weepers.”  
“Hey, you’re the one who’s weeping here.” I sigh, bad joke. “What’s up, Ash?”
She begins to look tearful again.
“I can’t stop thinking about it all, thinking about Josh, about how I stabbed him. I stabbed him, Chris! I mean... I didn’t know it was him. But what if he’s really hurt because of me?”
“Ash, I think you stabbing him with a pair of scissors is the least of his troubles right now.”
“And-and when I got home my parents interrogated me and went on and on about lying. They made me retell them everything. And they still don’t believe me and all I could do was cry and now they think I’m protecting someone or something like that and-and I don’t know what to do.” She bursts into tears again.
“Hey, hey, Ash, remember what I said about breathing.”
She nods and tries to calm herself down again.
We know what happened. We'll stick together. Alright?”
“But what if someone starts lying or if Emily told them about how I encouraged Mike to-to...”
“Ash, you didn’t know, you were scared, we all were.”
“God Chris, I can’t stop thinking about the wendigo, I keep expecting to turn around and see it.” She shivers.
“I know what you mean.” I automatically glance behind me and shake my head when I catch myself doing it.
“I’m sorry, you’re probably freaking out too and I’m just going on about me. You must be really worried about Josh.”
“I am, but your the one that needs some TLC right now, not me.”
“Chris?”
“Yeah.”
“Will you stay with me until I can get to sleep.”
“Of course.”
“Thank you. Sorry for being a pain.”
“You could never be a pain to me, Ash.”
She smiles shyly.
“I’m going to get into bed now.” She says taking off her beanie and removing my jumper then turning off the desk lamp.

The camera moves and in the darkness, I can just about see her face against the pillow, lit up by the screen.
She sighs, “I'm sorry that you had to make those choices. Between me and Josh, I mean, Josh is your best friend! And then between me and you... I can’t believe you would do that.”
“I care about you Ash, a lot, evidently.”
“Oh God, it’s all my fault, that stupid prank we played on Hannah, that caused all this, I could have said something, I could have tried to stop it!”
“Ash, thinking about this isn’t going to help you sleep, it’s just going to tear you apart. So why don’t we talk about something else? Like... Tell me about the book your reading at the moment.”
“I already told you about it the other day.” She sighs.
“Well tell me again. Pretend I’m a numskull that’s already forgotten.”
“I don’t exactly need to pretend you’re a numskull.”
“Thank you, thank you very much. Now tell me about the book.”
“Okay.” She sniffs.
She tells me about the book she’s reading and she’s right, she has already told me about it, but it works and she slowly gets sleepier and sleepier and then drops off midway through a sentence.

I look at the clock in the corner of my screen. It’s probably about time I get to bed too. I take my glasses off and position my laptop on the side of my desk so I can easily see and reach it from my bed. I don’t want to hang up on Ashley in case she wakes up and wonders where I've gone.

I lie in bed trying to sleep but every time I close my eyes I see another horror from last night. The old man, blood spurting from his neck, his head thudding onto the snow and rolling to a stop. The wendigo, coming right at me, shooting at it over and over again. Josh talking crazy shit and the way I was angry at him when I should have been looking after him. I knew he wouldn’t have hurt Jess. Seeing Josh ripped in two by that saw, I know it wasn’t real but it doesn’t lessen the horror of the memory. While these things flash through my mind light begins to creep in through my bedroom window and I hear the birds starting to wake up, it's dawn again and I very much doubt I’m going to get any sleep.

Chapter Text

I jolt awake, the image of the wendigo still plastered to the back of my eyelids. I take a few deep breaths. I'm safe. Everyone is safe. Apart from Josh. Fuck! Josh! What am I going to do about you? I wipe my face, trying to get rid of the lingering image of those milky white eyes. I'm drenched in my own sweat. I reach for my glasses, my hand shaking. I move my hand across the desk, searching for them. Fuck! Why am I so blind? My heart starts beating faster. I don't know why I suddenly feel panicked, but the fact that I can't see the room is making me nervous. I quicken my search. As my hand finds my glasses I manage to make them go spinning across my desk and onto the floor.
"Crap!" I dive on to the floor and grab them. 
I shove them onto my face and frantically look around the room revealing that it's dark and empty. I sit on my floor, panting slightly and let out a sigh of relief. What is wrong with me?

I pick myself up off the floor, standing up slowly, testing out my ankle, it’s still a little tender but a lot better than yesterday. My chest, on the other hand, feels like it’s on fire, I really need to pick up that prescription. I look at the clock. I groan; I’ve only been asleep for half an hour.

I sit down at my desk and turn my laptop toward me from where I left it last night. The Skype call has ended. Thank God! What would I have done if Ashley had witnessed me freaking out because I can't fuckin' see anything? I feel like such an idiot, I'm going mad. There’s a message from her.

Sleep well xx

I wish.

I sigh, close my laptop and head for the shower. I know I showered last night but I'm covered in a layer of sweat and feel like the mountain is still clinging to my skin. I roughly scrub the soap in, hoping to rid myself of any trace of the mountain, of the nightmares. I scrub until I'm red and raw and I still feel haunted. The unknown space behind the shower curtain makes me jittery. I keep checking that there's nothing there every five minutes. Sticking my head out of the steam and into the cold bathroom to reveal nothing but the fact that I'm going absolutely crazy. 

I groan as I get out the shower, my chest smarting, my head aching. I feel completely drained of energy. I wrap a towel around my waist and head downstairs slowly, my chest twinging at every other step. I get myself a cup of coffee and sit, slowly sipping it, letting my body soak up the caffeine, waking me up a little. I look out at the snow-covered sidewalk.

I'm following a trail of blood through the snow. The scarlet colour standing out against the bright white. The wind carries bone-chilling screams to my ears. I pick up my pace.

A person trudges past, making a crunching sound in the snow, jerking me back to reality. I turn away from the window and take a deep breath. Ashley is safe and alive, that was not her blood. Calm the fuck down Chris! I finish my coffee and wash up my mug, breathing in and out slowly as I do, trying to calm myself down. I keep having to tell myself that I'm safe, that there is not a murderous, cannibalistic monster behind me. I quickly glance over my shoulder at the empty kitchen. What is wrong with me? 

I head upstairs and into my dark bedroom. I open the curtains, letting light spill into the room. I rub my eyes, feeling a little better now that the coffee is sinking in. I grab my phone from where I put it onto charge last night. There’s a message from Sam on the group chat.

lunch at hortons, 12, need to talk

No one’s replied yet. I frown. I promised to help her. Oh God! That means going back. I feel sick. But I promised, so I should respond.

i'll be there

I start grabbing clothes to wear off the floor, not really caring what I pick up. My phone buzzes as I pull on jeans.

Ash
me too

Just as I’m about to message her, she gets there first.

Ash

bus?

sure

see you there at 11:30

I check the clock. It’s 11, plenty of time.

see you there

I finish getting dressed and then sit scrolling through social media, my jaw tensed as I keep getting flashes of the horrors of the mountain. I desperately try to focus on my phone and watch as one by one the others confirm they’re coming.

When I next check the clock it’s 11:29.
“Shit!” I jump up.
I shove my phone and wallet into my pockets and run downstairs. I hurriedly pull my shoes and coat on, grab keys, run out the door and down the road.

When I arrive at the bus stop breathless, Ashley is already there. Crap that hurt, my chest is throbbing.
“You’re late.” She accuses.
“No shit Sherlock,” I say breathlessly.
She smiles faintly. I look at her, she’s wearing skin-tight jeans. Damn.
“What?” She notices me looking at her.
“N-nothing.” I quickly say, averting my eyes. “Did you sleep alright?”
“Yes, thank you. Sorry for keeping you up.”
“Don’t worry about it. I didn’t manage to sleep anyway.” I shrug.

I feel awkward. I desperately want to take her hand in mine or wrap her up in my arms or kiss her and touch her ass in those jeans. I shove my hands in my coat pockets, not knowing what else to do with them. I know we had a couple of moments, but... I just can’t tell where I stand. What if it was just the horror of that night that scared her into my arms? Just some kind of traumatic bonding? She sighs and looks away. Damn it! What did I do? Was I looking at her legs again?

“Chris?”
I spot the bus coming down the road and wave it down. “What is it, Ash?”
“Never mind.”

The bus pulls up, we get on and find seats. Ashley sits next to the window and stares out of it, I sit down next to her. The bus backfires as it starts, I flinch, there's a heavy gun weighing down my arms and a wendigo leaping toward me. The bus pulls away, jolting me forward and back to reality. Pain stabs through my chest as I attempt to settle back into my seat.  
“You alright?” Ashley asks.
I nod, feeling a little shaken. Oh God, Josh, I can’t we left you down there with those things.

Ashley and I spend the bus journey in silence, which is a little unusual for us but I guess considering the circumstances not wholly unexpected. I keep my hands balled up into fists in my pockets, flinching at the slightest noise. I try to stop myself, I don't want Ash to see how crazy I'm going but I just can’t stop reliving it all. 

We get off outside Hortons. I peer inside as we walk up to the door. I think I see Sam. She’s sitting at the usual table.

We walk inside. Sam's not looking great. She's hunched up and wearing a dark coloured sweater, hood pulled up, obscuring part of her face. Her elbows are resting on the table, fists clenched, knuckles white. 
“Hey Sam,” I say tentatively, walking up to the table and sitting down next to her.
Ashley sits down too.
“Hey,” Sam says hoarsely.
Her eyes are red and her face is gaunt, she looks like she hasn’t slept. She looks about as bad as I feel. I glance at her balled up fists, she's shaking slightly. She notices me looking and pulls her arms off the table, shoving her hands in her pockets. 

"Heya guys!" 
Mike's arrived and he sits down on Sam’s other side.
“Any news on Jess?” Sam asks.
“Still at the hospital, they want to keep her under observation for a couple of days.”

I yawn, I really need another coffee.
“I’m gonna grab a drink, anyone want anything? Ash?”
"Yes please," Ashley says. 
I look at the others, they shake their heads.
“The usual?” I ask Ash. 
She nods.

I walk up to the counter, pulling my wallet out of my pocket.
“One coffee and one white hot chocolate please.” I hand over $10 and wait for change.
The server hands me my change and asks me to wait for my drinks. I get out my phone and check Twitter while I’m waiting, trying to distract myself from thinking about the wendigo and the old man and Josh and Hannah and Beth.

“Original blend and white hot chocolate.” A server calls out. I jump.
I shove my phone in my pocket and pick up the drinks, the server gives me an odd look. I head back to the table, I must look like a crazy person, jumping at nothing.

Matt and Emily have arrived. I sit down and hand Ash her hot chocolate.
“Thanks.” She takes it gratefully.

“So why have you dragged us all down to this place.” Emily looks around disapprovingly.
“Oh come on Em. We used to eat here all the time!” Mike reminds her.
“Can someone tell that asshole that I don’t talk to people who try to shoot me!” Emily crosses her arms.
We all stay quiet.

Mike sighs and turns to Sam “You said we needed to talk.”
“I... I’m going back.” Sam stutters out. 
“What!” Everyone but me exclaims.
“I have to try to find Josh. I can’t wait for the police. I don’t trust them after... after Hannah and Beth. I-I feel responsible for leaving him down there.”
“You're crazy Sam!” Matt says. “Look Em and I spent plenty of time down there and trust me you should not be going back.”
“I don’t care what you think." Sam shakes her head calmly. "You can’t stop me. I'm going and Chris has agreed to come with me.”
“Chris!” Everyone turns to me.
I cringe. “Look... I agree with Sam. I'm-I'm supposed to be his best friend. I should have looked after him. The idea of him down there alone is driving me crazy.”
“None of you have to have anything to do with it.” Sam quickly adds. “I... I just wanted to let you all know, just in case anyone else would come.” She looks down at her lap.

Mike sighs. “Fuck it. I’m in, I’m the one that was supposed to get him out of there.”
“Well, I am not going back to that hell hole!” Emily announces.
“That’s fine Em-” Sam begins to say.
Emily cuts her off “And you’re all lunatics. May I remind you, that Josh was messing with us all, like in a really fucked up way. Leave him for the police to find.”
“Shut up Emily.” Sam suddenly barks out
Emily does so. We’re all quiet. Sam doesn’t usually snap like that.

“I’ll come,” Ashley says quietly.
No!
“Ash, you don't-” I start.
“I want to." She interrupts. "Besides, who's going to look after you if I don’t?” She punches me playfully.
No! No! No! Fuck! Ash, I can’t lose you too. But I can already tell I’m not going to convince her out of this.

“Fine, I’m in too. You guys might need some muscle.” Matt agrees.
“But before we go barging in there guns ablaze we need a plan.” Mike reminds us.
“Well you can all plot your deaths but I’m going to go and get some retail therapy.” Emily stands up. “Let me know when you’ve all come to your senses.” She stalks out of the building.

She has a point. This is insane. I sort of wish I could follow her. I wish Ashley would. I want to yell at the others to save themselves. I'm going to be an idiot and go after Josh no matter what, but it seems ridiculous for us all to 'plot our deaths' as Emily put it. This is proof that she's the sanest one here. 

Mike shakes his head. “How’re we going to do this then? We need to kill this fucker.”
How are we going to do this? It's not like you can just do a google search for 'how to save a friend from a wendigo lair', it always feels like wikihow has a guide for literally everything but the thing you need. Not that wikihow guides are particularly reliable. I did kind of get a quick crash course on the wendigo from the old man, what was it he said? 
“Well, the old man...” I gulp when I can’t shake the picture of his head thudding down onto the ground, blood seeping out into the snow.
“Yes, Chris.” Sam's voice brings me out of it.
I take a deep breath “The old man said they’re scared of fire, hence the flamethrower. Guns'll just slow them down.”  
“Shotguns.” Ashley corrects and then looks away nervously when we all turn to her, she fiddles with her hands in her lap and quietly adds, “I read it in the old man’s journal.”
“Did it say anything else helpful?” Mike asks hopefully. 
“Chris is right," she nods, "it said a flamethrower is your best weapon against them.”
“Yes! Let’s burn those sons of bitches into oblivion.” Mike grins.
“No!" Ashley says quickly. "The journal said that releases the spirit, that the best thing to do is contain them. That’s what he was doing... in the sanatorium,” she explains.

“Guys, guys!" Sam cuts in. "You’re forgetting the most important thing here.” She looks at all of us expectantly... “Josh! How are we going to find him and get him out.”
“Sam’s right.” I agree. “How are we going to even get up there without the cable car? I doubt any of you have a helicopter just lying around.”
“Actually.” Sam gulps. “I still have the cable car key from when Josh gave it to me.”

Chapter Text

Several cups of coffee later, trying to distract myself from exhaustion and the images that keep assaulting my mind, and well into the afternoon, we have a plan. This evening we’ll get kitted up with everything we can find in our parent's houses and then meet on the last bus to Blackwood Pines. It's not the most solid of plans, we could probably all do with several more days of rest and to gather the appropriate weapons for the mountain but I think if we waited that long Sam would just go without us. To be honest I'm pretty impatient to get Josh out of that hell hole as well. At least it's a plan. 

At three everyone heads off. Ashley says she needs the toilet so I wait for her. Sam comes up to me.
“Chris?”
“Mmm.”
“Has something happened between you and Ashley? You seemed unusually quiet with each other.”
“No, I mean... I-I don’t think so.”
“Oh God, you’re not Chrising everything up again?”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“I thought you’d finally managed to confess your feelings.”
“Pft-pft... w-what feelings?”
“Chris?” Sam gives me a look.
I sigh. “I don’t know. What if it was just a thing of the moment? What if she's realised what an idiot I am in the light of day?”
“She already knows you’re an idiot! We all do! And she likes you, so don’t screw it up, Josh will be very disappointed with you if you do.” Sam warns.
“Are you doing okay Sam?” I ask, concerned.
“I will be, once we've got Josh.” She notices my worried expression and forces a smile. “Don’t worry about me, Chris. I’m a big girl. I can tie my own shoelaces and everything.” She gives me a playful punch.

I notice Ashley walking across the room toward us.
“Ready to go?” I ask.
She nods.
“Well, I’ll leave you two lovebirds alone.” Sam grins.
Ashley goes bright red, I stutter.
“Don’t Chris it up.” Sam points a finger at me as she goes out the door.
“What does that mean?” Ashley frowns.
“I do not know. Let’s go score a try catching that bus.” I open the door for her and we walk out into the cold.
“I’m not sure that’s how it works.” Ashley raises an eyebrow and begins heading toward the bus stop.
“You mean, I’ll never fulfil my dream of becoming a college footballer, you’re crushing me, Ash.” I put my hands over my heart.
“I think you'll get over it.” She smirks.
“No! Never! This will always be known as the day that Ashley Brown crushed my dreams.”
“You’re such a drama queen.” She rolls her eyes.

We walk over to the bus stop. Ash perches on the end of the bench, I sit myself down next to her, resting my hands on the bench either side of me. My hand touches something warm, I look and find I've accidentally placed it over Ashley's! Crap! 
“Oh, s-sorry.” I quickly remove my hand from hers.
“It's alright.” She smiles warmly at me.
Argh, I really wish I had the nerve to kiss her right now.
“Have you heard the one about the guy who got addicted to brake fluid?” 
Ashley sighs “No.”
“Don’t worry, he says he can stop any time.” I grin.
“Please let the bus hit me.” Ashley groans.
“Oh come on, it wasn’t that bad.”
“It really was.”
“Bet you don’t want to hear the one about pizza.”
“Is it a little cheesy?”
“Ah... used that one before?”
She nods. “You’re really not on top form today.”
I wonder why? Sarcasm intended! I shrug, grinning awkwardly. 

“Here's the bus.” She gets up and puts her hand out. “You coming?” She turns to me, still sitting on the bench.
“Yup.” I pull myself up slowly, trying to avoid hurting my chest and get on the bus with her.

“You want to come round mine for a bit? Watch a film or something, before we... you know... go back?” She asks once we're seated, nervously playing with a strand of her hair.
“Oh... uh... yeah... sounds like a great idea. But I... uh... need to pick up a prescription first... um... for my chest.”
“Oh okay... No scary movies though. The last one we watched with Josh was awful, I had to sleep with the lights on!”
I sigh, it had been another one of Josh's plots to get us together, he wanted to scare her into my arms, didn’t work, especially because he was there. Idiot! I miss him.
“Wasn’t going to suggest it. I don’t think I’m up for anything like that anyway.”
“I know what you mean.” She mumbles.
I want to take her hand and reassure her or put my arm rounder her and pull her close but... I don't know... Sam’s right, I am Chrising things up. Whatever that means.

We stop off in town and pick up my prescription then head back to Ashley’s. We get off the bus and slowly amble toward her house, it's not far but we walk so slowly it takes longer than it should. We walk up the garden path which has been neatly cleared of snow. Ashley fumbles with her keys as she unlocks the door. I cheer once she manages to open it and she rolls her eyes at me. We hurry in out of the cold, discarding coats and shoes and then head into the living room.

“What shall we watch then?” I ask crouching down in front of the shelves of DVDs and Blu-rays, the Browns really need to go digital.
“I dunno, you want a drink.” She says heading toward the kitchen. 
“Yes darling, I’m dying for a cherry.” I joke in a stupid accent, grinning at her.
She rolls her eyes, “I’ll take that as a no.”
“Coffee,” I call out to her as she disappears into the kitchen.
“It’s too late now.” She calls back.

I browse the Brown's film collection as I have many times before.
“How about we just shove on some Friends, that's easy watching.” 
“Sure,” she calls from the kitchen, “season-.”
“Five.” We both say simultaneously.
“Can you get it all set up please.”

I pull the boxset out from where it's sitting on the shelves and take the season five box out. I turn on the TV and Blu-ray player and get it all going then sit down on the couch. Ashley comes in with a mug of coffee for me and tea for herself. She puts my mug down on a coaster in front of me.
“You are an angel sent from above.” I beam at her.
“Shut up.” She plops down next to me and starts to make herself comfortable, this always takes a while.

When she’s done I raise my eyebrows at her and say. “Ready?”
“Just play the damn show.”
“Alright your highness.” I laugh and press play.

We sit quietly and watch the show but inside I’m going insane. I can't believe we're going to go back. This is absolute madness. I keep seeing it all again. The saw and Josh sawed in half, guts trailing out from his torso. Sitting opposite Ash, in a dark room, saws whirring above our heads, the heavy, cold metal of a gun in my hand. I keep seeing his head rolling across the snow. Oh God, I can’t take it anymore, I’m going to throw up. I jump up and dash to the downstairs bathroom. Glad that I know the layout of Ashley's house as well as my own. I make it to the toilet and throw up. I sit there, leaning my forehead against the toilet, gulping in air.

There’s a timid knock on the door. 
“Chris? Are you alright?” Ashley's muffled voice drifts into the bathroom. 
I sigh, reach out and flush the toilet, then pull myself up off the floor.
“I’m fine,” I call out, she doesn’t need to see this.
I turn the tap on and begin washing out my mouth.
“Can I... can I come in?” She asks timidly.
I look at my reflection in the mirror and spit out some water into the sink, I'm a mess.
“I guess?” I say uncertainly. 

The door opens a little and Ashley squeezes into the small downstairs bathroom. She's close, I can smell her perfume. I must smell like shit.

“Chris, you know it’s okay, to be freaked out by everything that happened. You don’t have to hide it from me. I want to be there for you like you always are for me.”

I look at her through the reflection in the mirror. She's watching me, her big beautiful green eyes full of concern. I chose her over Josh. In fact, I was too cowardly to actually choose, I said I'd choose her and then stood there, hand on the lever, frozen. I'm sorry Josh, what kind of best friend am I? And now he might be dead and it’s my fault. I can’t help it, I just burst into tears, sobbing into the sink. I don't want to go back, what if I mess up again? What if I make things worse? Ashley takes a step closer and puts her hand on my shoulder. I turn toward her and she wraps her arms around me. I bury my face in her shoulder and cry. Nothing's ever going to happen between us now, she must think I’m so pathetic. And I am, I was too pathetic and cowardly to save Josh or the stranger or anyone, I didn’t save anyone. I’m the one who should be down there, I’m the one that deserves it.

I slowly calm down, breathing in Ashley's calm presence as she gently strokes her hand through my hair. I take a deep breath and begin to stand up straight again but Ashley catches me just as our faces are level, inches apart. She gulps nervously, licking her lips. Then she slowly leans in and tenderly kisses me. I'm a little taken aback for a second but it doesn't take me long to kiss her back. Her lips are soft and gentle. Then she pulls away and leans her forehead against mine. She takes hold of my hands.
“You're not alone Chris.” She whispers. “I’m here.”

I sigh, thank God she’s here! I really hope my breath doesn’t smell too much of vomit. What if this is just pity? What if she just feels sorry for me? Am I Chrising things up again?

She leans away, releasing me from the spell she has me under.
“Shall we finish that episode and then you should probably head off so we can both get ready.” 
I nod.
“Come on then.” She grabs my wrist and pulls me back into the living room.

We sit back down on the sofa and Ashley does her normal burrowing. She cuddles up to me, her arms wrapped around one of mine. I can feel her body heat pressed up against me as she leans her head against my shoulder. I sigh and let myself relax, enjoying the comfort of having Ashley so close. 

The episode ends and I turn off the TV. We sit there for a couple of very long seconds, not wanting to move.
“I suppose I should go home and... get ready,” I say not moving.
“Mmhm.” She nods also not making any indication of getting up soon or of releasing my arm.

We finally move when we hear the sound of the key in the lock. Both slowly getting to our feet.
“Hello, Ashley.” Mrs Brown calls.
“Hi, mom,” Ashley calls back.
“Hi, Mrs Brown,” I call so she knows I’m here.
“Hello, Chris.” She says coming into the living room, she gives Ashley a little frown. “Will you be staying for dinner?”
“No, thank you, Mrs Brown, I was just about to leave actually.”
“Some other time then.” She nods curtly.
“I’ll see you out,” Ashley says quickly and leads the way toward the front door, I follow.

I pull my shoes on and shove on my coat.
“Well,” I swing my arms awkwardly by my sides, “see you... later.”
“Yup.” She nods, looking nervous.

I should really kiss her goodbye. But what if I still smell of vomit? What if her mom sees? We'd both be so dead. What if she doesn’t want to kiss me? What if I make things really awkward? I could just kiss her cheek, yes, cheek kiss is probably safe. While I’m thinking all this she’s opened the door and is waiting for me to leave. Just do it, Chris!

“Goodbye.” I lean in and quickly peck her cheek before I lose my nerve.
She smiles, a slight pinkness rising to her cheeks. I turn and begin to walk down the path. She gives me a little wave and then shuts the door.

I walk home feeling I’ve achieved something, although Josh would probably be laughing at me right now. But now is not the time to think about Ashley. Now it's time to get ready to go back to the place where I've spent the worst two nights of my life. It's time to get ready to go back to Blackwood Pines. 

Chapter Text

I get home. Annie is in her room playing and mom is in the kitchen cooking. A perfect time to gather most of what I’ll need. I know my dad has a shotgun somewhere in case of grizzlies but I'm not sure where. I’ll have to go on a hunt for it. What else might be useful? I wonder if we’ve got any rope lying around.

I run upstairs to my room and grab a backpack. I look around, surely some of my tech from over the years must be useful. I know! How about those walkie talkies I used when I was a kid. I get down on my hands and knees and search for them under my bed. I find them and put new batteries in them. I test them out. They still work! I chuck them in my bag, along with a little robot toy, I figure since it moves it might be a useful distraction. I also put an extra sweater and hat in for Josh because he’s probably freezing down there. My torch goes into the bag next. That’s all I can think of at the moment.

Now, to find that shotgun and maybe some rope. My best guess is that the shotgun is in my parent's room.

I tiptoe out onto the landing and listen. Mom is still busy with dinner and dad’s not home yet. Annie's door is shut. I quickly and quietly dash into my parent's room. I gently shut the door behind me, flinching as it squeaks and trying not to make a sound as the handle clicks into place. I let out a small sigh and turn to survey my parent's room. Where would my dad keep a shotgun? I begin my search, starting with under the bed. Nothing there. Next, I rifle through the wardrobe and dresser, trying my best not to mess anything up, I don't want to leave behind a trail that gets me caught. It’s not in the wardrobe. As I search the bottom drawer of the dresser I find some ammo tucked away at the back behind some socks. I pocket the ammo, knowing that it means the shotgun must be somewhere around here. I look around the room once more, and then back at the dresser. There really aren't that many places to hide a shotgun in this room. Hmm, maybe... I crouch down and stick my hand under the dresser, feeling along the bottom... Bingo! It’s been stuck to the bottom of the dresser. I unstick it and pull it out. It weighs heavy in my hands. I really hope I don’t have to use it.

I quietly sneak back out of my parent's room and slip into my own. I lift up the corner of my comforter and stuff the shotgun under it, to hide it, just in case mom or dad come nosing.

Now rope. Guess we might have some in the attic. I leave my room, quietly closing the door behind me. I look up at the small hatch in the ceiling of the hallway. I jump back as it opens and two long, boney limbs slink out of the darkness. I shake my head, all that's up there are old boxes. Determined, I march to the corner of the hall and grab the pole. I reach it up and open up the attic. The ladder rattles and clanks loudly as I pull it down.

“Chris, what are you doing up there?” Mom calls.
Crap! Quick, come up with an excuse...
“Feeling nostalgic, was gonna get some albums down, is that okay?”
“Sure.” She replies.
I breathe out a sigh of relief, she bought it. 

I take a deep breath and climb up into the darkness of the attic. It’s a little too reminiscent of those tunnels for my liking. I quickly reach up, my heart hammering against my chest, expecting to see milky eyes and sharp teeth when the light comes on. I pull on the string and it lights up a perfectly normal, box filled attic. I let out a sigh of relief. I climb in and start crawling around searching for rope and I guess I should also bring a few albums down for proof. I find the albums easily enough, the box is labelled clearly, obviously, we do not have enough rope to warrant a 'rope' box. Eventually, I find a good long piece along with a load of old camping equipment. I search through it all to see if any of it might be useful but don’t find anything.

I leave the attic armed with the rope and albums. I reach up again and pull on the string, plunging the attic back into darkness. I hold on tightly to the ladder as the image of claws and teeth leaping toward me fills my vision again. I take a deep, ragged breath and quickly begin to climb down the ladder, putting as much distance between me and the darkness as possible. When I get to the bottom I put down the rope and albums and quickly shut the attic back up, wishing I could leave all my memories from two nights ago locked up in a box up there. I pick my bundle of ropes and albums back up and head back into my room. I put the rope in my bag and the albums on my desk.

I go into the bathroom, open the medicine cabinet and grab the first aid kit, I hope no-one needs it while I'm away. I look around the rest of the bathroom for ideas. I spot a spray deodorant can. Hmm, what if I could create some kind of mini flamethrower? I'd need a small hose, a lighter, and to create some kind of trigger mechanism that would press both the spray can and the lighter. Sounds like a fun science project. I shrug and grab a couple of brand new spray cans.

I go into my room and pull my tray of random bits and pieces from past science projects out from under my bed and begin rifling through it for useful materials. I look up flamethrower designs online for inspiration.

“Chris! Annie! Dinner's ready.”

I sigh, my homemade flamethrower will have to wait.

I run downstairs and sit down at the dining room table. Mom turns around and jumps, surprised to find I’ve got there so quickly. I try to act as normal and amiable as possible during dinner so that my parents don’t suspect anything. Although, I do get told off for eating too fast, which I was doing because I’m so keen to get back to my flamethrower. As soon as I’m done I ask to be excused, I'm tutted at for being unhelpful but am let go. I sprint back up the stairs, into my room and sit down to get to work.

A couple of hours later and I have what I hope is a fully functioning small flamethrower. I used the spray cans, a blow torch I 'borrowed' from my dad’s array of tools that sit unused in the garage (because the lighter didn’t work), various tubes and piping and of course some nozzles and leavers. I’m not sure where will be a good place to test it, I’ve tested all the attachments I’ve made and it’s all pretty secure, I guess it will have to wait until we’re up there. I pack it safely into my backpack.

I look at the clock, after spending so much time on the flamethrower it’s almost time to go. I pull on my walking boots, get my coat out from the bin bag that I had left it in and put that on too, I don't want to destroy another coat. I decide to grab a bandana and gloves as well for protection from the flamethrower.

I make sure to make the usual bathroom noises, tap, flush etc. So my parents think I’m going to bed. I then shut my door and put my backpack on and sling the shotgun around my shoulder.

I open my window and look down. I am not a good climber. This will probably hurt. I decide it’s probably best to gently lower my backpack and the gun down first, so that I don't damage anything. I take a piece of rope out of the bag and securely tie up my backpack and shotgun. I watch as I slowly lower them down onto the ground, and try not to think about the fact that I'm going to have to make the same descent. Once my belongings are safely on the ground I take a deep breath and sit down on the window sill, lifting first one leg out and then the other. Hmm. How am I going to do this? I can’t just jump, that’s a good way to break your ankles and kneecaps. 

Okay. I lower myself down reaching out with my feet until one of them finds the garden fence. I wish I lived in a bungalow. Now what? I hadn’t thought past this. Crap! My arms aren’t going to last long. Wait! I think I can reach the trash can with my other foot if I just let go with one of my- Ahhhh!

Crap! That hurt! And it was loud. I lie there for a few seconds amongst the spilt trash praying that my parents didn’t hear. There’s no sign of movement in the house. I slowly stretch out my limbs, checking for injuries. It would seem I’m fine, although my chest is a bit achy seeing as my bruised ribs are still healing and jumping out of a window probably hasn't helped. I sigh and pick myself up. I put the trash can to rights, don’t want to attract any scavengers, and then pick up my kit, rolling up the rope and putting it back in my bag.

I quietly open the garden gate and slip out onto the street leaving my house and family behind. I put my hood up and quickly walk down the dark road in the direction of the bus stop. 

Ashley is already there. She’s wearing cargo pants, a big black parka and of course a beanie, this one just plain grey. She has a backpack on but no sign of any weapon.
“Hey, Chris.” She looks nervous.
“You alright Ash?”
“Fine, I just, I don’t think I’m going to be much help. I couldn’t find anything to use as a weapon. My parents don’t keep guns.”
“I’m sure you'll be useful in some other way, what’s that big brain of yours for?” I say giving her head a gentle tap. “You’ve got smarts, I’m just pure muscle.” I pose.
She laughs. “You wish.”

I really hope we find Josh. I sort of forgot what we're actually doing while building the flamethrower, it became a bit of a fun science project. But now it’s sinking in again. We're going back.

“Do you think this is stupid Ash?”
She gulps. “I think... I think it’s dangerous, but that it’s more important to help Josh.” She puts a hand reassuringly on my arm.
I smile at her gratefully and she moves her hand down to link it with mine. I hold her hand tightly.

The bus comes a few minutes later. The others are already on it, sitting together at the back. The bus pulls up, the door opens. No going back. I take a deep breath and get on. I pay for my ticket and go join the others. There’s no one else on the bus. Perhaps word about the events up on the mountain has already gotten out and no one wants to go near it.

It’s a long journey, Ashley and I sit together, holding each other's hands. The group is mostly silent for the duration of the ride. Only the occasional comment is made before conversation quickly runs dry again.

Eventually, the tall, pointed shape of Blackwood Mountain looms in the distance. It feels like the silence on the bus thickens, the darkness that lurks outside the bus windows closes in, unbroken by the lack of street lights in the area. My chest tightens, I feel Ashley's grip on my hand tense up. This is it. We really are going back. God! I just hope it's not too late for Josh. 

Chapter Text

The bus pulls away from Blackwood Pines. Leaving the five of us standing, staring at the dark, intimidating mountain looming over us. 

Sam's the first to speak. “You guys ready?” 
“Ready as I’ll ever be,” Mike mutters uncertainly.

Sam walks up to the wooden gate, baseball bat slung over her shoulder, the rest of us following, keeping our eyes peeled, expecting to hear that terrifying screeching at any moment. 

There's bright yellow police tape across the small wooden gate, stating in bold, black, capital letters 'DO NOT CROSS'. That's not something I had considered. Are we going to have company up here other than the wendigo? Sam quickly and almost violently rips the tape down and pushes her way through the gate. I've never seen Sam so brutal. 
"Are you lot coming?" Sam turns to us, frustrated that we're all just standing on the other side staring at her. 
"Do you think we're going to have trouble from the police." Mike nudges the broken tape with the nozzle of his flame thrower, which I have no idea how he managed to get a hold of. 
"No," Sam says sharply, her eyes full of anger. "I called the Washingtons, they said the police are still piecing everything together to decide the best course of action, they haven't even set foot on the mountain yet," she hisses bitterly. 
"What?" Matt looks appalled. 
"No wonder they never found Hannah and Beth," Mike spits quietly.
One of us would probably tell him to shut up if we weren't all already thinking it. It's no use complaining about the police now though. We're here and they're not. And we need to get a move on if we're going to find Josh. 
"We should keep moving," I say, following Sam through the gate. 

Sam begins to lead us up toward the big busted gate. The snow is thick here, noisily crunching underneath our boots as we make our way up the path. It's dark, nothing lights up this area of Blackwood Pines, and it appears as if a gentle rolling mist is slowly making its way over the ground. I see nothing as I peer into the darkness of the trees either side of us. I feel like there are dozens of eyes watching us as we make our way through the snow. 

Ashley takes hold of my arm, keeping close to me. 
“Do you think there’ll be any down here?” She whispers.
She doesn’t have to explain what she’s talking about, I already know.
“Not unless they’ve learnt to fly,” I mumble and shiver thinking about the idea, looking up at the clear sky.

We walk up to the gate. Matt leans against its bars and tries to push it open. 
"Damn Josh! Why did he invite us all up without even making sure the gate worked?" Matt rattles the gates, they don't budge. 
"We'll just have to climb." Sam sighs. 
My favourite activity, I sigh, as we head over to the wall that we can climb over. 

Sam goes up first, easily hopping up, making it look like the most natural thing in the world. Mike follows, not looking quite as graceful as Sam but getting up with no problem all the same. Matt goes next, making his way up slightly clumsily, but with his upper body strength, he doesn't have a problem pulling himself up. He waits at the top, holding out a hand to Ashley, to help her up. Something burns in my chest as she smiles at him warmly, and I know that it has nothing to do with my bruised ribs. They've always been close and it's always bothered me. 

"Here Ash." I bend down and lace my hands together to give her a boost. 
"Thanks." She smiles. 
She places a foot in my hands and pushes herself up. She climbs a little up the wall and then accepts Matt's extended hand, letting him take most of her weight as she makes her way up onto the top. 

"Come on Chris, I'll give you a hand." Matt smiles at me after Ashley has safely jumped down the other side. 
I want to glare at him. As if he could take my weight. I know he's strong, but does he really think he's that strong. I huff and begin to make my way up slowly, taking the safe way up, one step at a time. When I get near the top Matt securely takes one of my arms in both of his hands and helps me up onto the wall. Okay, so perhaps he is that strong. 

Matt jumps down, cooly brushing off snow from his sweat pants after a smooth landing. I follow, trying to clamber down rather than jumping, knowing I would not manage it as well as any of the others. Despite taking the safe way down, I still manage to land poorly, as always. I step down onto the ground, but it's further than I think, my foot meets thin air where I think there will be solid ground and I go tumbling down onto my back. 
“I’m fine,” I grimace. 
"Here you go, man." Matt kindly offers me his hand. 
There's a part of me that wants to scowl at him and reject his offer, but I'm not that petty. 
"Thanks," I say taking his hand, knowing that he's genuinely being nice, unlike Mike, who, once I'm up, I notice smirking at me. 

The other side of the gate is no more welcoming, despite the fact that there are a couple of lights on, I guess no one ever turned the generator off. 

"Right," Sam nods, now that we're all over. 
She starts marching up the path toward the small set of stairs. We quickly follow her, not wanting her to get too far ahead. Despite her small legs, she's frickin' fast. The noise that she makes as she angrily storms through the snow makes me nervous. I bring up the rear, scanning the trees for any sign of movement. I know there shouldn't be anything down here, but I'm still paranoid that at any second a pair of claws could leap out of the branches and tear me to pieces. 

I look up at the tall totem pole rising out of the stone as we approach it. The frozen faces of the animals depicted seem to stare at us, judging us. I gulp. Are they judging me for leaving Josh? 
"Hey," Mike picks something up, brushing snow off it, "was it just me or did you guys find millions of these things around the mountain?" 
"Wonder what they're for?" Matt frowns. 
"It's a totem, the stranger was using them to ward off the wendigo." Ashley explains. "I read it, in his journal." 
I gulp, remembering the way his head fell to the ground, blood seeping into the snow. 
Mike examines the totem in his hand. "Kinda creepy, it's missing its head. Whoo!" He waves it in Ashely's face. 
Ashley lets out a small screech and leaps away from him. 
"Mike!" Sam snaps. "Stop messing around." 
"Sorry," Mike grins, not looking at all sorry. 
Ashley shoots him a glare and follows Sam. 
"You ward off wendigo, do you?" Mike says to the totem in his hand. "You're coming with me then." He slips the totem into his bag and follows the others. 
I roll my eyes at him and also head toward the cable car station.

My ankle twinges as I walk up the small set of steps. I lean on the wooden fence post as I pass it, really hoping that my ankle won't give up on me at any point tonight. I look up, the others are already halfway across the open space. Fuck! I will not be a liability again! I take a deep breath and gingerly lean weight on my ankle. It holds, so I march across the snow, using my long stride to my advantage to keep up with them.

The small alley down the side of the cable car station catches my eye. I'm reminded of the shooting range and I wonder whether the rifle would be of any use to us. Ashley doesn't have a weapon, it might be a good idea to go get it. 

“Shall we grab the rifle from the shooting range?” I call to the others.
“Will a rifle be powerful enough to be of any help?” Sam turns, asking dubiously.
“It’s better than nothing.” Mike shrugs. 
"Which is what I have." Ashley sighs quietly. 

We don't exactly have a great collection of weapons. I guess that's what happens when you stage a rescue mission pretty last minute. Mike's got a flamethrower, Matt has a gun, Sam has her baseball bat and as she says, Ashley has nothing. I’m not filled with confidence by our selection of weapons.

I suddenly remember that I haven't gotten my makeshift flamethrower out yet and that I need to test it. I take my backpack off and pull it out. 
“Whoa, did you make that Chris?” Matt seems impressed.
“Yeah, let me just give it a quick test.” I attach it to my belt.

Here goes, I point it away from the others and hold down the leaver. A decent but not huge jet of flame spurts out melting the snow nearby.
“Impressive,” Matt nods.

“How about we get the rifle for you, Ash?” Mike suggests.
She nods, looking slightly unsure.
Sam sighs frustratedly, “I’ll grab it.” She charges around the side of the building.

We stand around, waiting for Sam to return. Ashley wonders away from the group and toward the map that stands next to the wooden fence. 
"The past is beyond our control." She reads out the graffiti scrawled across it. 
"The past is what we're trying to fix." Mike crosses his arms. "I don't need to be reminded I can't change it." 

Sam comes back around the building, holding the rifle and hands it to Ashley. Ashley takes it gingerly.

“Right, everyone ready?” Sam asks, arms crossed over her chest.
We all nod.
“Let’s go then.” She marches toward the door.

Sam turns the handle, but the door doesn't budge. I roll my eyes, she should remember that I have the key. 
"Shit!" She mutters. 
I dig my hand into my pocket and pull it out, holding it up just as she turns around, a very frustrated look on her face. She snatches it from my hand and turns back to the door. 
"Well, why didn't you say something?" She huffs. "Or here's a novel idea, you could have opened up while I was getting the rifle." She opens the door. 
I stutter. I know she's just stressed, and she's right, the rest of us aren't being proactive enough. 

We all follow her into the cable car station. She’s in the other room already, inserting the key. I watch as in the distance the cable car lurches into motion and slowly begins to make its descent toward us. Sam comes back and starts pacing impatiently as the rest of us stand in silence.

“Everyone remember the plan?” She checks.
We all nod.

Ash nervously moves the rifle from one hand to the other. I’m not sure she knows how to use it or even if she could bring herself to. Although she did stab Josh with those scissors, she's fiercer than she looks.

The cable car gets closer. Everyone goes tense, clutching their weapons tightly. I imagine the doors opening and a wendigo crawling out of them, leaping at us, ripping us all to shreds, taking our heads off, just like the old man's. 
“M-maybe someone should be ready to like shoot or something if there’s something in there...” I gulp, suggesting, but not moving.
All my muscles feel frozen, I can't bring myself to move. 
“Right.” Mike nods and edges forward a little.
He looks back at us all expectantly.
“Anyone fancy joining me?”
Matt sighs, takes the safety off his gun and steps forward. They stand on either side of the entrance and wait for the cable car as it slowly ambles toward us.

It squeaks to a stop, Matt pulls the door open. We all let out a collective sigh of relief as we realise it’s clear.
“Well...” Mike gulps.
“You gonna get on?” Sam asks.
“Ladies first.” He motions.
She rolls her eyes “Thank you so much. You’re my white knight in shining armour.” Sam steps into the cable car and sits down.

“Don’t all rush at once.” She calls out to the rest of us.

Mike and Matt sigh and get on. Ashley and I follow them. Ashley sits down next to Matt. That heat burns in my chest again. I'm tempted to force my way in between the two of them, but I don't want to cause trouble. So I sit down next to her, sandwiching her in between us. Sam is sitting opposite me, staring out the window at the dark mountain. Mike is tense, his jaw clenched, staring at the floor, clutching his flamethrower.

“I was hoping never to have to come back here,” Matt mutters, glancing out the window.
No one says anything in response. What can we say? None of us want to be here. I glance at Ash, checking she’s alright. She notices me looking and gives me a half-hearted smile. Sam starts jiggling her leg up and down impatiently.

I think back to the journey that Sam and I took in this cable car, two nights ago. I wonder, as Sam did back then, whether this trip is a good idea. I was definitely wrong when I tried to reassure her that it was, in fact, the right thing to do then and I'm worried that once again, a trip up Blackwood Mountain is a very bad idea. 

I think about what I said, about the stupid butterfly effect. Look where the fucking butterfly effect has got us now. If I had just stayed with Josh we wouldn't be having to make this journey. 

I look out of the window at the foot of the mountain as it slowly recedes from view, the thick fog obscuring it. I shiver, thinking about what that fog might be hiding. 

The cable car grinds to a stop when we reach the top. We all wince at the high pitched sound. Sam yanks the door of the cable car open and charges off. We all quickly follow to keep up with her.

The place is completely trashed. The ski gear strewn across the floor, shelves broken. I glance through the window into the control room and notice the word 'DIE' scrawled across its walls in bright red letters, multiple times. Well, I know that wasn't the wendigo, so it must have been Josh. The large red letters look so angry and bloody, it feels like Josh is yelling them at me. He really wasn't well. I still can't believe that I didn't notice. That I was meant to be his best friend, and I let something like this happen. 

"Come on Chris." Ashley tugs at my arm. 
I shake myself out of my trance and notice I've stopped moving. I start following everyone else again. 

I notice that the door has been completely destroyed. 
“Wow, someone did a hack job on the door,” I comment.
“Yeah, that was me,” Matt admits.
“Couldn’t have found a less destructive way in?” I ask, smirking, as we all walk out into the snow.
Matt shrugs.

I can already smell the faint hint of soot and smoke from the remains of the house, which is still some way up the frosted path. I glance at the view down the mountain, it's pretty misty, so there's not a whole lot to see. Nature loving Sam doesn't even look at it, she's so focused on getting Josh, on not losing another Washington. 

“Right,” Mike says. “Everyone stay alert, move quietly and slowly. We won’t be of any use to Josh if we get ourselves killed before we can find him.”

We all nod and start up the path. I glance back at the view again, hating the fact that Sam isn't lingering like she should, hating how this mountain has changed us all.

 

Chapter Text

I turn away from the misty view and follow the others. We go slowly and quietly, just as Mike said. Everyone is gripping their weapons tightly, staring into the darkness, ready to attack anything that moves. Apart from our footsteps crunching in the snow, everything is eerily quiet. No wind, no deer, no birds, like the whole place is holding its breath, waiting to see what happens next. 

We reach the first gate, Mike leading us. He glances back at us all, supposedly looking for some kind of reassurance or encouragement. When none of us says anything, he turns back to the gate, I hear him take a deep breath and then he presses the button. Nothing happens, the little LED stays unlit, the only noise that fills the area is the soft click of the button returning to its position as Mike draws his hand away.
“Locked.” He sighs and looks at the wall to the side of the gate. “We’ll have to climb over.” He walks the couple of steps over to it.  
“Why is there always more climbing?” I groan.
“Come on Chris. Not going to let a little wall stop you?” Sam teases, beginning to follow Mike.

Mike makes sure that the flame thrower is secure on his back and then starts to climb up the wall. He gets to the top and jumps down the other side with a small grunt. Sam follows, climbing over quickly and smoothly, making it look effortless. Matt, again, pulls himself up with pure brute strength, making me more than a little jealous.
“Save some muscle for the rest of us,” I call jokingly as he goes over the other side.

I turn to Ashley. “Want a boost?” 
“Uh, yeah, thanks.” She puts the rifle over her shoulder as I kneel down and put my hands together.
“Hurry up!” Sam calls.
“Give us a minute, bossy boots,” I call back.
Ashley places her foot in my hands and reaches up. I help to push her up as she lifts herself on to the top. She swings her legs over, they even look good in cargo pants. Shut up brain! This is not the time. I watch as she hops down the other side.

I look at the wall. Crap! Why did I decide to go last? I did not think this through. 
“Here goes,” I mutter.
I get a foothold in the stone wall and pull myself up rather ungracefully. At least it's not as tall as the wall earlier, this one is only head height, easy in theory. However, as I pull my legs over the top I lose my balance and fall down onto the snow. I'm glad that it's not far to fall but it still feels like a kick to the chest because of my bruised ribs.
“Ah, fuck!” I groan, beginning to pull myself back up.
“Are you alright?” Ashley asks, giving me a hand.
“Fine.” I nod.

The others have already started walking. We quickly follow them, catching up just as they enter the little shelter over the path that leads toward the next gate. I gulp back fear as I step into its shadow. It's a small, dark, wooden shack and to be perfectly honest, in this instance, it's kind'a creepy. I warily look around, my eyes trailing up to the ceiling, half expecting to see a wendigo crouching there ready to leap down on top of us all. To my relief, the rafters are free of any wendigo. We pass through it quietly and out the other side. 

"Ugh! What is that smell?" Mike covers his nose. 
There's something sticking up in the middle of the path. It looks like... 
"A pigs head." Matt pulls a disgusted face. 
"Oh my God!" Sam gags. 
"It's repulsive." Ashely moans, making a face. 
"Josh must have put it here to mess with us, Em and I found it." 
"Why would he do something like that?" Sam tries not to look at it as we get closer. 
"Really? Out of all the things he did, that's the one you're going to question!" Mike gestures to the head. 

It's been stuck on a long thick wooden stake, the point of which has been driven through it so that it comes right out of its eye, blood stains surrounding it. Barbed wire twists around the head, digging into its skin and then trails down the stake. The sharp spikes look angry and threatening. It feels like Josh's anger, his pain, is screaming at me. Did he want revenge on us this badly? Does he hate us all this much? Why didn't I notice? Why didn't I do something? How did I let this happen? 

I look at the poor creature. A part of its spine sticks out the back of the head, and it's absolutely covered in blood, especially around its neck. I try to hide my gag as I remember the way the blood pooled out of the strangers head and onto the snow. 

"Let's just get away from it." Sam quickly stumbles onward. 
We all deliberately avoid getting too close as we pass by. I shiver in disgust as I notice that the silence of the mountain has been broken by the buzzing of flies around the pig's head, it makes the whole place feel rotten. 

I glance at Ashley, she's gone white as a sheet. When she sees me looking, she forces a pained smile onto her face, to reassure me that she's okay. She sticks close to me as we quickly head up the snow-covered steps that have been set into the gentle incline leading toward the gate. I really hope I don’t have to climb over this one.

Mike walks up to it and I hear him press the button. He grunts. 
“Don’t tell me this one’s locked too.” I groan. 
“‘Fraid it is,” Sam says.
“Don’t worry. I know a way around.” Matt says pointing to the left.
“Will it take long?” Sam goes on tiptoes and tries to see where he’ll take us.
“It’s a bit of a long way round but it shouldn’t delay us too much if we’re quick.” Matt shrugs. 
“Why don’t I go on ahead,” Sam suggests looking at the wall beside the gate, which I'm sure she could easily climb over.
“No!” Mike and I both say at the same time and look at each other in surprise.
“If we learnt anything the other night, it’s that splitting up is a bad idea.” Mike gives Sam a meaningful look.
Sam sighs “Okay, okay! Can we just go already then?” Sam gestures for Matt to lead us.

Matt walks back down the steps that lead up to the gate and turns right. We all follow him, keeping quiet and alert. I instantly notice that he's leading us straight toward a large rise in the ground that is at least shoulder height.

“I thought the point of coming this way was that we didn’t have to do any climbing.” I sigh as we walk up to it.
“Well, this way at least, there isn't another side to climb, or in your case, fall down.” Matt smiles.
I grumble.
“Ladies first.” Mike grins gesturing for me to go.
Sam sighs, pushes past and quickly climbs up.
“Come on Ash.” She holds out her hand and helps Ashley up after her. “Let’s leave the boys to their toxic masculinity.”
“Hey, not fair!” I protest.
“Yeah, Chris is completely in touch with his feminine side.” Mike grins and goes down on one knee, putting his hands out. “A boost, my lady?”

I roll my eyes at him, and reluctantly take the offer of a boost. I could use it. My chest is on fire, although, I’m not going to admit that to anyone. I wonder what would happen if I overdosed on this pain medication?

Sam and Ash help me up at the top and this time there’s no falling. Am I becoming a hindrance to the group? Damn it! Earlier I vowed not to be a liability again. I’m starting to think that maybe I shouldn’t have come. These guys could do so much better without me. What if I just screw up again and make things even worse for Josh? What if I become the reason we don’t manage to save him?

Mike and Matt easily pull themselves up, Sam starts walking and they follow. Ashley hangs back and looks up at me worriedly with those big doe eyes. 
“Is everything alright Chris?”
“I’m-” I begin to say.
“Chris.” She takes my hand. “Remember what I said this afternoon. Y-you’re not alone. I’m kinda freaked out too.” 
I sigh, she can read me too well. “I’m just worried about Josh.” I wipe my face with my free hand. “I’m worried that I’m going to mess up again.”
“Chris,” she smiles gently, “you did anything but mess up. Remember how freaked out I was and how determined you were to find Sam.”
“Yeah, but, when it counted, with Josh and the wendigo and that old guy, I was just useless.”
“Who’s to say there’s anything that you could have done? And you did something Chris, you did more than me, you went to look for Josh. And you kept going even after you got hurt.”
“Only because you waited for me.”
“Yeah, well, as you said, I’ve got you’re back as long as you’ve got mine.”
She’s so close. I could kiss her.

“Come on lovebirds,” Sam calls. 
Ashley and I quickly step away from each other and look at the others who are waiting for us up ahead.
“Let’s go.” Ashley nods determinedly and starts to quickly catch up with the others.

We walk past a set of steps. I peer up them, trying to see what they lead to and notice another totem pole, looming darkly above the fog. I can't see the faces of the animals carved into the wood but I feel watched again. I feel judged. Judged and found wanting. With the totem staring at my back, I carry on. 

We approach a little wooden bridge, it looks kinda old and rickety. It leads over a little stream that has frozen over and into a clearing. We all cross the bridge. With each step, I worry that the wood beneath me will collapse and I'll cause yet more trouble for the group. As I think this, I feel a small hand slip into my own, I look beside me and find that Ashley has linked her hand with mine. She doesn't look at me but I feel it as she gives my had a little squeeze, I squeeze back, gratefully. 

The clearing is peaceful, beautiful almost, or, at least, it would be, if this mountain wasn’t brimming over with so many horrifying memories for all of us.

"Hey, I know this place." Mike suddenly pipes up, heading over toward the picnic table. 
"Come on Mike, no time for pit stops." Sam continues impatiently. 
I notice Matt freeze out of the corner of my eye, he looks almost rigid. Mike brushes some snow off the corner of the table and chuckles to himself. I frown and head over to see what he's looking at. There's a heart carved into the wood of the table and inside it says 'Mike x Em'. I glance over at Matt, who still hasn't moved. 

"Come on guys!" Sam beckons. 
"Good times." Mike nods at the carving, smirking and begins to follow Sam. 
"Fucking unbelievable," Matt mutters. 
"I'm sorry, you got a problem?" Mike raises his eyebrows at Matt and saunters toward him. 
"Yeah, I do actually." Matt takes a step toward Mike, towering over him. 
"Guys, can we not do this now?" Sam sighs. 
This is not going to be pretty. 

"Spit it out then, if you even know enough words to say what you need to." Mike leers, ignoring Sam's request. 
"You have absolutely no respect." Matt shakes his head. "You woo a girl, you fuck her, you dump her," Matt says, getting more and more in Mike's face with each statement, "you fuck her again," he spits, "and then you shoot her in the fucking face." He shoves Mike to the ground. "That's how romance works? Isn't it Michael?" 
"I-I didn't actually shoot her." Mike scrambles away from Matt and continues to try to excuse his actions. "Okay, okay, you gotta understand... things were... confused and the circumstances were not normal. She was infected! Okay? And-and we thought she'd turn into one. So, what was I supposed to do?" 
"Uh... not point a fucking gun at her?"
"This is really not the time or the place for this," Sam tells them but neither is listening. 
"You're just pissed that you got my sloppy seconds," Mike mutters. 
"No Mike, unlike you I actually care about people because I'm not an egotistical sociopath."
"Those are some big words for a meathead, trying to impress Ashley?" 
I tense. I glance at Ash, she looks infuriated, gripping the rifle to her chest angrily. 
"You want Chris's hand-me-downs too?" 
Right, that is fucking it! Mike needs to shut up! I start to move forward. 
"Chris don't." Sam glares at me. 
I don't listen, but it doesn't matter because Matt gets there first. It all happens so fast. Before I know what's happened, Matt has Mike in a painful looking headlock and is about to start pummeling him. 

"Will you two stop it!" Sam yells throwing herself between them, pushing them apart. "This is not why we're here." She glares at them both. "I know we all have our fair share of resentments, trust me, I know, but we are here for Josh. You two can tear each other's throats out at a later date." 
"Sorry," Matt mutters. 
"Yeah... sorry." Mike stares at the ground. 
"Right," Sam exhales sharply, "let's go." She gestures for Matt to lead the way. 

He does, Sam following close behind him. Mike leaves a little distance and then also follows. We swiftly walk past the picnic table, the only sound our boots crunching in the snow, the air still thick with residue tension from the fight.

The path begins to snake back round in the direction of the lodge. Before we know it we’re passing the other side of the locked gate and turning onto the main path again.

“What did I tell you?” Matt smiles, holding his hands up. “That didn’t take too long.”
Sam glares at him and his smile quickly disappears. Seeing as his shortcut caused a fight I'm not sure she's convinced it was worth it.

Sam takes a deep breath. “Now we need to see if we can get down into the lodge basement.” She starts marching up the path.

We all follow.

Chapter Text

We stop when we get to the bottom of the snow covered steps leading up to the front door. We all look at the charred remains of the Washingtons Lodge. It's a sorry sight. The windows are smashed. The brick and timber are blackened and collapsing. The posts are barely managing to keep up the sagging porch. The door is almost non-existent, at least this time I won't have to break in. The place is an empty husk of its former self. A gentle tinkling sound fills the air, I spot the wind chime, still hung up by the door, swaying softly in the wind... fuckin' creepy. 

The blackened, wooden steps themselves are in an awful state. Half of the staircase is missing in places and it's littered with snow-covered ash and debris. 

“Looks kinda unstable,” Ashley looks the stairs up and down dubiously.
“Just be careful,” Sam says determinedly, taking a step forward.
She gently places her foot on the first step, testing it. It creaks as she puts her weight onto it but doesn’t break. Slowly she makes her way up the steps, avoiding the areas that are collapsing.
“There we go.” She brushes herself off when she gets to the top. “Probably best if the rest of you come up one at a time.”

Mike slowly and carefully makes his way up the steps, joining Sam at the top. Matt’s next, he’s not exactly light-footed but he’s as careful as possible. Suddenly there’s a loud crack and Matt falls, giving out a yell. One of his feet has gone straight through the stairs.
“Fuck!” He exclaims.
“You alright?” Sam calls.
“I’m stuck.” He tries to yank his leg out but fails and yells out in pain.
I notice Mike roll his eyes as he crosses his arms and looks at Matt with a smirk on his face. 
"Damn it!" Sam says through gritted teeth. "Give me a second, I'll come help you out." 
She puts her baseball bat down, leaning it against the wall of the lodge by the door. She turns back to Matt, sighs and begins to carefully make her way back down toward him, testing each step as she goes. 

As she begins to help Matt pull his leg out of the hole she calls down. “Ash, why don’t you come up. Just stay as far away from us as possible,” 
Ashley nods and starts gingerly making her way up the stairs. She barely makes a sound, she’s so light-footed. She gets to the top and joins Mike, who seems to be enjoying this a little too much.
“How’s it going?” I call up to Sam and Matt. “Can I be of any help?”
“I don’t think so,” Sam says through gritted teeth as she tries to help pull Matt’s leg out of the stair.
“Here.” Ashley starts going toward them.
“Ashley don’t,” Sam calls out.
But she’s already there with no problems. Ashley and Sam take hold of Matt on either side and pull. Slowly his leg and then foot are pulled out of the hole. Now that Matt is free they all mange to make their way to the top of the stairs.

"You all good?" I call up to them. 
"Yeah, you can come up now," Sam replies. 

I start gingerly walking up the steps. I am well aware that, like Matt, I am not light-footed. I carefully avoid the weak parts, especially the hole that Matt managed to make. 
"Take your time," Mike smirks.
"Aww, thanks Mike, I felt like I was rushing, tiring myself out a bit." I lean on the bannister pretending to take a break from exhaustion. 
I feel it give way underneath my elbow. I hear several alarmed shouts from the others. I panic as I start falling backwards and quickly throw my weight forward, luckily managing to stay on my feet. I stand there for a few seconds regaining my balance and my breath. Mike laughs. 
"Idiot." Sam rolls her eyes at me. 
I salute her and climb the remaining steps. I avoid doing any other stupid things and successfully join them all on the porch.

"You ready now?" Mike raises his eyebrows.
"No thanks to you," Matt mutters.
"'Scuse me?"
"Guys," Sam growls, glaring at them both.
Mike sighs and turns away from Matt and toward the house. “Into the depths of hell we go.” He heads through the charred doorway. 

The rest of us follow him, entering the remains of the hallway. It's now just a blackened shell, barely recognisable. We all grab our torches out of our bags. One by one, we each turn them on, slowly lighting up the room. I trail my beam over the dilapidated walls and the ash-covered floor, sadly observing the ruins of the lodge that held so many memories, both good and bad, for all of us.

“Is it just me or did it just drop like a dozen horror movies?” Ashley whispers.
“Come on.” Sam heads toward the main room, baseball bat in hand, her head torch lighting up her way.

Everyone heads through the archway into the large, blackened room. There’s slithers of moonlight poking through the collapsing ceiling and blown-out windows, small beams of light streaming in, contrasting with the darkness, highlighting the ash that our footsteps have disturbed as it gently floats through the air. The ash is thick beneath our feet and crunches loudly in the silent skeleton of the lodge. The upper parts of the big main staircase have collapsed and lead up into a dark nothingness. I look to the left, at the blackened frames of the couches which used to surround the fireplace. It's surreal seeing the place like this, hard to imagine that it was ever inhabitable but at the same time I have such vivid memories of what it used to be. 

Sam barely takes the place in and is already heading toward the stairs that lead down into the basement. I sigh, turning away from the wreckage and follow the others. Just as she's about to test the first step, Sam freezes, her gaze locked onto something over by the back door that I can't make out in the darkness. 

“Oh my God!” She gasps in a whisper and picks her way through the rubble to whatever she's seen, she kneels down. “Look, i-it’s a-a wendigo corpse.”
“Agh!” Matt takes a horrified step back.
“There’s the other one.” Mike shines his torch over the blackened remains of the second terrifying creature that's lying a few feet away from the first.
Sam bursts into tears.
“It’s a monster, Sam! It was going to kill you! Why-?” Matt starts.
“I-it’s H-Hannah.” She sobs. “ Oh God! Hannah! I’m s-so s-s-sorry.”

WHAT? Has Sam lost it?

“W-what?” Matt voices the question we're all thinking.
“She and Beth fell into the mines,” We turn to look at Mike, “we found some kind of diary she was keeping. She was down there, for weeks, Beth was dead… and she was starving...we found Beth’s grave, she had dug her up and...” Mike can’t go on but I already understand.
“Jesus!” I can’t believe it!

Hannah turned into a wendigo? Hannah tried to kill us all? I guess it was revenge in a way. But Jesus! She! Oh my God! She was down there! While we were all up here! Why didn't anyone find her? We should have gone looking for her. Just the thought of innocent, smiley Hannah trapped down there, alone, with Beth's... Oh, God! Why!? I find myself stumbling forward a little with the weight of it all. I grab onto the bannister of the staircase to keep myself upright. 

“And…” Matt looks around at us all desperately.
“A person becomes a wendigo through cannibalism,” Ashley says quietly. “Oh, God!" She puts her hands over her face. "We did this!” She sinks down to the floor, curling in on herself. “Why did we play that stupid prank?” She sobs wrapping her arms around her torso. “I-it’s worse than death, becoming a monster. Having to… to eat...” She can’t bring herself to say it, she averts her eyes from the corpse.
“Oh fuck!” Matt exclaims “Fuck!” He puts his head in his hands.

“I killed my best friend.” Sam sobs.
“Sam…” Mike takes a deep breath. “I-it wasn’t her anymore, Hannah had left that body a long time ago. You didn’t kill anyone.” He goes over and gently places a hand on Sam’s shoulder.
Ashley’s still sobbing but she turns to Sam reaching out to her. “I’m so, so sorry Sam, it’s not your fault, it’s mine and everyone else who played that stupid, stupid prank. You tried to stop us. I… I just joined in and laughed and now… Oh, God!” She’s crying so much she’s barely breathing.
“I’m sorry too, Sam, to you and Hannah and Beth and Josh and the Washingtons. I can’t believe I fucking filmed that stupid prank.” Matt turns away from us all and leans his forehead against the wall.
Mike sighs, “you two were barely involved, it’s not your fault. I was the one who tricked her… who took advantage of her. God… I’m such a dick.” Mike grits his teeth.

My head is reeling. I can't believe that the mangled, charred monster in front of me is my former friend. She was practically family. I remember her losing her first tooth, pranking her with Josh, telling her to go away when Josh and I were gaming, freaking her out by letting her watch scary movies with us, her first day of high school, teaching her how to hack her parent's wifi so she could watch what she wanted on putlocker. I've accepted that she's gone but I can barely begin to process how she went, now that I know her fate. 

And God! To think I might have been able to prevent it if I hadn't passed out that night. Josh and I were meant to be the responsible ones, keeping an eye on them all. They were just high schoolers having a good time, it was us that messed up. Yeah, they played a cruel prank, but none of them could have known what would happen. Josh and I were supposed to look after them, no wonder Josh's fucked up prank focused on me most, he knew where the blame lay. Oh God! And he's trapped down there! Wait! What if? No! Fuck! We need to get to him now! But we're not going to get anywhere with everyone in this state. I need to get them moving. 

“Guys, none of you are to blame,” I say quietly. “You played a stupid prank on Hannah. Yes, it was cruel, but you couldn’t have known what would happen and you didn’t mean for it to happen. And Sam, Mike’s right, y-you didn’t kill Hannah, the spirit of the wendigo or... something killed her. You were just… saving your friends. I know this is all… hard to process but there’s still a Washington down in those mines and we need to go find him. Hannah… and Beth are gone but Josh could still be alive.”

Sam sniffs and slowly stands up, she turns around and nods, “you’re right Chris,” she grimaces, “as always.”
I weekly smile back at her while holding out a hand to Ashley, which she takes and I slowly pull her to her feet. Ash wipes the tears from her face and looks at the charred wendigo.
“Do… you think we should… bury it… I mean... her.” Ashley suggests.

Sam looks back at the body. “No.” She shakes her head. “Chris and Mike are right, that’s not really Hannah anymore.”

“Let’s get going.” I gesture toward the stairs.
They all silently nod and slowly start to move.

Chapter Text

I lead the way, shining my torch down the dark staircase. I slowly test each rickety, blackened stair, avoiding any more stair-related mishaps. The pace I'm having to go is making me itch to sprint through the rest of the basement, I feel like every second between now and getting to Josh is another second in which he could meet the same fate as Hannah. The others are all following behind me, going just as slowly. They're all quiet, still processing the death of our friends. I want to hurry them all, but resist, knowing that doing so may cause more trouble than it's worth. 

The bottom of the stairs is a mess and we end up having to make our way around areas in which the ceiling has collapsed. It's even quieter down here, you can't hear the sounds of the mountain, just a thick, dark silence. So the sound of our clumsy footsteps, mine, in particular, seem jarring as we clamber across the beams and rubble.

Once across the debris, we enter the short hallway that leads to the basement stairs. There's less damage here, we must be getting to the end of the area affected by the fire. The walls are still soot-covered and the air smells of smoke, tickling my throat and lungs slightly, making me cough as I breathe in, but there are minimal obstacles. 

The stairs down to the basement are dark and uninviting but I quickly take a deep breath and force myself down them anyway. I pick up the pace a little, now that I'm not worried about the stairs collapsing underneath my feet. As a result, I almost fall on my ass at the bottom of the first set of steps as I slip on a broken edge. 
"Crap!" I catch myself on the wall in front of me. 
"Careful Chris!" 
"Could have done with that advice a few seconds earlier Sam." I grit my teeth, testing my ankle. 
It holds my weight as I take a step forward, but I feel a dull ache beginning to throb in it. I'm a wendigo meal waiting to happen in this state. I sigh and push onward, doing my best to avoid limping. 

The basement is eerily dark and quiet, just as it was when Ashley and I made our way through here, pursued by Josh's fucked up tricks. I notice Ashley glance in the direction of the dolls house which is still sitting in the corner. She looks ready to break again. I remember the scene that's set up inside the dolls house and shiver, hurrying past it, not wanting any of the others to discover it or the diary hidden away in its roof. I wonder whether that was faked by Josh or whether that really was Hannah's diary. I'm not sure which is worse. I don't think I want to know. 

I turn right, going down the corridor, past the Washingtons collection of liquors and spirits, hating the fact that Josh and I raided this place the night that Hannah and Beth disappeared. It's just a horrible reminder of the choices that caused their deaths. 

I push on about to open the door into the next room when I hear a clink behind me. I turn and find Mike has picked up a bottle and is inspecting it. 
"What?" He holds his hands up in innocence as the rest of us stare at him. 
"Really man?" Matt shakes his head. "Not the time." 
"Oh come on, some treasure for our toils, drink away the pain, am I right?" 
"No," I say bluntly. "Put it back Mike." 
Mike looks at me, clearly a little surprised at my forcefulness and slowly slides the bottle back into the slot that he took it from. I turn away from him and push the door open heading into the room of cluttered boxes and various old junk. 

We head down the ancient, dilapidated hallway belonging to the old hotel that the Washingtons built the estate on. I notice Sam nervously glance at the old elevator as we pass it and I wonder exactly what Josh put her through down here before she managed to escape his clutches. I decide that it's probably another thing that I don't want to know. I follow the corridor around to the left, still as amazed as I was the first time we came through here at how mammoth this place is. 

Before I head down the next set of stairs I quickly look at Ashley, remembering how freaked out she was at this point last time. She looks pale and tense but determined to keep going so I continue. Our footsteps echo around the basement as we hurry down the stone steps, turning left when we get to the bottom, following the corridor around. We walk quietly through the dingy, mould covered hallways. 

As we enter through the large double doors into the old kitchen I quickly clap my hand over my nose and mouth as I feel the rotten stench hit the back of my throat. 
"I think I might be sick." Sam gags turning away from the pig's carcass hung up to our right. 
"This place is really creepy," Matt mutters shining his torch over the collection of saws and chains hung up on the wall. 
"You can say that again." Mike swallows. 

I keep moving, I feel no need to stop and take in any of these things, I've seen them all before. It's all just a reminder of how badly I've fucked up. Of what a bad friend I've been to Josh. I still can't believe I didn't notice or do anything about how insane he was going. If only you could turn back time. 

Sam stops as we pass the photos pinned to the wall. 
"Oh, Josh!" She cries, her voice full of compassion. 
There's a photo of each of us up there, the one of Josh has an angry X carved through each of his eyes. Sam brushes the photo gently with her fingertips. 
"He was hurting so much." She says in a strangled whisper. 
"That's why we need to keep moving." I encourage impatiently. "We need to find him." 
She nods and starts following again. 

We exit the kitchen, following the maze of corridors around. I decide it's probably best if we avoid going through the fridge considering the way Sam reacted to the last pigs' carcass. So when we get to the big heavy door, instead of heaving it open, I turn right, past the dilapidated wall, through which you can see Josh's little fucked up psycho workshop. 

We go all the way down the corridor, down the small set of steps and into Josh's deranged CCTV room set-up, from which he watched his horrible prank unfold. It's the same place we hid from the wendigo in. The old man's bag still sits discarded on the desk. I flinch, as I again think of the way his head thudded down into the snow. 
"Hey, anything in here that we can use." Mike goes up to the bag and starts rooting around inside it. 
I feel mildly uncomfortable with the idea of going through the guy's stuff. It feels intrusive. It feels like we're taking advantage of his death, and that's wrong because his death was my fault, because I just watched as he died having saved my life. 

"These flares might be useful." Mike pulls out a handful. 
"Anything else?" Sam asks. 
"Not really, looks like a load of old junk to me." He shrugs. 
"Let's keep moving then," I say, keen to get away from anything that reminds me of the guy's death. 

I notice Ashley has picked up the old man's book on the other side of the room and is reading through it intently. 
"Anything useful in there Ash?" 
"Not really. Nothing that we don't know already." She sighs. "But... don't you think we should take it, just in case there's something in here that might help." 
Sam shrugs. 
"If you've got room in your bag for it, go ahead." Mike nods. 
Ashley quickly slips it into her backpack. 

Once she's done we head into the next room, past the chairs where Josh had Ash and I tied up. I tense up thinking about it. I would have died to keep Ashley alive. It’s crazy to think about. You never know how you’ll react in a situation like that until you’re there. I guess it just shows how much I care about her. I look at her now as she warily looks around the room, obviously scared shitless but determined to carry on. I know I’d do it again. I know I'd die for her. 

Chapter Text

We hurry along the dark, dank corridors that connect the Washington estate to the old sanitorium. The quickest way to Josh, or at least, where we hope Josh might be, is through the tunnels to the sanitorium and then through the psychiatric ward. It's the way Mike originally went and locked the rest of us out of, but it’s also freakin' dangerous with all the wendigo kept in there.

We stand in the corridor looking at the busted down double doors that the wendigo must have broken through and the ladder down into the tunnels.
“So, what should we do?” Mike asks, looking between our two options.
“I’d say go down through the tunnels,” Sam frowns, “but I’m not sure we’ll all manage the climb.”
I sigh quietly, I knew I was letting the group down. I glare at my dodgy ankle. 
“You sure?” Mike asks. “There were a lot of those buggers in there.”
“To be honest.” Sam makes a face. “I’m not even sure you could manage it, it was a pretty tough climb for me.”
“Okay.” Mike sighs. “The sanitorium it is then. Don’t say I didn’t warn you though. Everyone better be ready to shoot shit.” Mike brandishes the flamethrower and goes through the double doors.
I follow, holding my rather smaller homemade flamethrower, feeling a little inadequate. Ashley and Matt hold their guns while Sam grips her baseball bat tightly.
“You sure you don’t want my shotgun, Sam?” I ask.
Sam shakes her head and wrinkles her nose. “I prefer not to use a gun.”
"Plus, she's got a mean swing," Mike calls from down the corridor. "Come on guys, what are we waiting for?" 
I nod to Sam and turn to follow Mike.

As we walk down the corridor I notice its soot-covered walls and the scraps of charred metal scattered around. It looks like a bomb went off in here, but the fire couldn't have reached this far, especially as the majority of the basement was unscathed. 
"What happened here?" I notice the remnants of some metal caging. 
"I uh..." Mike scratches the back of his head, "I made some poor decisions." 
"You did this?" Sam looks shocked. 
"Not on purpose." 
"Nice effort." I chuckle. 
"What did you do?" 
"I shot a lock and some of the sparks ignited some flammables." Mike shrugs. 
"Smart," I smirk. 
"Fuck off Chris." Mike frowns at me. 
I put my hands up in surrender. 

We walk down the dilapidated corridor. I notice one of those old laundry carts discarded to the side. Those things have always looked so fun, I cannot resist. I jump into it, throwing as much momentum as I can so that I go spinning into the room, almost knocking Mike over as I pass him.
"Woohoo!" I call out as the world spins around me.
"Chris!" Sam hisses. "Is this some kind of holiday to you?"
"Oh come on," I grin as the cart comes to a slow stop, "just trying to lighten the mood." I shrug. 
"Idiot," Mike mutters. 
Ashley walks over, rolling her eyes at me, and holds out a hand to help me up. 
"Come on, that thing might have fleas in it." She sighs, but I notice she's trying to hide a smirk. 
She pulls me up out of the laundry basket. 

We leave the old laundry room, stepping over the sign that's fallen down and now lies abandoned on the floor. Mike starts up the stairs, he seems pretty confident, knowing exactly where he’s going. The stairs lead up into a large room, it seems overkill to have a room and staircase this large leading to a laundry room.

We walk through a small corridor and into a large chapel that's falling to pieces. I notice Ashley shiver as she looks around the room. Chunks of the walls and ceiling have caved in and littered the chapel floor cutting off various areas.

A huge wolf comes bounding up to us, barking and leaps at Mike knocking him to the ground, too fast for me to do anything. I expect blood, I expect it to have ripped Mike's throat out, but Mike laughs… Wait! It’s not biting his face off? It's licking at his face enthusiastically, its tail wagging happily. 
“Hey, Wolfie.” Mike chuckles and gives it a scratch on the head, sitting up when Wolfie gets off him and turns to examine the rest of us.
“Aww, he’s lovely.” Sam smiles and kneels down to say hello, giving his chin a good scratch.

Why are we stopping for a mangy dog? Josh is down in the mines, we need to get to him, quickly! At least my laundry cart ride didn't slow us down. 

“Uh… Mike, lead the way.” I remind him.
“Yes, this way.” He stands up, brushing himself off and beckons us across the large chapel and over to a metal door which is already open.

We enter into a small room littered with old sanitorium junk and then a sort of metal walkway that leads through the snow and links to another part of the building. There's a sign hung up in the walkway. It reads 'DANGER | KEEP OUT'.
"Very encouraging," Matt mutters as we pass it. 
"You weren't expecting a warm welcome, were you?" I raise my eyebrows. "I think at a wendigo tea party you're more likely to end up a snack than a guest." 
"Chris... that's..." Sam frowns, disgusted, "not helpful." 
I shrug. We pass another sign, this one states 'WARNING | THIS AREA CLOSED OFF'. The wind carries a high pitched screech toward us. This time no one says anything about the sign. I gulp when I spot another one above us, this one reads 'NO ENTRY | DANGER OF DEATH'. You got that right. 

Wolfie growls as we enter the building. It looks like it was practically a high-security prison at some point, caging, bars, two door systems. The inmates here must have been really fucked up... or the wardens were. 

“I-is this where they're all k-kept?” Ashley stutters.
“Yep.” Mike heads toward what looks like some kind of prison door. “Crap! I didn’t come back this way so it’s still locked.” He rattles the bars of the door uselessly. 
“I… I think… I might be able to get in.” Ashley gulps and walks up to the bars that are to one side of the door.
“Be careful Ash,” I tell her.

She nods, then quickly and easily squeezes through the tight space. I watch, terrified that at any moment a wendigo will leap at her out of nowhere and I'll be stuck on this side, unable to do anything but watch. She walks over to a large lever and uses both hands to push it up. A few moments later the door rattles open. We all walk through it. Ashley pulls the lever back down and the door rattles shut behind us again. She winces at the loud sound it makes.
“I hope nothing heard that.” She whispers.

The other door is slightly faulty and hasn’t opened properly but we all manage to squeeze through it one by one.

We walk down a dark set of stairs and turn right. 
“Oh my God!” Sam whispers.
The remains of a wolf carcass are hanging from the bars of one of the doors, it's intestines spilling out, ribs broken, neck snapped. Sam gags and looks away. I cover my mouth and nose with my sleeve, trying to block out the faint rotting smell. Wolfie makes a little whine as we all quickly walk on past it. 

We go on, starting to walk around a long curving corridor. There’s a loud screeching sound. We all freeze. 
“What was that?” Ashley whispers.
“Let’s just keep going,” Mike instructs, leading us around until we can’t go any further at which point we go through a collapsed archway.

"This place is fucked," Matt mutters. 
"Yeah," Mike sighs, "I found the head doctor's body in his office down that way." He points. 
"Oh my God! Had the wendigos..." Ashley covers her mouth with her hands. 
Mike shakes his head. "He locked himself up and downed a bottle of poison when this place went to hell." 
"Yikes." I shiver. 
"You got that right." Mike murmurs. "Let's keep going." 

We follow Mike silently through a maze of corridors with Wolfie happily padding along beside us, working our way back to join up with the long curving corridor again. We get to the entrance of a big round hallway. Sam's about to walk into it but Mike puts an arm out and stops her, putting a finger to his lips.
"Last time there was one of them in there," he whispers. 
I quickly pull off my backpack. 
"Chris, what are you doing?" Sam hisses. 
"I've got something that will help us." 
I pull out the little robot that I stuffed in my bag when I packed. 
"A toy?" Mike looks doubtful. 
"Not just a toy." I start winding it up. 
The others wince at the sound. 
"A mechanical toy." I grin, carefully setting it down at the edge of the large room. 

It slowly makes its way into the middle of the room, its little legs working furiously. We all stay completely still, listening, waiting. When nothing in the room moves, Mike slowly walks forward into the room. We all follow, clutching our weapons tightly. We cross the room toward a set of stairs, the loud sound of our footsteps echoing around the large room breaking the silence makes me nervous. I scoop up the little robot and pop it back into my backpack. 

We go up the stairs and Mike turns left, going through a destroyed door and stepping over a locker that’s lying in the entrance. He leads us over to the next door and tries to open it.
“Fuck! I locked it.” He curses.
“Hey, this window is smashed. I think we can get through here.” Matt whispers and is about to climb through.
“Hang on, wait a second.” Sam stops him.
She walks over to the window and as quickly and quietly as possible cleans away the jagged pieces of glass with her baseball bat.
“There you go.”
“Thanks.” He nods and climbs into the next room.
We wait as he goes around and unlocks the door for us letting us all into the room. 

"Restraining area." Sam reads the sign on the doorway that we're about to go through. 
"This is horrible." Ashley moans, covering her face. 

We creep through the doorway and into a corridor with cells lining the walls.
“Don’t get too close to the cells,” Mike whispers.
“Why not?” Ashley looks panicked.
“Just… don’t.” Mike repeats.
Ashley nods and grips the rifle so tightly her knuckles go white.

Mike takes a deep breath. "Here we go." 

We very slowly make our way down the corridor, staying as far away from the cells as possible. Suddenly there’s a loud screech and crash as something throws itself against the bars of one of the cages. Ashley screams. It’s long bony hands reach out toward us but we’re out of its reach.
“Fuck!” Matt whispers.

We hear more screeching from further down the corridor. Fuck! There are more of them.

We press on cautiously. More terrifying boney hands reach out toward us, all the wendigo screeching at us loudly, but we stay well away from them. We keep our weapons trained on each one we see.

As we turn a corner one makes a particularly loud scream. Ashley jumps away from it, not noticing that she’s backed herself toward another cell. I see two filthy hands with long sharp fingernails reach out to grab her. Without even thinking about it I throw myself in her direction, pushing her out the way. I cry out as a strong, cold arm snakes itself around my neck.

Chapter Text

A hand clamps down on my airway. I gasp for air but nothing enters my lungs. Sharp claws dig into my neck, piercing my skin. I feel lightheaded. I can’t breathe. I struggle. I. Need. Air.

A loud bang rings in my ears. The pressure on my neck releases. Oxygen floods my deprived lungs. Mike grabs me, pulling me to my feet and away from the cell.

I stand there, leaning over, hand on Mikes' shoulder for support, desperately sucking in air. I put my hand to my neck, still able to feel where the creature tried to crush it. It comes away slightly bloodied, the things nails must have punctured my skin. My whole neck is aching and smarting already. I cough as I continue to breathe in and out deeply, my whole throat feels damaged and raw.

I look up to find out who saved me. Ashley’s gripping the rifle firmly, it’s still trained resolutely on the wendigo in the cell. Her eyes haven’t left the deformed creature. She’s glaring at it with a ferociousness. 

“Thanks, Ash,” I cough, still recovering my breath.  
She lets the gun's barrel fall and quickly turns to me.
“Oh my God, Chris! I’m so sorry.” She wraps her arms around me tearfully.
I hold her in my arms and gently shush her, softly stroking her hair, trying to comfort her.

“Come on guys, let’s get away from here,” Sam says, looking nervously at the cell where the wendigo is beginning to get back up.

Ashley looks up from where she's buried her face in my chest and nods, wiping her eyes of tears. I take her hand and we follow the others.

We stay close to each other as we continue down the corridor of cages. There are even more wendigo that shriek at us, reaching out their gnarled fingers towards us. We stay well away from them, and their cages and restraints keep them well away from us.

We come to another caged metal walkway. This one has been completely destroyed, blown apart. We pick our way across the charred rubble and what looks to be a couple more wendigo corpses. No one wants to get close enough to check. The door at the other end of the walkway has been smashed down into practically non-existence.
“I-I locked this door.” Mike stutters.
“Doesn’t look like you can contain these things easily.” Sam shivers.

The next set of doors has a sign above it saying ‘Psychiatric Ward’.
“Finally,” Matt mutters.

As we continue we can still hear the distant screams of the wendigo. We walk up a set of stairs. This place is falling apart. A cold wind is blowing through the corridors, getting in through the large holes in the walls and ceiling, bringing the snow in with it. Mike leads us through the maze of crumbling walls.

“This place looks like something out of a gothic novel,” Ashley whispers in wonderment.
I frown at the massive hole in the ceiling that she’s staring at, vines creeping up it, the moonlight poking through into the room.
“Or a horror movie,” I mutter, shivering slightly.
She rolls her eyes at my lack of imagination, “can’t you just feel the lost souls trapped here?”
“Save it for your next novel Ash, we have bigger fish to fry than lost souls,” Mike tells her.
She sighs and moves on, following the group.

Suddenly we hear a loud screech behind us, louder than it should be. We turn around and freeze. There’s a wendigo crouched at the other end of the room. Its limbs are splayed out like spiders legs, its teeth are bared, and those clouded, milky eyes are focused directly on us. It’s too late to not move, it’s already seen us. Wolfie crouches and growls. It starts to charge toward us, leaping across the room.

“Mike!” Sam yells.
Mike springs into action, aiming his flamethrower. A large flame jets out toward the creature which screams and retreats.

But it’s not gone yet. Once its safely on the other side of the room again, it turns its head back to look at us. It scuttles itself around, head unmoving, eyes locked on us, ready for round two.

“Go, go, go!” Mike yells at the rest of us.
I watch as the others run for the door.
“Come on Chris!” Ashley yells.
I look back at Mike, staring down the wendigo. I can’t leave another person.

I shake my head at Ashley and stay put. I turn back toward the wendigo, holding my flamethrower at the ready. It’s not as good as Mikes, but I can’t leave him to face this thing alone.

It screeches at us and starts rapidly scurrying across the ceiling toward us.
“Fuck off!” Mike yells as he shoots out another flame toward it.
It screams again and scuttles back down the corridor.

If it keeps just running away from the flames, we’re never going to get away. We need something that will slow it down so we can make a run for it. I drop the nozzle of my homemade flamethrower and grab my shotgun from where it’s slung over my shoulder.

The wendigo starts leaping from wall to wall, getting closer and closer. I keep the gun trained on it as it moves about erratically. Before it gets within range of the flamethrower I shoot. Pain blooms in my chest from the recoil of the gun. It's knocked back a couple of meters and lies still for a second. 
“Run!” I yell ignoring the burn in my chest.

Mike and I both turn and sprint down the corridor. After a few meters, I quickly turn, it’s closer than I expect, but I quickly aim and shoot, throwing it back again.

My heart picks up its pace as I realise I’ve done this before, and last time someone died. I turn to Mike, terrified that I’ll let him down too. It feels like everything is moving in slow motion like I’m trying to move through sticky toffee.

“Move Chris!” Mike yells at me.
My brain switches back into gear and I run the remaining distance to the door where Mike is waiting, flamethrower brandished. It screeches as he lets out another large jet of flame. It retreats to the other end of the corridor.

We rush through the door with Wolfie and slam it shut behind us. We quickly lock it. Sam, Ash and Matt push a large broken wooden cabinet in front of the door.

We all stand there, recovering for a second. I put my hand to my throbbing chest. 
“We should keep going,” Mike says breathlessly, looking nervously at the door.
There’s a loud thump and the cabinet shakes as the wendigo throws itself against the other side. Ashley jumps, letting out a small yelp.
“We know that doors don’t stop these things for long.” He adds.

Mike leads us through more rooms and corridors until we come to a large hole in the floor.
“Down here.” He jumps onto the platform below.
Sam and Wolfie follow him without question, both landing gracefully. I sigh, looking how far down it is. Both my ankle and my chest are not going to like this. Matt jumps down next, landing heavily, the rest of us wince at the noise, although, at least he landed on his feet, which I think in my case, might be unlikely with my track record.

Ashley crouches down and then dangles her legs over the edge. She takes a deep breath and then hops down with a small grunt as she lands. My turn. I copy Ashley, deciding it was probably a smart move to lessen the fall. I jump down, stumble slightly as I land but manage to stay upright. Both my chest and my ankle twinge in process. I try to conceal the look of pain on my face. 

“Another jump?” I groan as we walk to the end of the short platform.
“Yup,” Mike grunts as he easily jumps down again.
Sam gets down at the same time and with the same ease as Mike. Matt sighs and follows them with Wolfie hot on his heels. Ashley once again dangles her feet over the edge and jumps down. I follow, once again managing to land on my feet but I have to bite my tongue as a sharp pain shoots through my ankle and then turns in to a dull throb.

I look around. The room we’re in has been completely blown apart. The others are already picking their way through the burnt rubble. I suck in a pained breath through my teeth and follow, ignoring my aching ankle, neck and chest. I'm a mess and we haven't even got to Josh yet. 

We walk up a set of steps and we’re back outside in the open, cold air.

“It’s not far now,” Sam reassures us.

Oh, Josh! I hope you’re okay!

Chapter Text

“You two made a right mess of this place,” I comment on the metal fence that’s had a section completely ripped out of it.
“It was kinda a ‘the building or our heads’ situation.” Mike shrugs. “What ya gonna do?”

We head through the broken fence and down the snow-covered path. The path is lined by dark, tall, bare trees. It seems like wherever you are on this mountain it's going to try to creep you out in some way, shape or form.

We approach a large, heavy-looking metal door that has been left slightly ajar. Mike braces his shoulder against it and slowly pushes it open. He holds it as the rest of us hurry inside and then heaves it shut behind us.

Sam’s head torch lights up the walls and ceiling as she looks around. It’s dark and dank down here. I can smell damp and rot. If Josh is down here he must be freezing to death. We need to get to him.

“Is it just me or did we just walk straight into another horror movie?” Ashley whispers.
“Or a nightmare,” Matt mutters.

Sam and Mike lead us through the tunnels in the mines. Although it seems more of a cave system than a mine. The place is falling to pieces and is covered in stalagmites and stalactites. Water is constantly dripping from the ceiling and trailing down the walls. The whole place smells rotten and that does not give me the greatest confidence in its structural qualities, especially seeing as this place was closed down for structural faults over fifty years ago. We should all be watching our steps, who knows where one wrong move could take us tumbling off to.

We all stay close together, eyes peeled. Mike and Sam lead us down a small drop that causes my ankle to twinge when I land on it heavily and then into a large flooded cavern.

“This…” Mike stops at the edge and takes a deep breath, “this is where it took Josh.” He nods to the water. “God! Why did I leave him?” He sighs.
“It’s okay, we’re going to find him,” Sam says resolutely.
“You… you mean we have to swim?” Ashley stutters.
“It’s not that deep,” Sam says sitting down and swinging her legs over the edge. “Just,” she jumps in “c-c-cold.”
“We need to be careful, it was in the water,” Mike whispers.
“Now you tell me?” Sam grits her teeth. “Well, are you guys coming or not? There’s not another way.”

I sigh, take my backpack off and put my flamethrower inside it so it doesn’t get ruined by the water. I sling my backpack back over my shoulders, adjusting the straps so it's as high as possible. No one else is moving, so I get down. I put the shotgun down on the side so it doesn’t get wet and then slide in. Fuck!
“God damn! It’s freezing!” I grit my teeth and grab the gun, holding it above my head.

I move about in the water, trying to retain some sort of warmth as Ash and Matt get in next. It’s no use though, I’ve already lost all feeling in my toes. Both of them gasp at the cold water. Josh better be alive, I’m going to kill him if we’ve done all this for nothing.

Mike takes the flamethrower off his back. “This thing won’t like the water. I-I think we’re going to have to leave it here.”
“You sure, w-what i-if there’s more of them?” Matt's teeth chatter.
“Chris can handle it,” Mike shrugs sitting down on the edge.
“W-what?” I stutter.
I don’t like the implication that I am now responsible for the safety of the group. What if I fuck up again? I grip the shotgun that I’m holding above my head more tightly.
He slides into the water. “Fuck!” He makes a face at the cold “Come on then.”
He and Sam start wading through the water and we follow.

As we make our way across, the water slowly gets deeper and deeper.
“I thought you said we didn’t have to swim.” Ashley humphs, holding her arms above the water as it comes up to her chest.
“It starts getting shallower again here,” Sam reassures her through chattering teeth.

“See we made it.” Sam grunts as she pulls herself out
Mike and I follow her.

“Fuck!” I gasp.
The first thing I see as I pull myself out of the water is the stranger's head lying on the ground, beginning to rot. As I get up I see the wendigo streek past, slitting his throat, his head thudding down to the snowy ground. I stumble slightly, turning away from the others feeling the bile building in my throat. I lean against the wall and wretch.

“Oh, God!” I hear Matt exclaim as he gets up.

It was all my fault. This man saved us, he let me drag him outside to go look for Josh and then I just watched as he died. His head hits the snow. I’m pathetic. His body slumps. I’m a coward. His eyes are blank, his mouth hangs open. It should have been me. I was the one that left Josh. I abandoned my best friend. It should have been me.

“Chris.” Ashley whispers and I feel her hand on my back.
I wipe my mouth on my sleeve and turn to her.
“Oh my God, Ash!” I sob.
She gently places her hands on either side of my face. I look at her.
“Chris, it wasn’t your fault.” She whispers.

“Chris, we need to find Josh.” Sam reminds us. 
I nod and take a deep breath, moving Ashley's hands off my face, “I'm fine, let's keep going.”

Mike opens the metal door and we cautiously walk through it.
“Josh?” Sam calls into the darkness.
There's no reply.

We turn a corner.
“Oh fuck!”

I quickly avert my eye from the old man's body. But it’s too late, the image is already burned into my brain. Blood has spilt down from his neck, dripping down his chest just as I remember. The body is hanging from a meat hook, suspended in the air, swaying slightly. Don't throw up, don't throw up. Do not throw up.

“Oh my God!” Matt whispers.

“Josh?” Sam calls. “Do you think he'll be here again?” She asks Mike.
“I hope so. This is the direction it took him in. I guess it's a good sign that he's not…” Mike trails off, his eyes linger on the body hanging from the ceiling.
“Let's keep moving.” Sam strides briskly over to a wooden door and opens it for us.
We all hurry through it, keen to put as much distance between us and that body as possible. I gulp back bile thinking about it and shake my head, trying to rid myself of the stomach-churning image. 

As we enter the dark cavern I think I hear a faint sobbing.
“Josh?” I call out.
The sobbing grows louder.
“I think it's coming from over here.” Sam begins to quickly walk toward the noise.
“Sam wait.” Ashley catches her. “Th-they can mimic us. It might be a trap. Be careful.”

Sam nods and proceeds, a little slower this time. We all make our way around the corner. 

“Oh my God, Josh!” Sam cries out.

And there he is, huddled in the darkness, rocking back and forth, shivering intensely. He's still wearing the psycho overalls and is covered in dirt and blood. His face is bruised, with a nasty cut across his forehead. He must have been through hell. 

I approach him slowly, kneeling down next to him.
“Josh? Buddy? You alright?” I ask softly.
“All my fault. All my fault.” He's sobbing, over and over again.
“Josh?”
“All my fault. All my fault.” He keeps chanting.
“Josh.” I gently put a hand on his shoulder.
His head snaps up, he looks at me, fear in his eyes.
“No! No! I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” He sobs and curls back in on himself. “You’re not real! Go away!” He starts rocking back and forth more intensely.

“You want me to smack him?” Mike asks.
“No!” Both Sam and Ashley protest.
Josh jumps at their raised voices.

“Come on buddy. Listen to me. We’re here, we’re real.”
But he doesn’t listen, he covers his ears with his hands and continues to rock back and forth.
“No! No! I don’t take orders from you!”

I turn to Ashley, looking at her hopelessly, I don’t know what to do. She sighs, takes a step forward, and putting a hand on my shoulder, crouches down next to me. Her green eyes focus on him, her brow crinkles as she thinks about what to do. She purses her lips. I think she's conflicted, she doesn't know whether to be angry or compassionate. 
“Josh," she sighs and then bursts into tears, "oh God Josh! I'm sorry!" she reaches out a hand and rests it gently on his knee. 
He doesn’t pay any attention.
“God damn it!” I mutter.

We sit there for a while. Josh’s mutterings and Ashley's quiet sobs filling the dark, quiet space. How are we going to snap him out of this without resorting to violence? I am not going to let Mike hit him again.

“Josh.” Sam comes over and kneels down on his other side, slowly reaching out for his hand which he has pressed over his ear, she takes it in hers. “Josh. Please come back.” She says so quietly I’m not sure the others will catch it.
“Sammy.” He slowly stops rocking and sniffs, not daring to look up.
“I’m here Josh.”
He lifts his head up and lets his gaze settle on her. Then he looks around at the rest of us.
“Ash! Cochise! W-what are you guys doing here?”
“We came to get you, Josh,” Sam explains.
“W-why?” He sobs. “After everything I did! No! This isn't real! I’m sorry! I'm so sorry. All my fault.”
“Hey, hey, Josh.” I get his attention. “This is real. Come on, you must be freezing.” I take off my backpack and pull out the sweater and hat that I brought.
“Here, put these on.” I hand them to him.
He pulls them on and his shivering lessens a little.

“Now Josh,” Sam looks him right in the eyes, “this is really important. Have you eaten anything while you've been down here?”
“N-no.” Josh shakes his head.
“Are you sure?” Ash asks seriously, knowing what Sam is getting at.
“Uh-huh.” Josh nods. “I'm so hungry though.” He groans.
“Here.” Sam rifles through her backpack and gets out a pack of wine gums which she quickly rips open and offers to Josh.
Wait? Sam has wine gums! I swear they’re not vegan. Did she get them just for Josh? Josh takes the pack cautiously and peers inside. He looks at us all suspiciously as if we might poison him. Then grabs one and pops it into his mouth.
“My favourite.” He grins.

“Josh, can you walk?” Sam asks.
Josh doesn’t answer, just gobbles up another wine gum.
I stand up sighing. “Josh?” I offer him my hand.
He looks up, frowns at my hand and after a few seconds of consideration takes it. I pull him up onto his feet. He seems a little unsteady, still shaking slightly but he can stand, thank God.
He looks around at as all mournfully. “Guys, you don't know how sorry I am.” He starts.
“Shhh, Josh.” Sam comforts him. “Let's get you out of here. Okay?”
Josh nods.

“How are we going to get back? I don't think the sanitorium is a good idea.” Mike frowns.
“I've got some rope in my bag. We could go back via the tunnels and see if we can lower people down that drop.” I suggest.
“How strong is your rope?” Sam asks.
“I don’t know, it’s rope.” I shrug.
“Well, we might as well give it a go.” She sighs.
“Lead the way, Sam.” Mike gestures.

Sam looks back at Josh. His eyes are wide, not fully focused. He’s looking around cautiously. Oh God, what has he gone through over the last couple of days? I can’t believe I left him down here for so long.

“Come on Sam,” Matt says gently.
Sam gulps, nods, and turns away from Josh. “Right. Follow me.” She starts walking back the way we came.
“Come on buddy.” I give Josh a gentle pat on the back and he starts to walk with us.

Chapter Text

As we retrace our steps everyone is very quiet, except Josh, continually muttering to himself. It’s so hard to see him like this. We just need to get him out of here and get him some help. Then everything will be okay. 

We go back past the old man's body again. I try my best not to look at it but the way it sways ever so slightly draws my eyes to it. I grip the shotgun tightly in my hands and gulp down the contents of my stomach. It’s all my fault. I flinch as the image that I’ve been seeing ever since it happened flashes across my vision again. I’m so sorry. I didn’t even know his name. He was trying to help us and I got him killed.

"I don't take orders from you!" Josh bursts out loudly, making the rest of us jump. 
His shoulders are hunched, he's still shivering and shaking despite the extra layers I've given him. He's looking around frantically, eyes seeming to focus on things that aren't there. I can't imagine the shit that's going on in his head right now. I sigh. I left him. He's my best friend and I left him. He’s in this state because of me.

Ashley drops back and approaches Josh cautiously. She falls into step beside him and looks at him, concern, confusion and curiosity in her eyes all at once. I watch from a few steps behind them as she battles with herself, ready to intervene should anything happen. 
"All my fault!" Josh suddenly sobs, it bounces through the caves.
I wince as I hear how far the sound travels. 
"Shhh, Josh." Ashley slowly reaches out her arm and places a hand on Josh's back, moving it in slow, gentle circles, soothing him. 
He looks at her and then sobs a little more, but not as loudly this time. 
"Ash, Ashley, Ashley, Ashy, Ash, Ash." He stutters through her name. 
"I'm still mad at you for punching me," Ashley mutters, "asshole." 
Josh sniffs. "I know." And I can't see it but it sounded like he was smirking. 

I smile to myself, liking the familiarity of the way my two best friends interact. Allowing myself to forget that we're traipsing through abandoned mines being hunted by wendigo for a second. I'm jolted back to reality when I spot the old man's head, still lying motionless, on the ground by the water. I stumble as his head hits the snow again. Ashley turns her head toward me and gives me a concerned look but doesn’t say anything as she's still looking after Josh.

“Come on. Back in we all get.” Sam climbs back into the water.
We all groan, not wanting to get back into the freezing pool, still cold and shivering from our first dip.
“No! No! She… H-h-h...she was in there. She wants to punish me.” Josh sobs frantically pushing Ashley away from him.
"Hey." I catch him by the shoulder. "Don't push her around."
"It's okay Chris." Ashley brushes it off. 
"No! I didn't want you to die! I didn't want you to die!" Josh puts his head in his hands. 
“Josh, Josh,” I squeeze his shoulder gently to get his attention.
He should know the truth about Hannah.
I take a deep breath and say, “Hannah’s gone.”
“W-what?” He looks up at me. “N-no, she grabbed me. She wanted to kill me, to punish me f-for not saving her. It was all my fault.”
“Oh God Josh! It wasn’t your fault. It wasn’t anyone’s fault.” I say through tears. 
Has he been blaming himself this whole time? I pull him into a tight hug, he's shaking so much. 
I put my hands on his shoulders and holding him at arm's length, tell him gently. “Hannah… or what was left of her, died, two nights ago, in an explosion at the lodge. She… she’s at peace now.”
I hope, but I'm not about to say that bit out loud. 

“Come on Josh, let’s get you out of here,” Sam says softly, beckoning him into the water.
Matt and Mike have already followed her in.
“Go on Josh.” I encourage.
Ashley nods at him too. He wipes his eyes and slowly sits down at the edge and lowers himself down into the water. Ashley gets in after him. Then I get in, staying behind everyone, keeping an eye on them all, especially Josh. I’m not letting him out of my sight until we get him somewhere safe. I refuse to fail him again.

It's still fucking freezing but, seeing as my clothes are already wet and cold this time, it doesn't come as much as a shock. We wade through the deep water and over to the other side. 

"No! I-I don't take orders from you." Josh cowers at an invisible threat. 
God! How did he get like this? How did I not see this happening? Why didn't I help him when I had the chance? 
"Come on idiot." Ashley sighs, taking hold of one of his flailing arms and gently guiding him forward. 
"Ash, Ash! No!" He tries to pull her away from something. 
She quickly turns to see what he's scared of, panic in her eyes. But when she discovers there's nothing there she lets out a relieved sigh. 
"It's okay Josh. I-I'm scared too." She stands in front of him and holds out her hands. "Come on, walk with me." 
He takes her hands, gripping onto her wrists and she starts to walk backwards, leading him through the water like she's teaching a toddler to walk. 
"Can't believe I'm helping you after you tried to saw me in half." She mutters. 
"I-I'm sorry." He whispers. 
"I know." And her smile, although tight, has sympathy in it. 

Sam gets to the other side first and quickly climbs out, giving all subsequent people a hand as they follow her. When it comes to Josh, Ashley and I help him from the water while Sam and Matt pull him up onto dry ground.

Ashley lifts her arms up ready to pull herself out when Matt offers her a hand. I'm surprised when she brushes it away and pulls herself out. I follow her, gritting my teeth as my chest twinges from the effort of lifting myself out. I sit there for a few seconds, regaining my breath, water dripping off me. I take it as an opportunity to get my flame thrower back out of my bag, attaching it to my belt again. Then I pull myself to my feet and pick up the shotgun from where I put it down while we were helping Josh out. 

We follow Sam and Mike back through the mines. When we get to the small drop we all came down earlier everyone has to chip in to get Josh up it. He's so out of it that he's basically dead weight. After travelling through the tunnels for a bit we get back to the door that we originally came through but Sam leads us over to a metal gate instead. It's jammed shut and Mike and Matt have to force it open. There’s another climb that we all have to help Josh up, but we manage it. Then we’re at the edge of the drop down to the tunnels that lead back to the lodge.

“Right, let’s have a look at that rope.” Sam sighs.
I take my backpack off and rifle through it until I find the rope, which I pull out. Sam takes it, tests its strength and nods.
“How are we going to do this.” She looks over the edge of the drop, frowning.
“Abseil it, I guess.” I shrug. “I-I’ll go first if you want. To test out the strength of the rope. It is mine after all. I’d prefer it to be me that fell rather than anyone else.”
“You sure?” Sam asks.
I nod.

We set about finding the best way to do it. We find a strong metal pole in the structure of the mine to lever the rope around. Mike and Matt get a firm hold on one end of the rope while the other is tied securely around my waist. I’m ready to go. Why did I volunteer to go first?

I go over to the edge.
“You guys ready.” I nod to Matt and Mike.
“Yup.” Mike nods back.
I stand there for a minute, gathering up the courage to start. It does look like a long way down. 
“Any time now,” Mike smirks.
I sigh and begin to lower myself down.

There are actually a reasonable amount of foot and hand holds. I find somewhere to safely put my feet and then slowly move my hands down. I’m shaky and feel like I could fall at any moment, despite the comfort of the rope around my waist that I know will catch me. I keep climbing downward. 
“Fuck!” I lose my grip, but the rope catches me and I manage to regain it.
“You alright Chris?” Ashley calls.
“Right as rain,” I call back through gritted teeth, my chest throbbing, I just want to get the hell off this wall.

After a little bit more climbing I put my right foot down and suddenly find myself on solid ground.
“Land ahoy,” I call out, untying the rope.

Next, they send down Josh. Who is a little bit harder to get down seeing as he’s not altogether with it, meaning his climbing skills are even more minimal than mine. Mike and Matt spend a lot of time slowly lowering him down, trying to avoid hurting him. Eventually, he gets to the ground and I untie him.
“You alright man?” I ask.
Josh nods, looking pale.

Next, they send down Matt, with the three others on the rope. They decide that seeing as Sam is the best climber she can come down on her own and that as Ashley is the lightest she’s the best person for Sam to assist alone. Matt gets down reasonably easily, followed by Mike who’s a pretty good climber.

Next comes Ashley. She stands at the top looking down nervously. 
“Oh God! Sam I don’t know if I can do this.” She says lowering herself and searching for a foothold.
“You’ll be fine Ashley. I’ve got you.” I hear Sam trying to reassure her.
“You’ve got this Ash,” I call up to her.
She looks down again, gulps, quickly averts her eyes from the drop and then begins to slowly make her way down. She’s not too bad if a little timid. Who am I to talk though? I'm a crap climber.

As she gets off the wall she stumbles but I catch her and set her upright.
“Thanks.” She smiles as I reach for the rope and begin untying her.
My hands shake and I fumble as I'm trying to undo the knot. 
"I think Ashley can untie herself Chirs," Mike smirks. 
"Oh, yeah, right, sorry." I realise and take a step away from her. 
It could just be me projecting but I think she looks slightly disappointed. 
"Cock block," Josh snorts. 
I feel my ears going bright red. I turn to Josh, planning on giving him my usual glare to tell him to shut up but he's staring at the ground muttering quietly to himself, clearly he's returned to his own world. Damn you, Mike! As if I was going to make a move on Ashley here, in the creepy mines, with the rest of them watching. 

“I’m coming down,” Sam yells.
She lowers herself down on to the wall and starts expertly climbing down. She’s like a freakin' monkey. She gets to the bottom, a little breathless and wipes her hands off on her yoga pants.
“Not too shabby Sammy.” Josh grins.
We all turn and look at him. Surprised that he's lucid enough to know what's going on. 
Sam smiles at him stiffly. “Let’s keep moving.” 
"Not too shabby," Josh repeats quietly, smiling to himself. 

We slowly make our way back through the dark tunnels that we’ve travelled through once before. I stay at the back. I want to keep an eye on everyone. I refuse to mess up again. No one is getting left behind on my watch this time.

We get to the ladder that leads to the basement. Matt goes up it first and pushes the heavy metal cover out of the way. We all follow, one by one. I make sure I’m last so that I can watch everyone get up safely.

Just as I start climbing up the ladder I hear a loud, bone-chilling screech echo down the tunnels toward me.
“Shit!” I mutter and quickly make my way up the rest of the ladder. “We’ve got to move guys, we've got company,” I say as I climb out.
“What?” Mike says, eyes wide.
There’s another screech. Everyone hears it this time. Matt quickly puts the cover back over the hole.
“Come on, we need to move.” Mike beckons anxiously, quickly beginning to make his way down the corridor.

Chapter Text

We run through the corridors that link the sanitorium to the Washington estate. As I suck in breaths I feel my chest beginning to burn and with each step the throbbing in my ankle intensifies. God! Every breath feels like something is on fire and I’m starting to limp again. I really should have listened to the doctor and rested up.

I look up and see Josh being dragged along by Matt. Another screech echoes its way towards us. Josh’s eyes fill with pure dread and terror. He stumbles slightly but Matt keeps him going. I grit my teeth and keep running, no longer regretting my decision to ignore the doctor. I can’t imagine making Josh spend a second more down in those mines.

I trip as my ankle gives way underneath my weight. I manage to catch myself against the wall, stopping myself from tumbling down face first. The others speed on ahead of me. I take in a few deep breaths, my chest aching as I do.
Ashley looks back over her shoulder and a panicked look crosses her face when she sees I’ve stopped. “Come on Chris!”  
“I’m coming, I’m coming.” I push myself off the wall and force myself to move as fast as I can.

We run back past the chairs where Josh tied Ash and me up.
“Wait! Wait! Wait!” Josh wails, reaching out. “My cameras.”
“No time man.” Matt shakes his head and yanks him into the CCTV room.

I gulp, thinking about what's on those cameras, what was recorded on the monitors in the CCTV room. Some sick, twisted, torture, horror movie that Josh crafted so meticulously. And boy, did he get us. We played the parts that he wanted us to so well. We were so predictable. Screamed at all the right moments during his little 'fantasmagorical spectical' as he called it. Some of the actions that those cameras caught on tape were really not my best moments. I still can't stand the thought of how I just froze up as that saw spun toward Ash and Josh. I shiver and look at Josh's pained expression again. I wonder if he's upset about the loss of the cameras or the footage. 

We continue running, going down the corridor and through to the basement kitchen, past the hit list and the saws and the pig. It feels like a bad omen running past all of Josh’s prank crap. A feeling of dread settles in the pit of my stomach as I throw myself through the double doors, desperately trying to keep up with the others.

Up the stairs, down the hallway, past the collection of liquors and spirits. I notice the rocking horse moving back and forth gently, from the force that the others have sprinted past it with. They’re already halfway up the stairs when I get to the first step. I hear a distant, ominous thump, which must be the wendigo trying to get through one of the doors I locked behind us.

On the last set of steps, I feel my foot slip, ankle giving way on the broken step that I, yet again, failed to notice in my rush. This time I don’t manage to catch myself. I fall face first onto the steps in front of me. A sharp pain hits my brow, there’s a ringing in my ears. I slowly pull myself up, putting my hand to my head, my fingers come away bloodied.

“Chris!” Ashley comes rushing back and grabs my arm.
What is going on? There’s a sense of urgency bouncing around my brain but I can't work out what for. The ringing in my ears is so loud, it feels like something is forcing a knife into my skull.
“Chris, we gotta move.” Ashley pulls on my arm, panicked.
I follow her lead, standing up and stumbling up the remaining stairs. She drags me down the hallway and over the rubble at the bottom of the main staircase.

There’s a loud screech behind us. My brain jolts back into action, adrenaline pumping through my body. I pick up my pace, ignoring the sharp pain in my ankle. Another screech, this one closer. If only this thing would fuck off.

We sprint up the stairs and into the lodge. Luckily this time there’s no wendigo hanging from the ceiling.

Ashley and I leave the lodge by the back exit, where the door was blown off its hinges by the force of the explosion. The others are already outside.

The screeching is so close.

We all gather together out in the snow, back to back. I notice Josh’s hands wrapped desperately around one of Sam’s arms as he looks up at the burnt out husk of the lodge, a distraught look on his face. I hope she makes sure he doesn’t run off anywhere. I turn to Ash, she looks terrified but she’s gripping the rifle tightly. Mike’s got the flame thrower ready, Matt’s got his pistol pointed at the door that we all just came through. I’m holding the shotgun, pointing it in the direction of the screeches.

Then we see it and we all stay completely still. It crawls its way out of the blackened doorway onto the side of the lodge like a spider.

“No one move,” Mike whispers.

It leaps down onto the decking and then scuttles down the stairs, head jerking around, searching for us, looking for any sign of movement. God does it move fast!

“You’re going to have to kill it, Mike,” Sam whispers. “There’s nothing else we can do, we can’t get away.”

We stare at it as it surveys the clearing.

“No, no, I’m sorry,” Josh mutters.
“Josh, you need to stay still,” Mike commands through gritted teeth.  
“I’m sorry!” Josh bursts out. “I didn’t-didn’t want you to die! Didn’t want you to die!”

The wendigos head snaps toward us, it’s eyes focusing on Josh, seeing him straight away as he puts his head in his hands, shaking it violently.

It starts rapidly advancing toward us.
“Fuck!” Mike lets out a burst of flame in its direction.
It screams and retreats.

There’s a loud bang as Matt aims a shot at it but it seems to have little effect on the creature. It merely turns toward us and lets out its unearthly scream, giving us a good view of its many razor-sharp teeth.

“Josh! Josh! You need to calm down,” Sam talks to him frantically.  
But Josh has sunk down into the snow and is rocking back and forth hysterically. Shit, shit! Fuck! Josh, how did you get so messed up? I'm sure I'm at least partially to blame for this. I'm such a crap best friend!
“All my fault, all my fault.” He sobbing. “I didn’t want you to die!”

The wendigo turns away from us and leaps into a nearby tree, disappearing from view. It’s hard to keep track of it in the swaying branches.

Everything goes very quiet. The only sound, the soft whistling of the winter wind.
“Where are you? You little bugger.” Mike whispers.

A twig snaps.

I twist toward the sound.

But I’m too late.

It’s leaping toward Mike.

Claws outstretched.

Teeth bared.

He points the flamethrower in its direction.

But he’s too late.

Chapter Text

It’s on top of Mike. Trying to claw at him with those long nails. I have to do something. I need to do something. Or Mike will die.

A loud bang echoes through the clearing. Matt's holding his gun up at the creature. It didn't even flinch. 

I need to do something. But I might hurt Mike. What do I do? 

Mike's still wrestling with the creature, desperately trying to push it off him. 

I don't know what to do. 

"Chris!" Mike yells through gritted teeth. 

Mike needs my help.

I step forward. Aim my flamethrower and pull the lever.

The wendigo lets out a piercing shriek. The skin on its left arm blackens from the flame. It jumps off Mike like it’s been bitten.

Mike struggles to his feet, bloodied and bruised and panting. 

The wendigo leaps into the trees again, preparing for round two. 

We need to stop it. Then we need to burn it. Two shots are better than one, but Matt's gun is doing nothing. 

"Matt!" I call out and throw my shotgun at him. 

He catches it. 

"Ash, you two take it down. Mike get ready to burn it.” 

To burn it we need to stop it. To stop it we need a clear shot at it. To get a clear shot at it we need it out in the open. To get it out in the open we need bait. To bait a wendigo you'd have to be an idiot. Luckily, I'm an idiot. 

I'm going to do the most reckless, stupid thing I have ever done, and I'm best friends with Josh so I've done a fair amount of stupid in my life. 

I break off from the group, running into the open, limping slightly. 

"Chris no!" Ash cries out. 
I ignore her. If we're going to get rid of this thing, this needs to be done. 

“Hey! Over here.” I wave my arms in the air, ignoring the pain in my chest, surveying the trees, trying to work out where it'll be coming from.
It leaps down from a tree and into the snow to my right. It screams loudly and then starts advancing, quickly cantering toward me. I notice the others spring into action in my peripheral vision. I hope they'll be quick enough. 

“Now,” I yell when it gets close.

Two loud blasts echo around the mountainside, one after the other, sounding almost like thunder. The wendigo lies inert in the snow for a second, only a couple of meters away from me. It starts to pull itself back up. 

"Mike!" I shout. 

Two burst of flame shoot towards it. When the fire touches it, it shrieks, writhing and wriggling as it burns, collapsing back into the snow, it's limbs flailing. Its shrieks turn into cries, getting weaker and weaker, reminding me that this thing, this monster, was once a human. A small part of me starts to feel some sort of deranged sympathy for this poor being, driven mad by hunger. It doesn't stop me from continuing to burn it, long after it's necessary, just to make sure. I'm not taking any chances.

"Guys! Stop!" Sam cries out from where she's crouched next to the distraught Josh. 

I jerk myself out of my trance. Letting go of the lever on my flamethrower. Mike does the same, stumbling back a step, staring at the blackened creature in front of him. 

The mountain goes quite, apart from the scared panting of the group.

Suddenly a scream pierces through the silence and a fiery form sweeps its way through the air and into the night.

“Let’s... let’s get off this mountain.” Matt gulps.
“Yeah.” Mike agrees.

"Come on man." Matt slings the shotgun over his back and holds out his hand to Josh. 
"I'm sorry, I'm sorry." He's sobbing. 
"Josh?" Sam tentatively puts a hand on one of his arms. 
"Make them stop Sammy!" 
"Josh, can you take Matt's hand for me please?" She asks softly. 
Josh looks up at Matt, sniffs, wipes his eyes and then nods. He reaches up and puts his hand in Matts and Matt pulls him to his feet. 
"Let's go home," Matt says resolutely. 

We all start to move back toward the door. Matt goes first, gently towing Josh behind him. We traipse through the dark lodge, picking our way back through the rubble and ash until we're at the top of the steps that lead down from the front door. 

"Try not to put your foot in it this time," Mike smirks at Matt. 
"Quit being a dick Munroe." Matt glares at him. 
"Let's save the catfight for when we get off this mountain." Sam sighs, starting to make her way down the steps. 
She holds out a hand to Josh and starts to carefully guide him down. 

One by one we make our way down the stairs, managing to avoid any mishaps this time. Mike and Matt stay quiet and don't make any more gibes at each other. 

Once down the stairs, we head down the path toward the cable car, going the long way round to avoid climbing over the first gate. Josh is in no state to do any climbing, still terrified from the wendigo encounter. 

We go down the small drop, Matt and Mike help Josh down. Thank god they're working together, instead of throwing insults at each other. Josh clings on to Sam whenever he can, she doesn’t look altogether comfortable with it, but, I think she’s glad he’s safe.

“Ow!” I yelp as I feel something hit my back, I turn and find Ashley has hit me with the rifle she’s holding. “What was that for?”
“For scaring me you dip! Yelling at a wendigo? Really? What is wrong with you?” She glares at me. 
“What? I don’t get a thank you for saving your life?” I laugh.
“Thank you.” She pouts. “But don’t scare me like that again or I’ll kill you myself.”
“That sounds a little counterproductive.” 
“Shut up.” She marches off after the others.
I laugh, roll my eyes and follow her. God, I love her. Wait? What? Do I… Am I… Shit! I do! We’re not even... I guess... I did shoot myself in the head for her. Crap! Jesus! Fuck! What do I do? I can't tell her. That would make things weird, wouldn't it? There's no way she feels the same. I sigh and trail slightly behind her, no longer knowing what to say to her. 

We go back along the path, climbing over the second locked gate on our way. It's a pain getting Josh over, but we manage it.

We get to the cable car station and turn everything on. We all bundle into the cable car together. Ashley sits next to me, arms crossed, trying to stay annoyed at my reckless behaviour. I try to put as much distance between us as possible, feeling awkward and stupid, pressing myself up against the side of the cable car and trying to avoid eye contact with her. Matt sits beside her, like before, he’s staring out the window, I think he’s relieved to be done with this place, we all are. Josh sits between Sam and Mike, opposite us. He looks completely exhausted and defeated. He’s sitting, resting his elbows on his knees, staring at the floor, still quietly muttering to himself. Sam keeps glancing at him anxiously, shaking her knee up and down subconsciously. Mike's got his head leaned back, eyes closed, he's taking deep breaths. I don't blame him, the scratch across his chest looks painful. 

The cable jolts into action, lurching us all this way and that. I find myself sliding down the bench toward Ashley and quickly scramble to squash myself back against the window, wincing as my chest aches in response. I feel her eyes on me, questioning my odd behaviour. I refuse to meet her eye. I'm terrified that she'll be able to tell. Heat creeps up my neck, I feel my ears going red. Can she just stop looking at me? Please! I pull my hood up and stare out of the window. 

As the cable car slowly makes its way down the mountain, the first rays of the sun begin to peak through the darkness. It’s dawn again.

Chapter Text

As we slowly make our way down the trail having gotten off the cable car I notice the faint flashing of blue lights at the bottom of the mountain. This cannot be good.

A commotion reaches my ears as we get closer, a clamour of voices and vehicles. Who the hell is down there? I could understand the police being there but it sounds like more than just the police.

Despite the warning from the lights and the sounds, I’m not prepared for what we find when we get to the bottom of the mountain. Police cars and tape, everywhere, the blue lights whirring round and round making my tired eyes ache.

There are shouts as we come around the corner and into view. A few members of the police force rush to the gate and usher us through.

Behind all the police personnel and vehicles a mass of journalists stand in wait, yelling at us to get comments as we’re quickly escorted into a police van. It’s all so loud and the flashes are so bright. My head is pounding. What is going on? Everything is happening so fast.

The doors of the van are closed and the noises fade. Thank God!

“Do you think we’re going to have to make statements again?” Ashley asks quietly.
“Probably,” I answer.
“Oh God! They’re not going to believe us.” She puts her head in her hands.
I put my arm around her, to try to provide some sort of comfort, although, I'm not sure how successful I am. I feel awkward and stupid trying to comfort her. Slowly, feeling like an idiot, I let my arm fall back to my side.

“I wonder who's parents clocked,” Matt says.
“Who knows.” Mike shrugs

I feel the engine turn on and then the van begins to drive off, jostling us all around. Being in the back of this van with no windows and only a dim fluorescent bulb makes me feel like some sort of criminal. We're going to be accused and interrogated all over again. God, I would do anything to not have to relive it all.

“W-where are we going?” Josh asks, fear in his voice.
“To a police station,” Sam replies
“Oh no! No! They’re going to lock me away. To punish me.” He rocks back and forth.
“Josh, I’m not going to let them lock you up,” Sam says firmly, putting a hand on his arm.
He bursts into violent sobs. “I’m so sorry guys. I d-don’t know what I was doing.”
“It’s okay Josh.” Sam pats his back gently. “You’re not well, we’re going to find someone who can help you get better.” She whispers.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” He keeps whimpering.
Sam looks like she might be about to cry too. I don’t blame her, this is hard to watch. She continues to sush and comfort him quietly.

“What are we going to do?” Matt sighs.
“What do you mean?” Mike looks up from where he's been staring at the floor.
“Well, no one believes us. What do we say?”
“We stick to the truth.”
“What good will that do us?”
“Look, we start lying, it complicates things.”
“I don’t know,” Matt sighs, “it just seems easier to say what they want to hear.”
“Matt, you fucking dare start lying and putting us all at risk, I swear-”
“Chill man, I’ll stick to the truth. Okay.”
“Good.”
The two of them go silent. Good. Breaking up a fight in the middle of a moving vehicle would not have been fun.

Ashley’s still got her head in her hands. She’s shaking. I can’t tell if she’s still cold from the mountain air or crying or both.
“Ash, you okay?” I lean down and whisper to her.
“This is all so messed up.” She sobs. “They won’t believe us. What if they lock us all up somewhere, call us crazy? My parents are going to kill me. Oh my God! I can’t breathe.”
“Ash, Ash, look up, look at me. Ashley, look at me.” I catch her arms in my hands and make her face me.
She needs to breathe.
“Ashley, come on, breathe, copy me, in, two, three, four, hold two, three, four, five, six, seven and out, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight,” I say firmly, she needs to listen to me.
She gulps back a sob and takes a deep breath in with me, not breaking eye contact. Her breath is unsteady as she breathes back out with me. Her bottom lip trembles, she choaks and almost bursts into tears again.
“Breath Ash, just breathe,” I whisper, gently tracing calming circles on her arms with my thumbs.
Tears are still rolling down her cheeks but she takes a deep breath and continues to breathe with me until she's got control of her own breath again.

“Better?” I ask after a while.
She nods, “I’m sorry,” a tear rolls down one of her cheeks and she quickly wipes it away, sniffing.
“You don’t need to apologise,” I whisper, she smiles up at me and then buries her face in my shoulder.
I feel my heartbeat quicken at her closeness. Is it possible that she feels the same way? Slowly I let my arm pull her closer, wrapping her up, trying to make her feel safe. I just want to protect her. 

***

The ride is long and bumpy. No-one says much. We’re all tired and shell shocked. Josh, continues to be impossible to calm down, despite Sam’s best efforts. He's constantly muttering to himself, rocking back and forth, terrified of things that aren't there. I notice Mike getting particularly annoyed by this. I really hope that he doesn’t turn around and hit Josh to shut him up.

Suddenly, the van stops and a few moments later the doors open. I squint into the bright morning light streaming in.
“Come on you lot, out you get.” A voice comes from the brightness.

We all stand up slowly, still getting used to the light. Josh doesn't though, he stays seated. I sigh as I look at his dirtied, bloodied form, trembling intensely. I should never have left him.
“Come on buddy.” I help Sam to pull him to his feet and we lead him out of the van.
He’s got his arms wrapped around himself, he just stares at the floor. Sam puts a hand on his shoulder in order to lead him.

The policeman from two days ago is standing on the steps of the police station once again.
“I was hoping not to see you lot so soon.” He sighs. “Come on.” He motions for us to follow him inside the building. “And no trouble this time.” He sternly points a finger at Mike.
Mike scowls but stays quiet.

We all trundle up the steps and into the police station. We’re taken to the same small waiting room as before.

“Joshua, we’d like to interview you first.” The policewoman who interviewed me two days ago (I can't remember her name) is standing in the doorway of one of the interview rooms.
“W-what?” He looks up. “N-n-no.” He looks around at us all in desperation.  
“Please.” Sam steps in front of him. “H-he’s really scared. He needs help. I don’t think you can interview him right now.”
“I’m afraid we need his version of events from the other night. It’s important that we know what happened to him.”
“At least let me come with him then,” Sam begs.
“I’m sorry, I can’t allow that.” She shakes her head.

We hear a commotion coming from down the corridor.
“I will not let you interrogate my son!”
The door slams open and Bob Washington comes charging in looking angrier than I’ve ever seen him before, and I've seen his reactions to Josh's antics. His face is bright red, eyes bulging, veins pulsing, he almost looks like some sort of cartoon character. I notice everyone subconsciously trying to get as far away from his wrath as possible. Josh's mutterings get louder and more frantic with the sound of his father's voice booming around the room. Melinda is just behind Bob a worried look on her face. The policeman from before is following them red-faced and flustered.

Melinda rushes forward when she sees Josh and envelops him in a slightly hysterical hug.
“Excuse me Mr and Mrs Washington, but I have to ask you to leave these premises as we need to conduct interviews with all those who were present on the mountain last night.” The policeman insists.
“You’ll do nothing of the sort. These kids are heroes, not common criminals. They rescued my son from that mountain which is more than I can say for any of your police force and my daughters.”
“I understand that, but it’s important that we document what happened.”
“Has a crime been committed?”
“Yes, according to several of their accounts your son would be guilty of a number of offences.”
“And do any of you want to press charges?” Bob looks around at us all.
We all look at one another, not sure what to say. Do I want to send my best friend, who I left out in the cold to die, to prison? Umm… no! But that doesn’t mean the others will agree with me. I'm just glad Emily's not here.

“Do you?” Bob repeats, more forcefully this time.
“No.” We all quickly say, practically in unison, Bob Washington is not a man to be argued with.

“There's also the matter of the man that reportedly died-”
“So you want to brand a bunch of kids as murderers?” Bob raises his eyebrows, clearly unimpressed.
“There's no need to throw around such serious accusations right now but-”
“Then I see no reason to keep them all here. They’re just kids, they’re clearly traumatised. I suggest that you let them all go.”
“Oh, we can’t do that.”
“Really? How about we ask my lawyer or one of my many contacts in the justice industry?”
“That won’t be necessary Mr Washington.”
“So you’re going to let them all go then?”
“Well, no, but-”
“Then it is entirely necessary.” Bob catches the policeman by the front of his uniform and moves his face very close to the policeman's. “I swear, if you do not let these kids go, I will destroy you and this whole station piece by piece.”
The policeman gulps. “T-they can go.”
“But…” The policewoman says, still standing in the doorway to the interview room.
“Let’s let them go.” The policeman interrupts her.
“Good,” Bob says, letting the policeman go and brushing his hands off on his trousers. “Come on kids.” He beckons to us.

Melinda follows him out with her arms around Josh. The rest of us look at each other, shocked, wondering if we’re really allowed to leave.
“Come on!” Bob calls again.
We all slowly start moving, knowing you should never try to cross Bob Washington. He’s the kind of man who always gets his way.

We follow the Washingtons out of the police station where we’re greeted by a flurry of flashes and shouted questions. Bob pushes his way through the crowd, Melinda holds Josh close, protecting him from the journalists crowding us to get a comment. I put my hand over my eyes and follow as Bob leads us over to a big black car where a chauffeur is waiting to open the door. I have to shoulder my way through the crowd as it tries to close in on us. Strangers faces push close to mine throwing questions at me that I don't even manage to comprehend as I wince from the bright flashes coming from their cameras. For fuck's sake. It feels like every paper in Alberta must be here.

The door to the car is opened. Bob beckons us in. Melinda and Josh climb in first, then I duck down and clamber inside, followed by the others. Bob gets in last and the door is shut behind him. The massive din dissipates into nothingness. There’s a collective sigh of relief. The chauffeur begins to drive, slowly through the crowd. What was that? Why is the press even here?

“Sorry about that,” Bob says. “It would seem that word of your adventures has gotten out somehow, despite my request for confidentiality.”
“Who would do that?” Mike asks.
“Probably some second rate cop for a buck or two,” Bob growls.

It’s a long, quiet drive home. The only one who speaks is Bob, giving us a constant monologue on how corrupt the police system is and raving about some movie deal he’s trying to get. I wish he would shut up. The more he talks the more agitated I notice Josh is getting. Melinda is desperately trying to soothe him but nothing seems to work.

The rest of us aren’t very talkative. I sit and stare out the window. I don’t want to talk to anyone. I just want to sleep. I want to unsee everything. I want to forget that any of this ever happened.

Chapter Text

I jolt awake, breathing heavily. I look around frantically. I’m in the Washington’s SUV. Everyone is here. Ashley is here, Josh is here, Sam is here, everyone is safe. I'm safe. Deep breath. I shake my head trying to get the image of the Wendigo and the stranger’s head out of my brain. I’ve got a splitting headache. I take my glasses off. As I bring my hand up to massage the bridge of my nose I notice that I'm shaking. I sigh. Am I ever going to be able to sleep peacefully again? I lean my forehead against the cold window and watch a blurry world whizz by. My tired, aching eyes keep trying to close of their own accord, willing me to fall back to sleep and give them some rest. I struggle desperately to keep myself awake. I have to keep my eyes open. For my own sanity, I need to stay awake. I can’t face the images that have imprinted themselves on the backs of my eyelids. God, I could really do with a coffee. I get my phone out and scroll through Reddit to distract myself for a while, but it just makes my headache worse.

I put my phone away and glance around at everyone else in the car. Bob's up in the passenger seat next to the driver, still monologing about something or other. His loud voice stabs at my head as it booms around the SUV. I can see his hands and the back of his head as he gestures expressively, a storyteller through and through, something he passed on to Josh. Something I almost wish he hadn't passed onto Josh. I shiver thinking about the choices he made me make. 

On the next row, Melinda sits with her arms around Josh, I catch glimpses of him as he shakes and rocks back and forth as well as snatches of his senseless mutterings. Perhaps I should have sat next to him when I got in. I should be helping to calm him down. Just more proof that I'm a shit best friend.

Ashley and I sit in the next row, but she's sitting on the other side of the car, a seat and the aisle between us. She's staring out the window, has been for the whole journey. Her hands are balled up into fists in her lap, her jaw tensed, her shoulders hunched. I glance at the seat next to me and for the hundredth time wonder why she chose not to sit there. Did I do something wrong? Did I say something stupid? It was probably the way I held her in the police van. She's trying to let me down gently. Or maybe I made her uncomfortable and she doesn't want to be near me. 

I turn my head, tearing myself away from thoughts of Ashley and glance at the others who are sitting behind me. Mike is hunched up in the corner, fast asleep, snoring peacefully, I envy him. Sam and Matt sit on the other side of the car, a seat between them and Mike. They're currently talking to each other in hushed voices that I can't quite make out. They've been quiet for most of the journey, every now and again turning and whispering to each other. They descend back into silence, turning away from each other, they both look absolutely miserable. 

Eventually, we leave the sparse Albertan countryside and drive into our small town. Matt is dropped off first, the SUV pulls up outside his family's large home, the swing set and climbing frame in the front yard covered in snow, light pouring out the windows, looking warm and inviting. The definition of idyllic. He gives both Sam and Ashley goodbye hugs, made awkward by the tight spaces within the SUV. I glare at his back as he hugs Ashley. He's Ashley's oldest friend, of course the rest of us weren't that far behind him but it's something I'll never be able to beat him on, along with a long list of other things. He gives me a smile and a nod which I reluctantly return, I'm not going to be an ass for no reason. 
"Get well soon Josh." I hear him mutter as he pats Josh gently on the shoulder before exiting the car.
"Thank you, Matthew," Melinda says softly to him. 
He gives her a pained smile and nods. 
"Bye guys, thank you Mr and Mrs Washinton." He closes the door and waves at us as we pull away. 

Next is Sam's house. I can hear the faint barking of her dogs as the SUV stops opposite the bungalow. As I turn around to look at her I notice her taking a deep breath and then plastering on a smile. She picks up her baseball bat and nudges the sleeping Mike with it. He opens one eye and looks at her. 
"What do you want?" 
"To say goodbye." 
"Oh," he sits up and looks around. 
"Have a good time at college." She scoots up next to him and gives him a hug. 
"Thanks, hope the volunteering continues to go well," he mumbles
She breaks the hug and nods in thanks, smile still glued firmly on her face. 

She gets up and moves forward one row. 
"Bye Chris." She leans down and hugs me. 
I return it, the odd angle making me feel awkward. As she pulls back I notice that the smile definitely does not reach her eyes. She's on the brink of tears. I want to say something but I can't think of anything that could make her feel any better. 
I just gulp and say, "bye Sam." 
Pathetic, I know. She turns around to Ashley and they exchange hugs and goodbyes. 

Before getting out of the car she crouches next to Josh's seat. The rest of us all put our focus elsewhere, all turning to stare intently at things outside of the SUV which have suddenly become very interesting to us. I can still hear her whispered words though. 
"Hey, Josh, I... get better, okay."
Josh mutters something. 
"What was that?" 
"B-beautiful, beautiful bathing bird," Josh whispers in a sing-song voice. 
I hear Sam make some kind of gasping, choking sound, then I hear her footsteps and the slam of the car door. I turn to see her running up the garden path to the bungalow. 
"S-Sammy, w-where you going, Sammy?" Josh calls after her. 
"Let's go." I hear Bob mutter to the driver. 
The car pulls away. Sam doesn't look back. 

Josh is even more impossible to calm down now that Sam is gone. He keeps sobbing and calling out her name. 
"Josh! Shut! Up!" Bob finally snaps. 
Josh goes quiet as the car stops outside of the lavish set of apartments that Mike lives in with his dad.

"Well, this is me." Mike sighs, pulling himself up.
"Bye guys," he says to Ashley and me as he shuffles past us, he gulps when he looks at Josh, "bye, Josh." 
He pauses and looks at the Washingtons. "Thank you, Mr and Mrs Washington." 
Melinda doesn't even look at him. 
"Michael." Bob nods, without turning around. 
He hangs his head, still ashamed of the part he had to play in the loss of their daughters. He gets out of the car and closes the door behind him. 

I try to focus on the familiar streets as we get closer to the side of town that Ashley and I live on but my mind keeps going back to the mountain. I jump when the car stops outside Ashley's house. Ashley sighs and undoes her seatbelt. I realise when she doesn't look at me that she's not going to come over and say goodbye. 

"Bye Ash," I say, my voice comes out croaky from lack of use over the last few hours. 
"Bye." She whispers, her eyes flicking worriedly to her front door. 
She quickly climbs out of the car and turns back around. 
"Thank you, Bob, thank you, Melinda." She nods to them while glancing back at her front door anxiously. 
"Thank you, Ashley," Melinda replies. 
Ashley quickly wipes the corners of her eyes, "and I'm sorry." 
"Nothing to be sorry for," Bob turns around and offers her a smile, "you look after yourself now petal." 
I notice Ashley's jaw stiffen at the use of 'petal', but she doesn't say anything. 
"Thank you, I will." She nods and hurriedly turns around and runs up the steps to her front door. 

Everyone in the SUV is quiet as we leave Ashley's house behind and travel the couple of blocks to my house. 
"Thanks," I say once we've arrived.
"Bye bud." I pat Josh on the shoulder as I pass him, he doesn't react. 

As I get out of the car I turn back to the Washington’s.
“Is Josh going to be okay?” I look at him worriedly, he’s practically catatonic.
“We’ll make sure he gets all the help he needs,” Melinda reassures me.
“I-I’m sorry.” I stutter. “I let him down, I should never have left him.”
“Christopher,” Bob turns around looking me straight in the eyes, “you didn’t let anyone down. And I want to thank you for going back for him, it can’t have been easy going back after everything that’s happened up on that God-forsaken mountain and after everything that he's done.” Bob looks at his son, the disappointment plain on his face.  
Josh seems to curl in on himself even more than he already has. 
“Of course, I-I'd do it again.” I nod.
I shut the door and the Washington’s sleek, black SUV pulls away, heading off to their big fancy home on the other side of town. Josh and I definitely weren't childhood friends because we were neighbours. 

I turn and look at my own house. I take a deep breath. I’m going to be in so much trouble. I walk up to the front door, realise I don’t have any keys and ring the doorbell. My mom opens the door. When she sees me she looks furious. I wince.
“Christopher James Hartley! You will come inside and explain to me exactly what you thought you were doing stealing your father's gun and sneaking away in the middle of the night to go on some ridiculous rescue mission right now.”
“It was more borrowing than stealing. See,” I hold up the shotgun. “I brought it back.” I grin, hoping to placate her.
“Wipe that smile off your face, I am not joking around.”
I sigh and step inside.
“Give me that.” She snatches the gun from my hands and storms upstairs with it.

I take this as an opportunity to take my coat and shoes off as well as dumping my bag on the floor. She comes charging back down the stairs and stops in front of me. Despite the fact that I'm at least a full head taller than her I cower at the look on her face. She's a fierce woman when she wants to be, I've never quite gotten over my childhood fear of being told off by her. 
“Right. In there.” She commands, pointing to the lounge.
I reluctantly shuffle into the lounge and she follows, shutting the door behind her, Annie must be upstairs.

“Now, explain yourself.” She crosses her arms.
“We went to get Josh.”
“And why was that your responsibility?”
“Well… I…” I stutter. "I'm meant to be his best friend, and... and I-I left him." 
"I like Josh, you and he have been friends for a long time, but you know he has his problems and that he is not your responsibility. Why couldn't you have left it to the police?" 
"Because I wasn't about to make the same mistake twice. I couldn't leave Josh to be ripped apart by-" 
“Do not say monsters. Honestly Christopher. I do not know what to do with you.” She puts her head in her hands.
“You could start by trusting me,” I mutter.
“Excuse me!”
Damn! She wasn’t meant to hear that.
“Why should I trust you after you lie to the police, lie to your family, steal your father’s shotgun and sneak out of the house in the middle of the night to an area that is currently meant to be out of bounds to the public.”
“I wasn’t lying.” I grit my teeth.
“Nope. I do not want to hear it.”
Why can’t she just believe me?
“You are grounded, give me your phone! Now!”
“You can’t ground me. I’m an adult.”
“My roof, my rules. I’ll treat you like an adult when you start acting like one. Now, your phone please.” She holds out her hand.
I reluctantly hand it over. What am I going to do if Ash calls me? I guess we can always skype.
“Now please go get your laptop.”
“What? How am I meant to do any work?”
“Perhaps you should have thought about that earlier. Go get it, now!”
I grumble and stomp up to my room, grab my laptop and stomp back down again. I give it to her, glaring at her as I do. This is ridiculous!
“Now, you will stay in your room until you are willing to apologise for what you’ve done and have started telling the truth.”
I sigh, guess it looks like I’ll just have to spend the rest of my life in my room.

I leave the lounge. My head is pounding. I head upstairs to my room and collapse onto my bed, staring at the ceiling. Why won't she believe me? Why can't she see that going back for Josh was the right thing to do? What did she expect me to do? Abandon him? I'm glad I didn't. I'm so relieved we got him out, he's safe. What's going to happen to him now though? What's going to happen to all of us? I can't imagine just going back to college next week and acting like nothing happened. For Christ's sake, the Wendigo are real, there are fucking monsters living in this world. If the Wendigo exist, what else is out there?

There’s a little knock on the door. Annie sticks her head around it.
“Cwis?” She whispers.
I sit up, pushing aside my thoughts to give her a smile. “What’s up nugget?”
“Why’s mommy shouting?”
“Don’t worry. Come here.” I open my arms.
She scurries over, climbs up onto my bed and crawls into my arms. I give her a tight squeeze and she giggles.
“Mommy’s not shouting about you. I was just naughty, that’s all.”
“See, I knew you were naughty.” She taps my nose.
“I learnt from you.”
“No, I wearnt from you... What happened to your head?” She gently touches the cut above my eyebrow, that I got when I fell on the stairs, with her small fingers. 
“How was preschool?” I ask, changing the subject and pulling her hand away from my face, hoping that she won't start asking questions about the puncture marks on my neck.
She's successfully distracted and starts babbling away about, this, that and the other, how someone pulled someone else's hair or got in trouble for saying a naughty word. The politics of a preschooler are very amusing to listen to, especially when you're trying to keep your mind off of other things.

“Will you come pway dollys with me?” She suddenly asks, midway through a completely different sentence.
“Mommy said I had to stay in my room.”
Annie gasps. “You must have been weally naughty. C-can I bring my dollys in here.”
“Sure you can.” I smile at her, surely mom wouldn't stop me from entertaining Annie for a while. 
She climbs down from the bed and runs out the room. She comes back with an armful of dolls and immediately starts bossing me around, instructing me how to play. I sit down on the floor and start to do what I’m told, occasionally being silly and making a barbie start flying or hiding just to make her laugh until she tells me off for playing wrong. It's nice not to have to think about Josh or the stranger or the mountain or even Ashley for a while. 

Chapter Text

I’m lying on my stomach on the floor, propped up on one arm, trying to concentrate on a conversation between several barbies about the robot apocalypse, (no idea where Annie got that idea from) when I hear the doorbell ring. I wonder who it could be. Probably just a girl guide trying to sell cookies. I’m not allowed out my room anyway. Mom can get it.

I hear voices. Wait!... Is that who I think it is?

I hear footsteps running up the stairs. My door bursts open. Ashley comes rushing in, tears streaming down her face. I quickly get to my feet and she slams into me wrapping her arms around me, sobbing uncontrollably. Mom appears in the doorway and gives me a very disapproving look. I shrug at her, trying to communicate that I in no way planned this. How could I? She took all forms of communication away from me. I slowly put my arms around Ashley, hugging her tightly. Mom frowns, I can tell she doesn’t want Ashley staying but she can’t exactly turn her away when she’s in this state.

Mom sighs and gives in, “come on Annie, why don’t you come play with your dolls downstairs.” 
Mom hurriedly helps Annie to pick up all her barbies and leaves the room while Ashley continues to sob uncontrollably. I stand there awkwardly, not knowing what to do or say. 

“I’m so sorry to barge in like this.” Ashley sobs into my chest. “B-but you w-weren’t answering your ph-phone and my parents were y-yelling at me, and I started feeling like I was going crazy. Oh, Chris! Everything was meant to be okay after we got Josh, but it’s worse. I just… I had to get out of that house. Oh, God Chris!”
“Ash, breathe, come on, breathe, you need to calm down. We have been through hell recently. It’s okay to be freaked out but you need to breathe.”
She breathes in shakily and then chokes as she breathes back out.
“That’s it, slowly now.” I gently rub her back.
She takes another deep breath in and out, managing not to choke this time. Slowly her breathing returns to normal.

The room is quiet, apart from our breaths. Thank God I managed to calm her down. I want to kick myself for not being able to take her call. I should have been available, she needed me! 

“Sorry for not answering my phone, my mom confiscated it. I’m grounded.” I roll my eyes.
“Oh, s-should I leave?” She stutters, loosening her hold on me and looking at the door agitatedly.
“No, you’re good.” I hold her a little tighter, willing her to stay.
“A-are you s-sure? I think she tried to turn me away, but I kind of ran in before she could.” She nibbles on her lip worriedly.
“Don’t worry about her.” I smile down at the girl in my arms.

She's so close, her face inches from mine. I can make out the light spattering of freckles across the bridge of her nose. I can see the fresh tear stains trailing down her cheeks. I find myself looking at her glossy pink lips. It wouldn't take much to close the distance between us. I lick my lips nervously. But she chose to sit so far away from me in the SUV. Does she not like this? Is she uncomfortable right now? She's just been crying for Christ's sake. As if this is the right moment to make a move. I quickly let go and take a step away, feeling awkward.

“I don’t want to go home, Chris.” She sighs, hugging her arms to her chest.
“You don’t have to. Just let me go talk to my mom. I’ll be back in a sec.” I take a few steps back toward my door, putting more distance between us.
Increasing the space between us both relieves my feelings of awkwardness and sets off a deep ache inside my chest, which has nothing to do with my bruised ribs. I desperately want to pull her close and wrap her up in my arms again. 
“Okay.” She nods, not meeting my eyes.
I sigh. Did I do something wrong? As I stand by the door and she stares at the ground I feel an almost palpable tension growing the room. It feels so thick I could choke on it. 

I dash out of my room, desperate to leave the suffocating tension behind. I run down the stairs and stop at the bottom, taking in a few deep breaths, clearing my head. I probably should have stayed with her, shouldn't be bothering to ask mom, but I had to get out of that room, if only for a minute. Ashley and I have always had our awkward moments, but it's never been like this before. I guess we've always had Josh as a buffer up until now. Now that he's gone, there's no way to easily laugh off those moments. Not to mention that being in love with her has amped the pressure up by a thousand. I don't want to do anything to hurt her. I don't want to ruin anything. I just want to be able to protect her and that's more safely done from a distance, isn't it?

I sigh and shake my head, trying to straighten out my muddled thoughts. I take the couple of steps over to the lounge door, gently cracking it open to see mom crouching down, helping Annie with a new doll set-up. I take a deep breath. I really hope I'm not going to get in trouble for leaving my room.

“Mom?” I poke my head into the room tentatively.
Mom turns her head toward me, frowns and stands up. 
“Ashley’s really upset," I quickly start before she can say anything, "please can I have my laptop back and we’ll sit and watch a movie and once she’s calm she’ll go home.”
“That really isn’t how being grounded works.” She crosses her arms.

“Mommy! Mommy! You're meant to be Stacy! The robots are coming!” Annie babbles, pulling on moms trouser leg.
“Yes honey, just a moment.”

“So you expect me just to send her home?” I throw my hands in the air. 
“Do not yell at me, Christopher.” Mom snaps.
“I wasn’t yelling,” I mutter.
"Besides, that's not what I-"

“Mommy! The robots! Quickly!”
“Mommy is talking Annie.”
“But mommy!”

“Mom, Ashley, she's upstairs, like, really upset.”

“MOMMY!” Annie screams. 

“Fine Chris, Ashley can stay. Your laptop is in the top drawer of my dresser.” Mom turns back to Annie. “Calm down Annie, I think it's probably bedtime for you, mmm?”
“Thank you,” I say quietly and quickly dash out of the room.

As I run up the stairs two at a time I send a silent thank you to Annie for being such a pain. I go into my parent's room and grab my laptop from the drawer. Then I head back into my own room. Ashley has taken off her boots and is sitting huddled on my bed, with my blanket wrapped around her.

“Shall we watch a movie.” I hold up my laptop.
“Am I allowed to stay?”
“Well, I did just ask you to watch a movie, so unless you know some incredibly short movies I’d say that means yes.”
“Oh shush.” She grins wiping the tear stains from her cheeks.
“Shift your ass,” I say, coming over to sit down next to her.

She makes room for me. I sit down next to her, open up my laptop and get up Netflix.
“Bets on how long it's going to take us to choose a film?” I say beginning to scroll. 
Ash shrugs. “I don’t mind, you choose.”
“Okay, that’s at least an hour.”
She hits me.
“Ow, come on, you know you’ll mind as soon as I suggest something.”
“Fine, let’s have a look then.”

We end up picking something unmemorable and easy to watch. It's some kind of comedy that I’m not really paying attention to. It's not that good. We've never been the best at picking new things to watch, that's always been Josh's job.

We sit, wrapped up in the blanket together like we have so many times before on movie nights. As always, I’m completely distracted by the warmth of her shoulder pressed against mine, the smell of her perfume and the soft sound of her breath. Everything about her is completely and utterly distracting. I barely ever manage to watch anything properly when we’re sat together like this.

Although normally, this feeling of awkwardness would be accompanied by Josh's annoying lewd comments, or by him shoving himself in between the two of us and throwing his arms around us, suggesting something stupid like a threesome. I miss him. I suppose we probably won't see him for a while, and if we do I very much doubt it will be the same anymore.

“You're not paying attention.” She whispers, nudging me gently.
“Sorry.” I shake my head and try to refocus.

I notice she's still watching me and not the movie.
“What?”
“What are you thinking about?” She frowns.

I avoid eye contact and shrug. I'm not sure how she feels about the whole Josh thing at the moment. I wouldn't blame her if she hated him and never wanted to talk about him ever again. Bringing him up could be a bad idea. I don't want to upset her by reminding her of everything he did. A shiver goes down my spine as images of the saws and guns and blood form in my mind.

“Josh?”
I nod reluctantly.
“I just feel like…” I don't know how to describe it.
“Something's missing.” She finishes for me, nodding.

She leans forward and pauses the movie.
“It's been the three of us for so long, I guess it's going to take a bit of getting used to now it's just us two.”
“Do you think it's okay… to get used to it?”
“After everything he did?... I'm not sure we could go back to that anyway.”
“That's what I'm afraid of... You didn't answer my question.” I nudge her.
“We don't really have a choice.” She shrugs.
“I just feel bad, continuing on without him, he's been in my life for so long.”
“The world can't stop for one person.”
“I suppose not.” I sigh.

“We'll get through it together.” She smiles at me sadly.
“Yeah, I got your back.”
“And I've got yours.”
She grins up at me. I wish I could lean down and kiss her. I wish that was okay. I wish that I could know if that's what she wants.

“Uh… should we.” I nod to the laptop.
She sighs and nods, leaning forward and pressing the spacebar to start playing the movie again.

Rather than turning to continue watching the movie, I watch her face as she focuses intently on the screen in front of her. It's far more interesting than the rubbish we're watching. I think about taking her face in my hands and kissing her soft pink lips. I remember the feeling of our two previous kisses. A quick goodbye kiss before heading out to look for Josh. Or, not so much a 'goodbye' kiss, as a, 'come back to me' kiss. I did come back, but I've fucked up so much since then. I left her in those tunnels and in the lodge. And that second kiss, squashed together in her downstairs bathroom. She was so gentle and tender, I must have seemed so pathetic.

Does she want to kiss me again? Or has she had enough? When we were tied up in those chairs she said we had wasted everything. Are we doing that again? Josh would be laughing at me right now.

She notices me staring.
“What?” She smiles.
“N-nothing.” I stutter, quickly looking away.
She sighs. “Chris, I thought… I thought we’d learnt our lesson, about talking around everything and-”

God, Sam is right, I am Chrising everything up. Fuck it! I lean in and kiss her mid-sentence, cupping her face in my hands, tangling my fingers in her wavy hair. She kisses me back, her hands bunching up the material of my sweater and pulling me closer. She tastes of strawberries, she smells of vanilla, I could lose myself in her completely. 

I slowly, gently, break the kiss and lean my forehead against hers. She smiles shyly.

“That’s what,” I say.
“Huh?”
“You asked ‘what?’, well, that’s what.”
She laughs. God, I love her laugh.
“Actually...” I gulp.
Should I say it? Is it too soon?
“What Chris?” She puts a hand on my cheek and looks up at me with her big green eyes.
“That wasn’t all. I…I know it’s probably a bit soon for this, or whatever…”
“Chris, you’re babbling.” She whispers.
“Sorry… right… I…” I take a deep breath. “I love you, Ash.”
She smiles, “I love you too Chris.”

She leans back in and kisses me. I slide my hand onto her waist and then onto the small of her back pulling her closer, deepening the kiss.

God, she's intoxicating. I could make out with her forever.

She grabs me by my sweater and pulls me backwards onto the bed so I’m on top of her. I move my hand to one of her legs, round the back of her knee, pulling her body against mine. She wraps her arms around my neck, raking her hands through my hair, giving me goosebumps at her touch. I move my hand further up her leg.

She moves her lips from mine and starts tracing a fiery line of kisses down my neck. Fuck, she’s hot. I can’t resist any longer, I slide my hand onto her butt. Damn! She’s got a great butt. I bite down on my lip, stifling a groan as I grasp at her, pulling her against me. 

Suddenly there’s a knock at the door and we both abruptly sit up, quickly smoothing out any clothing. Mom will kill me if she figures out what’s been going on. I'm pretty sure this is not permitted while grounded. The door opens and Annie pokes her head around it. I let out a breath.

“Chwis, there’s a monster under my bed.” She clutches the teddy she’s carrying tightly.
“Sorry.” I apologise to Ash, “I’ll be back in a sec.”

I get up and walk over to the door where I hold a hand out to Annie, who takes it, her little hand warm in mine.
“Come on nugget, I’ll get rid of this monster for you.” I smile at her, following her to her room.

Annie quickly runs to her bed and climbs onto it, looking at the floor like it's made of lava. I kneel down next to her bed and look underneath it. I flinch as an image of the wendigo flashes across my vision and I imagine it crawling out from under the bed. I shiver at the thought and shake it away.

As I look around I notice that the night light isn't on, mom must have forgotten to turn it on. I reach out and flick the switch. It's soft glow faintly lights up the room. I lean down and look under the bed again.
“Hey, look at that, your night light has scared it away.”
“Has it!” She hangs over the side of the bed and looks underneath. “It’s gone!”
“As long as you keep your night light on, you’re completely safe,” I reassure her. “Shall I tuck you in?”
She nods, climbing underneath her covers. I tuck her in tightly.
“Night, night nugget.” I give her a quick kiss on the forehead.
“Nighty, night Chwis.” she yawns.
I tiptoe out of the room and gently shut her door behind me.

Now back to Ashley. I walk back into my room. Ashley’s still sitting on my bed. She’s pulled her knees to her chest and has her arms wrapped around them. She’s resting her chin on her knees. She smiles at me as I enter the room. I turn and shut the door behind me.

“Sorry about that.” I scratch my head, nervously.
“It’s okay.” 
I go back over to her and sit down next to her.

“I… uh… guess this means…” I start and trail off.
She removes her chin from her knees, looks up at me and raises her eyebrows. “This means…” She smiles.
“That we’re…” I hope that she’ll say it for me.
She just smirks and rolls her eyes. Damn it, Chris! Grow a pair!
“Together?” I ask.
“Are you asking me out, Chris?”
“Uh… yeah… I guess… if that’s what you want.”
I hate myself.
“I-is that what you want, Chris?” She asks earnestly, biting her lip nervously. 

It is what I want. I want it desperately. She smiles up at me, looking at me through her eyelashes. Oh God, I want her so bad. She’s so hot.

“Chris?”
Fuck! Why do I keep Chrising things up?
I laugh and lean my head on her shoulder. “Why are we so bad at this Ash?”
She laughs too. “I don’t know.” She leans her head on top of mine.

I literally just said ‘I love you’ and now I can’t even ask her out, what is wrong with me? Just do it!

I sit up and take a deep breath.
“Ashley Brown, will you go out with me?”
She laughs. Not good. Really not good. Is that a no? 
“You sound like you’re proposing.”
“W-what! N-no!” I stutter.
“It’s okay Chris,” she smiles, “I’ll go out with you.”
Oh, thank God.

“We should probably finish watching this movie.” She nods to my laptop.
“Yup, go on, make yourself comfortable.” I sigh and wait for her.
She pulls the blanket back around us both and shuffles closer to me, leaning her head on my shoulder.
“Comfortable, your highness?”
“Oh shush it and play the movie.”
I chuckle, lean forward and press play. She adjusts herself slightly and wraps her arms around one of mine. Pulling my arm into a position where I don’t really know what to do with my hand. After a moment of deliberating I gently rest it on her knee, enjoying this new closeness.

A while later the movie ends and we wipe our eyes sleepily. I wish I could just keep her here but mom would have a fit.
“You think you’re alright to go back home now?”
She makes a face but nods.
“Come on, I’ll see you out.” I pull myself up.
“Are you trying to get rid of me?” She raises an eyebrow, shuffling to the edge of the bed and crossing her arms.
“What? N-no! I’m just worried about my mom. The later you stay the more trouble I’m in, you know.”
“I thought you were meant to become an adult when you went to college.” She sighs beginning to pull her boots on.
“Not if you still live under your parent's roof apparently.” 
She finishes pulling her boots on and stands up.

We head out of my room and down the stairs. Ashley pops her head through the lounge door.
“Thank you for letting me stay Leisa.” I hear her saying to mom.
After a quick conversation with mom, Ashley comes and joins me at the door. I open it for her.

I shove my hands in my pockets. “I guess I’ll-” I begin.
She interrupts me with a kiss. Just as well, I was probably about to say something stupid anyway. I melt into her kiss, pulling her closer, getting lost in her. I wish I could pull her back up to my room but mom would have a fit. She releases me and smiles.
“Bye Chris.” She starts walking down the path.
“Bye.” I smile and wave awkwardly.
I watch as she walks away, unable to resist looking at her butt in the tight jeans she’s wearing. It's just so perfect and round.

After she’s out of sight I go back inside and close the door. I head toward the stairs, planning on going back up to my room. 
“Chris.” Mom calls. “You’re not keeping that laptop in your room, I’d like you to bring it back to me please.”
I sigh. Of course.

I run up and grab my laptop. I need to get on mom's good side if I want to see Ashley again. I walk into the lounge and hold it out to her. She takes it.
“Thanks for letting Ash stay.”
“How’s she doing?”  
“She’s freaked out about everything that happened. We all are...”
Mom sighs.
“Well, er, I’m gonna head up to bed. Good night mom.” I give her a kiss on the cheek and quickly leave.

As I take the first step up the stairs I look at the kitchen door longingly. Would getting myself a coffee get me in trouble? I sigh. It’s probably not a good idea to have a coffee at this time in the evening anyway. I head upstairs and into my room, shutting the door behind me.

I can’t get Ashley out of my head, the way she smells, her taste, her touch. Damn, she was so hot this evening, those big green eyes that look up at me through her lashes, her pink, pouty lips just asking to be kissed, her long slim legs, wide hips, great ass and little waist in those jeans. I wish I could have ripped them right off of her. Making out with her was amazing, and touching her butt, does that count as second base? I collapse onto my bed, breathing in the lingering scent of her vanilla perfume. God, I want her so bad right now.

***

I have a cold shower before getting into bed. I’m exhausted, but as soon as my head hits the pillow I’m unable to sleep. I can’t stop thinking about the stranger's horrible fate, about his head thudding down into the snow, about his body hanging limply from that hook down in the mines. It’s all my fault.

Thank god we got to Josh before anything awful happened. There are still Wendigo up there though. I wonder if they can leave the mountain? I really hope no-one tries to go up there. What’s going to happen now the stranger's no longer there to contain them?

I wonder how long the Wendigo have existed on that mountain. If the native legends are to be believed then it could be thousands of years. And if the Wendigo exist then what else is out there? Annie being scared of monsters under her bed doesn't seem so silly any more. My heart thuds as I picture a Wendigo crouching in wait underneath my own bed. Don't look. Do not look. If you look you're officially going crazy.

I can't help it, I push myself to the edge and peer over the edge. There's nothing there, just a load of old junk. I breathe out a sigh of relief. Look at me, getting scared of things that go bump in the night like a child.

But seriously! If the Wendigo is real, then what else is? Ghosts? Demons? Angels? Vampires? Zombies? Werewolves? Aliens? Witches? Gods? If there are Gods, they're laughing at me right now. Fuck! I've watched too many horror movies with Josh. I've always felt like science can explain everything. But the Wendigo? I don't think so. 

At least I have Ashley. I can talk to her about this. But normally I'd talk to her and Josh about this kind of stuff. We could all figure it out together. I wish I could call Josh and tell him that I finally made a move. Tell him about how amazing it feels to be with Ash. His mobile is still up on the mountain though and I don't even know if he'll still be at home, they might have already carted him off to God knows where.

It just feels so wrong to move on like this without him. He's supposed to be here. He's supposed to make lewd jokes and give me unsolicited sex advice and tease us constantly. He should be the third wheel on dates and the one that yells at us to get a room. But now everything is going to happen without him. I've lost my best friend. 

I'm worried about Josh. I hope someone can help him, I hope the Washington’s find the right person. I can’t believe I left him the way I did, I’m such a fuck up. It must absolutely, fucking suck ass to go through what he's going through. He's been blaming himself this whole time, tormented by things and voices that aren't there. Why didn't he talk to me about it? Probably because I was too busy with Ashley. And now look at me, I'm doing the same thing all over again. Choosing the easy way out and focusing on Ashley instead of Josh. Because that's what I did, didn't I? When Hannah and Beth disappeared.  I left Josh to cope on his own in favour of Ashley because Ashely's guilt and sadness were easier to deal with than Josh's angry, messy, buried grief.  I just thought he'd come to me if he needed to. I'm such a fucking crap best friend. 

I spend the whole night staring at the ceiling as these thoughts run through my head, berating myself over and over again for all my fuck ups. I just can’t shut my brain up. I’m tired but I’m so wide awake. My brain is buzzing with thoughts. I wish I had my phone so I could scroll mindlessly through Reddit or Twitter, or play some stupid game.

By the time the sun starts to make its morning climb and slips into my room my brain feels like a pile of mush. I’m not getting to sleep now. I sigh, getting up. I quietly slip downstairs and make myself a big mug of coffee before heading back up to my room. I haven’t had a full night’s sleep in over seventy-two hours. I feel like the walking dead.

I look around at my room, looking for something to do. What am I meant to do without a phone or laptop? I can’t even do any work. I grab a random Terry Pratchett book from my bookshelf and attempt to read it, it distracts me for a little, but after a while, I’m finding it hard to focus on the words and I keep having to re-read bits that I realise I wasn’t really reading.

I put the book down and get back into bed hoping that now I’ll be able to sleep, but my mind decides that it’s not going to. My right eye starts twitching. I swear you can die from a lack of sleep. I wonder how long you can last without sleep. I wish I had something to Google that question with. I shouldn’t have had that coffee. I’m such an idiot.

“Christopher. Come have some breakfast.” Mom calls.
I sigh, who needs sleep anyway? I head downstairs, my eyes heavy, my head pounding. I go into the kitchen and attempt to smile good morning at mom. I head straight for the coffee machine hoping that another one will make me feel more awake.

“What on earth is this?” Dad marches in and slaps down the Alberta Press.
‘Blackwood Turns Teens Bonkers’ is the title on the front page. I drop my mug of coffee and it smashes on the floor, the hot liquid scalding my bare feet.
“Shit,” I mutter and quickly start cleaning it up.
“Chris watch your language around your sister.” Mom berates me.
“Shit!” Annie shouts.
Oops.
“No Annie, honey, that’s a bad word, you mustn't say that.”
“Shit, shit, shit, shit, shit!” She sings.
Oh dear, what have I done? I was supposed to be getting on mom's good side. I wrap the shards of the mug up and throw it in the bin then mop all the coffee up.
“We warned you that you needed to tell the truth, Chris.” Mom shakes her head.

I did tell the truth! This is impossible, but I’m too tired to argue.

“Look, mom,” I sigh, “I-I told the truth, I don’t know what more you want from me. I-I can’t just start lying to make you happy. You wouldn’t want that, right?”
“But Chris, what about your future?” She comes towards me, trying to put her hands on my cheeks, but I take a step backwards.
That answers that then, she’d prefer a lie that made sense than the senseless truth. I sigh and nod.
“I get it.” I leave the room and head upstairs deciding not to bother with breakfast.

Chapter Text

I'm lying in bed, arm over my face to block out the light. I'm too exhausted to do anything, but my brain’s too busy to sleep. 

There's a quiet, timid knock on my door.
“Come in.” I groan, slowly pulling myself into a sitting position and shoving my glasses on, there's really no point in trying to sleep anymore.

The door opens and my dad pokes his head round.
“Christopher, your mother and I have talked.” He comes into the room and I notice he's holding my phone and laptop. “We’ve decided you're a bit too old to be grounded. We can't really stop you from going where and doing what you want to. You're allowed to make your own decisions and,” he gives me a pointed look, “your own mistakes. So here's your technology back.” He holds them out to me.
I quickly get up and take them from him, putting them down on my desk, resisting the temptation to check my phone straight away.

“But…”
Of course, there's a but.
“If you want to talk to us or go back to the police, we're happy to listen.”
“Okay.” I nod. “Thanks, dad.”
He nods and starts heading out of the room.

He looks tired. He looks... sad. I really, really hope they didn't argue over this... over me. 

“Dad,” I call before he leaves, “Mom’s not… I don't want to…” I can't find the words.
“Don't worry, she'll get over it.” He sighs. “Have a good day.”
“You too.”
He leaves the room.

I wipe my face with my hands. God, when will this nightmare end? I lean back and fall onto my bed. Thank God I don't have college this week. Although, I do have a project to be getting on with and I'm working tomorrow. How do I go back to normal? How do I do anything when I'm this tired? I turn my head and stare at my laptop. I wish Ashley were here, she's good at making me productive.

I reach out for my phone and grab it, almost dropping it in the process. I look down at my hands, they're shaking like crazy. The more I try to stop it the worse it gets. I sigh and give up, turning my attention back to my phone. I check my notifications and see the missed calls from Ash yesterday. I message her.

Ash

 

Finally got my life back

Phone ≠ Life

lies!!!

TRUTH!

YOU CAN'T HANDLE THE TRUTH

*Rolls eyes*
Nerd!

how long did it take you to get the does not equal symbol?

Not long, I just coppied and pasted it from google

whos the nerd now?

Shush
Want to come over and study?

sure b there in 15

See you soon x

I pull myself up from my bed and force myself to quickly get dressed and pack a bag with my laptop and notebook etc. I grab the garbage bag of clothes from the mountain and hurry down the stairs. I look at my blue coat, hung up on the rack. It's covered in dirt and blood, not really the blue that it once was. I liked that coat. I can't see myself ever wearing it again though. I sigh, take it off the rack and stuff it in the bin bag with my other clothes.

I shove my shoes on, shrug on my other coat and head out of the door, garbage in hand. As I leave I come face to face with a woman that I have never seen before standing on the doorstep. She flashes me a large, lipsticked smile. 
"Uh... can I help you?" I ask, closing the door behind me. 
"Good morning Christopher," she says brightly, "I'm from the Calgary Sun and was wondering whether you would be happy to answer some questions for me." 
"And uh... you were standing on the doorstep, rather than ringing the doorbell because..." I ask, going around to the trash and throwing away the garbage bag. 
"That's beside the point." her smile doesn't falter for even a second. "How about those questions?" 
"Uh... sorry, I kinda have somewhere to be." 
"Well, could I get a contact number then?" 
"Umm... sorry... no." I shift uncomfortably, I really don't want to talk about the mountain to anyone else. 
"Oh... okay." Her smile drops for a second before she plasters it back on. "Here's my card if you change your mind." She holds out a business card, it's slightly off white, bone coloured. 
I nod and take it, keen to get away from her and go over to Ashley's. 

I start to walk away in the direction of Ashley's house. 
"Just one question," she calls after me, "who killed the stranger?" 
I freeze. His head hits the snow, rolls and comes to a stop. His face is blank, blood spills out from his severed neck. I feel sick. I gulp back bile. I didn't kill him, but his death was my fault. 

I start walking again, slightly faster this time. I'll run if she tries to follow me. No-one will believe us. No-one would understand what happened. 
"Christopher?" She calls. 
I ignore her and continue walking, speeding up even more. Thankfully she doesn't attempt to follow. 

I get to Ashley's and ring the doorbell. I look around nervously while I wait. No reporters that I can spot. Ashley answers the door. Her black eye looks like it's getting a little better, it's still dark and bruised but it looks less red and painful today. She smiles at me and I instantly feel a million times better. 

“Hello, girlfriend.” I grin, pushing the reporter's question to the back of my mind.
She laughs. “Hello, boyfriend.” Her cheeks redden slightly.

She moves to the side to let me in and I enter, closing the door behind me.
I put my bag down. “How ya doin’?” I ask as I take my coat off.
She crosses her arms and shrugs.
“That well?” I chuckle.
“I don't know Chris.” She sighs. “I've just been trying to avoid my parents.”
“Did they see the news this morning?” I begin kicking my shoes off.
She nods. “I took a long shower to avoid them and didn't come out until they'd gone to work. I don’t really want to talk about them.”

An image of Ashley showering enters my brain. Inappropriate! Not the time, Chris!

“Okay let's stop talking about parents and do something fun, like studying,” I say sarcastically.
“Studying is fun.” She begins heading down the hallway.
“I can think of things I'd rather do,” I mutter, looking at her ass.
She turns back to me, raising her eyebrows, “what was that? Did you say something?”
“What? No, pft, I didn’t say anything.”
“Oh really? I think you did.” She crosses her arms, smirking.
“Nope, wasn’t me."
"You definitely said something."
"You sure you’re not hearing things?”
“You said something.” She nods.
“I definitely did not.”
“You’re so…”
“Dashing?”
“No-”
“Charming?”
“Agh! Chris!”
I laugh. I love annoying her.
“Can we just go study?”
“Lead the way.” I grin.

"Ash, where you going?" I ask as she heads up the stairs. 
"To my room?"
"I'm not allowed in your room." 
"My parents aren't here." She shrugs. 
I frown. 
"Don't worry." She smiles. "They won't be home until evening. We won't get in trouble." 
"Okay," I shrug, "I'll take your word for it." I pick up my bag and start to follow her. 

She leads me upstairs to her room. She’s already got all of her work spread out on the floor, with a little clear space in the middle of it all. She sits down in it cross-legged and puts her glasses on. I dump my bag and sit down opposite her. I pull my laptop out and turn it on.

“Why are you even studying? I swear you don’t have more exams until summer?” I ask as I stare at the loading screen. 
She shrugs. “It doesn’t hurt to be prepared. Besides, I have a couple of assignments to do.”
“You do an insane amount of work. Like insane.” I mime my head exploding with my hands. 
“You were on the honours programme too.”
“With the number of credits you're going to have by the end of the year, I’m surprised you don’t need a time turner.”
“Oh shush. Do some work.”
“Alright, alright.”

I try my best to get work done, but I can’t shake the images and thoughts that flashed through my head all night. The old man, Josh, the wendigo, whatever the hell else is out there, my parents, my aching chest, my tired eyes, the reporter. I really, really need to go to sleep. 

It doesn't help that I'm painfully aware of Ashley’s every movement. I notice the way she chews on her lip when she’s concentrating, how good her legs look in yoga pants. I can't help recalling how great it was to make out with her last night.

She's pretty good at catching my mind when it's wondering though. She continually reminds me to keep on track. It's helpful, but I still don’t manage to get much done. I’m just so damn exhausted. I’m finding it hard to keep my eyes open. Maybe if I just rest my eyes for a minute Ashley won’t notice.

“Chris!” I suddenly wake up. “Did you fall asleep?”
I groan, pushing myself up from where I’m lying in front of my laptop. I yawn and push my glasses back in place.
“What? No? Me? Asleep? As if? I was just… resting my eyes.” I close my eyes again
“You’re supposed to be working, not napping.”
“When you get to college you’ll understand that they’re one and the same.”

“Does this mean it’s time for a coffee break?”
“Oh my God, yes!" I put my hands together in prayer. "That sounds perfect.”
“Alright then.” She takes her glasses off and gets up. “You coming?” She asks when I make no attempt to move.
“Well, I was thinking, you could get the drinks and I could go back to sleep.”
“Not going to happen.”
“It was worth a shot.” I shrug. “Help me up.” I hold my hand up to her.
“Come on old man.” She heaves me up.
“What’s that dear?” I say in an old man voice.
She rolls her eyes at me. “Let’s get you that coffee before you go completely crazy.”

We go downstairs and into the kitchen. Ash puts the kettle on.
“I wonder what could be achieved in the time it takes a kettle to boil.” She ponders leaning against the counter.
I yawn and stretch. “It's too early in the morning for philosophical questions.”
“It's eleven.” She gets two mugs out of the cupboard.
“Precisely.”

She stares at the kettle, obviously still pondering her question. An awkward silence descends over us. It's something that I've become all too familiar with over the last year. It's the space that is meant to be filled by Josh, the gap left behind by him that neither of us has managed to fill. Deep questions, creative thinking, that was always their forte. I am completely incapable of getting into a heavy debate about such questions, especially on this much sleep. 

Ashley rubs her arm nervously.
“How do you think everyone else is doing?”
“I don't know.” I sigh.

I wonder if I'm the only one who can't sleep. I rub at my aching eyes underneath my glasses. 

“Do you think Josh is alright?”
"I-I," I want to say yes, I really do, "I don't know Ash. Hopefully, he will be. He should be in good hands now.” I try to offer her some sort of comforting answer. 

“I wish we could have saved Hannah and Beth. I-I wish I'd done more to help.” 
“Ash, you'll torture yourself thinking that way,” I say, wrapping my arms around her. “Don't obsess.”
“I know.” She sighs, leaning her head on my shoulder. “It's just…”
“Easier said than done.” I finish
“Mmmn.” She mumbles in agreement.

We stand there in silence. Thinking the thoughts that we just warned each other against.

Perhaps if Josh and I hadn't been passed out drunk that night, we could have done something, we could have saved Hannah and Beth. We're the older ones, we were meant to be looking after everybody. They died on our watch.

The kettle suddenly pings. We both jump. Ashley leaves my arms to make the drinks.
“Aw, you were keeping me warm,” I complain.
“Do you want coffee?” She raises her eyebrows. 
“Yes please.” I grin at her.
“Then no complaints.” She points the teaspoon that she's holding, in my direction.
“Yes, mam.” I salute.
“You're impossible.” She shakes her head at me.
“Impossibly hilarious.”
“You wish.” 
“You’re just jealous.” 
“Mmm hmm, you keep thinking that.” 

“Here's your coffee.” She hands me a mug. “And my tea.” She smiles, picking up her own mug.
I take a sip of my coffee and close my eyes in relief. “Ah, coffee, my one true love.”
“Should I leave you two alone?” Ash smirks.
“Yeah, you don’t want to see this.” I take another sip. “Mmm.”
She rolls her eyes.

“Let’s get back to work.” 
“What? It’s barely been five minutes. Can’t we at least finish our drinks?”
At least let the coffee kick in. Does she really not recognise that I'm dying from exhaustion. 
“Ah, but Chis, the beauty of a mug is that it’s portable, and we can take our drinks upstairs and continue our work.”
I groan. “Can’t we just give up and watch a movie?”
I’m so tired, I just want to collapse and not have to think.
“I have an essay to write, and you have projects to do.”
“A project.” I correct her.
“Chris!”
“Agh, fine.” 
We head back upstairs to Ashley’s room and retake our positions on the floor.

With the coffee buzzing through me, I manage to focus on the project in front of me and get some work done. However, partly because I would much rather be doing something else and to annoy Ashley, I periodically ask whether it's lunchtime yet until she throws a pillow at me with a surprising amount of force. At which point I declare war.
“Oh, you are so dead.”
She laughs, “bring it!” grabbing another pillow.
“It’s on.” I grab the pillow that she threw at me and launch myself toward her.

We chase each other around the house, laughing and shouting. Eventually, I corner her.
She drops her pillow and puts her hands up. “I surrender.”
“I take no prisoners.” I gently bash her over the head.
She raises her eyebrows. “That was pathetic.”
I throw the pillow in her face with more force and she topples over. We both burst out laughing.

“Victory!” I dance.
“Yeah, yeah, you win, help me up.” She holds her hand out to me and I pull her up off the floor.
“I think I’m in need of a victory feast,” I announce.
“I hope sandwiches are sufficiently feastly for you.”
“Perfect, lead the way, loser.”
She rolls her eyes at me but grins all the same and heads toward the kitchen.

I quickly grab a pillow off the floor and hit her butt with it.
“Hey!” She protests. “Do you want lunch?”
“Yes please.” I smile at her innocently.
“Then, put, down, the pillow.” She orders, raising her eyebrows, smirking slightly.
“Alright.” I drop the pillow and follow her to the kitchen.

I hop up onto the counter as Ash gets two plates out.
“Make me a sandwich, woman,” I demand.
She gives me a look. “You've got hands, you can make your own sandwich.”
“But I'm a guest, and I won.”
“You know where everything is.” She shrugs. “You can barely be considered a guest anymore.”
“I'll remind you of that next time you're round mine.” I get off the counter and start grabbing things.
“Uh, I think I've made more teas and coffees at your house than you have.”
“Pft, that’s not true!”
“Mmm, I think it is.” She shrugs nonchalantly.
“Well, you’d be wrong.”
“I’m not.” She gently punches my arm.
“Are too.” I laugh, giving her a little push.
“Am not.” She laughs, shoving me with her hip.
“Are too.” I push back with my shoulder.
“Am not.” She gives me a hard shove.

A stab of pain goes through my chest, “Ah, f-f-f…” I put a hand on the counter to steady myself.
“Oh my God Chris, I’m so sorry, I… I completely forgot.” Ashley puts her hands to her cheeks.
“It’s… okay. I’m fine, honestly.” I slowly push myself off the counter and stand up straight.
“I-I’ll make your sandwich if you want.” She offers, remorsefully.
I laugh. “No, that’s alright, I’m not an invalid.”

“Oh Chris, I’m really sorry.” She puts a hand to her forehead.
“Hey,” I take hold of her wrist gently and pull it away from her face, pulling her slightly closer so she looks at me. “It’s okay, I promise.” I smile down at her.
“Okay.” She nods, smiling back.
God, I could kiss her right now, she’s so close, but, I don’t know, I still feel kind of nervous about instigating anything.

I gulp. “Shall we finish making these sandwiches.” I nod to our plates.
“Oh, yeah, I guess.” Ashley turns back to her plate, readjusting her beanie.
Damn it, Chris. You really should have just kissed her. She is your girlfriend, after all, that suggests that she wants to kiss you. Idiot.

***

After lunch, we head back upstairs to Ashley’s room, hot drinks in tow and settle down to get back to work. Throughout the afternoon I survive purely on coffee, but even as it nears to five I’m flagging. I yawn and stretch.
“I need to call it a day Ash. I think I’m gonna head home.” I start packing up my stuff.
“You don’t have to go, we could watch a movie.”
“As much as I would love to, I really don’t think I’ll be able to stay awake.” I rub my tired eyes.
“I don’t mind if you fall asleep.” She shrugs.
“Ash, you always mind when someone’s not paying attention to a movie.”
“That’s because they ask stupid questions. You hate it too.” She protests loudly and then says more quietly. “Please stay, Chris.”

She sighs, not meeting my eye, instead, staring at a piece of lint on her yoga pants that she's been fiddling with. I think she's still worried about her parents, even if studying has managed to distract her for a while. I can't say no to her like this. 

“Alright.” I nod. “I’ll stay.”
“Really?”
“Of course.”
“Thank you.” She smiles shyly.

We go down to the lounge and crouch in front of Ashley’s DVD collection, we’re much more re-watchers than we are people that always want to watch something new. We pick out The Princess Bride and settle down to watch it. I sit holding the remote while I wait for Ashley to get comfortable. She grabs a blanket and starts to wrap it around us.
“Hey! I did not consent to this.” I laugh as she pulls the blanket around me.
She just grins at me and continues to get comfortable. I roll my eyes, but can’t stop myself from smiling at her. I love her little quirks. She crosses her arms and leans against me, nestling in, pulling the blanket tightly around her.

“You ready?”
“Play the movie!”
“As you wish.”
She laughs. I press play, put the remote down and shift so that my arm is around her. She burrows into me a little bit more and I lean my cheek against her head. I could spend forever like this.

We’re not very far into the movie when I begin to feel myself nodding off. I'm so warm and comfortable with Ashley nuzzled up beside me and the blanket wrapped around us, I can’t help it.

I wake up to Ashley gently nudging me and the sound of the front door opening.
She sighs. “You should go.”
I yawn and stretch. “I can stay if you want. You know, for backup.” I pretend to flex my non-existent muscles.
She laughs, “thank you for the offer but I think I need to deal with my parents by myself.”
“You sure?”
She nods. “I’ll call you if I need to.” She leans her forehead against mine smiling, then she turns away and stands up. “Come on.” She holds her hand out to me.

I get ready to leave and then Ashley sees me to the door.
“Are you gonna go to work tomorrow?” Ashley asks.
“Yeah.” I nod.
“You sure you’re going to be okay to work?”
“I’ll be fine.” I shrug, “I’ll just keep myself highly caffeinated.”
“Okay, well, see you Thursday then?”
“Uh, sure, we’ll message.”
“Thanks for staying, by the way.”
“It was my pleasure.” I grin. “I’ll see you Thursday.” I give her a quick peck.
“Bye.” She smiles.
I head for home, feeling exhausted.

Chapter Text

I wake up to my usual alarm, thankfully, having had a couple hours of sleep, it’s not much but hopefully, it should be enough. I get ready to go. Wanting to minimise contact with my parents, I grab myself a quick coffee and leave, I really can’t face any more interrogations or arguments.

I take a window seat when I get on the bus and press my forehead against the cool glass. I’ve got a headache brewing, whether it's from all the coffee I’ve been drinking over the past couple of days or my lack of sleep I don’t know.

I’ve always hated these old buses. I’m surprised they’re still allowed on the road. I hate them even more now. All the loud noises and sudden jolts make me jumpy as hell. The sound of the bus backfiring takes me back to holding a gun to my own chin, to the wendigo leaping towards me, death in its eyes. I close my eyes and take deep breaths, trying to rid myself of these thoughts.

Thankfully the bus journey isn’t a long one. I work at a small, local electronics store. It’s owned and run by an old family friend. He needed some extra help and I wanted some extra cash so I’ve been working for him since I was sixteen. Currently, I’m trying to save up for a car, so I can stop taking this damned bus. I’m getting close, hopefully, in a couple more months I’ll be able to afford it.

I get off the bus and walk down the road to the store. I open the door, the bell rings. Dave pops up from behind the counter.
“Hey, Dave,” I quickly wipe my feet off on the doormat.
“Oh, Chris! I-I wasn’t expecting you, I mean... after everything that happened, I read about it in the paper, I mean… are you sure you want to be in?”
“I’m fine.” I sigh. “Honestly, I’m just glad to have got out the house.”
“Okay, well I’m happy to have you, as long as you’re alright.”
“I am, promise.” I force a smile.
“Let’s get to work then.” He rubs his hands together.

It’s a long day, in which I wish several naps were possible. The only way I survive is with a mug of coffee permanently glued to my hand.

It’s a pretty quiet day for the shop but there are a couple of things to fix and a couple more to take apart. I enjoy focusing on the computers. It's methodical and logical, everything has a place, everything makes sense. When I'm glued to a computer screen I can take my mind off things. 

Despite this, my mind keeps wandering. I’m worried about Josh. I know yesterday I told Ashley that he’s in good hands, but wherever he is, they won’t know the truth of what happened. How is he supposed to know what was real and what wasn’t? Won't that fuck him up even more? I wish I could see him, be there for him like I wasn't over the past year. 

God, things are still so messed up.

I wonder how Sam’s doing. She and Josh really leant on each other over the last year and with him in such a state who can she turn to? I haven’t heard anything about how Jess is doing either or any of the others for that matter. The group chat has been unusually quiet. Normally it's constant activity would be driving me mad, now it’s silence is doing the same thing.

I still can’t shake the images of the two equally terrifying nights we spent up on that God-forsaken mountain. The one that still haunts me most is the old man. How he stood there, listening, not knowing that he was breathing his last and then it just shot across. Slits his throat just like that. I barely saw it. Blood spills from his neck, his head falls to the ground, his body slumps. And there's no time to process it all, I'm worried I'm about to meet the same fate as the wendigo leaps toward me.

I have to run to the toilet in the back to throw up. When I come back out I just pretend that I really needed to go. Laughing it off. 

I manage to get to the end of the day without falling asleep on the job. I hope that a day of work has numbed my mind enough that I can get to sleep tonight.

Just as I’m about to get ready to head off Dave calls me into the back to ‘have a word’. I enter the back room where Dave is leaning on the edge of his desk.
He crosses his arms and frowns at me. “Chris, are you sure you’re alright?”
Oh no, did I not clean myself up well enough after throwing up? Have I really worked that badly today?
He sighs, “it’s just, you got confused between RAM and disk storage space earlier.”
I wince, I hadn’t been focusing properly, I was too concerned about Josh and the others.
“I’m sorry.” I wipe my eyes underneath my glasses.”I didn’t mean to work poorly.”
“Don’t worry, Chris, your work quality was fine, you just seemed a little off, that’s all. This is more of a… welfare check than a rebuke.”
“I-I just have a lot on my mind.”
“I understand.” He nods. “If you need anytime off just let me know. Okay?”
“Will do.” I salute, grinning.
“Chris, seriously.”
I nod, trying to avoid his gaze.
“Have a good rest of the week.”
“Thanks,” I say, picking up my coat and pulling it on. “I’ll see you on Saturday.”
He nods and I head off home.

The bus journey back is torture but it would be a very long and cold walk home, so it has to be done. I get home, just wanting to collapse and go to sleep forever, but concern for all the others has been running through my mind all day. I can’t rest until I’ve at least found out how Josh is doing. I know Josh doesn’t have his phone so I call the Washington’s house phone, hoping for good news.

Melinda answers.
“Look, I don’t know who gave you this number, but I am not giving you a statement, so please stop calling.”  
“Hi, Melinda,” 
“Oh, Chris! I’m so sorry, it’s just these reporters have been all over us twenty-four-seven over the past week, you know how it is... Anyway... um... what was it you were calling for?”
“I uh... just wanted to know how Josh is doing... I would have called before, it’s just all been a bit… err... overwhelming.” I babble.
“Josh is… well, he was quite distressed, so...so we’ve sent him to get some help at a very distinguished institution. He’s in very good hands.”
It sounds like she’s trying to convince both of us that they’ve made the right decision, not just me.

“Do… do you think I could see him at some point?” I’m still worried that he’ll be told that the wendigos were all a lie.
“I’m sorry Chris, but I think it’s best to give him some time. Sam already asked and the doctors said it might be too distressing for him at this point because of the associated memories.”
“I understand,” I say quietly.
“I promise that as soon as he’s well enough for visitors we’ll let you know.”
“Thank you, Melinda.”
“Don’t torture yourself too much Chris, Josh will be alright with time.” I feel like there’s a silent ‘I hope’ at the end of her sentence.

“I hope you and Bob are…” I trail off, how am I supposed to give well wishings to the Washingtons when both their daughters are dead and their son’s practically insane.
“I know Chris... we’re doing alright... I should probably get going though, you look after yourself now.”
“I will, thank you, goodbye Melinda.”
“Bye Chris.”
I hang up.

I sigh heavily. Josh, institutionalised. I know it’s probably for the best, but after seeing the sanitorium I can’t help but shiver at the idea. I really hope he’s getting good treatment. If Bob and Melinda have had anything to do with it, it will be the best damn treatment in the world. But he must be so confused, they’ll tell him that none of it was real, and there’s nothing I can do to stop that. No one believes us.

Right… next. Sam, she already asked to see Josh, of course she has. She's always so concerned for others. Without any of the Washingtons around who’s going to look out for her? Should I call her? Or just message? Calling is more personable, that’s probably better. I call her before I can change my mind.

“Hello?” She answers.
“Hi Sam, I-I was just calling to see how you’re doing. I just got off the phone with Melinda.”
“How’s she doing?”
“She seemed alright, I don’t know, it’s a God awful situation to be in.”
“I know, I’m worried about Josh.” Sam sighs.
“Me too…”

We’re silent for a few moments.

“But there’s not much we can do is there?” Her voice cracks.
“No.”

We’re silent again.

“How have you been Sam?” I ask again.
“I… I don’t really know.” She sighs. “It’s been a lot to process.”
“You got that right,” I mutter.
“I just… I wish I hadn’t left Josh down there, maybe he wouldn’t have been so freaked out, I don’t know. Do you think we could have changed things, Chris?”

Somehow I know she’s not just talking about this year. She’s thinking about Hannah and Beth too.

“I don’t know, I’ve been thinking that too.”

“Have you spoken to anyone else?” She asks.
“Just Ash.”
“How’s she doing.”
“Eh, things, are kind of complicated with her parents at the moment… mine too to be honest, and I think she’s still processing as well. Have you spoken to anyone?”
“No, I probably should have though.”

I don’t know what to say.

“Thanks for calling Chris, but, I should probably go.”
“Okay, no problem.”
“Bye.”
“Bye.” She hangs up.

And... that is why she is closer to Josh. That was an awful phone call. I should have just messaged. I probably just made her feel worse. Sam’s just so self-sacrificial. I don’t know what to say to comfort her. Perhaps I should get Ash to invite her over and we can all have a board game night or something. I don't know. I sigh, pushing my glasses back and rubbing my eyes. My head is pounding again. Perhaps I should have another coffee, or take some painkillers. 

My phone buzzes. It’s Sam on the group chat. I look at the group chat name... Perhaps she should have started a new chat. One that doesn't have Josh in it, or his stupid group names. 

pornstars2.0

How’s everyone doing?

 

I decide to go take a shower. Have another go at washing away any trace of the mountain. I know it won't work but it's something to do, something to take my mind off things. 

I head into the bathroom, leave my phone on the side, strip and get into a boiling hot shower. While I wash I hear the faint buzzing of my phone a few times. I'm tempted to get out the shower just to see what people have said but I manage to resist. 

Once I'm done I get out, wrap a towel around my waist, pick up my phone and clothes and head into my room to find something to wear. I throw on some comfy clothes and then sit down on my bed, unlocking my phone as I do to check the group chat. 

pornstars2.0

Emily left the group

Jessica left the group

Matt left the group

Mike left the group

 

Chapter Text

I can’t believe it. Everyone just left the group chat. It’s been around for who knows how long. Continuously active for years. And they all just… left.

Now it’s just Sam, Ash and me, and Josh, of course, but his phone was lost on the mountain. Oh God, I hoped that this nightmare might bring us all closer together again. We are, after all, the only ones who know the truth. But it seems that this might be the end of the road for our friendship.

I hope everyone else is doing okay. God knows what state I’d be in if not for Ashley.

I just thought we were all going to need each other.

I hope this doesn’t mean they start changing their stories. What if that reporter has talked to them as well? What if they agree to answer her questions? If they start lying, we’re all toast. What if they all start pretending it didn’t happen? What if they start believing it? Am I going crazy?

I collapse back onto my bed, burying my face in my pillow. I just want this nightmare to be over. I wish that none of this had ever happened.

***

Ten minutes later I’m woken up by four small limbs climbing onto my back.
“Jump on Chwis time!” Annie screams.
I groan. “Go away.”
She laughs and starts trying to stand up on my back. I feel a stabbing pain in my chest.
“Ow! Annie. Off. Get off. Now!”
She quickly climbs off me and stands next to my bed looking at the floor.
“You’re boring Chwis.” She sticks out her bottom lip.

I sit up, clutching my chest. Damn, for a small thing, she can cause a lot of pain. I take a couple of deep breaths. I am not up for entertaining her this evening. I might love her, but God she can be annoying and boisterous at the wrong moment sometimes.

“Yes, I’m very boring. Now get out my room.” I point to the door that she’s left open.
“No.” She crosses her arms.
I put my head in my hands. I hate her sometimes.
“Annie, leave.”
“Or what?” She grins.
“I’ll tell mom.”
“A-and she’ll tell you to stop being so gwumpy.”
“No. She’ll tell you to leave me alone.”

“Why are you gwumpy Chris?” She sulks.
How do you explain this kind of shit to a four-year-old? You don’t. You can’t.
“I’m just… not feeling very well.” I sigh. “And I’m worried about my friends.”
She gasps. “Is Ashy okay?”
“Ashley’s not feeling very well either.”
“Did you give her a hug?”
“Yes.” I smile.
“Did you giver her kiss?”
“What?”
“Mommy always gives me get better kiss.”
“Oh, err, yeah, I guess.”
“I’ll give you get better kiss.” She reaches up and gives me a big slobbery kiss on the cheek.
“Thank you, nugget.”

“Chris! Annie! Dinner!” Mom calls.
Thank God! I'm saved!
Annie runs out of my room screaming “FOOD! I'M HUNGRY!”
I shake my head at her and then slowly follow. Holding my now aching chest.

Dinner is slightly less tense this evening. Annie’s voice is still the one that fills the room most frequently, but that’s normal. The rest of us are pretty thankful that we don’t have to say much.

Mom is still speaking to me with a slightly clipped tone and won’t look me directly in the eye, but at least she’s speaking to me. Dad is quiet, but that’s not that unusual. Every time he says something to me, he nervously glances at mom, as if he’s a naughty child who knows he’s doing something he shouldn’t.

I hate that what happened up on the mountain couldn’t have stayed up there. It feels like it's oozing and seeping its way into every aspect of my life. The immediate threat of the wendigo might be gone, but it feels like the nightmare is never ending with everything slowly falling to pieces.

Ugh, all these things swirling around my head, the hot pain in my chest, it's too much. My stomach churns, bile rising in the back of my throat. I look at the half-eaten plate in front of me and gulp down the other half that’s threatening to burst out. I really don’t want to upset mom by refusing to eat anymore so I take another forkful and force it down.

I desperately try to keep my mind focused on the meal, keeping it away from thoughts that I know will upset my stomach. But I can’t escape the memory of the strangers head thudding down onto the snow. Blood spills from his neck, his face goes slack, eyes vacant, body slumped a few feet away.
“Excuse me,” I say quickly and run out the room.

I lock myself in the downstairs bathroom. Despite the cold Canadian winter that’s seeping its way into our house I’m sweating. I clumsily struggle out of my sweater and let it drop to the ground.

I feel dizzy and faint as I stumble towards the toilet. I throw up into it, emptying my stomach of the half dinner that I just consumed. It smells rancid, I quickly lean away before I wretch again from the smell.

I sit, breathing heavily, in the corner of the bathroom resting my forehead on my knees. Fuck! Look at me! What is happening to me? I can’t sleep, I can’t focus, I can’t stop thinking about it all and now, to top it all off, I can’t even eat. Oh God! I hate this! I hate this so damn much.

The stranger, his head thudding down into the snow, blood spurting from his neck as his body slumps.

The Wendigo, milky white eyes, long, gangly limbs, skeletal torso, sharp teeth, long claws, leaping toward me, ready to rip my head off.

Josh being sawn in two, right in front of me, guts spilling out fucking everywhere.

Ash, sitting in front of me, a gun in my hand, pointing it to my own chin, ready to die.

Those blood-curdling shrieks following us down endless corridors. A boney hand clamping down on my airway, claws digging into my neck.

A Wendigo on top of Mike, ready to rip his throat out.

A body, hanging from a meat hook, blood spilt down its chest, swaying slightly.

The strangers head hits the snow again.

Stop it, Chris, stop it now. I hammer at my temples with my fists. You’re fine, you’re safe. Get up! Pull yourself together.

I slowly pull myself up, breathing heavily, trying to focus on the room in front of me instead of the images flashing through my head.

I flush the toilet then head over to the sink. I grip its sides tightly and look at myself in the mirror. God, I’m a mess. I take my glasses off and put them to one side. I wash my mouth out, then splash water on my face and wash my hands. When I look back up at my reflection again, I look a little more human. I put my glasses back on and take a deep breath. Everything needs to be fine. I can’t make things any worse. I have to finish this meal.

I pull my sweater back on, open the door and head back to the table, plastering a fake smile on my face. 
“Sorry, I just really needed to take a dump.” I grin as I take my seat.
“Christopher! Language!” Mom glares.
I flinch, I was meant to be avoiding aggravating mom. I glance at Annie but, luckily, she doesn’t seem to have picked up on what I said or she’d repeating it all night.

I look at my half-full plate. I’m going to have to eat it all, even if it's all just going to come back up again later. I start slowly shoving it all down, mouthful after mouthful.

Annie chatters through the rest of the meal, a welcome distraction.

As soon as we’re all finished I start clearing up the plates. I just want to go back to my room and pass out. The best way to do that is to get the table cleared as soon as possible.

Mom takes Annie up to put her to bed. I give them a wave as they leave the room while I’m loading the dishwasher.

Dad nods goodnight to me as I leave the room having finished.

Out in the hallway with no one watching, I catch myself against the wall, desperately trying to keep all that food down. I slowly pull myself up the stairs and into my room. I shut the door behind me and throw myself onto my bed. I lie there in the dark, panting, trying to block out the memories that just won’t go away.

***

I wake up drenched in sweat, breathless and freaked out, the white milky eyes of the wendigo still lingering in my vision. I slowly pull myself up into a sitting position and wipe my face. I pick up my phone to look at the time, it’s three in the morning. I groan. I wonder how long I managed to sleep for. Not long enough is the answer. I’m still absolutely exhausted.

I slump back down into bed, burying my face in my pillow, squeezing my eyes tight shut and praying I’ll be able to get back to sleep.

After tossing and turning for a while I give up. I get out of bed and slide into my chair at my desk. I open my laptop up and log on. I start mindlessly scrolling through social media, trying to take my mind off things. But when I log onto twitter I find a flurry of tweets and messages about the mountain, about the Wendigo, about everything that happened, both from people I know and complete strangers.

What do you think they were smoking? I need some of that shit! XD

I keep scrolling through, skim reading it all. No one believes us. It feels like the whole world thinks we’re crazy.

I knew the wendigo legend was true! #whoslaughingnow

Those that do believe us seem to have their own agenda, to prove a political point or something, not to defend us against the onslaught of accusations coming our way. I really hope none of the others have found all this.

Stupid privileged rich kids, defiling a sacred mountain, they got what they deserved! Go to hell!

I can’t tear my eyes away from the screen. My fingers twitch at the keyboard, I desperately want to reply, to explain, but I know that would just be adding fuel to the fire, so I scroll on.

They definitely killed that guy #justiceforthestranger

I push my chair away from the desk, catapulting myself across the room.

His head thuds to the snow again.

Shaking I collapse off the chair and onto the floor. Curling in on myself, wishing it would all go away.

If I had just looked after Josh, if I hadn’t left him outside with Mike perhaps the stranger would still be alive, perhaps Josh’s parents wouldn’t have had to ship him off to God knows where.

If I hadn’t got so God damn drunk with Josh that night, over a year ago, perhaps I could have done something to stop the twins from rushing off, perhaps I could have knocked some sense into those idiots before they played that prank, and none of this would have happened.

Fuck! It’s my fault, that man’s death is on my hands, I might as well have killed him. 

Chapter Text

The light creeps in through my curtains, I can hear birds tweeting. I’m still lying on my floor. I haven’t been able to shut my brain up all night. I pull myself up off the ground. I ache like hell. I stretch my limbs out and wipe my hands over my face, I feel so grimy, like I never managed to fully wash away the traces of the mountain.

I glance at my laptop screen, it’s gone to sleep. I walk over to it and wiggle the mouse, planning to shut it down.

They definitely killed that guy #justiceforthestranger

I’m sorry. I’m so, so, so sorry. Sorry that he saved my life and I just watched him die. I’m sorry. It should have been me.

I take a deep breath, close the window and shut down my laptop, closing the lid once it's off.

I yawn and look around my room, it’s a blur because I don’t have my glasses on, but I don’t care. I stare longingly at my bed, wishing I could just get some Goddamn sleep, but I know it's pointless.

I grab some clothes and head for the bathroom. Hoping that a shower will wash away… everything… something… anything. I quietly creep across the landing hoping that the shower won’t wake everyone up, it won’t be long until their alarms start to go off anyway.

I turn the heat right up so that the shower is practically scalding. I wish I could burn away all the memories of the mountain.

As the heat seeps into my bones, I feel my muscles finally start to relax a little. I can’t believe how tense I am. My whole body is aching, especially my chest, which has a large dark purple bruise spread across it.

I get out the shower and lean on the sink for a second as my head spins. Perhaps I shouldn’t have had the water so hot.

I look at my reflection in the mirror, haggard, dark circles around my eyes. I’m still bruised and battered, perhaps I would have been more use up on the mountain if I didn’t spend my whole life staring at screens.

I roughly pull my clothes on and quietly head downstairs, desperate for a coffee.

I sit in the quiet kitchen, clutching my mug of coffee like it's my life source. It practically is at the moment. I hear the telltale noises of my family beginning to stir upstairs.

They’d be better off without me right now. I hate what I’ve done to us, but I can’t start lying, even if the others do.

I quickly finish off my coffee and head back to my room. I’ll let them have a peaceful breakfast, without me.

Back in my room, I grab my phone and message Ash.

Another study session today? I need to get on with my project.

While I wait for her reply I open my laptop back up and decide to get on with as much of the project as I can. She’s probably still asleep right now, so it'll be a while before she responds. I might as well get some work done while the caffeine is beginning to pump its way around my bloodstream. I keep glancing at my phone every five minutes, willing her to respond. I notice I’m jiggling my leg up and down. I’m probably drinking too much coffee. Focus Chris, this is project is due on Monday.

After about an hour Ashley finally texts back. I snatch my phone up off the desk and look at what she’s said.

Sure - come over whenever

I spring up and quickly shove all my stuff into my bag. I run downstairs, shove my shoes on, grab my coat and am out the door in record time. I get to Ashley’s slightly breathless because I walked so fast. I ring the doorbell. After a few moments, Ashley opens the door. She’s wearing an old Star Wars hoodie that she often wears for long study sessions, the way it swamps her is pretty cute, to be honest.

“That was quick!”
I nod. “Faster than the speed of light.”
She smirks and rolls her eyes. “Not quite.”
She moves to the side to let me in and closes the door behind me.

“Did you see the group chat?” I ask as I take my coat off and hang it up.
She shoves her hands into the big pouch at the front of her hoodie and nods, looking at the ground.

I sit down and pull my shoes off, when I’m done I look up and notice silent tears trailing down her cheeks.
“Hey, hey, Ash, come here.” I quickly stand up and pull her into my arms.
She buries her face in my chest, her hands clenched into fists, bunching up the material of my sweater. I hold her tightly as I feel her shoulders shaking with sobs.
“Deep breaths Ash, come on.” I take a deep breath, in and out, as an example.
I feel her shoulders rise and fall as she does the same, still shaking.

After she’s calmed down a bit she looks up from where she’s buried her face in my sweater, still clinging to me tightly.
“I’m sorry, I made your sweater all wet.” She sniffs, looking at the damp patch that she’s made, her fingers brushing over the material lightly, smoothing it out.
“Nah, this just means I don’t have to wash it now.” I grin.
She looks up at me, smiling slightly.

Keeping one arm tightly wrapped around her, I gently wipe the tears from her cheeks, being particularly careful on the side with her fading black eye. She's beautiful even when she's a bit of a mess. I wish I could just bundle her up and stop anything bad from ever happening to her ever again.

She's so close, I could kiss her. I can kiss her. I will kiss her. I really hope this isn't the wrong moment. I cup the side of her face with my hand and lightly press my lips to her's.

I lean my forehead against hers and whisper, “I love you Ash, I’m not going to let anything else hurt you.”
“I know Chris, y-you shot yourself for me, that’s partly what worries me.” She bites her lip nervously. “I still can’t believe you would do that.”
“Shhh.” I hold her tightly. “Don’t think about it.”
“I can’t stop thinking about it all, Chris!” Tears threaten to leak from her eyes again.
I know exactly how she feels, but I shouldn’t worry her with my problems right now.
“Hey, how about we go make you a hot chocolate?” I suggest, hoping that it will distract her. “Come on.” I release her and take her hand, pulling her through the lounge toward the kitchen.

***

While I’m standing at the counter finishing off making her hot chocolate and my coffee I suddenly feel her wrap her arms around my waist and her cheek against my back.
“Thank you.” She says quietly.
“No problem, Ash. Come on, let’s go drink these in the lounge.” I pick our mugs up and start heading out of the kitchen.
She doesn’t let go of me. “What are you doing?” I ask, trying to crane my head round to look at her.
“Hugging you.”
“While I’m trying to walk?”
“Yes.”
I sigh, and shrug, “alright then weirdo.”
She laughs, which is good. Distraction successful. No more thoughts of the mountain. Now, if only I could manage the same thing for myself.

I head into the lounge with Ashley still clinging onto me. I set our mugs down on the coffee table.
I look around pretending to be confused. “Hmm, I wonder where Ashley could be? I guess I’m just going to have to sit down and drink by myself.” I shrug and start to sit down on the sofa.
“Chris!” Ashley shrieks as I sit down on top of her.
“Oh, there you are Ashley, sorry I didn’t see you there,” I say innocently.
“Get off.” She gives me a shove. “You’re heavy.”
I put my hand to my head and dramatically fall back so I’m lying across the sofa. “Ashley, how could you, you know how insecure I am about my weight.”
She grins and rolls her eyes, she shoves my legs off her lap and grabs her hot chocolate. I sit up properly and grab my coffee.

“Ash?”
“Mmm?” She replies while taking a sip of hot chocolate.
“I was thinking maybe it would be nice to invite Sam over for a board game night or something on Saturday evening? What do you think?”
She nods. “That sounds nice. W-we could do it here? I can text her, if you want.”
“Great, I called her yesterday and I think she’s having a pretty hard time.” I sigh.
“Oh God, of course she is, without Josh, I should have messaged her back on the group chat yesterday, although… it’s not really much of a group chat anymore…” She trails off. “Do you think we should invite the others?”
I shake my head. “Mike and Emily will be heading back to college, Jessica is probably still recovering and it would be weird to just invite Matt. Besides, I don't think they even want to talk to us.”
“You’re probably right.” Ashley sighs.
“I wish I wasn't.”
“I-I thought we would all stick together after… everything.”

I don't know what to say. I still can't believe they all just left. I guess they just want to forget it ever happened. I can’t say I blame them. I flinch at the memory of the wendigo leaping at Mike, the seconds where I was frozen, not knowing what to do, the seconds in which he could have died. I grip my mug tightly and take another gulp of coffee hoping it will pull me back to reality.

“Shall we head upstairs and get on with some work?” Ash asks.
I nod faintly, still partially in another world.
“Come on then.” She stands up.
I follow her up to her room, grabbing my bag on the way.

We set up, lying on our stomachs on the floor, next to each other, laptops side by side, shoulders touching. Occasionally Ash affectionately leans her head on my shoulder, or she’ll nudge me and give me a little smile, but mostly we’re focused on our work. We’re both aware of impending deadlines and our current inability to concentrate properly because of the unwelcome memories that we can’t seem to shake.

It just feels so wrong to sit here and work on a fucking college project. After everything that’s happened, it seems so insignificant.

There are still Wendigo up on that mountain. Wendigo that could hurt other people. What if after all the headlines people start going up there for adventure or as some kind of sick joke? And what if there’s other shit out there? Other monsters that want us all dead.

At least, if, we encounter any more monsters it won’t be our dead friend come back as a flesh-eating monstrosity, out for revenge, out for our blood. Jesus, Hannah… and Beth. I can’t believe what happened to them. It’s awful. But they’re gone. Beth and Hannah are gone. I accepted that a while ago. The grief I initially felt turned to a dull ache. Knowing how they went… well, it isn’t good but it’s something. It’s something to know rather than the torture to not.

But Josh, Jesus! Josh is alive, and the nightmare is nowhere near over for him. I wish I could be with him, not that he’d even want me around. I’ve been a piece of crap to him. How am I meant to keep living my life without Josh in it? Can’t everything just stop until he gets better?

“Chris?” Ashley nudges me.
“Mmmm,” I reply not looking away from my screen, trying to rid myself of the thoughts of the mountain still running through my mind, focusing on my work instead.
“You’ve been very quiet, i-is everything okay?”
“Mmm hmm.” I nod.
“Are you sure?”
“Mmm hmm.” I nod again.
“Chris, look at me.”
I sigh and turn toward her, she’s looking at me worriedly with those big green eyes.
“Are you sure?” She asks again.
“I’m fine, Ash, honest.”
Except I’m not being honest at all, am I? I’m lying through my teeth.
“You’d tell me if something was wrong, right?”
“Of course.”
“Good.” She smiles and gives me a quick peck before turning back to her laptop.

Great job Chris, lying to your girlfriend within a week of asking her out. Now, not only can you win 'worst best friend of the year', you can also win 'worst boyfriend of the year'.

I just don’t want her to worry. I don’t want to admit that I keep throwing up at the memories that won’t go away, that I’m spending all night lying on my bedroom floor unable to sleep, that I know deep down that it’s all my fault, that maybe I could have changed things if I’d just done better.

The rest of the day passes quietly, but not altogether peacefully. To anyone on the outside, it would seem peaceful enough, but my thoughts are turbulent, determined to continuously take me back to the friggin mountain. I’m on high alert, constantly having to stop myself from flinching, from revealing to Ashley that I’m going completely crazy. Ashley seems to have recovered from her worries earlier in the day but I worry that she might be hiding just as much as I am.

At the end of the day we make arrangements to travel into town together on Saturday morning and meet for lunch in the afternoon, as usual, seeing as we work pretty close to each other. I’ve decided to go into college tomorrow in order to finish my project off on a computer with more power than my old brick of a laptop, which really needs replacing. I should probably be saving for a new laptop instead of a car. But who needs a laptop when your college has perfectly good computers that are free to use? Well, not exactly free when you take tuition fees into account, but I should be taking advantage of the facilities while I’m paying for them, right?

“Chris?” Ashley says pulling me out of my trance.
“What?” I turn back to her from where I’m opening the door.
“You going to say goodbye?” She raises her eyebrows.
“Oh, sorry, bye?” I put my hand up in an awkward wave.
She sighs.
“What?”
“You’re such a dweeb.” She smirks.
“What did I do?”
“What didn’t you do?”

She pulls me toward her by my coat and reaches up to brush my lips with hers. Oh! It’s just such a foreign concept to me. I forgot that I’m allowed to kiss her.

I slide my hands onto her waist leaning into her kiss. After a few moments, she pulls away smiling and takes a step back.

I just want to pull her close again. Come on Chris, just go for it. I step toward her, pulling her into my arms, holding her to me, pressing my lips against hers. One hand cupping her face the other wrapped tightly around her waist.

She slides one arm up around my neck, raking her fingers through my hair. Her other hand is placed firmly against my chest. Can she feel how crazy my heart is beating right now? I breathe her in, her scent, her taste, her touch, I never want to leave her arms. I shiver at the feel of her nails against my scalp as she runs her fingers through my hair.

I deepen the kiss, wanting to be as close to her as possible. I slide my hand from her waist down onto her butt.
“Chris!” She laughs against my mouth, her breath mingling with mine.
“Shhh,” I mutter tracing kisses across her cheek and down her neck.
Enjoying the feeling of her ass in my hand, so glad she’s wearing yoga pants. She pulls me back, stumbling against the wall as I press kiss after kiss against her neck.

“Chris my parents could get home.” She says breathlessly.
“Fuck ‘em,” I say, letting my lips find hers again.
“Chris!” She murmurs, laughing slightly.

I break the kiss, she’s right, her parents could be home any second and she’s in big enough trouble as it is. She lightly kisses me again.
“I’ll see you Saturday, okay?” She grins.
“Okay,” I say slightly breathlessly.
Her fingers are still fiddling with the hair on the back of my neck, making my stomach flip and giving me goosebumps.
“Goodbye.” She kisses me on the cheek and steps out of my arms.
“Bye.” I nod, grin at her and head out the door.

“Yes!” I fist pump as I walk down the path.
“I heard that Chris,” Ashley calls after me.
I quickly turn round, an embarrassed look on my face, but she’s grinning at me from the doorway. I want to run back to her and hold her again but I do need to head home. So I give her an awkward wave and start the walk home. Knowing that I’m not going to get her out of my head for a while.

***

I spend the whole of the next day in the computer labs at college, getting this stupid project done. I consume a horrendous amount of coffee and end up staying quite late into the night to get it finished. It’s not like I was going to be able to sleep anyway so it doesn’t really matter and at least now it’s done and submitted and I don’t have to worry about it anymore.

It also means I could avoid my family for another day. I want to find a way to make things right with my parents eventually but right now I think the best thing to do is avoid butting heads.

Of course, it’s not a day without problems. Inescapable memories make me queasy all day and I, therefore, make the deliberate, stupid choice to not eat anything which just makes me tired and cranky.

I get home at two in the morning, feeling exhausted. I manage a couple hours of sleep and then spend the rest of the night tossing and turning, haunted by Blackwood Mountain.

Chapter Text

When I get to the bus stop in the morning to go to work Ashley is already there. She’s sitting down, headphones in, reading a book that’s resting on her lap.

I creep up to the bus stop, unable to stop myself from taking the perfect opportunity to make her jump.
“Boo!” I shout, giving the plastic window a good thump.
She gives a yelp, jumping up. Her book goes flying onto the sidewalk. I burst out laughing.
“Oh my God, Chris! Oh my God! Why would you do that?” She groans.

I walk around to her side and pick up her book for her. I hand it to her and she snatches it from me and hits me with it.

“Ow! Oh come on Ash, it was funny.” I grin.
“It was not! I’ve had enough stupid pranks to last a lifetime.” She crosses her arms, hugging her book to her chest.
“Okay, okay, I’m sorry.”
“No your not.” She frowns.

I notice the way she’s holding herself tightly, her knuckles practically going white, her jaw tense. I sigh, that was a bad idea considering everything we’ve gone through. A really stupid idea.

“I am Ash.” I wipe a hand across my face, feeling a right idiot. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay.” She mumbles putting her book away in her bag. “I’m just quite jumpy at the moment.”
“You’re always jumpy.”
“Well, more than usual, alright?” She snaps.

“Ash, are you okay?”
She takes a deep breath. “I don’t know.” She shakes her head, burrowing her face in her hands.
“Hey.” I gently take hold of her wrists and move her hands away from her face. “That was kind of a stupid question wasn’t it?” I grimace.
“Kinda.” She nods, on the brink of tears.
“I’m sorry.” I pull her into a hug. “No more stupid pranks, I promise.”
"Thank you." She whispers, burrowing herself into my chest. 

As I look up I notice the bus coming down the road and give it a wave to signal it to stop. It pulls up, and Ashley and I get on. We take seats next to each other, Ash sitting next to the window as always.

I clench my fists in anticipation of the loud, jolting noise that I know the bus will make when it sets off. I glance at Ashley, she’s staring out of the window, so hopefully, she won’t notice the reaction that I won’t be able to squash down. The bus starts with a bang, I flinch.

Ashley’s sitting opposite me, I have the gun in my hand, the cold metal of the barrel pressed against my chin, the saws whizzing dangerously close to our heads. There’s no way I’m going to let Ashley die. Goodbye Ash, I think, before pulling the trigger.

A loud bang, as Matt shoots at the Wendigo. It doesn't even flinch,  just screeches at us loudly showing of those rows of sharp teeth.

Sharp teeth, long claws, milky eyes, leaping toward me. Aiming, pulling the trigger and running, falling, forcing myself back up. Stumbling back as it’s coming toward me again. Almost fumbling but managing to pull the trigger just in time. It’s up again, leaping at me, shrieking at me, death in its eyes, I shoot and run for the door, hoping that it’s not right behind me. I turn my head sharply and check.

I take a deep breath as I realise I’m on the bus. I’m okay. I’m staring at empty seats. I turn to my right. Ashley is beside me, everyone is safe, the nightmare is over. I get my phone out of my pocket so that I have something to distract myself with.

“Really Chris?” Ashley cocks her head at me.
“What?”
“Am I that boring?” She nods to my phone, smirking.
“You weren’t exactly talking.”
“Uh, yeah I was.” She frowns at me.
“Oh.” I stammer.

“I asked you how you got on with your project yesterday.”
“Uh,” I shrug. “Got it finished.”
“You really are a master conversationalist this morning.” She raises her eyebrows.

“How was your day yesterday?”
“It was alright, I did some work. Oh and guess what.” She grins, excitement lighting up in her eyes.

I love it when she gets excitable. I don’t think I’ve seen that since before the mountain. It’s nice to see it return.

“What?” I grin back at her.
“I went out and got a full on vegan feast for board games tonight. I thought it would be a nice thing to do for Sam. I’ve got pittas and falafel and cauliflower and other veggies. Oh! And, I got chickpeas and I’m going to make rainbow hummus! I really hope she likes it.”

She’s absolutely adorable when she gets like this. The idea of a vegan meal doesn’t fill me with excitement, but I love the twinkle in her eyes when she’s enthusiastic about something, plus it’s a great thing to do for Sam.

“I think she’ll love it, Ash.” I grin at her, shaking my head slightly.
“Really?”
“Yes. Any thoughts on what we might play?”

She frowns. I feel like I can see her flicking through a mental library of all her games in her head.

The old man’s head rolls onto the snow. Go away! I desperately try to focus on Ash.

“Probably something like Takenoko.”
“You mean the one with the panda?”
“Yeah, I know it’s not quite as complicated as what you and I play but Sam’s not as into crazy long, complex games as we are, and she’ll like the panda.”
“That’s probably a good choice.”
“But, I mean we can decide later when Sam’s around to help choose.” She tries to be nonchalant about it.
“Ash, I know you, you’re going to have the game out and set up to play hours before she’s meant to be at yours.”
“I just like to be prepared.” She smiles bashfully.
“I didn’t say there was anything wrong with that.” I laugh, putting my hands up in defence.
“You implied it.” She pokes me in the ribs.
I flinch in pain. “You really got to remember, I’m fragile Ash.” I croak.
“Oh my God, Chris! I’m so sorry.” She leans her forehead against my shoulder covering her face with her hands.
“It’s okay.”
“You promise?” She looks up at me.
“I promise Ash.” I raise my eyebrows at her, smirking.

The promise I made the other day comes into my head, and I feel guilty, that I’m not telling her the whole truth about how fucked my brain is.

“What is it, Chris?” She frowns.
Damn! Am I that easy to read?
“Nothing.” I ruffle her head, knocking her beanie askew.
“Chris!” She groans, quickly moving to adjust it.

***

After the bus journey, Ash and I go our separate ways to work. It’s only a one or two-minute walk without her. She works just a little bit further down the street in the local Coles bookstore.

The store is a bit busier on Saturdays and that I'm thankful for. It means I have more tasks to keep my mind occupied. Several people come in with repairs that need doing, which gives me plenty to do.

As I’m putting together a computer that was ordered last week with the parts that just arrived for it, I hear the shop door bell ring. I look up and Ash is standing there.
“Ashley.” Dave smiles. “I assume your here for Chris and not any of the electronics.”
“Yeah,” she nods, “although, I promise when my laptop gives up on me you'll be the person I come to.”
“I’ll hold you to that. Go on Chris, don’t keep the lady waiting.”
“Hang on a sec, I just need to-”
“The computer will still be here when you get back Chris,” Dave tells me sternly. “Go get your coat and get out of here. That’s an order, as your boss.”
“Alright.” I leave the computer and go to the back to grab my coat.

When I come back out Ashley takes my hand, linking our fingers together and pulling me out the door.
"See you in a bit Dave," I call before the door closes. 

“Where shall we go for lunch?” Ashley asks.
“Is that even a question anymore?”
We always go to this little sandwich place just down the road. It’s run by the mom of someone we used to go to school with and she always gives us free drinks.
“Good point.” She smiles and starts heading in its direction.

“How’s your morning been?” She asks.
“Good, busy, lots of repairs.”
“What stupid things have people done to their computers this time?”

***

I walk back into the store after lunch, feeling restored having had a coffee.
“Have a nice lunch?” Dave smirks.
“Yeah.” I frown at him, suspicious.
What is he implying in that smirk?
“Did I spy you two holding hands when you left.” Dave raises his eyebrows.
I sputter, “y-you might have.” I quickly dash into the back room to hang my coat up, trying to avoid Dave's inquisitive stare.
“Aww, come on Chris, you’re no fun, don’t keep me in suspense.” 
“Okay, okay, as long a-as you don’t talk to my parents about it.” I put my hands up in surrender as I come back out into the store.
“Cross my heart.” he draws an ‘x’ across his chest with his finger.
“I dunno... I guess... Ashley is my girlfriend now.”
“About time.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” I ask sitting back down at the computer that I was working on earlier.
“That you two have been dancing around each other for so long I thought I’d be in my grave before you made a move.”
I don’t say anything, determined to go back to working on this computer.
“She made the first move, didn’t she?”
“No! Kind of… yes.” I admit.

But it was not in the situation you’d expect. I flinch at the memory of coming to, tied to a chair opposite her. Seeing her black eye. Knowing that someone had hurt her. How angry I was that I’d failed her.

“Stop being so nosey,” I say trying to push the memory out of my mind.
“Alright, alright, I’m a nosey old fart, who should stop sticking his nose into young people's business.” 

It goes quiet for a few minutes, but I can tell that he’s bursting to ask more question. I pointedly ignore him and get on with my work.

“You are being a gentleman to that lovely young lady right?” He suddenly asks.
“Sheesh, Dave, of course, what are you even saying, we’ve been together, like what? A week? Not even that.”
“I know what you kids are like these days. Jumping into bed together before you even know each other's names.”
I hit my forehead against the table in front of me.
“Please tell me I am not having this conversation.”
“Alright, I’ll back off.”
“Please!”
He laughs and we both get back to work.

I find the afternoon harder than the morning. I don’t know what it is but I’m finding it harder and harder to avoid memories of the mountain from coming back to me.

I knock the pencil pot off the counter just as I’m shutting down the counter computer for the day. The stranger’s head hits the floor and rolls to a stop, his blood soaking into the snow, I run for the toilet, streaking past Dave who’s in the back room. I throw up the entirety of my lunch, flush it away and sit on the floor, head in my hands, trying to pull myself back to reality.

“Chris,” Dave calls. “Ashley’s here.”

Crap! Crap, crap, crap! I told her I was fine. She can’t see me like this. I quickly clean myself up in the small, cold sink, washing out my mouth and vowing that I’m avoiding kissing her until I have found at least a mint or some gum or something. I look at myself in the tiny, grubby mirror. I’m a mess. I splash my face with the cold water and dry it with some paper towels. That's marginally better. It will have to do. I can't keep her waiting for too long. 

I leave the toilet to find Ashley sitting in the back room chatting with Dave.
“You took your time.” Dave comments.
I give him a look and pick my coat up.
“Ready to go?” Ash asks.
“Yup.” I nod.
She stands up and walks over to me.
“See you tomorrow Dave.”
“See ya Chris.”
Ash and I head out of the store.

I shove my hands in my pockets as the cold evening bites at my skin. I feel a pack of gum at the bottom of my coat pockets and thank my lucky stars. I pull it out and pop a stick in my mouth, silently contemplating just chewing the whole lot to try to get rid of the lingering taste of vomit, but I’m pretty sure I did that once before when Josh dared me to and ended up choking on a giant ball of gum. Oh God Josh, I hope you’re doing okay, wherever they’ve sent you off to. I miss him. I shake myself out of my thoughts. 

“Want one?” I offer the pack to Ashley.
“Sure, thanks.” She takes a stick.

I feel so much better knowing that any trace of vomit should now be undetectable, although it's probably still best to keep my distance.

We take the bus back to Ashley’s to get everything ready for our board game night with Sam.

Chapter Text

“Can you go into the kitchen and start getting ingredients out for me while I go change out of my uniform.” Ashley starts heading up to her room.
I look her up and down, imagining her changing, half wishing I could follow her up to her room.
“Chris?” She snaps me out of it.
“Yep, sorry, on it.” I head into the kitchen.

I walk over to the counter where she’s left the recipes, I leaf through all of them.
“Ash, how many recipes are there here? You feeding an army?”
“It’s tapas!” She calls back.
I sigh and shake my head. Ash never does anything by halves, and yes I love that about her but it is just a little bit extra sometimes.

I read through the ingredients list for the first recipe and start to get them all out of the fridge and cupboards for her.

Ashley enters wearing dungaree shorts that hug her ass and grey tights that highlight her slim, shapely legs. I wish I could pull her into my arms and slide my hands over her perfect ass but her parents are home and Sam will be arriving at some point so that's a no go today. Then I notice her bright orange t-shirt and smirk. I can just about see the school logo peaking above her dungarees. 

“Is that seriously a writer’s workshop t-shirt?” I grin. 
“So what if it is?” She shrugs and starts looking through the recipes.
“Lame!”
“You were on the mathletes, you can’t talk.”
“Since when does the creative writing club have t-shirts?”
“Since I became president and arranged that field trip to important literary sights in Alberta. I told you about it; remember? Ah-ha.” She pulls out a sheet that she’s scribbled notes on.
“What’s that?”
“Timings.”
“You planned out timings to make all this?”
“You fail to plan, you plan to fail.”
“That’s practically your mantra. When’s your self-help book coming out?”
“Just get the food processor out.”

***

After a while, I’m banished to the lounge to set up the game so that I can’t interfere with her precisely planned cooking timings.
“I thought you said you were going to wait until Sam was here to help choose,” I call back to her teasingly as I’m pushed out of the kitchen.
“Just set up the damn game!” She calls back
“Alright, alright.”

I walk over to the cupboard at the back of the lounge and get Takenoko out. I clear the coffee table and set it up. I’ve probably done it wrong according to Ash but she can fix it if she’s that fussy.

I knock on the kitchen door.
“Can I re-enter hell’s kitchen yet?”
“As long as you don’t touch anything.” She calls back.

I enter the kitchen, hands up showing that I’m not going to touch anything. She’s not looking though. She’s leaning over the counter, frowning, reading one of the recipes intently. Her ass does look great in those dungarees. Will she yell at me if I do what I’m thinking of doing? Maybe. Is it worth it? Maybe? Am I brave enough? Fuck it!

“What if I just stick to touching you?” I whisper, sliding my hands into her back pockets, and leaning forward to plant a kiss on her neck.
“Not helpful.” She shrugs me off.

I just laugh, she is funny when she gets like this. I can tell that she’s flustered because she’s taken her beenie off and has tied her hair up.
“Way to knock a guy down!”
“I’m sorry, I’m just trying to get this all done and your presence is stressful.”

“Ash, what can I do to help?”
“I don’t know!” She puts her face in her hands. “It’s all going wrong.”
“Hey, come on, Sam’s going to love this, it doesn’t have to be perfect. Just take a deep breath and tell me what to do so that I can help get you back on track.”
She takes a deep breath and nods.

***

Sam arrives just as Ashley is finishing up the last dish so I get the door.
“Hey, Sam!” I smile when I open the door to her.
“Hey.” She smiles tiredly. “Something smells good.”
“Ashley and myself have been cooking up no less than the greatest of vegan feasts.” I bow to her mockingly and let her in.
“And by that, you mean Ashley has been cooking and you have been hindering.” Sam raises her eyebrows and begins to take off her coat.
“I resent that statement.”
“Doesn’t make it any less true.” She shrugs, hanging her coat up.
“You know, your words, they hurt Sam. Hurt me right here." I put my hand on my heart.
She raises her eyebrows, "no, that would be your bruised ribs. Now, where is this vegan feast?" she asks having kicked off her sneakers. 
"If you'll just come through to the kitchen you can meet the chef, flown all the way in from her bedroom upstairs.” I lead Sam through the lounge into the kitchen where Ashley’s just finishing off.

I notice Ashley's managed to make a mess of herself and chuckle at her. “Ash, you look like a horror film, you’ve got tomato on your cheek, how did you manage that?”
“Where?”
“Come here,” I say grabbing a kitchen towel.
She looks up at me as I hold her chin and gently wipe the tomato off her cheek.
She smiles, “thanks.”
“No problem.”

Sam coughs, “uh, should I just go, leave you two alone?”
I quickly turn away and throw the kitchen towel in the trash.

“Sam.” Ashley smiles and walks up to her, giving her a hug.
“Did you make all this for me?” Sam looks at the massive array of dishes that Ashley has prepared.
“Well Chris and I will be eating it too but yeah.” Ash rubs her arm nervously and shrugs. “Look! I made rainbow hummus!” She points to it excitedly.

“It all looks great Ash! Thank you so much.” Sam pulls Ashley into another hug, squeezing her tightly.
“Try not to suffocate her Sam.” I chuckle.
“Sorry.” Sam releases her.
“Shall we take this all through to the living room and we can start playing,” Ashley suggests.
“Do I not get a thank you? I helped!” I say indignantly.
“Ignore him, I have been all evening,” Ashley tells Sam as she starts picking up a couple of dishes and carrying them through to the lounge.
I sigh. “No respect.”
"That's because you have to earn respect," Sam smirks, picks up a couple more dishes and follows Ashley. 

***

We sit down on cushions around Ashley’s large coffee table and start playing the game. Sam does like the panda, as expected. She seems tired but well enough.

Despite being a firm believer in the omnivore diet I quite enjoy the collection of vegan dishes that Ashley has whipped up, and I’m glad that someone has done something for Sam.

As we play the game we all tactfully avoid the topic of Blackwood, of Josh and of our friends who have abandoned us, so basically, we just talk about the game. Ashley wins, as always. She has a knack for the kind of logic required for board games.

Once the game is over we all sit back stuffed with vegan food. I never thought that would happen to me.

After a while, Sam goes to the toilet so Ashley and I decide to make a start on all the washing up. I wash and she dries.
“Sorry about earlier, for snapping at you,” Ash says, drying a plate with the dishcloth and avoiding eye contact.
“Don’t worry about it Ash, I know I can be…”
“Insufferable.” She grins.
“I was gonna go with mildly irritating but sure, we’ll go with insufferable.”
“Seriously though, thank you for being helpful.”
“Just don’t tell anyone. You’ll ruin my image.”
She laughs, “what image?”
“My extremely unhelpful, lazy one. I’m very proud of it.”
“You’re crazy.” She shakes her head.
I pull a silly face, she rolls her eyes.

“How was the meal? I know it’s not exactly your first choice.”
“It was spectacular Ash, thank you for doing something nice for Sam.”
She smiles. “Are you sure?”
“Positive.”
“Thank you.” She reaches up and gives me a peck.

“Aww, you two are so cute.” We both jump and find Sam leaning against the door frame.
“Jesus Christ! Fuckin’ ninja.” I groan.
Sam laughs. “Shall I pack up the game.” She motions to the lounge.
“No, I’ll do it.” Ashley rushes toward the lounge before Sam can even take a step.
I laugh, Ashley likes to make sure that games are packed away 'properly'.
“Come be my dryer upper.” I nod to the tea towel that Ashley has abandoned.

Sam joins me at the sink.
“So?” She grins.
“What?”
“You and Ash.” She nudges me playfully. 
“What about me and Ash?”
“You two going out now?”
“What’s it to you, nosey?” I smirk. 
“So, you are.”
“Well… yeah.”

She sighs.
“What?”
“I’m just glad something good came out of that night.”
“Yeah, I guess.” I shrug.
“I don’t know how to feel about the fact that Josh’s twisted prank kind of worked.”
“What do you mean? He didn’t even manage to catch you.”
“For you guys. He literally said to me at one point that he doubted you’d make a move unless you had a gun to your head.”
“He said that?”
“Mmm hmm.” She nods.
“I… hadn’t thought about it like that.”

Are Ash and I only together because of Josh’s fucked up set-up? With all my sleepless nights how had I not thought about this before?

“Hey, look at it as a… silver lining,” Sam suggests.
“But, he was right! Oh, this is so fucked up!” I feel sick.

A saw spinning above our heads. Ashley, sitting opposite me. I have a choice to make. Another choice. I can feel the metal of the gun in my hand.

There’s a loud crash and a spray of water hits me. I sigh and pick up the pan that I just dropped in the sink.
“What happened?” Ashley calls from the lounge.
“Nothing, just Chris being clumsy,” Sam calls back.
“What does that fucking mean Sam?” I whisper through my teeth.
“I don’t know. I didn’t mean to freak you out Chris, I was saying it was a good thing. Just forget I said anything.”

Ashley comes back into the kitchen, “what are you two whispering about?”
Ashley does not need to think about this. With everything that's happened, she doesn't need another thing to freak her out. I give Sam a look that means 'do not tell her'. Sam ignores this, of course.
“I was saying that I’m glad something good came out of... well... you know... everything.”
“Well, you’d hope so wouldn’t you.” Ashley grins at me.
“You’re not freaked out?” I frown. 
She shrugs. “Josh is one of our best friends, he needed a way to justify what he was doing, it doesn’t excuse what he did but after everything he put us through I’d be slightly peeved if we hadn’t come out of it together.”

I guess that’s one way of looking at it. I sigh. Somehow it feels like Josh has won and I’ve lost, despite the fact that I’m the one with the girlfriend and he’s the one locked up God knows where.

“You know, something that I’ve been wondering about is, why us?” Sam frowns.
“What do you mean?” Ashley asks.
“Well,” Sam gulps, “Chris was as drunk and passed out as Josh that night, I tried to stop the prank and out of everyone that took part in it you were the least involved Ash, so why torture us?”
"That's no excuse, I was still involved." Ashley looks at the floor, ashamed. 
"Yeah, but why not Jessica and Emily? Why not Mike? Why us?"
I sigh, this one I have an answer for. “Because we were the people he trusted the most and we let him down.”
Sam sighs, “you're right... I was supposed to be Hannah’s best friend but I couldn’t even protect her from a stupid prank, and then I didn’t even bother running after them.”
“But… filming you like he did Sam, that’s messed up, how was that what you deserved?” I ask.
She sighs. “I-I don’t know, I-I thought we were close, we would talk… about Hannah and Beth. I trusted him with things that I didn’t tell anyone else, and now I… I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to trust him again.”
“You don’t have to if you don’t want to,” Ashley says.
“But,” she bites her lip, “I feel like he’s going to need us when he comes back.”
“We’ll cross that bridge when we get to it.” I try to reassure her.
Sam hugs her arms to her chest, Ashley puts an arm around her.
“How about a cup of tea?” Ashley motions for me to put on the kettle.
Sam nods.

***

We all sit quietly on Ashley’s sofa drinking our hot beverages. Avocado brownies on a plate on the coffee table. Ashley's wrapped a blanket around Sam.
“Does everyone hate me for going back to get Josh? Do they wish we’d just left him there, so we could forget?” Sam mumbles.
“Why do you think anyone hates you?” Ashley asks.
“Everyone left the group chat, didn’t they?”
“That doesn’t mean they hate you.” Ashley shakes her head.
“I think they all just needed some space.” I sigh. “Some time to forget, I don’t think it had anything to do with you, Sam.”
“It’s odd how this massive thing has happened to us, but the world just keeps on spinning and we just have to get on with life as if nothing has changed.” Sam frowns. “It feels wrong.”

I have pretty much the opposite feeling. I wish everything would just go back to normal, like nothing has changed, like nothing happened. To me, it feels like the events on Blackwood Moutain have changed everything and are continuing to try to destroy anything that's left, including my sanity. 

“How's your volunteering going?” Ash asks Sam.
Sam shrugs uncomfortably. “It's weird. They know what happened, I know they do. It was all over the news! But no one has said anything. It feels like they're all tiptoeing around me, like they're worried I'll snap if they make one wrong move.”

I sigh, I'm not looking forward to going back to college on Monday. I wonder who will know. I wonder what people will do.

Sam takes a deep breath. “The thing is… what if they're right, you know? What if I am about to snap? I feel like I'm constantly on the edge of I don't know what, but I don't think it's good.” 
“Sam, we've all been through absolute hell, of course, you feel like that, we all do. I ask myself if I'm going crazy a hundred times a day.”
“My mom wants me to see someone.” Sam mumbles.
“Like a doctor?” Ash asks.
Sam nods. “I don't see how it will help. No-one has believed us so far. I talked to the police again the other day-"
"You what!"
"Shh, Chris, my parents." Ash scolds. 
"Sorry but, what? Why would you do that Sam?" 
"I-I just got so worried about anyone else going up there and getting hurt so I went and spoke to them and told them that someone had to do something."
"And?" 
"And nothing, they said Josh had been found, we'd all been recovered so the case was closed. They clearly didn't believe me. God! I really hope no-one goes up there."
I shiver thinking about it. 

"Anyway, what were you saying about a doctor Sam?" Ashley asks. 
"Well, seeing as no-one believes us, why would a doctor believe me? And if they don't believe me, then how are they supposed to help me. No.” She shakes her head. “I think we're on our own with this one.”
“Not completely alone. We can all stick together.” I try to reassure her.
“Thanks, Chris.” She smiles weekly.

“My parents want me to see someone too,” Ashley admits, “but not a doctor.”
“Who then?” Sam frowns.
I think I could give it a guess knowing Ashley's devout Catholic parents.
Ashley squirms. “A priest,” she wrinkles her nose, it's safe to say Ashley does not hold her parent's beliefs, “tomorrow, at mass.”
“What's a priest gonna be able to do? They gonna exorcise you?” 
“I don't know Chris!”
“Ash, it will be okay.” Sam puts a hand on her knee and gives me a look.
Ash puts her face in her hands. Sam shifts so that the blanket it draping over both of them and puts her arms around Ashley.

“I'm sorry, you guys must be just as freaked out.”
“We're not about to have the demons driven out of us,” I mutter.
“Chris that is not helping!” Sam snaps.
I bite my tongue, she's right.

“I'm sure they'll just offer you some spiritual guidance, or something.” Sam gently brushes Ashley's hair away from her face. “They might even believe you. They might think the wendigo is some kind of demon or possession. They might even say something helpful.”

I want to protest at this. All Ashley's church has ever managed to do for her is make her self-conscious and anxious. But who am I to scoff at beliefs like Catholicism, having seen my friend turned wendigo leaping toward me, body stretched unnaturally, eyes full of blood lust.

“Sam's right Ash. They mean well. They're not going to hurt you. It might help.” I try to be supportive.

A small sob breaks out of Ashley, her small body heaving. She breathes in, frantically gasping. Fuck! Panic attack! I quickly move so I'm crouching on the floor in front of her.

“Ash, look at me,” I say, gently removing her shaking hands from where they're covering her face.
Sam keeps her arms around Ashley, gently stroking her back, shushing her quietly.
“Let's do those breaths. Come on. In, two, three, four...”

I get her to take deep breaths until she's calmed down and she can breathe normally again. Once she's calm she bursts into tears, not hysterical, panicky tears, but disappointed, frustrated tears. I put a hand on her knee, to try to comfort her.

Sam rubs her back. “Let it all out if you need to. There's no shame in a good cry.”
“Oh my God, I'm so pathetic.” She sobs.

I shake my head. If only she knew how strong she is. She's not the one who can't sleep, who can't stop throwing up, who can't shake the memories and the flashbacks for five minutes. At least she has a reason to be worried. Why does my chest tighten, why do I freeze when I know there is no danger? And at least she can be honest about how freaked out she's feeling. Why do I feel the need to hide it from everyone?

“You are not pathetic Ashley,” Sam says sternly.
“Are you kidding, you two went through so much more than me and you're fine.”
Sam barks out a bitter laugh. “Ashley I am far from fine. I'm just good at hiding it.”
“Well, Chris is fine.”
“Damn fine.” I joke, hoping the distraction will work so I don't have to admit how not fine I am.
Ashley laughs through her tears and wipes her cheeks.
I sigh. “Recovery is going to take time, for all of us. We'll get through it together. Remember, I've got your back.”
She nods and smiles. “As long as I've got yours.”
“Nawww,” Sam grins, “you two really are adorkable.” She teases.
Ashley blushes and I'm pretty sure my ears have gone bright red.
“Alright, Josh,” I comment.
Ashley giggles, Sam smirks and we all burst out laughing. It feels good. We could all do with a good laugh.

***

I flop down on the couch having set up the movie that the three of us have decided to watch. I lie across the couch head resting in Ashley's lap, legs resting on Sam's.
“Really, Chris?” Sam rolls her eyes.
“Not comfortable?” I ask her.
“Your feet stink.” She makes a face.
Ashley laughs as I wave my foot nearer Sam’s nose. Sam pushes my foot away with one finger.
“As a vegan, I would appreciate if you didn't wave such pungent cheese near my face.”
“Wait! You're a vegan? I had no idea! I am so sorry.” I mock her.
“Hardy har.” She laughs sarcastically.

“Will you two shush, the movie is about to start.” Ashley hushes us.

I cross my legs so that my foot is hopefully out of smelling distance.
“Better, fussy?” I ask.
“Marginally.” Sam frowns.

“Shush.” Ashley taps my chest lightly, it seems she's finally remembering to be gentle on my bruised ribs.

She leaves her hand resting on my chest and with her other hand, begins to absentmindedly play with my hair. I move my hand and link it with the one that she's laid on my chest. She smiles at me and I grin back before turning my attention to the TV. I gently stroke her hand with my thumb. Enjoying our closeness.

It feels comfortable to be with these two like this but I can't help feeling something is missing, like someone is missing. 

***

“Bedtime.” Sam yawns once the film is over.
“Yeah.” Ashley agrees, also yawning.

I sit up and rub my face under my glasses. I’m amazed I managed to stay awake for that whole thing. I’m exhausted, although, no doubt tonight will be another sleepless one.

Sam stands up and stretches.
“I’ll walk you home,” I say standing up.
Sam looks at me dubiously.
“Or… you can walk me home.”
“That sounds more accurate.” She smirks.
Ashley laughs.
“Do you want to take a few brownies home Sam?” Ashley asks.
“Yes, they were amazing!” Sam smiles.
“Let me just pack a few up for you.” Ashley hops up and takes the plate of brownies into the kitchen.

I head out into the hallway and begin to get ready to leave, pulling my shoes and coat on. Ashley and Sam come out into the hall laughing, Sam holding a little package of brownies. Sam sits down to pull her sneakers on. I walk over to Ash, she looks nervous, arms wrapped around herself.
“You gonna be alright tomorrow?” I ask softly.
She gulps. “I-I think so.”
“Call me if you need to.”
She nods.

“Right.” Sam stands up and grabs her coat. “Let’s go.”
“Bye Sam,” Ashley says as Sam pulls her in for a tight hug.

Sam turns and opens the door.
“Have fun being holy tomorrow.” I grin at Ash.
Sam punches me.
“Ow!”
“Sometimes you are the least helpful person in the universe.” She scolds. “You should be offering to come over in the afternoon.”
“I can’t!” I excuse. “Ashley’s parents have a strict 'no heathens allowed in the house' rule on Sundays, besides I’m working tomorrow.”
“Wait, seriously?” Sam turns to Ashley.
Ashley makes a face and then nods.
“How did I not know this?” Sam asks.
“You know I don’t ever come to things on Sundays.” Ashley shrugs. “I always have to beg to come on weekend getaways.”
Sam nods. “Let’s get going, Chris.” She turns to leave.

I turn to follow her but before I can, Ashley grabs me and gives me a quick peck on my jaw.
“Bye.” I smile at her.
“Bye.” She says softly and then pokes her head around me to call to Sam who's already standing on the sidewalk waiting for me. “Make sure he gets home okay for me.”
“Will do.” She grins, giving Ashley a wave.
"I can look after myself." I insist indignantly. 
"Sure you can," Ashley smirks. 
"Come on nerd!" Sam calls and starts walking. 
"Bye Ash," I walk out of the house and join Sam, waving to Ash as she shuts the door.

Chapter Text

My phone rings as I’m desperately trying to concentrate on the customer in front of me who is attempting to explain what kind of computer they’re looking for. I’ve already had to ask them to repeat themselves once.

I had another sleepless night of tossing and turning. I also spent part of it on the bathroom floor throwing up the contents of my stomach. Turns out vegan vomit is no prettier than regular vomit.

“Sorry.” I apologise, moving quickly to mute my phone.
Just before I do, I glance at the caller ID. My stomach drops.

Ashley

She knows I’m working, she wouldn’t call unless it was important. Something must have happened at mass.

I look up at the customer in front of me, they look unimpressed. I glance at Dave who’s just finishing up a sale. I look back at my phone.

She might be freaking out, she might be having another panic attack. I can’t just leave her hanging.

“I’m really, really sorry," I apologise backing up toward the door, "but I have to take this.” I dash into the back room before they can protest.

I shut the door and fumble for my phone trying to quickly answer it.
"Shit!" 
I've dropped it. I quickly get down on my hands and knees and look for it. It's gone underneath the desk. I'm going to miss the call. I reach out and grab it, hands shaking. Before it can go to voicemail I quickly answer it. 

As I hold it up to my ear I can instantly hear choking and sobbing on the other end.
“Oh my God! Chris! Thank God you answered! They-they called me a-a liar, t-they think I'm a liar a-and liars go to hell.” She sobs. “I d-don't wanna go to hell."
"You don't even believe in hell," I say as I pull myself up off the floor. 
"I kn-now, b-but I st-still don't wanna go. Confess! T-they kept saying c-confess! I mean, I stabbed Josh, but I didn’t know it was him! What a-am I meant to confess? Oh God! I can’t breathe!”
“Ashley, Ash, you gotta slow down. Stop thinking about what’s happened. Just focus on taking deep breaths.”
“Oh my God! Oh my God! Oh my God! This is all so messed up!”
“Ashley breathe! Come on lets count through breaths. In, two, three-”

“Chris, what are you doing?” Dave pokes his head around the door, frowning.

“How is breathing going to help anything?” Ashley cries frustratedly.
“You need to calm down Ash. Come on trust me.”

I make a helpless face in Dave’s direction and point to the phone.

“I’m sorry.” She coughs out, choking on her own sobs.
“You don’t need to be sorry. Now please, please breathe with me.” I sigh.

Dave nods and leaves.

“Okay.” She sniffs.

It takes a while but slowly she manages to focus on breathing in and out and calms down. She’s quiet, but I can hear her breaths and the occasional little hiccup from crying so much.

“So it went bad, huh?” I ask gently, sitting myself down in an office chair.
“Yeah.”
“You want me to come over after work?”
“N-no!” She says quickly. “That will just make things worse.”
“What can I do Ash?” I sigh, feeling absolutely helpless.
“Just, stay on the phone with me, for a little while, I know you need to work but-”
“I’ll stay on the phone for as long as you need me to.”
“Thank you.” She says quietly.
“No problem.”

We’re quiet for a little bit, I listen to her breaths coming down the other end of the phone, glad that she’s calm. I wish I could be with her right now. I feel so inadequate and hopeless standing in the back room of an electronics shop on the other side of town to her.

I hear a loud thump coming from the other end of the phone.

The old man- No Chris! No! Do not think about that. I grip the arm of the chair tightly, trying to ground myself. Focus on Ashley. 

“What was that?” 
“I locked myself in the bathroom. That was my mom knocking on the door. She thinks I’m having a shower.” Ashley whispers.
“What-what did your parents think about what happened?”
“They’re fuming!” She sighs. “My mom said…” Ashley takes a deep breath, “said she was ashamed of me,” her voice cracks, “and my dad didn't say anything, he couldn't even look at me.”
“They’ll get over it. They love you.”
“I’m not so sure.” She says almost too softly to hear.
My chest tightens, she sounds so sad. I want to be able to stop her from hurting. I wish I could fix everything.

“You going to school tomorrow?” I ask, hoping to take her mind off things.
“Yes, anything to get out of this house.” I know how she feels. “Are you going to go to college?”
“Yeah.” I croak, my throat feels dry and tight, I hate that I can’t go to her right now.
“Are you okay?”
“I’m fine.” I move my glasses onto my head and wipe my face with my free hand. “Just worried about you, that’s all.”
“I’m sorry, please don’t worry.”
“Don’t be sorry," I still feel nervous saying this, we haven't said it that much, "I-I...I love you, Ash, of course I’m going to worry.”
“I love you too.” She whispers.
I smile, some of the tightness of worry being replaced by warmth.

“You should get back to work.” She sighs.
“Only if you’re sure you’re going to be okay.”
“I’ll be alright Chris.”
“Okay, well call me if you need to, I’ll have my phone with me at all times.”
“You always do, that thing is practically surgically attached to you.” 
“It has loads of useful apps.”
“Are you seriously going to argue that Reddit has significantly improved your quality of life?”
“Duh, how else would I get my daily fill of memes and cute puppies?”
She laughs. “I’ll let you go now, thanks for picking up.”
“No problem, I’ll always pick up.”
“Thanks, bye.”
“Bye Ash.”
She hangs up. 

I sigh and shove my phone in my pocket. I can’t believe Ashley’s parents would do that to her! I clench my fists. I want to kick something.

I take a deep breath, I still have to work for the rest of the afternoon. I should probably go and apologise for taking a personal phone call while serving that customer. I head out into the shop.

Chapter Text

It feels weird getting the bus to college, like it’s a normal day, like nothing’s changed.

Except I’m flinching at every single noise. I'm having flashbacks to the nightmare I can’t forget. I'm exhausted beyond belief and worried sick about my girlfriend and best friend and all my other friends who seem to have made the decision to never talk to me again.

It feels weird getting the bus to college, like it’s a normal day, like nothing’s changed. Except everything has changed.

Once I’m off the bus, I go straight to the campus coffee shop in search of a beverage to make me feel more alive. As I queue up I feel like I might fall asleep on my feet. I’m an absolute mess. I stutter through my order and struggle to hold my phone still enough to make the contactless payment. I must look like some kind of caffeine junkie. Luckily that means I don’t stick out too much among all the other sleep-deprived college students. Except they’re not sleep deprived because their best friend's sister turned into a flesh-eating monster and tried to kill them.

I make my way to my first lecture and stand outside the room with everyone else, waiting to be let in. I lean against the wall, clinging onto my coffee and my phone for dear life, both of them are essential for my survival today.

My ears pick up hushed, furtive voices. I flick my gaze up off my phone to where they’re coming from. I expect to see a group of gossips. I don’t expect my eyes to meet with someone else's who quickly looks away like they’ve been caught red-handed. I look at the group that the guy is talking to and find more pairs of eyes that quickly flick away from mine, they’re bodies subconsciously turning, trying to block me out. I gulp nervously. They must have heard what happened. I hope there are a few people ignorant enough that they don't know.

I sigh and go back to my phone, scrolling through Reddit. I’m less enthusiastic about Twitter these days.

They definitely killed that guy #justiceforthestranger

Don't think about it Chris. His head rolls across the snow. Don't think about it! His body slumps. Stop! Blood-

“Chris!” I jump as my friend, well less friend and more the acquaintance I always sit with, Nick comes up to me and gives me a friendly slap on the shoulder.
I wince as my chest twinges painfully. 
He grins at me, “The hero from the mountain! How does it feel to be infamous?” 
I sigh, “I really, really don’t want to talk about it.”
“Oh, okay, it’s all cool, I get it, you want to go for the lone ranger, dark knight kinda character.”
I sigh again and pinch the bridge of my nose.
“If you’re ever in need of a new sidekick," he nudges me playfully, my chest twinges again, "which from what I hear you are, I’m right here.”
Is he talking about Josh being in hospital? Seriously?
“Nick! Do you think this is some kind of game!? I went through some fucked up, sick shit on that mountain so can you just shut up about it!” I snap.
“Sorry man.” He backs off.
He sees someone else he knows, gives them a wave and heads over to them. I sigh, great, just lost another friend.

The lecturer pokes his head around the door and invites us all in.

As a group goes past me one of them turns to me.
“Hey, it’s crazy Chris,” he says, loud enough for all his friends to hear, “you might not want to come to the next lecture, Dr Preston is a real monster.”
I scowl at him, I wish I could wipe the grin off his face. What right does he have to call me crazy? The group all laugh and head into the room.

Skeletal limbs. Stop thinking about it. Sharp teeth. Don't do this. Milky white eyes. You need to move!

I walk into the lecture hall, trying to make myself as small as possible which isn’t very easy when you’re often one of the tallest people in the room. I sit on my own, at the back, in a dark corner, hoping to avoid anymore human contact.

I find it hard to concentrate throughout the lecture. I have a headache, I feel sick and my tired brain can’t really hold a coherent thought. I'm having enough trouble trying to keep myself away from thoughts of the mountain let alone trying to focus on anything else. I suffer through the hour coffee in hand.

At the end, as I’m heading out the door, dreading the next lecture, I hear my name called. It’s the lecturer, he beckons me over. I sigh and trudge toward him.
“Yes.” I look at him tiredly.
“I just wanted a quick word.”
“Go ahead, shoot.”
“Well, er…” He fidgets, moving from foot to foot. “The faculty all know about what happened and… er... I just thought that I’d let you know if you need any… um... support or extra time on assessments please don’t hesitate to contact your supervisor.” He tries a supportive smile.
“Uh... thanks... will do.” I give him a nod and head out the room.

***

I hide in one of the computer labs in between lectures and workshops. I go through my notes trying to make some sort of sense out of them and failing miserably. I’ll probably have to re-listen to all these lectures and make better ones.

My phone suddenly rings loudly. Damn! Why do I always forget to put it on silent? The few other people in the quiet lab flash me angry glares.

It’s Ashley. I grab my phone and hurry out the room.

“Hey Ash, how’s school going?”
“This - is a living - fucking - nightmare!” She chokes out between sobs.
“Woe, woe, Ash, calm down. Breathe just like we did yesterday.” I hurry down the corridor and find a quiet spot to sit down in and talk privately.
“I get to school - hoping just to go b-back to n-normal - to forget it all - and then - first period - I’m called to the principal's office - in front of everyone - and I have to talk to her about what happened - then I’m sent to the school counselor - and I have to talk to him t-too - t-then - my f-form tutor has to talk to me - I c-can’t fucking escape it!”
“Ash, stop talking a mile a minute and breathe for me please!” 
“And in class - everyone’s looking at me - everyone whispers - and then…” She bursts into even more hysterical sobs.
“What Ash?”
“Someone stuck a note on my locker - it said - it said - go back to the fucking mountain psycho.”

Fuck! I should have known that if my college peers are going to be such jerks, high school is going to be a hundred times worse.

“Ash, forget about all that, just focus on breathing for a minute. You’ll feel better. I promise. Now breathe with me.”
I gently go through the process of getting her to breathe in for four, hold for seven and out for eight until she’s able to breathe properly again. She’s still crying, I can hear it in her voice, but at least she’s not hyperventilating.

“What do I do Chris?” She says quietly, voice hoarse from crying so much.
“Where are you right now?”
“It’s recess, I’m in the toilets.”
“Are Jess and Matt in?”
“I t-think so,” she sniffs, “but they won’t want to talk to me, they left the group chat.”
“You don't know that.”
"B-but I heard Jess! And I left her!" 
"What are you talking about?"
"I-In the tunnels, I heard her but I was scared s-so I kept going a-and I left her, she probably hates me!" She's getting hysterical again. 
"Shhh, don't think about it.  Jess got out, she's safe now, so no harm done, right?" 
"But I c-could have helped her!" 
Oh God, this is not going well. 

"Ash, just stop, calm down, okay? Freaking out about this isn't going to help anyone." 
"I'm sorry," she says in a small voice. 
I sigh, maybe that was a little harsh, "don't be sorry." 

I decide to try again. "Please, just, go find... go find Matt if you don't want to talk to Jess."
“I don’t think I can leave this cubicle.”
“Of course you can.”
“What if there’s another note on my locker? What if someone else wants to talk about it?”
“You gonna spend the rest of your life in the school toilets?”
“I could.”
“That doesn’t sound like it’s going to get you to New York and make you a great writer.”
“I do have lit next.” She sniffs.
“Great! You love lit! See you need to leave so that you can go to your favourite class.”

“Okay.” she takes a deep breath. “I’m leaving the cubicle.”
“Whey! Go, Ash! See, I told you, you could do it.”
“I’m a mess, my mascara has gone everywhere.”
“Well it’s lucky that you know just the right person to help you fix that, so go find Jess, I’m sure she’d love to give you a makeover.”
“Okay.” She says faintly.

“Ash?”
“Mmm.”
“You’re not going back into the cubicle are you?”
“I was thinking about it.” She mumbles.
“Go find Jess... or Matt, if you think he’d do a better job of your makeup.”
She laughs.
“Okay, okay, I’ll go find them… Thanks.”
“No problem.”
“I-I love you.”
“Love you too.” I smile. “Call me at lunch if you need to, or any time for that matter.”
“I will, bye.”
“Goodbye.”

***

I receive no calls from Ashley at lunch which I hope means she went and found Jessica and Matt and that they’re looking after her now. What was that whole thing about hearing Jess? She hasn't brought that up before. 

I sit quietly in the corner of one of the campus cafeterias, headphones on, watching stupid videos on my phone, trying to numb my brain and avoid any stares.

I hear a cough and look up to find three people looming over my table, glaring at me. I pull my headphones off my ears as one of them starts to speak.
“We just wanted to make sure you know how messed up it is that you and your rich, privileged friends decided to play fucked up pranks on each other on a sacred mountain.” She says.
“Basically, you got what you deserved.” The guy to her right adds casually.
“Shut up Connor, I’m not done yet.” The girl gives him a look.
He makes a face and puts his hands up in defence.
“Anyway.” She turns back to me. “If you killed that guy who was just trying to protect sacred land, then I hope you burn in hell.” She spits venomously, turns on her heal and stalks away, the other two follow.

I let out a big sigh and take my glasses off, massaging the bridge of my nose. That’s not even what he was doing! I want to yell at them. He was… Oh God, I see his head roll to the ground, and all that blood, seeping into the snow, his body slumped, limp, lifeless. And it's all my fault.

I run blindly for the nearest toilet, bumping into things as I go because I’ve forgotten to shove my glasses back on. I manage to get there just in time to throw up all the lunch I’ve just eaten.

I sit on the floor of the cubicle for a while, head in my hands, feeling rough and exhausted.

Now I understand why Ashley didn’t want to leave earlier. It’s safe here.

I should probably call her. I should be telling her what’s happening to me. I should be telling her the truth. It’s just so much easier to pretend that I’m fine. To not worry her. To not admit to her how pathetic I am.

***

I spend the rest of the day trying to be even more inconspicuous. Nick and the couple of others who I occasionally chat with are avoiding me religiously.

I’m beyond relieved when I’m done for the day and can head home. I can’t wait to collapse onto my bed and be unable to sleep. My phone buzzes while I'm at the bus stop.

Ashley

Sam’s house now.

I guess my plan to collapse will have to be postponed until later.

Ashley

Is everything alright?

Yes! Just come!

I sigh and scan the bus times on my phone for the way to Sam’s house. It shouldn’t take too long.

Chapter Text

Sam’s dad opens the door and smiles at me. There are multiple dogs crowding around his feet and wagging their tails enthusiastically.  
“Hello, Chris.” He grins, "come on, out the way, Bear," he says pushing the tiniest dog out the way gently with his foot to let me in. “They’re all in the lounge." He nods his head in that direction while shutting the door behind me. "Would you like a tea or a coffee?”
“I think I’m alright.” I cringe back as Digory, a huge bear of a dog jumps up at me. 
"Down Dig." Mr Giddings commands, taking a hold of his collar, "sorry, they're just over excited because of all the guests. Are you sure I can’t tempt you with anything? It’s no trouble, honest.”
On second thoughts, I am absolutely exhausted, a coffee might do me some good.
“Uh… coffee please.” I nod.
“No problem, coming right up. Come on.” He calls to the dogs.
As I'm taking my shoes of he pops his head into the lounge and I hear him say, “any of you kids want a top up?” 

I hang up my coat, take a deep breath and wipe my face, bracing myself to appear alive, before heading into the lounge. Sam is sitting in the large, cushy chair at the other end of the room, holding a mug in her hands, looking tired but smiley, which I suppose is good. On the couch, Jessica is curled up right in the corner, arms wrapped around her torso, the scratches across her face only just healing, a huge cast on her leg. It’s so wrong to see bubbly, confident Jess curled up and quiet. Matt is spread out on the other end of the couch, feet propped up on the coffee table, he looks odd without his letterman jacket, I guess it was beyond repair, he’s replaced it with a sports sweater. Then two green eyes and a beanie pop up from behind the chair in front of me.
“Chris!” Ashley grins.
I laugh. “You’re in a good mood.”
“Come sit.” Sam gestures. 

I walk around Ashley’s chair and head for the only space available; in between Matt and Jess. Before I can get there, Ashley gets up, blocking my path and announces she’s going to the bathroom. She slides past me, smiling and leaves the big comfy chair free, so naturally, I take advantage and flop down in it. I’m so tired I wouldn’t have been surprised if I'd fell asleep as soon as my ass hit the chair. 

“Hey, Chris.” Matt half smiles.
“Hey.” I nod at him. “How was the first day back?” 
“Oh, you know footballers.” He shrugs.
“Massive assholes.”
“Pretty much.” He nods, sighing.
“Well… that… sucks.”
“Yup.” He nods.

I look over at Sam, she raises her eyebrows. I know it’s a comment on my lack of social skills. I shrug at her. What am I supposed to do? She darts her eyes toward Jess, signalling for me to engage in conversation, which, no doubt, I will fail miserably at, but I’ll give it a shot. I turn to Jessica.
“Jess? How’s it going?”
She looks up at me from where she’s staring at the floor. “Alright.” She smiles weekly, her voice slightly croaky.
“Did they patch you up alright?”
“Yeah, they did a pretty good job.”
God, it’s hard to see her like this. It’s really not the Jess we all know and love. 

“Hey! You stole my seat!” Ashley protests loudly as she reenters the room.
Thank God she’s back.
“You snooze, you lose.” I grin. 
“Hmph, we’ll see about that.” She frowns and then sits down on top of me, draping her legs over my lap, tucking her head into the crook of my neck.
I notice Matt making a face at Sam, who just shrugs at him.
“You comfortable.” I raise my eyebrows at her once she’s settled down. 
“Yup.” She smiles.

“So why exactly was I summoned?”
“Because the world was a piece of crap to us all today.” Ashley puts bluntly.
“We thought perhaps we could end the day better if we were all together,” Sam explains more softly.
“Any news on the other two?” I ask, trying to ignore the fact that it should be other three, or even other five, our group feels so odd without the Washingtons.
“Actually, that’s partly why we’re all here, we thought we’d call them.” Sam points to her laptop which is sitting in front of her on the coffee table. “Emily said she’d be free soon actually.” Sam glances at the time.
I feel Ashley tense slightly at the mention of Emily. Still nervous about the whole situation with Mike and the gun. I give her knee a quick reassuring squeeze. She smiles at me thankfully. 

“You’re hot beverages are served.” Mr Giddings enters carrying a tray.
He puts the tray down and hands the various mugs out.
“Thanks, dad.” Sam smiles as he replaces the empty cup she’s holding with a new steaming, full one.
“Thank you,” Jessica says quietly as she’s handed a mug.
“And a glass of water for the athlete.” Mr Giddings grins as he passes a cup of water to Matt. “You sure I can’t get you something more warming?”
“Thank you, sir, but no, coach’s orders.” Matt salutes taking the glass.
“Coffee for Chris,” he holds the cup out, Ashley takes it and passes it to me, “and tea for Ashley,” he gives her the last mug.
He quickly collects up the empties onto the tray and starts heading out the room. “Just let me know if you need anything else.” He calls as he exits.
“Will do, thanks, dad!” Sam calls back. 

“Is coffee really a good idea at this time?” Ashley looks at me dubiously.
“Coffee is always a good idea,” I tell her.
She rolls her eyes, nuzzles into my neck and takes a sip of her tea.

I wrap an arm around her waist. It feels comfortable to be sat with Ash curled up on my lap, to feel her body heat, to breathe in her vanilla scented perfume, to be tickled slightly by her hair brushing against my neck. We have sat like this before, but it all seemed like a joke, it felt awkward and it was usually because Josh had plotted us into it. He’s a jerk, but he means well. I sigh. I miss Josh. I really hope he’s doing okay. I wish I could talk to him. Apologise.

Ashley pokes me, carefully avoiding my bruised ribs.
“Where have you gone?” She whispers.
“Sorry,” I shake my head, “my mind was just wondering,” I mutter.
She frowns at me but doesn’t say anything else and turns back to the others.

I notice Matt giving us nosey sideways glances. Are we supposed to make a big announcement about us going out? He and Emily didn’t exactly tell us, they just rocked up, Emily parading him around like a new purse. Nah, he can work it out by himself, or hear it on the vine. Although, Sam’s the only one that knows and she’s not much of a gossip. 

“Ashley, how was mass yesterday?” Sam asks, interrupting my thoughts.
Wrong question Sam! I feel Ashley squirm slightly. I quickly give Sam a look and shake my head slightly.
“I don’t really want to talk about it,” Ashley mutters.

Sam quickly searches for another topic. “How about college, Chris?”
Damn! Wrong question again! Why did she have to pick on me?
“What about it?” I shrug, trying to be nonchalant.
“How was it?” She gives me a look that says she thinks I’m being odd.
“It was fine. You know, college kids are a lot more mature than high schoolers. So… I didn’t really have any problems.” 
Sam frowns at me. I think she knows. Goddammit! Why aren’t I a better liar? I take a gulp of my coffee, trying to hide the guilty look on my face. 

Sam’s phone pings and she picks it up.
“It’s Emily, she says she’s ready to chat. Everyone onto the couch.” Sam announces.
“Are you kidding? We’ll never all fit.” Matt says as the rest of us all begin to move.
“Not with that attitude we won’t.” Sam grins.
“You mean you don’t want to get cosy with me?” I joke, pulling a sad face. “And here I thought we had something really special.” I sit myself down on the couch in the middle.
Matt rolls his eyes at me, and I swear he edges away slightly. I chuckle to myself. Sam and Ash don’t attempt to sit on the couch and just sit down in front of it on the floor. Sam opens up her laptop and logs on. She quickly calls Emily and within seconds the call is answered and up pops Emily. 

We all chime in with hello's and hi's, I notice that both Ashley and Jessica’s greetings are quiet and a little unenthusiastic. 
“Oh my God, guys! You do not know how happy I am to see you all.” Emily immediately says, letting out a deep, relieved sigh.
She’s sitting in her dorm room, the background all monochrome, which I imagine is trendy seeing as she goes to one of the top fashion schools in the world and has enough money to redo both her room and wardrobe whenever the seasons change.
“It’s good to see you too Emily.” Sam smiles.

“So... how have you all been?” Emily asks.
“I think it’s safe to say it’s been difficult for all of us.” Sam shrugs.
“Yeah.” Emily looks off to the side. “Yeah,” she puts an arm around herself and rubs her shoulder, “it’s been pretty shitty here too.”
There’s a moment of silence, where no-one knows what to say. None of us really wanting to talk about the shit-ness of our lives.

“Tell them what happened Em,” Matt says softly.
“Um, well, my roommate, she found out about all the shit up on the mountain. She told everyone. Bitch!” She mutters venomously. “Anyway, yeah, I… don’t really have any friends here anymore. Still top of the fucking class though, and no one is getting help on their fucking sucky projects anymore.”
“That really sucks Em.” I try to console her.
“Yeah, it kinda does. I know how I went on about how I’d finally found people like me, who got fashion, who weren’t idiots but this… I’m just…" she rolls her eyes and sighs, "I’m sorry guys… you know… for being a bit of a bitch sometimes.”
“You’re not the one who needs to be sorry Em,” Ashley says quietly, I can hear the tears threatening in her shaky voice. “I know that encouraging Mike to…” Ashley takes a deep breath, “I know that was unforgivable and I deserved that slap you gave me, but I’m sorry. I’ll be quiet now.” She wraps her arms around her knees and looks away from the screen, trying to surreptitiously wipe away her tears.
“Ashley.” Emily takes a big breath. “What you and Mike and even you Chris,” she gives me a look and I want to be able to disappear into the couch, “did, was fucking messed up, and I’m not going to pretend that it wasn’t or that I’m not still mad about it but I think… I can forgive you two. Mike’s still a fucking jerk and I never want to speak to him again but I think with you two things will be alright again, eventually.”
“Really?” Ashley looks up hopefully.
“I’m still mad though.” Emily scowls.
But we all know that this is Emily’s way of saying she’s sorry for what she’s done and that she forgives us for what we did and that we’re all friends again. And to be honest, I wouldn’t have it any other way. That’s Emily. She’s been part of our group forever and I think if she ever stopped being strong-willed and self-assured I’d have a heart attack. To be honest, Jess being so quiet is putting me on the brink of one.
“Thanks, Em,” I say quietly. 

“So, did you start classes today?” Sam asks.
“Yeah, they were like whatever.” Emily shrugs.
“You mean you’ve paid thousands of dollars and gone thousands of miles away just to do a course that's 'whatever'?” I smirk. “Sounds like a pretty poor life choice to me.”
“Of fuck of Chris! They were interesting! Alright! Having no-one to sit with was depressing but I do enjoy my course. You fucktards wouldn’t get it, apart from Jess, I mean, look at your outfits. You all need help.” 
“I don’t think we could afford your rates Em, or the clothing you’d recommend to be honest.” I grin.
“I always buy from charity shops and sustainable brands anyway so I’m not sure you’d like my parameters.” Sam chips in.
We all groan.
“Oh come on guys! The planet is important! And did you know you are probably all wearing clothes that somewhere along the line have been involved in slavery.”
“I think you’ve mentioned that one before Sam,” I tell her.
“Sam, no offence, but I am not sacrificing my cashmere so that some dumb fucking sheep can prance about happily with all its fluffy wool.”
“That… is not how it works.” Sam sighs.
“Please don’t educate us,” Ashley says, fingers crossed. 

“Come on guys.” Matt laughs. “Lay off her a little.”
“Don’t worry Matt, I can take it.” Sam shrugs.
“Yeah, you’re just smug because you're watching us from your moral high ground knowing we’re all going to hell.” Emily jokes.
I notice Ashley tense up. Fuck Emily! Wrong thing to say. I give her a little nudge with my foot. She glances back at me, her jaw stiff, shaking slightly. She’s thinking about what happened at mass. I lean forward and put a hand on her shoulder. She reaches up and links her fingers with mine, giving my hand a gentle squeeze of thanks. 

“So, you’ve all heard my sob story, yawn. Now it’s your turn. Sam you first.”
“Nothing much has happened to me.” She shrugs. “There’s this general tense feeling around the office. I know everyone knows. But, no-one has talked to me about it. Which, I guess I’m grateful for.”
“Chris?” She looks at me.
“You trying to create a competition out of whose life is worst?” I raise an eyebrow.
“God Chris, can’t I just be genuinely interested in my friends' lives?”
“Well that’s not very Emily like but okay.” I shrug.
“Dick.” She mutters.
“Nope, my day didn’t have much of that in it,” I smirk.
“Much?” Sam raises an eyebrow.
“Well, you know, I’m a man in demand.” I shrug jokingly.
“You wish.” Ashley snorts.
“Chris, just answer the ladies question.” Matt rolls his eyes at me. 

“Yes, sir.” I salute. “College is fine.” I shrug. “I don’t have a bitch of a roommate, just a four-year-old sister who likes to see if she can break my already damaged ribs.” I laugh guiltily.
“How’s your shoulder, Emily?” Sam asks.
“It’s fine.” Emily brushes off the question and moves back to her own line of questioning. “Matt how was the first day back at school?”
“Uh…” Matt scratches the back of his head. “It was pretty shit for all three of us actually. The other footballers wouldn’t shut up about it so I kinda got into a fight where I was outnumbered, which wasn’t the smartest of moves. Coach is threatening to put me on probation.”
What? He didn’t say this earlier! The others don’t seem shocked, they must already know. But Matt! Not playing football! That’s unthinkable.
“Ash got a pretty nasty note on her locker.” He adds.
Ashley grips my hand even more tightly.
“And Jess…” He looks at her.
“I got kicked off the fucking cheerleading team.” Jessica voices bitterly, it’s the longest and loudest sentence she’s uttered yet.
We’re all silent for a moment, not knowing what to say now that Jess has found her voice again. 

“Jess. Can we talk privately? I’ll call you. Do you guys mind?” Emily asks us.
“Sure, go ahead,” Sam nods.
“Okay,” Jess says quietly, seeming to retreat back within herself.
“Bye, then guys. Try not to become too passé without me.” Emily waves.
“Bye!” We all chime.
The call ends. Moments later Jessica’s phone starts ringing.
“I better go take this.” She mumbles and slowly stands up, using the couch for support.
"Do you need any help." Matt offers. 
She shakes her head and picks up a pair of crutches that I hadn’t noticed leaning against the couch then slowly limps out of the room. 

“Well, that was…” I say not knowing how to describe it.
“Good!” Sam says decisively. “That was good.” 

Chapter Text

“Oh, Jess!” Sam exclaims suddenly, mid-conversation with Matt.
She gets up and runs across the room. I crane my head around from the chair that Ashley and I returned to after the conversation with Emily was over. Jess has just entered, tears silently trickling down her cheeks. Sam gently pulls her into a hug, made slightly awkward by Jess' crutches.
“Let’s get you sat down,” Sam says softly.
Jess nods and Sam assists her over to the sofa.

“Are you alright? What happened?” Matt asks her, concerned.
“N-nothing, everything-everything's good.” Jess smiles, wiping the tears from her cheeks. “No more jerks are going to come between me and Em.”
“But aren’t you and Mike still dating?” 
Jess shakes her head.
“What? Why didn’t you tell us?” Sam asks putting her arm around Jessica’s small, huddled frame.
“I dunno, I normally talk to Em about these things.” She shrugs. “Besides, it’s Mike. You didn’t think I was dumb enough to believe it would last? I just wanted some fun, you know? He came and saw me Friday, said he cares about me a lot and still wants to be friends but he’s not really the long-distance kind of guy.” She rolls her eyes. “He’s a dick, I’m not an idiot, I’m over it.” She tries to smile.
“Then why are you crying?” Matt frowns.
“I-I’m not really sure.” She laughs.
It’s such a relief to hear her laugh and talk again, this is much more the Jess we know and love, still not quite back to her loud, bubbly self, but better.
“There’s a lot to cry about.” She shrugs.  
“We’re here for you. If you want to talk about anything,” Sam reassures her.
“Thanks.” Jessica smiles.

“Would you prefer it if we didn’t call Mike?” Sam asks.
“No, I’ll be fine.”
“You sure?”
“Absolutely.” Jess forces a smile.
“Okay.” Sam takes a deep breath. “Round two.” She gets up to sort out her laptop.

“Get over here saps.” Jessica pats the sofa.
Ashley gets up and I sigh, reluctant to move.
“Come on you big lug.” Ashley holds out her hand to me.
“I love it when you use pet names,” I roll my eyes, taking her hand.
Ashley rolls her eyes back at me and helps pull me up. I aim for the middle of the sofa, where I was sat before but Jess suddenly shifts up.
“Na ah, I’m centre screen.” She grins.
“Hmm, I miss quiet Jess already,” I say sitting down at the end of the sofa.
“You don’t mean that.” She pouts.
“Quiet guys,” Sam says, setting down the laptop in front of us and pressing call. 

After a few rings, Mike picks up.
“Hey, guys.” Mike tries to flash us his usual charming smile, but it turns out more of a grimace. 
He's met with a flurry of 'hi's' and a few slightly less charming grimaces. 

“How you doin’ Mike?” Sam asks above the din of awkward hellos. 
“Alright.” He sighs. “I've been better.” 
“Haven't we all?” Matt nods. 
“What's going on with you lot? I'm feeling left out all the way out in Quebec.” 
“You're the one who chose to go so far away!” Jess teases. 
“Alright, alright, I get it, I've only got myself to blame!” He puts his hands up in defence. “But seriously, how've things been?”
“Not great.” Matt shrugs. 
“And by that, he means like a pile of steaming horse shit,” Jess puts bluntly. 
The room feels so much more normal now that her voice keeps filling it. Her earlier silence was a little creepy, to be honest. 
“Ah.” Mike nods. 
“None of us have had the best of days.” Sam quickly says. 

Each of us is forced to retell the shityness of our day, for Mike to hear. I stick to my story that my day was fine. As soon as I say it, I feel guilty and I know Sam's suspicious eyes are on me. 

“But how are you doing?” Sam asks earnestly once the rest of us have recounted our days. 
“Let's just say that the topic of today's debate class was 'the incident on Blackwood Mountain’.” 
“You're professor arranged that?” Matt asks, shocked. 
“No, some fuckwad suggested it and the professor didn't know any better.” Mike sighs. 
“So what happened?” Asks Jess. 
“I almost ended up breaking the fuckers face and then got kicked out.” Mike shrugs. 
“Did you get hurt?” Sam asks. 
“No,” Mike snorts, “a stuck up college kid is nothing compared to the wendigo.” 

I shiver at the word, a flash of its silhouette leaping toward me blinds me for a second. Then I'm back in Sam's living room with my friends. I'm fine. Everyone is safe. Apart from the stranger. He saved my life. And I watched him die. It should have been me. 

“So are you in trouble.” 
“Nothing major, just have to write an apology. Although, every time I try to write it I end up calling him a dick and realise I've gone off track.” He smirks. 
“How badly did you hurt him?” Sam frowns. 
“Trust me, his worst injury is a bruised ego, I barely touched him.” 
“I hope that's true.” Sam mumbles. 
“I'm hurt, Sam! Hurt! That you don't believe me.” 
“Aww poor baby, do you need some ice?” Jessica mocks. 
“Yes! I miss my snowball queen!” He grins. 
Your snowball queen?” Jessica seems unimpressed. 
There's an awkward silence. 

“D-do you guys think the wendigo can leave the mountain?” Mike asks out of the blue. 
It's something I've thought about already and I honestly don't know… I hope not. I really hope not. 
“I guess it's not impossible to climb down.” Sam mumbles. “But why would they?” 
“Why wouldn't they?” Mike fires back. 

We're all quiet again. Haunted by the idea of the wendigo following us off the mountain and hunting us all down. It doesn't take much to imagine those long spindly limbs scuttling down the mountain, desperate for blood. Hunting each of us down, one by one. Creeping in through windows and slitting our throats. The same way it slit the old man’s throat. Cutting his head fucking clean off. I still remember the shocked expression on his dying face. 

“How's Em?” Mike suddenly asks, breaking the eerie silence that had descended over us all. 
“We just spoke to her, she's… having as rough a time as any of us.” Sam explains. 
Mike nods, an almost mournful look crossing his face before he shrugs and pulls that charming grin back on. 
“It was never going to be easy was it?” 
“No, probably not,” Sam says faintly.

“How about Josh any news on him?”
I notice Sam flinch as soon as the name leaves Mike’s lips.
I quickly answer so that Sam won’t have to. “He’s been sent somewhere to get better… he’s in good hands… I hope.” I mutter the last part under my breath.
Mike nods. 

“You got any big parties coming up to make us all jelly?” Jessica thankfully pipes up and changes the subject.
“There are a few planned for this week.” Mike grins.
“Ugh, college sounds so much better than school.” Jess groans.
“Hey, how come you never ask me about college parties?” I ask jokingly. “I know all the hot spots.”
“Have you ever been to a house party, Chris?” Jess raises her eyebrows.
I open my mouth to answer but she interrupts. "Not including Josh's."
“Does a game of wizard staff count?”
“Wizard what?” Jess looks unimpressed.
“You know, you drink a load of beer, create a staff out of the cans, each can-”
“Sounds lame.” Jess interrupts.
“Have none of you played wizard staff before?” I look around at them all.
“Let’s face it, Chris,” Mike says. “It’s a nerd's drinking game.”
“And what is wrong with that? Best kind of drinking games in my opinion.”
“I prefer truth or shot.” Jess grins. 
Ashley snorts into her tea “You would.” I hear her mutter.
Jessica shoots Ashley a look.
“I am a beer pong man,” Mike declares, “back me up on this one Matt.”
“Sorry man, I’m clean.” Matt shrugs.
“BOO!” Mike yells. “Live a little man, coach won’t know.” 
“Oh trust me, I’ll go crazy once the season is over.”
“And when you do, you’ll go for beer pong, right?”
“Uh, I guess.” Matt doesn’t seem to be very invested in this argument.
“You’re saying you’d prefer to throw a silly little plastic ball into plastic cups and then have to drink the dirty beer than spend a night getting completely smashed while trying to create the tallest staff and becoming a master wizard?”
Mike takes a second to think and then decisively says. “Yes, yes I would. How about you Sam? You’re a beer pong gal aren’t ya'?”
“Actually I prefer flip cup. But l also advocate for drinking responsibly.”
“Bbbooorrringg.” Jessica sighs. “How about you Ashley?” She smirks. 
“Uh…” Ash stutters, she doesn’t have a huge amount of drinking experience because of her parents and Jessica knows that. “I dunno, Wizard Staff sounds kinda fun.” She smiles at me.
I grin back at her.
“It’s also better because you do it with friends rather than a bunch of strangers,” I add.
“Ah, Chris, this is where you are going wrong, when you’re drunk at a party, everyone's your friend.” Mike gestures around his room.
“I’ll remind you of that the next time I see you try to punch someone for throwing up on your jeans,” I say smugly.
“Friends punch each other, you should know that Chris.”

Fuck! I glare at him. Why’d he have to bring that up? Yes. I’m a crap best friend. Yes, I hit Josh, but he punched Ashley! I was mad! He’s gonna hate me when he gets better. I messed up so fucking bad that night.

"What?” Sam frowns.
“It’s nothing,” I mutter, hoping Mike will drop it.
Sam will hate me if she finds out.
“Mike?” Sam turns to the laptop screen.
“Forget I said anything.” Mike sighs, leaning back in his chair. 

I’m glad he’s left it but at the same time, I’m fuming. He’s such a dick! Josh, I’m so sorry, I hope you know that, wherever the fuck you are. I can’t believe I hit him and then I let Mike push him around when I knew something felt wrong. I did say, I just... wasn’t firm enough. Too cowardly to stand up to Mike, who is younger and smaller than me. I could have knocked him off Josh if I’d tried. Then I just left Josh there, tied up, with an angry Mike.

We should never have taken him outside. That shed is no place to make your friend stay the night. I could have at least insisted on staying and made Mike go back to the lodge. Then when he was gone, taken by the wendigo I should have looked for him. I was pathetic, twisted ankle and bruised rib and suddenly I was useless. Jessica made her way out of the mines with worse. And now, he’s been shipped off, fuck knows where, and who knows when I’ll be able to see him again or whether he’ll want to see me. Fuck! I need more coffee. 

I attempt to zone back into the conversation. What’s going on?
“You know it would be cheaper to have reusable cups as well,” Sam says.
Oh no, she’s on one of her crusades again.
“Eh, sounds like too much effort.” Mike frowns.
“It is never too much effort to save the planet. It’s just a little washing up.”
“Hey Sam, you see this.” Mike holds up a plastic bottle that's been sitting on his desk, he picks up a bin from the floor.
Might as well join in.
“Avert your eyes, Sam, you don’t want to see this!” I tease.
Mike drops the bottle into the bin. “And that’s all the effort that’s required.” Mike grins.
Sam groans and puts her head in her hands. “When will you learn.”
“That your actions have consequence.” Ash and I both scream.

The others look at us in shock. I grin at Ash, who grins back.

“What was that?” Jessica asks. “Are you guys trying to turn us deaf or something?”
“Oh come on, you know, the meme?” I laugh, their faces are all blank. “Is no one here woke?” 
Jess groans. “Please never say ‘woke’, ever again.”
“I second that.” Mike agrees.
“You sure? Because I was thinking of changing my name to Christopher Woke Hartley.”
“Please don’t.” Ashley laughs.
“You mean you don’t think it suits me?”
“No.” Ash laughs more.
“No.” Jessica crosses her arms seeming unimpressed. 

“Uh, guys, it's been great and all talking to you but I have a 9am tomorrow so I think I'm gonna throw in the towel.” Mike stretches. 
“Aww, boo!” Jess groans. 
"I know, I know, it's very boring of me." Mike puts his hands up in defence. 
“Well, it was good to talk to you.” Sam smiles. 
“Yeah, good chat, bye guys.” He waves. 
“Bye.” We all chime. 

The call ends. 

“Dick.” Jessica snort. 
“Jess.” Sam frowns. 
“What? You don't actually believe he's going to bed?” She raised her eyebrows and sighs, I notice that she's shaking slightly. “He's probably going out or answering a booty call.” 
“People have different ways of dealing with things.” Sam shoots me a look and I have no idea what it means, other than that I'm in some kind of trouble. 

Sam sighs and pulls herself up off the floor. She starts collecting up empty mugs. 
“Give me a hand Chris.” She gestures to a mug that she doesn't have enough hands for.
“Yes, ma'am.” I grab the remaining mugs and follow her into the kitchen. 

As soon as she's put the mugs down on the counter she turns on me. 
“Drop the act, right now Christopher James Hartley!”
Woe, full name, she’s mad!
“What?”
“I’m serious Chris.”
“W-what are you talking about?” 
Sam sighs, “I didn’t see it with Josh,” her voice wavers, “I won’t let you do the same thing.” She looks me directly in the eyes and gives me a hard stare.
I sigh, and push my glasses back, wiping my face with my hand, the jig is up.

“What do you want me to say, Sam?”
“I want you to start telling the truth,” She crosses her arms, “especially to Ashley, who you’re not going to fool for much longer. You’ve only got this far because she’s so completely besotted with you.”
“Okay, okay, so perhaps I’m not doing as well as I say I am. But please, please, do not tell Ash! She doesn’t need to worry about me.”
“You’re such an idiot.”
“What?”
“Have you not considered the fact that whether she worries about you or not isn’t your choice? And perhaps, maybe, for some insane reason, just maybe, she wants to worry about you.”
“Well, th-that’s just ridiculous.”

"Chris," Sam sighs, "what's going on?" 
"Nothing, Sam, nothing." 
She gives me a look that says she knows I'm lying. 
I sigh,  “so, I can’t sleep, and maybe I’m throwing up practically every meal I consume and I’m panicking in the weirdest situations, questioning everything I believe. I just... I keep seeing it all, again and again. I keep seeing... I feel like I’m going absolutely crazy.”
“Oh God Chris! Why didn’t you say something?” Sam looks at me, face full of compassion.
“Because of that,” I point at her face, “because I knew you’d all look at me like that, pitifully, like I’m some pathetic idiot that’s going insane.”
“Chris,” she sighs, "you know bottling everything up isn't good for you.”
“Well nah.”
“This isn’t funny! What happened at college today?” She asks softly. 
“N-nothing.”
“Chris.” She growls.
“So I snapped at my only friend and he started avoiding me, some jerk called me crazy and some girl told me to go to hell. It was fine.”
“That doesn’t sound fine.” She puts her hands on her hips. “Chris, please, tell me how I can help?”
“Unless you have a magic wand or a fix everything button lying around I don’t think there’s anything you can do Sam. Just please, please don’t tell Ashley.”
“Okay, I won’t. But you know, when she figures it out and she will, you are going to be in so much trouble.”
“Okay.” I sigh and start putting the mugs in Sam’s dishwasher.
She silently puts the mugs that she brought in too. 

I head for the kitchen door, planning on going back to the others.
“Chris, wait.”
I turn back toward Sam and suddenly find her arms wrapped around me and her face buried in my chest. I’m a bit taken aback for a moment but after a second pull myself together enough to awkwardly return her hug.
“Please don’t leave me too Chris.” She murmurs. “You’re all I have left.”
I sigh, Sam and I have always been reasonably close, we’ve both practically been honorary Washingtons since childhood. Now the Washingtons are all gone, I have Ash, but Sam’s right, she’s lost all her closest friends, I’m all that’s left.
“I think you got a pretty bad deal then.”
She laughs and pulls away, trying to surreptitiously wipe tears from her cheeks.
“No, you’re a good friend Chris, you just need to look after yourself a little better.”
“Ha, pot call kettle black, Miss Sammy Selfless.” I cross my arms. 

She sighs. “I-I miss Josh.” She admits, wrapping her arms around her torso.
I sigh too. “So do I.”
“I feel like I can’t tell the others, they won’t understand, they’ll say he hurt us, that we shouldn’t miss him.”
“Maybe we shouldn’t.” I shrug. “That doesn’t mean that we don’t.”
“Hey, you’re weirdly smart sometimes.” She grins and gives me a playful punch, then heads back toward the lounge.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
She grins, shrugs and goes into the lounge to join the others. I laugh, shaking my head at her and then follow her into the lounge. 

Chapter Text

I’m jolted awake as the bus stops. I look up groggily and recognise the street out the window. 
“Shit!”
I leap up, my chest protesting. I grab my bag and rush off the bus, getting through the doors just as they close.

My bag gets caught. I trip face first onto the icy ground.

I slowly sit up as the bus pulls away, pushing my glasses back into place. I notice several glares and a few chuckles from the passengers on the bus. I look at them sheepishly.

I sigh and grab my bag, which luckily came free of the door in the fall. My chest is throbbing again. I open my bag and pop another pain killer, quickly swallowing it down, desperate for relief. I’ve become a little bit liberal with taking them over the past couple of days. I’m probably not getting as much rest as I should. It’s just that rest seems to evade me these days. 

“Chris? What are you doing on the floor?” I jerk my head up, shoving the pills back in my bag when I hear her voice.
I turn to find Ashley looking down at me with a slight smirk on her lips. 
“I tripped,” I mutter, scratching the back of my head.
“Here, let me help you up.” She holds out her hand.
I take it and she pulls me up.

I move to brush myself off but Ashley doesn’t let go of my hand. She links our fingers and smiles at me warmly. Shit! Can she tell how sweaty my palm is? Can she feel how much my hand is shaking? I have to resist the urge to pull my hand out of her grasp and shove it deep into my pocket. Jesus, what's wrong with me? 

“Come on!” She smiles, towing me behind her. 

She drags me toward the library, our normal post-school/college hang out spot. She looks good today, her brightly coloured hair bouncing underneath a dark green beanie. Her short skirt flows out behind her from underneath her big navy parka as she rushes toward the doors, showing off her slim, shapely legs, clad in grey tights and colourful leg warmers. Damn, her legs look good. I imagine running my hands up her thighs and on to her ass. God, making out with her is amazing.

Well, if you like her so much, why are you lying to her? Fuck! Can my brain shut up for one God damn second?

“I’ve missed this place so much.” She grins as she pulls me into the old building. 

I love how excited she is about coming back to the library. We come here all the time and we’ve had what? A two week break from it and she’s this happy to be back. I just love how full of wonder she can be. 

It’s not the biggest or grandest of libraries in the world, in fact, it's decidedly average. But it’s her safe place, that she let me into very early into our friendship and that’s what makes it special.

Ashley quickly signs us both in at the front desk and we head inside, going straight for our usual table, near the back, in a little alcove near the crime section and as far away from the religion section as possible. You can tell who Ashley comes here to escape from. She does love her parents, and they’re not all bad, she just finds it hard to live up to their expectations sometimes. 

We sit down at the small round table, setting our bags down and spreading our stuff out, ready to get some work done. I open up my laptop and shove my headphones on hoping to improve on my rubbish notes from the past few days by re-listening to the lectures.

I pull out the thermos that I’ve taken to carrying around with me so I have a constant supply of coffee. Sam would be happy that I’m finally being more sustainable, but what I’m really sustaining are a growing caffeine addiction and chronic insomnia. Ashley raises her eyebrows and snorts at the thermos. I shrug and take a sip. Whatever gets you through the day, right?

I manage to improve the notes of one lecture, going through the recording bit by bit and some parts again and again. Ashley’s doing homework, distracting me as she sits opposite, chewing on her lip and frowning slightly so that she’s got a little crinkle between her eyes. She’s wearing a tight burgundy turtleneck that hugs her small frame and does not make concentration any easier. 

“I’m just going to go find a couple of books,” Ashley whispers a while later.
I nod, thankful that I’ll have fewer distractions to deal with for five minutes. 

I get through a decent amount of the current lecture notes that I’m working on before realising that Ashley has been gone for a while. She’s probably picked out too many books and is struggling to carry them all. It wouldn’t be the first time that I’ve found her staring at a large pile of books that she’s created on the floor wondering how to transport them all. I sigh. I should probably go and find her. 

I pause the lecture recording, take my headphones off and stand up. I wander up and down the aisles of bookshelves, looking for her. Eventually, I find her tucked away, right at the back of the library, book in hand, reading intensely. I stand directly in front of her, cross my arms and raise my eyebrows waiting for her to notice me. When she doesn’t, I cough. She jumps and looks up, quickly snapping the book shut.
She grins guiltily. “You caught me, sorry, I got a little sidetracked.” She clutches the book close to her chest.
“I was worried I’d find you’d been crushed by your to read pile.” I grin.
“I don’t pick up that many books.”
“Ash, I have had to rescue you countless times. What book had you so enrapt anyway?”
“Oh, it’s nothing.” She shrugs dropping her arms to her sides so I can't see the title.
I frown, she’s never unwilling to talk about a book. What is she hiding?
“What? Is it some softcore erotica or something?” I tease.
“Hey, I only read Fifty Shades of Grey because it was a big thing in the literary world.”
“Sure,” I grin, “keep telling yourself that. Come on, what is it?” I reach for the book.
“It’s really nothing.” She twists, holding the book behind her back so it's out of my reach.
“Alright.” I back off, putting my hand in the air. “Keep your dirty secrets.”
“Thank you.” She nods.

I quickly use my other hand to reach around and snatch it away from her.
“Chris, give that back.”
I turn it over and read the title

Dangerous Spirits: The Windigo in Myth and History

I drop the book like I’ve been burned.

“Chris!” Ashley quickly dips down and picks the book up carefully.
“What are you doing with that book Ash? You want to give yourself nightmares?” I whisper shout.
“I don’t know.” She sighs. “I just saw it and couldn’t help myself.” She looks down at the book in her hands.
I gently take it from her, shaking slightly.
“Where did it come from?”
“There.” She points to a space on the bookshelf next to us and looks at the floor. “I’m sorry, I just, I thought that perhaps if I couldn’t forget it, understanding it would make it better but it just freaked me out and then I couldn't stop reading- Chris!” She protests as I slide the book back onto the shelf backwards so that you can’t see the spine, “you can’t do that!” 
“It’s fine, some librarian will come around and fix it.”
She stares at the book.

“Come on, let’s get back to work.” I hold my hand out to her.
“Actually Chris,” she smiles bashfully, “I have a pile of books around the corner that I was coming back from, to get your help carrying them.” She gestures.
I shake my head at her, grinning, “alright, your personal library assistant is on the job.” I salute and follow her around the corner to the pile of books she’s collected. 

***

We stay late at the library, it gets quieter and quieter and emptier and emptier. It’s quite peaceful to be here during the silent evenings. I finally manage to get through all the lectures I’ve had this week and feel so much better for having notes that are actually coherent. I’ve run out of coffee though and I’m flagging.

Ashley yawns and stretches.
“Shall we go get dinner somewhere nearby?” She suggests.
“Won’t your parents be mad if you're not back soon?”
“You know they’re at bible study on Thursdays.”
“Oh, yeah, my bad.” I nod. “Dinner sounds good. Let me just text my mom.” I say picking up my phone. “Where shall we go?”
“I don’t know.” Ashley shrugs. “You pick.”
I raise my eyebrows at her as I type out a text to mom.
“Oh fine.” She sighs. “How about… there’s that sushi place round the corner, isn’t there?”
“Sushi sounds good.” I nod, putting my phone in my pocket and closing my laptop.
“Help me put these books away,” she nods to the pile next to her, “then we can go get food.”
“Alright.” I get up and pick up the majority of the pile.
Ashley picks up the remaining books and starts leading me down the rows of bookshelves to where all the books belong. 

I follow her around as she puts each of the books back one by one.
“Did you actually use all of these today.”
“Yes.”
“Really?”
“Most of them.”
I roll my eyes at her and follow her down another aisle. 

“Ash, I don’t think any of these books go here,” I say looking at the remaining titles in my hands and the books on the shelves around us.
“They don’t.” She grins and suddenly her lips are against mine.

I instantly drop the remaining few books that I’m holding in surprise. I’m amazed when Ashley doesn’t quickly start picking them up and instead kicks one out of the way as she presses her body against mine, wrapping her arms around my neck, digging her hands into my hair. She's kissing me hungrily and God it's hot!

I slide my hands onto her waist. Fuck! The top she’s wearing is so tight and thin, it feels like there’s barely anything between her body and my hands. 

Her fingers play with the hair on the back of my neck, the way her nails scrape against my scalp makes me shiver. I press my lips harder against hers, enjoying the feeling of our hot breath mingling.

I push her back toward the bookshelves, we both stumble slightly, but, clinging onto each other, manage to stay upright. Ashley let's out a sexy little laugh as I messily press her up against the bookshelves, pinning her body in place with mine. She moans softly as I squash her small frame against the shelves. 

“Chris.” She whispers, her soft voice sending tingles down my spine. 

I pull her against me so that I can slide my hands down onto her ass, and fuck! Everything she's wearing is so thin. I can feel the outline of her underwear through her skirt. 

There's a part of my brain in which alarm bells are going off. We're in the fucking library, so we should probably take it down a notch. And I've been lying to her for the entirety of our relationship and definitely do not deserve this makeout session.

Of course, the other lust fueled part of my brain that is just screaming ASHLEY, is much louder. 

Suddenly there's a cough that snaps us out of it. We look up to find the librarian, arms crossed, looking unimpressed. I quickly look away, feeling incredibly awkward, my ears burning. 
“Sorry, Linda.” Ashley smiles apologetically. 
Linda frowns. “It's okay Ashley, just don't let it happen again.” She tuts and walks away. 

“Whoops.” Ashley giggles against me still pressed up against the bookshelves. “Guess we got a little carried away there.” She grins up at me. 

I feel awful. What am I doing? Groping her at the back of the library like some sleazy high schooler. I really shouldn't be letting myself get that carried away when I'm lying to her all the time. Sam's right, I need to tell her. 

“What is it, Chris?” She puts her hand to my cheek, her expression suddenly worried.
Tell her. Tell her. Tell her. 
“It's nothing.” I shake my head and step away from her.
Coward! Fucking coward. 
“I'm sorry, maybe this was a bad idea.” She wraps her arms around herself. 
“Oh God, no, Ash.” I panic. “That was great,” I stutter, “just a bit awkward to get caught.” I try to laugh it off. 
She frowns, Sam's right, Ashley is onto me. So why don’t I just fucking tell her?

“Let’s… uh… put away these books.” I kneel down and start to pick up the books I dropped.  

***

I’m lying in bed, staring at the clock, the seconds ticking away. 

03:52:05

03:52:06

03:52:07 

I turn away from the clock, hoping that if I stop staring at it, it will move faster. Or slower. I’m not really sure what I want. 

I can’t stop thinking about how I’m lying to Ashley. She’s been so open and honest with me. She trusts me. I’m the person she calls up crying, the person she confides in. 

I love her, for fuck's sake, but by lying to her I'm just taking all that trust she's given me and shitting all over it. 

Why can't I be honest with her?

I just don’t want her to worry, she doesn’t need any more problems. I’d probably just freak her out, scare her away.

Also, as Sam said, no-one else seems to understand why I miss Josh, Ash would just say I’m going crazy. She wouldn’t be wrong.

And what if I tell her… tell her about how… how it’s really all my fault. How I know, if I wasn’t such a fuck up I could have stopped this. She-she'd hate me.

These are all fucking lame excuses, I know. 

I sigh and roll back over to look at the clock. 

03:53:21

Can time please stop fucking me. 

Fuck it! I sit up and shove my glasses on, grabbing my laptop from my desk. Who doesn’t love a bit of Christopher Nolan at close to four in the morning? He's a fellow Chris and a hell of a good director. It’s time to watch Insomnia because I cannot resist the irony.

Chapter Text

I’m late for my first lecture. I was so tired this morning I couldn’t pull myself out of bed. I just want to be able to sleep! So maybe watching a film at four in the morning wasn’t the best idea, but what else was I supposed to do? 

I push the door open slowly, trying to enter as quietly as possible, hoping no-one will notice me. Unfortunately, it’s one of those lecture halls where the entrance is at the front, so as soon as you enter, especially if you’re late, all eyes are on you. I feel everyone's stares boring into me. I keep my head down and avoid making eye contact. I glance up, looking for a seat. I spot Nick but he avoids my gaze. I sigh and head for the nearest empty row. Who knew the mountain would turn me into a social pariah, not that I was that social to begin with. 

I keep my head down and try to focus on taking notes. I get my thermos out, in desperate need of a caffeine hit. I notice several glares shoot my way as the lid squeaks open and the smell of coffee drifts out but I’ve ceased to care, I need this. I manage to get through the lecture without falling asleep but, once again, I've taken absolutely awful notes and nothing has gone in. I’m going to have to listen to this one again, just like the others, at least I’ll have Ash for company. God, I should tell her what’s going on. Then why don’t you? I don’t… know…

Having got my thermos filled up at the college cafe I head to my seminar. I deliberately arrive early to avoid a repeat of this morning’s lecture. I sit at the back, in the corner and get my laptop out, thermos sitting next to it, steam drifting out of it, the smell of the coffee giving me brief relief. 

Nick arrives with a couple of friends, they’re all laughing at something. When they spot me their laughs instantly die. They sit on the other side of the room to me and continue their conversation in more hushed tones, nervously glancing my way every once in a while. 

I don’t think they’re talking about me. I’m well aware that I’m not that important. I think my presence just makes them uncomfortable. 

To be honest, every time I catch sight of my reflection I’m a little spooked. My lack of sleep really is showing, huge bags under my bloodshot eyes, pale skin, the bruise from where Josh punched me in the head is still healing, now a horrible yellow, green colour. I also keep forgetting to shave and when I remember my hands shake so much that I can’t do it without accidentally inflicting a couple of cuts. I’m amazed Ash didn’t say anything about my appearance yesterday, I had tried my hardest to clean up and look fresh but it was probably still noticeable. 

Other students start filtering in and filling up the room. The noise levels gradually get louder, filling the quiet, awkward air, but at the same time stabbing at my head. I take a big gulp of coffee and down another painkiller, attempting to quell the oncoming headache a little. I've lost count of how many I've taken today. The seminar leader enters and I’m thankful that everyone quietens down. 

I spend the seminar in silence in order to not draw any unwanted attention to myself. I know they give you this whole spiel of you get out what you put in but right now, I don’t give a crap.

Once the seminar has finished I pack up and head for lunch. On my way out of the room, the seminar leader catches me.
“Chris, could I have a quick word.”
I want to say, "you can have two, 'fuck off'" but I don’t. I know it’s just the exhaustion talking.
“Uh… sure.” I turn toward her.
“You didn’t say a whole lot in that seminar?”
“Yeah…” I scratch the back of my head. “Sorry, I’m a little out of it today.”
“If there’s anything you need any help with you know you can email me.”
“Yes… thank you… it’s not the topic… I’m just… tired.”
She laughs. “We’re all tired, Chris.”
“Yeah…”
“I expect some more participation next week please.”
“Okay… I’ll… do my best.” I nod. “Thanks.”
“Have a good weekend.” She smiles.
“You too.” I head out the door. 

I want to slam my head against a brick wall. "We’re all tired." Seriously! You do not know the definition of tired right now! I feel like the walking dead.

I leave the building and head toward the canteen to grab some lunch. My phone buzzes. I pull it out. 

Ash

How’s your day going?

There’s a part of me that’s tempted to ignore it, but then she’ll definitely know something is up. 

fine, urs?

As I shove my phone back into my coat pocket I notice a group of guys up ahead, they’re all wearing the college' sports hoodies, I can’t quite make out which sport it is. They’re laughing and pushing each other around. There are a couple of girls with them, giggling as the boys show off like idiots. As they get closer I realise I recognise one of the girls as the one who came up to me at lunch on Monday. A knot ties itself in my stomach. 

I keep my head down as they get closer, holding my breath. I don’t know what I’m scared of. Maybe I just don’t want to be reminded of what I deserve. 

As they pass me, I accidentally shoulder one of them slightly because I’m not looking where I’m going.
“Hey!” He calls out. “Not cool!”
“Sorry,” I mutter, speeding onward.
“Hey, it’s he?”
“Yeah.” I hear the girl say, voice full of malice. “He’s one of the privileged assholes from the mountain.”
“Hey! Psycho!” One of them yells.
I keep walking, trying to ignore them.
“How did it feel to murder someone with your pretty rich friends?”

That is it!

I turn on my heel and storm back toward them.
“We didn’t murder anyone.” I glare at them.
“Do you think he was the one to do it?” One of them grins.
“It’s not fucking funny.” My hands ball up into fists.

Why does no-one believe us?

“No, it’s not.” The girl from before says blankly. “Do you know what else isn’t funny. Telling fucked up lies to the police.”
I charge right up to her. “We aren’t lying,” I say through gritted teeth, staring her down.
“Woe, take a step back man.” One of the guys pushes me away from her.
“Fucking idiots,” I mutter to myself as I turn away planning to continue my walk to the canteen.
“What did you say?” One of them grabs me by my bag and yanks me back.
“Fucking. Idiots.” I repeat, pronouncing every syllable loudly and slowly.
“I’m not sure this prick has quite learnt his lesson.” He growls. 

Fuck! What have you got yourself into Christopher Hartley? 

Before I can fully process what’s going on, a large force hits me in the stomach. I double over, the wind knocked out of me. I desperately gasp for air.
“Yeah, hurts, doesn’t it?” The guy laughs.
He deals another blow, once again knocking the air out of my lungs.

I could fight back, perhaps hit him hard enough to stun him so that I could run for it. But as I look up, my eyes meet with the girl's from the other day, and they are filled with hate and they tell me that I deserve this. 

A trail of blood through the snow. I couldn't protect her. I let him take her. 

The light comes on, momentarily blinding me then... Josh and Ash... tied up... a saw spinning toward them... a lever in my hand... I can't choose. Don't make me choose. 

"Ghosts don't exist!" I yell at her. She was freaking out, talking all kinds of crazy. I shouldn't have yelled. If wendigos exist, maybe ghosts do too. She was just scared. I had no right to yell at her. 

My head is pounding. It's dark. My wrist is tied down. Ashley's opposite me. What did he do to her? I failed her again. 

I'm so angry. Why would Josh do this to us? To me? What did I ever do to him? Why would he hurt her like that? I'm just so angry. So I hit him. He's out of it and confused and his hands are tied behind his back and I hit him. What kind of coward only hits someone who can't fight back?

"I'm SO SO SORRY." Mike sneers as he pushes Josh into the ground and I do nothing. I do nothing to stop it. 

He's gone. Josh is gone. I left him and now he's gone. 

Fire. Snow. Blood. The old man's head hits the ground. 

The tunnels are dark. I look over my shoulder. There's no sign of her. No, no, no! I've fucking left her again. Where the fuck could she be? I'll never find her on this ankle. 

The Wendigo leap across the room at each other. Everyone stays still. The door is so close. I can get out. I can get to safety. Mike crushes the bulb. I run for it. I'm in the snow. I'm alone. They could all die in there and I just left. 

It's on top of Mike. It's going to kill him. Why aren't I doing anything?

A body. Suspended in the air. Hanging from a meat hook. Swaying gently. 

I couldn’t protect Ashley. I left Josh. And I just watched as that man died, he saved my life and all I did was watch as he died. I deserve this. 

Within seconds the group has descended on me, pummeling me. I feel their fists slam into me.

I take it. I deserve this.

Someone’s fist connects with my jaw. I can taste blood and black spots fill my vision.

A particularly hard blow sends me down onto my hands and knees. That’s when the kicking starts. I gasp as someone’s boot meets the tender part of my chest. I instinctively curl in on myself protectively. I squeeze my eyes tight shut taking hit after hit. 

I deserve this. 

“Alright, alright.” It’s the girl's voice. “I think that’s enough.”

The beating stops. I stay curled up, panting, my whole body groaning, the pain in my chest immense.

“Yeah, probably.” One of the guys says. “Let’s go get lunch, this prick's not worth it.”
“One last thing.” The girl says.
I watch as she stalks toward me. Then, without warning, her foot comes down hard on my face.

Crack! 

~blackness~

I come to seconds later, as they’re all walking away laughing.

I slowly move my face around, checking for breaks. There’s a lot of blood but, thankfully, I think, my nose is still intact. My glasses, on the other hand, are completely busted. The frames have gone wonky and one of the lenses is so badly cracked that I can barely see through it. 

Oh God, I’m in so much pain. I very slowly pull myself to my feet, clutching my chest and stumbling slightly. My mouth is full of blood, I spit it out onto the pavement, having ceased caring about… well about anything. Screw my last lecture, I can’t stay here like this, I’m going home. I begin to stagger toward the bus stop. 

I get several suspicious looks as I pull myself onto the bus and flop down in the first seat available. The woman next to me hurriedly gets up and goes to sit someplace else. So this is what it feels like to be Frankenstein's monster? Maybe I should freak them all out by groaning ‘brains’. I chuckle to myself and then cough loudly, wincing at the excruciating pain. 

Luckily no-one else is in when I get home so I manage to drag myself up the stairs without any witnesses. I dump my bag down and collapse onto my bed, groaning as I do from the sudden impact. I know I should probably have a shower to wash all the blood away and then get myself patched up as much as possible before my parents see me but I’m just so, so, very tired. 

I wake up an hour later, my head is pounding like there’s a bass drum inside of it. I'm covered in sweat and grime and blood. I should definitely go take that shower now.

I groan as I pull myself up from my bed, my whole body aching and throbbing. I stumble from my room to the bathroom feeling dizzy and nauseous. 

I open the door of the bathroom and collapse onto the floor. I kick the door closed behind me.

The strangers head tumbles into the snow, blood seeping out from his neck.

Oh, God!

His body is hanging from the ceiling, a trail of blood down his chest.

I claw my way over to the toilet and throw up into it. 

Once my stomach is empty I flush the toilet, close the lid and push myself up onto it. I reach out and turn the shower on from where I’m sitting. A spray of water greets me. I lean forward and gently tug the shower curtain across, wincing in pain as I do. 

I lean down, my chest on fire and start undoing my laces. I pull one boot off and sit there breathlessly for a few seconds. I let it fall to the ground with a thump that resounds around my head and then slowly start on the other one. I grit my teeth as I pull my socks off. I unzip my coat and inhale sharply as I work my arms out of it. Next, I pull off my sweater, which is utter agony. After I’ve discarded it on the floor I lean my head back and close my eyes, breathing deeply for a few minutes.

I gradually pull off my flannel. Why do I have to always wear so many Goddamn layers? I quickly strip off my t-shirt which is my final layer, hoping to get the pain over with quickly. A sharp pain stabs through my chest, I breathe in sharply through my teeth. I sit there, regaining my breath and then, slowly push myself up off the toilet seat. My hands shake as I unbuckle my belt and push my jeans to the ground. I gingerly step out of my jeans and boxers, finally able to stumble into the shower. 

I let out a yelp as the hot water hits my open wounds, making them sting and smart all the more. I stand there letting the water wash over me, soothing my aching body. After a while I slowly begin to wash away the blood, watching the water go a reddish, brown colour. My face is especially tender as I wash away the dried blood that had been streaming out of my nose. Bright, angry red bruises bloom, ripe and fresh all over me, throbbing and burning painfully. My chest especially does not look a pleasant colour, a mess of reds, blues, purples and yellows, like the finger paintings that Annie brings home from preschool. 

Once I’ve washed up, I ponder just staying in the shower but I’m beginning to feel slightly light-headed and my aching body wants to rest. I turn the shower off, slowly clamber out and grab a towel, making sure it’s a dark coloured one so that if I get any blood on it, it won’t show. Mom would kill me if I got blood on one of her white guest towels. I very lightly dry myself off as anything more than that is too painful. 

I take a deep breath. Right, time to see if I can’t patch myself up a bit. First things first, I open up the medicine cabinet and knock back a few painkillers. Then I turn to the mirror and yikes! I look so much worse than I did when I woke up this morning. Well, what do you expect? You just had the shit beaten out of you. I sigh, inspecting my swollen, split lip and the raised cut on my forehead. There’s a decent amount of bruising around my nose and eyes too. I turn back to the medicine cabinet and grab the disinfectant out of it and get to work making all my cuts sting like hell. I put a sticky bandage thing over the cut on my forehead and that’s pretty much all I can do. 

I wrap a towel around myself once I’m done and shuffle back to my room. I should probably get dressed, but going through that whole ordeal again is not appealing. I just pull on some pyjama trousers and a t-shirt. My chest is still burning, I should probably go put some ice on it. 

I force myself up off my bed, groaning as I do it and drag myself downstairs to the kitchen. I open the freezer and pull out all the ice packs we own. I get some tea towels too and then head back up to my room. 

I’d prefer it if my family didn’t catch me surrounded by ice packs having been beaten up at college. I mean, my face is a mess so I have no idea how I’m going to hide it from them but I can minimise their knowledge of the extent of the damage.

How am I going to hide this from Ashley? Crap! I’m meant to be meeting her at the library after she’s done with school. She cannot see me like this. She will completely freak out. I need to tell her I can’t make it. 

Once I’ve got back up to my room I dump my bundle of ice packs on my bed and head back to the bathroom to pick up all my clothes and retrieve my phone from my coat pocket. When I get back to my room and pull my phone out I find I already have a message from her, a reply to my message from earlier. 

Ash

Eh - i just had gym, so it could be better

I sigh and slowly type out a message to her trying to explain why I can’t make it to the library. I end up deleting it and rewriting it several times. Eventually, I send it. 

Realise I’m going to have to skip the library today - sorry

Once that’s sent I put my phone down and crawl into bed. I wrap the ice packs up in the tea towels and place them all over me, including holding one to my bruised, pounding forehead. I lie there in the quiet for a while, letting the ice soothe my wounds and bring down some of the swelling. 

I hear the front door open and the distant voices of Annie and my mum. I hope that they assume I’m out. I listen as they start moving about the house. Luckily no one attempts to enter my room. I’m safe to lie in isolation, nursing my well-deserved wounds.

Chapter Text

Ashley

Oh, okay

Why?

???

hello?

Chris?

I'm staring at my phone. I've been trying to ignore Ashley's texts for a couple of hours now. I can’t come up with a good excuse but she’ll keep texting if I don’t reply so I type out the worst excuse in the world and send it. 

something came up

I jump as my phone beeps and then sigh in relief.  

Mom

Will you be home for dinner?

already home

Could you help with dinner then?

I sigh and slowly sit up, the soothing ice packs falling off me. I groan. I grab my spare pair of glasses from my desk and head downstairs hoping I’ve iced myself enough that I don’t look too awful. 

“Sorry, I didn’t hear you get home,” Mom says with her back to me as she hears me pad into the kitchen.
She turns toward me and drops the bag of potatoes she’s picked up. “Jesus Christ Chris! What happened?”
“I just um… fell… down some stairs.” I shrug and then wince in pain.
Mom frowns at me and crosses her arms.
“Show me your hands.”
“What?”
“Show me your hands, I want to know if you’ve been fighting.”
I hold my hands out, which, because I didn’t fight back are not bruised in the way she expects them to be. She lets out a relieved breath. She doesn’t believe anything I say anymore. I guess she has good reason to, seeing as this time I really am lying. 

“What do you want me to do mom?” I ask, hoping to distract her from the state of me.
“Oh.” She quickly picks up the bag of potatoes that she dropped on the floor and holds it out to me. “Please could you chop some of these up.”
I nod and take the bag from her. 

While I’m chopping up potatoes I hear Annie wander downstairs and into the kitchen.
“Cwis!” She yells, throwing her small arms around my legs.
“Hey, nugget.” I turn to her, smiling.
A look of horror crosses her face and she lets out a loud scream and runs away. She hides behind mom’s legs. It’s not that bad, is it? Annie bursts into tears. Clearly, it is.
“Oh, it’s alright honey.” Mom bends down and comforts Annie, pulling her into a hug. “Chris just had a little accident that’s all.”
Annie sniffs and looks at me.
“It’s okay.” I squat down to her level.
She slowly walks toward me, looking back at mom for reassurance, who nods at her and gives her an encouraging smile. 

When she gets to me she pulls me into the most gentle hug I’ve ever had from her. I hug her back, not caring that my arms protest at the movement and my legs are already aching from squatting like this. Annie leans back, small arms still wrapped around me and looks at my messed up face. She takes one of her little hands and gently places it on the side of my face.
“Does it hurt?” She whispers.
“A little bit.” I shrug. “But I’m a big boy, I can handle it,” I reassure her.
“What happened?”
“I had a little fall.”
“I fell over in the playgwound today and hurt my knee.”
“Were you very brave?”
“Yes, and I got a barbie band-aid.”
“Wow!” I grin at her.
“I’m going to make you a get better card.” She suddenly rushes off.
I laugh, my swollen lip throbs. I sigh, slowly stand up, resisting the urge to groan and return to the potatoes. 

As I chop, I find myself swaying slightly. I attempt to steady myself on the counter and blink, trying to focus. My head is pounding. I put my hand to my forehead, trying to rub away the pain. I wince as I pass over the bandaged cut. I feel unsteady on my feet.

I shake my head and return to the potatoes. As I grab another one out of the bag I lose my grip on it, it goes spinning off the chopping board and onto the floor with a thud. 

The old man's head sits in the snow, his eyes blank, his mouth open, blood seeping out, turning white to red. 

I gulp down the want to throw up and pick up the dropped potato. My hands shake as I place the potato back on the board and pick up the knife. I attempt to calm myself down, but the more I try to relax, the worse the shaking gets. 

“Shit!" I cry out as I catch my hand with the knife. "Sorry!” I quickly apologise. 
“Oh no,” mom sighs, “go upstairs and put a band-aid on that.”

As I stumble into the hall the doorbell goes off. 

“Could you get that Chris?” Mom calls out. 
I open the door expecting to apologetically tell a charity volunteer that we're busy and then to rush upstairs and take care of my hand. Instead, I come face to face with two familiar angry green eyes. 

“A-Ashley.” I stutter out. 
She looks me up and down, taking in my messed up face and it just seems to make her angrier. Her hands ball up into fists. 
“What is wrong with you Chris!” 
I look down at my hand and try to put pressure on the cut. I watch as a single drop of blood falls onto my t-shirt and seeps into the material. 

Red seeping into white. A head thudding down onto the snow. Body slumping. 

God, I feel sick. I can't hold it down. The vomit from earlier comes back up and I dash for the downstairs bathroom, leaving Ashley on the doorstep. 

I get to the toilet, quickly fling up the seat and vomit into it. I hear footsteps. I vomit again. I collapse back so I'm leaning against the wall next to the toilet. I take a few deep breaths. I feel awful. 

I look up to see Ashley standing in the bathroom doorway.
"Any chance you could wipe that from your memory?" I ask hopefully. 
She crosses her arms and raises her eyebrows. 

I sigh and slowly pull myself up off the floor. I close the toilet lid and flush. Then I go over to the sink where I wash my face and mouth. Once I'm done I lean on the sink and turn to her. 

“Ash… I…” I croak.
“Stop it, Chris! Just stop it.” She puts her hand up. 
She takes my wrist and begins to pull me out of the bathroom. My body protests at the way she's yanking on my arm. 
“Where are we going?” 
“We're going to your room and you are going to explain everything to me.” She states. 
“But I need to help my mom.”
“Liesa,” Ashley calls. 
Mom sticks her head out of the kitchen. 
“Oh, hello Ashley, how are-” 
“Do you mind if I talk to Chris?” Ashley interrupts. 
“Uh, no, that's alright.” Mom seems quite taken aback by Ashley's abruptness. 
“Come on.” She proceeds to pull me up the stairs. 

She pushes me into my room, shuts the door and then turns to me, hands on her hips. She looks at me expectantly, anger burning in her eyes. I don't know what to say. What can I say?

“Well!” 
“You wouldn't happen to believe me if I said I fell down some stairs?” 
She glares at me. 
“I'll take that as a no.”
“This isn't funny.”
I sigh. “Sorry.”
A little bit of her anger crumbles, she buries her face in her hands. “God, you must think I’m so stupid.” She mutters.
“What? No!”
“Then why are you lying to me, Chris?”
“I-I don’t... know…” 
"D-did I... did I do something..."

The world is spinning slightly. Everything is muddled up in my head, my brain feels like it's full of fog. I feel like I might be sick again. 

“Chris!”
“What?” I shake my head, trying to concentrate on Ashley as she stands in front of me.
“Y-you’re not even listening to me.”

What are we talking about? I rub my temple with my palms and wince as I pass over the bandaged cut.

“I-I’m sorry. I don’t understand.”
Hurt flashes across her eyes.
“I-I can’t do this.” She says, she spins around and leaves the room, I hear her footsteps on the stairs. 

“Ashley! Wait!” I call after her. 
I stumble out of my room. All I know is that I don’t want her to leave.

I hear the front door open and force myself to run down the stairs even though every single muscle in my body is screaming in protests. I almost go tumbling down as my foot misses a step but manage to catch myself on the bannister. I run down the hallway and yank open the door.
“Ashley!” I run out after her.

The freezing cold garden path bites at my bare feet. The bitter air makes my head spin and I cough as it chills my lungs.

Can’t let Ashley leave. 

I run full-speed down the garden path and turn onto the sidewalk. I feel my feet skidding across ice. The world flashes past me. Then nothing. 

Chapter Text

I don’t know where I am! I can’t remember what happened!

My head is pounding. My chest aches to the point where breathing is fucking painful.

I blink, trying to shield my eyes from the bright, white fluorescent lights.

I’m in a bed that’s not my own and surrounded by ugly coloured curtains. I groan and put a hand to my head to find a bandage. 

What the fuck happened?

“Chris?” 

I roll over in the direction of Ashley's voice and find her sitting on a chair next to the bed I’m in. I rub my face with my hands. What is Ashley doing here? 

“Where am I? W-what happened?”
“It’s okay Chris.” She says softly. “You’re in hospital." 
"Hospital?" 
"You um, hit your head pretty hard when you slipped.”
“Slipped?” I frown. “I got hit.”

I have no idea what she's talking about. I remember being beaten to a pulp and not a whole lot else. How did I end up here, with Ashley? 

“What are you talking about?”
“I got hit. Some idiots decided it would be fun to beat me up.” 
Ashley sighs. “You told your mom you fell down some stairs.”
“Huh?”
“You texted me saying you couldn’t come to the library and I.. well... I’ve kinda had a feeling that something was up for a while,” she shifts nervously, “so when you wouldn’t tell me why, I came round. Y-you weren’t listening to me properly - I was upset - s-so I left. You chased after me and slipped and knocked yourself out. You weren't waking up! And your mom and the ambulance and Annie. Y-you have broken ribs and they took you away for a brain scan, I-I was really scared. W-what happened?” She asks tearfully. 

I’ve really fucked up this time. 

“I asked you if you were okay Chris and you lied, straight to my face. I-I've been s-sitting here trying to figure it out. I mean... d-did I do something wrong? Don't - don't you trust me?” She bursts into tears, burying her head in her hands. 
“Ash!”

I pull myself up, my chest exploding in pain as I do. I grit my teeth and push past it. I push myself to the edge of the bed, putting my feet on the floor. 
“Woah.” I put my hand to my head as the world spins. 

“Chris! You’re supposed to be resting!” Ashley says frantically, getting up and trying to push me back onto the bed.
“Ash.” I catch her wrists, her hands still pressing against my shoulders. “Ash.”

She looks me in the eye, tears still trailing down her cheeks. She looks hurt and betrayed. I hate that I caused this. I'm such a fuck up. Such a fucking failure. I keep messing everything up. 

“Oh God! I’m sorry.” I let go of her wrists and burst into tears as well.
“Chris,” she says softly, wiping away my tears, “what happened?”
I wipe my arm across my face and take a deep breath. 
“I fucked up.” I croak. 
“Tell me.”

I don't know where to start. This is such a shit show! 
"It's the mountain," I sigh, "ever since that night, everything's just gone to fucking shit." 
"Chris, please," she whispers, "tell me what's been going on, please."
“I...I’m absolutely exhausted. I can’t... concentrate, I can’t-I can't think straight. I haven’t had a full nights sleep in weeks.” I sigh frustratedly. "I keep seeing everything, again and again. Especially the old man..." I gulp back the bile that’s gathering in the back of my throat at the thought of it. "I feel like I'm losing my mind!" 
"And... and what about getting hit?"
"Oh... these guys at college started saying things and I-I got mad and called them all idiots so they started pounding me. And I… I was gonna fight back but then I saw this girl, saw how much she hated me, how much her eyes told me I deserved it. And I-I... kind of agreed, because, I keep playing it all back through in my mind, thinking, what if I hadn’t fucked up so bad? Because I know it! I know if I’d just fucking done something I could have stopped it all. I-It’s all my fault, because I got drunk with Josh, because I left him with Mike, because I watched as that old man died. S-so I let them beat the shit out of me. I lay there and I took it because... because it should have been me.” 

Ashley’s staring at me, shocked. I can’t look her in the eye. I look at the ugly coloured curtains instead. 

“I’m sorry, y-you should go.” I choke out.
“Oh my God, Chris! Why didn’t you talk to me?”
“You had enough problems of your own, I didn’t want to worry you,” I mumble.

Why hasn’t she left yet? Why is she still here? Did she not hear me tell her it’s all my fault?

“Chris,” Ashley sighs and sits down on the bed next to me, “when-when I said I love you, I-I meant it and that means even if I’m going through my own stuff I want you to tell me what’s going on. I want to be there for you like you always are for me. Y-you’re not alone.”
“But Ash, you don’t understand! It’s my fault! Everything!”
She shakes her head, “it wasn’t your fault Chris.”
“What?”
“Don’t you remember when… when we found Hannah and the rest of us were freaking out and blaming ourselves and you told us all that we could never have known what would happen, that we didn’t mean for it to happen, it’s the same for you.”
“B-but I just watched as that guy died, he saved my life and I just watched.”
“What could you have done?”
“I don’t know but if-”
“No Chris.”
“But Josh saw it, he saw that it was my fault, that’s why he…”
“So do you think Sam’s to blame then, do you think Josh got that right?”
“No, but-”
“Then what makes him right about you?”
“I don’t know! I just know that I fucked up.” 
“Well, that’s not what I know. I know a guy that went back to a place where two of his friends died because he wanted to support his best friend. That searched for me when I was grabbed by a maniac. That was determined to search for Sam despite having already been through hell. That comforted me and convinced me to keep going when I was scared. That was willing,” she takes my hand in hers, “to sacrifice his own life for mine. That went out to look for his best friend despite having been betrayed. That went back to that mountain resolved to rescue his best friend. He pushed me out of the way when a wendigo tried to grab me and baited one into Mike’s line of fire by yelling at it. Yeah, he’s a bit of an overprotective idiot sometimes but he did the exact opposite of fucking up, except when he decided to stop telling me the truth.”
“Okay, I get your point, Ash.” I let a small smile creep onto my face. “I’m sorry, that I didn’t tell you.”
“It’s okay,” she sighs and rests her head on my shoulder, “you’ve told me now.” 

I look down at our linked hands and squeeze her hand, she squeezes back. I squeeze her hand again, she squeezes back again and I squeeze again. She laughs, burying her face in my neck, her breath tickling me. 

“You should lie back down and rest.” 
I groan, “fine.”
I wrap my arms around her and pull her back with me, she makes a small screech and laughs.
“If I have to rest, you have to too,” I tell her as she adjusts so she’s in a more comfortable position.

She’s lying facing me, my arms wrapped around her, our legs tangled together.
“I am quite tired.” She yawns.
“What time is it?”
She shrugs. “Late.”
“Won’t your parents be mad?”
“I told them I was staying with Sam.”
“Does Sam know that?”
“Yeah,” Ash nods sleepily and burrows into my chest.
I wince, “careful Ash.”
“Oh, sorry.”
“It’s okay.”

“Chris?”
“Mm.”
“You didn’t deserve this,” she says, tracing her fingers gently over the bruises on my face, “not one bit. Okay?”
There's still a part of me that wants to protest. That easily fast-forwards through every single one of my fuck-ups, presenting me with all the evidence that says I deserve every single bruise and scratch. But I know Ashley wouldn't lie to me. 
I take a deep breath, “okay.” 
“Good.” She whispers, smiling softly.
I lightly press my lips against her forehead, she leans into me, curling up and nestling her face into my neck.

She must be tired because pretty soon I notice her breathing has evened out and she’s fallen asleep. I close my eyes and let myself relax. I doubt that I’ll manage to sleep but I can at least rest up a little and enjoy this moment of peace.

Chapter Text

“Right, Christopher.”
I’m jolted awake by the sound of the curtains around the bed being yanked back. My chest burns in protest at my sudden movement. I let out an involuntary groan. 
“Oh, sorry.” The doctor standing in front of me quickly says, looking embarrassed.
I realise Ashley’s still curled up in my bed, sound asleep. 

“Ash,” I whisper gently.
Her eyes flutter open. “Hey.” She whispers back, smiling.
“The doctor’s here.”
“What?” She sits up quickly and looks at the doctor standing at the end of the bed. “Oh! Sorry!” She quickly scrambles off the bed and into the chair, her cheeks going bright red. 
“That’s alright.” The doctor pulls on a smile.

“I just came to talk to you about your results.” He turns to me, holding up his clipboard.
I nod for him to go ahead.
“We did a scan yesterday and you have two broken ribs, however, they haven’t moved out of place or caused any damage to your organs or blood vessels and they shouldn’t do if you follow our advice. So no sport or strenuous activities for at least six weeks.”
I snort. As if I ever do any sport. The doctor gives me a look and I wipe the smirk off my face.

“For the first few days, it might be a good idea to put ice on the area to reduce swelling. I also want you to, roughly every hour or so, take ten deep breaths, this helps to reduce the risk of pneumonia. Do not wear anything tight around your ribs or wrap anything around your chest. I’m going to prescribe you some more pain medication and feel free to take other painkillers with it. If it doesn’t begin to heal or symptoms worsen please do get in contact. Any questions?”
I shake my head. 

“Alright, I'll move on. We did an examination of your other injuries and it's all just minor bruising, it should all heal on its own. We were quite concerned about your head injuries so we did a brain scan and you are very lucky Christopher, you only sustained a concussion, but if it had been something worse and you had left it that long before coming to us you could have been in serious trouble. You understand?”
“Yes.” 
“Again, I want you to be getting lots of rest, you may experience headaches, dizziness and confusion for a while so take painkillers when you need to and don't push yourself too hard. Avoid alcohol until your symptoms are gone. Is there someone that can keep an eye on you for the next couple of days, just to look out for your symptoms worsening? Which if they do, again, come back to us.” 
“Yeah, my mom should be at home.” 
“I-I'll keep an eye on him too.” Ashley volunteers. 
“Thank you.” The doctor nods to her. “Here's your prescription, and may I just remind you that it includes rest.” He gives me a hard look as he hands the piece of paper over to me. 
I gulp and take it, nodding. 

“You're free to go now, please sign out at the front desk when you do. If you don't have any questions for me I'll be going.” 
“Thank you,” I nod.
He nods back and leaves, closing the curtain behind him. 

“We should probably call your mom,” Ashley says. 
“Yeah, do you have your phone?” 
“Wait!” 
“What?” 
“This is a momentous occasion! Christopher Hartley does not have his phone with him!” 
I give her a withering look and cross my arms, wincing as I do. 
“I have to capture this moment!” She pulls her phone out from her pocket and holds it up to take a photo. 
I raise my eyebrows at her.

“There we go.” She smiles tapping on her phone to check it came out okay, she holds it up. “We can remember it forever.”
I squint at the screen. 
“Ash, do you know where my glasses are?” 
“Oh yeah, sorry, I forgot.” She shoves her phone into my hands and grabs her bag from the floor. “I wrapped them up in my scarf so they wouldn't get damaged.” She pulls her scarf out the bag and unwraps them. “Here you go.” She holds them out to me. 
“Thanks.” I take them and gently slide them onto my bruised face. “I can see again!” I cheer. 
Ashley rolls her eyes at me, “just get on with it and call your mom, we need a taxi.” 
“Shall I tell her you just called her a taxi?” I say unlocking Ashley's phone with the same passcode she's had for ages, I'm always bugging her to update her passwords. 

I smile when I see her home screen is a photo of the two of us, one that Josh took on her phone a while ago when we fell asleep on his sofa together. How were we both so convinced that our feelings weren’t reciprocated when things like this happened all the time? No wonder Josh was so frustrated with me... I miss him. 

I move on, open up the dial pad and call mom. She picks up pretty much straight away. 

“Hello, Leisa Hartley speaking.”
“Hey mom, it’s Chris.”
“Chris! I’ve been so worried! I’ve been waiting to hear from you. How are you doing?”
“I’m doing alright, just a couple of broken ribs and a concussion. They said I’m good to come home so we were wondering whether you’d come and pick us up?”
“Us? Is Ashley still there with you? Let that poor girl go home and sleep.”
“Yeah, she’s still here.”
“Okay, well I’ll come and pick the two of you up.”
“Thanks, mom, do you think you could bring some shoes for me as well?”
“Yes. Alright, see you in about twenty minutes.”
“Okay, see you, bye.”
“Bye.”
She hangs up. 

I hand Ashley’s phone back to her. “She’ll be here in about twenty minutes.”
“We should probably go and sign you out then.” 

***

We sit in the entrance hall of the hospital, my bare feet cold against the floor.
“Chris stop,” Ashley says, putting her hand on my leg which I was absentmindedly shaking up and down.
“Sorry, it’s just a little cold,” I mumble.
“Here.” She grins pulling her beenie off and shoving it on my head.
“How do I look?”
“Suits you.” She laughs.
“I’m sensing a lack of sincerity.”
“You know, I think you also need the scarf to go with it.”
“I don’t think that’s necessary,” I say as she roots around in her bag for her scarf.
I raise my eyebrows at her as she wraps the scarf around me.
“Beautiful.” She smirks. “I think we need a photo.” She pulls her phone out.
I laugh and pull a face as she takes the picture.

“Actually, I am feeling a lot warmer,” I say as she puts her phone away again.
“See, hats are better than wearing a billion layers.”
“I wouldn’t go that far. I think I rock the marshmallow man look better than the hipster beanie.”

“Chris, what are you wearing?” Mom comes up to us, holding my boots in her hand.
“See, told you.” I turn to Ashley.
Ashley laughs.

Mom rolls her eyes at us and hands me my boots. 
“Thanks, mom.” I smile and slowly bend down to put the boots on, trying to avoid putting too much strain on my chest.

“Ashley, have you been here all night?”
“Uh-yeah,” Ashley admits shyly, “don’t worry I managed to get some sleep though.”
“Would you like me to drop you home?”
“No!” Ashley says quickly. “Thank you, I want to keep an eye on Chris.”
“That’s very sweet of you Ashley but you really don’t have to, I think Chris can look after himself.”
“The doctor said someone should be keeping an eye on him for the next forty-eight hours.”
“You know, just in case I drop dead all of a sudden,” I add, having finished tying up my laces.
Mom gives me a look, not amused by my joke. “Okay then.” She sighs. “Let’s get you home Chris.” 

***

I'm dizzy and unsteady on my feet when we get back. My chest is aching like someone ran over it with a monster truck. I hate the fact that mom and Ash have to help me up the stairs to my room, but I probably wouldn't have made it on my own. 

Mom goes to 'check that dad hasn't killed Annie' and Ashley and I are left alone. 

“So...? Now what?” I ask.
“Get into bed.”
“Sorry, I didn’t know that Ashley went to check on Annie and you stayed in here, mom.”
“Come on Chris.” She gently herds me toward my bed. “The doctor said you need rest. You broke two ribs because you didn’t rest enough.”
“I broke two ribs because I got beaten to a pulp.”
“Well that’s not exactly resting is it?”
“I suppose not,” I grumble, reluctantly getting into my bed, letting out an involuntary grunt as my chest twinges in the process.

“Why are you so grumpy? I’m here to look after you.” She smiles.
“I can look after myself.”
“Sure you can.” She rolls her eyes, but I see a little bit of worry in her expression.

I’m doing it again, aren’t I? I'm pushing her away again. I need to stop that.

I sigh, “sorry. Nurse me all you want Ash.”
“That’s what I like to hear.” She perks up. “Do you have something I could wear? I’m not too keen on keeping on yesterday’s clothes.” She picks at the sweater she’s wearing.
“Um… yeah sure, let me…” I start to get up.
“Oh, no no no.” She grins pushing me back down. “Bedbound!” She gives me a stubborn stare and I know there is no way I am escaping this bed today.
“Okay!” I laugh, putting my hands up innocently and letting myself be pushed back onto the bed. “Just grab whatever you want.” I gesture to my wardrobe. 

She walks over to my wardrobe. Clothes are hanging out of various draws, I should really tidy it up.
“Chris! This is a mess.” She stars rifling through my clothes looking for something to wear.

Eventually, she settles on my big grey hoodie that has elements from the periodic table spelling out Nerdy and some plaid pyjama bottoms. She pulls off her sweater revealing the tight vest top she’s wearing underneath, I let my eyes trace the curves of her waist and hips. Suddenly I receive a sweater to the face.
“Don’t look while I change.” I hear her say.
“You could just go change in the bathroom.” My response is muffled by the sweater. 
“What?”
I remove the sweater from my face, "you could just-"
She’s taken off her vest top and is standing there partially naked. Her lightly freckled chest and pale breasts on full display. 
“Chris!” She squeals, quickly holding the hoodie up in front of her.
“Sorry!” I quickly clap my hands over my eyes. “Sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry! I-I didn’t see anything, I swear.”
“Yeah, right.” She huffs.
I gulp. “I-if it’s any consolation what I did see was very nice.”
“Nice?!”
Damn! I just dug myself a deeper hole. 
“I said very nice.”
“Hmph.”
“Well if you let me have another look I could probably give you a better description.” I grin.
I feel something else hit me.
“Violence is not the answer Ashley. Make love, not war!”
“Who are you? Sam?” She snorts.
“Can I open my eyes yet?”
“No!” 

I sigh and wait.

Ashley bursts out laughing, I look up automatically, luckily, she’s fully dressed now. She’s holding out the waist of my pyjama pants and there’s practically room for two of her. She is pretty small, it’s not exactly a surprise.
“I think you might need to size down Ash.”
“Hey! Who said you could look?”
“You, when you chortled at the size of my clothes!”
She snorts, “what kind of word is chortled?”
“I believe it is a noun.”
“It’s a verb, doofus. How did you ever get on the honours programme?”
“Four letters, STEM.”
She rolls her eyes and ties up the pants so that they won’t fall down. 

“Right.” She smiles. “I’ll go get us some breakfast and ice packs.”
“Sounds great.” I grin at her.
I like how she looks in my clothes, how they swamp her, making her look even tinier than she already is.
“Do not move from your bed or there’ll be trouble.” 
“Yes mam” I salute.
She shakes her head at me and leaves the room. I hear her footsteps as she heads downstairs. 

I sit on my bed, propped up against my pillows wondering what to do while I wait for Ashley to return. I grab my phone from where I left it on my desk yesterday and start scrolling through Reddit. 

***

It’s been a while since Ashley went downstairs. I didn’t think she would take this long. I’m tempted to go downstairs to find out what’s going on. I’m also in desperate need of those ice packs because my chest is really aching now, feels like I’m on fucking fire. 

Just as I’m about to give up waiting and get out of bed, despite Ashley’s orders, she enters the room, a tray in her arms, and her fingertips clutching at a couple of ice packs. The smell of eggs and bacon reach my nose. She grins at me and walks over. I take the ice packs from her because she looks like she’s about to drop them. 

She sets the tray down on the bed to reveal two plates ladened with a big cooked breakfast. I smile. She always does go overboard.
“Happy valentines day.” She grins.
“What?!” I grab my phone and look at the date.
And sure enough, it reads:

Sat 14 Feb

“Oh God Ash! I’m so sorry! I completely forgot.”
She smiles. “Don’t worry about it. I had too. I just noticed this morning and thought it would be nice to make you breakfast in bed.”
“Thank you.” I lean over the tray and give her a quick peck. 
I wince as I lean back.
“How about a painkiller first though.” She says, passing me a glass of water and opening up the prescription that we picked up on our way back.
“Please!” I accept it gladly. 

***

After we’ve eaten breakfast, Ashley takes the tray back downstairs while I cover myself in ice packs. 

When she comes back up she closes the door behind her and then casually leans against my bookcase. 
"So, what shall we do now?" She asks. 
"I was thinking about going for a jog, hitting the gym, you know, restful activities," I grin. 
She rolls her eyes, "things you can do in bed." 
“I can think of something you can do in bed on valentine’s day,” I smirk.
“I’d throw a book at you right now if a) that wasn’t a sin against books and b) you weren’t already hurt.”
“Well, it’s very gracious of you to resist.”
"I know, I'm a very forgiving person," she smiles. 

Ashely stops leaning on my bookcase and starts to walk across the room. 
"Oops!" She accidentally kicks a book that's been left on the floor. “Chris! You need to treat your books with more respect!” She bends down and scoops it up. 
“It's not mine, well, it's not mine anymore, Annie left it in here the other day. It's an old fairytale book.” 
“Oh my gosh! Can we read it? Please!” Ashley grins excitedly as she looks at the cover. 
“Yeah, sure, knock yourself out.” 

She hugs the book to her chest and bounds over to my bed. She clambers over me and sits down.
“You sure you wouldn’t prefer to read something you’ve written?”
“No, I haven’t written much recently, except…” She squirms.
“Except…”
“About the mountain…”
“Oh…”
“Yeah… I just thought it might help me process things”
“And has it?”
“I think so.” She frowns.
“Well… I’d like to read it one day, but perhaps it’s a little too soon right now.”
“Yeah, that’s what I thought.” 

“So what are we waiting for? Take me to a galaxy far, far away.”
“That’s Star Wars you dweeb, not fairy tales.” She rolls her eyes.
“I knew that… how do fairy tales start again?”
She opens the book up smiling, “once upon a time…”

She reads a couple of fairy tales. I listen and make stupid comments trying to make her laugh. After she’s laughing so hard she’s got tears streaming down her cheeks and she can barely read the page in front of her, Ashley gives up on the book of fairy tales. 

We get my laptop out and start playing a text-based game on it. Ashley keeps getting frustrated with me for pointing out bugs in the game’s programming. 
“If you’re so good at this why don’t you make one?” She sighs in frustration.
“I did!”
“What? Where is it? I have to play it!”
“Chill Ash. I made it ages ago, it’s really not great.”
“Where is it?” She hops up off my bed.
I sigh. “I think there’s a box of flash drives in one of my desk draws.”
“I’m not going to find anything weird, am I?” She says as she starts searching through the draws.
“What? No! I don’t have an obsession with softcore erotica, unlike someone.”
“I read fifty shades of grey once! For academic purposes!” Ashley huffs.
“I don’t think that’s possible and I’m pretty sure you’ve also read some pretty risque manga.”
“As if you haven’t too!”
“And that’s not even mentioning all the smutty fanfiction.”

“Ah-ha!”
She pulls out the old ice cream tub that’s full of old flash drives from the bottom drawer.
“What’s it called?” She starts looking at my scribbled labels.
“The Quest for the Sword of Dumbassery,” I mumble
“What?”
“The Quest for the Sword of Dumbassery, QSD for short.”
She snorts. “I already know you’re going to be a great storyteller. You need to work on your handwriting.” She squints at one of the labels. “J-josh… is… a-n… i… idiot. Why do you have a flash drive called Josh is an idiot?”

In the past, I would have quickly replied with a ‘because he is’, but that doesn’t seem appropriate right now. I hate that Josh has become a sensitive subject, he’s a person, he’s my best friend, not some kind of political issue.

I try my best to move the conversation on to a topic that isn't Josh.
“I honestly have no idea, some of those things are ancient.”
Luckily, Ashley is already distracted.
“Dank Memes?” She holds up one of the flash drives raising her eyebrows.
“What can I say? I’m a meme connoisseur.”
“You’re meme trash.”
I gasp. “How dare you!”

“QSD!” She holds up one of the flash drives triumphantly.
“Oh shit, this is going to be dire.” I sigh as she clambers back onto the bed and across me. 

She plugs in the flash drive and opens it up.
“Let’s go on a quest for the sword of dumbassery.” She smirks at me. 

***

“You didn’t even finish it! We didn’t even get to use the sword!”
I raise my eyebrows at her, smirking slightly.
“I got overly invested didn’t I?” she smiles bashfully.
“Just a little bit.” I grin.
“Can you still make things like this?”
“Pft, yeah, I could make this in my sleep.”
“Alright, don’t get too modest.” She rolls her eyes at me. “Why don’t we make one together? Just for fun, I could do the writing, you do the coding.”
“Sure, sounds like fun.” I shrug. 

So we set to work on our text-based game, making up stupid stories and throwing in all the geeky references that we can. Ashley goes downstairs and grabs lunch for us at one point but we spend the majority of the day on it. 

Eventually, we both get quite tired and give up on the game. We decide to throw on a movie and mom very kindly brings dinner up for us. 

***

The alarm on Ashley’s phone goes off for the millionth time today.
“Time to take ten deep breaths, Chris.” She says turning off the alarm and quickly pausing the film.
“The doctor said roughly every hour, not religiously every hour on the dot,” I complain.
“Do you want pneumonia?”
“No.” I sigh.
“Then ten deep breaths.”
I take ten deep breaths, keeping eye contact with Ash the whole time, making weird faces at her to make her laugh.

“You happy now?” I ask when I’m done.
“Yes.” She grins leaning over and giving me a light kiss. 

She begins to pull away, but then stops and smiles at me, her cheeks reddening slightly. All I can do is stare at those pink lips, inches away from my own. She nervously bites at her lip, avoiding eye contact with me. And God, that does more for me than I want to admit. I gulp back the excess saliva that’s threatening to choke me.

She slowly leans back in, kissing me more deeply this time, her hand moving to gently rest on my chest. I bring my hand up to cup her face, letting my fingers get caught in her hair. Her mouth moves slowly at first, hesitant and unsure. 

I let my hand ball-up into a fist in her hair, roughly pulling her closer. She laughs as her nose gets smushed against my face.
“Chris, you’re squishing me. Chr-”
I twist my hand in her hair and her laughter turns into a rough, quiet sigh against my mouth. God, she’s hot! 

She clumsily shifts her weight, accidentally bumping our foreheads together.
“Ouch!” I put my hand to my bruised head.
That probably wasn’t the best thing for a concussion.
“Sorry.” She blushes, quickly shuffling, moving one leg over me, straddling me, pushing our bodies together.
Fuck that feels good.
“I-is this alright?” She nervously bites her lip again.
I nod, not trusting myself with words right now. 

She grins and then presses her lips against mine again. I dig my hand back into her hair, pulling her closer. 

I slide the hand that isn’t caught up in her hair onto her hip, scrunching up the excess material of the pyjama pants, partly wishing she was wearing her normal skinny jeans or perhaps a little less than that. 

She moves her lips away from mine, down to my neck, leaving a small trail of kisses on her way. She begins to suck gently, and a little clumsily on the thin skin on my neck. Her hair tickling me slightly. I lean my head back, enjoying the feeling of her lips against my skin. 

I slip my hand underneath my gigantic hoodie that she’s wearing and onto her bare waist. Her skin is warm and soft. I feel her shiver against me as I trail my fingers lightly over her skin, goosebumps forming in their wake. I desperately want to slide my hand down underneath the pyjama pants she’s wearing, onto her fucking amazing ass, but I don’t know how she’ll feel about that. 

Her hands glide down my chest to the hem of my t-shirt. She hitches up the material, her hands sliding onto my bare stomach. Her nails trail across my skin sending shivers down my spine. 

“Ash!” I gasp. 
Fuck! Did she just grind her hips against mine intentionally or was I imagining it? She does it again, rocking her hips into mine. 

My heart is pounding in my chest. She moves her lips back across my neck. 

"Oh," she sighs out suddenly, stopping as she notices my hard-on.
“Sorry,” I mutter, embarrassed, feeling my entire face heat up.
“It’s okay,” she whispers shyly. 

She presses her mouth against mine again, resuming the way she was grinding against me. 

I give up on resisting and let my hand slide down, underneath the pyjama pants and on to Ashley’s ass, cupping it. God her ass feels amazing in my hand. I grasp at her, pulling her closer as she grinds against me again. 

It’s a clumsy game of tonsil tennis, neither of us really know what we’re doing but I don’t care, the way she’s moving against me just feels so Goddamn good. 

Her hands go to the back of my neck, her fingernails scraping against my scalp. 

I grope at her ass, running my fingers along the hem of her underwear, imagining what she looks like underneath my bulky clothes. 

“You’re so fucking hot.” I murmur. 
She hums in response and I can feel the smile on her lips. 

I drag my teeth across her lip and she groans. I move my hand off her ass and up on to her waist as I kiss across her cheek and then leave a trail of gentle love bites down her neck. She moans quietly and rocks against me harder and faster. Jesus that feels good. 

She lets out a sigh as I begin to suck the skin on the base of her neck. I move my hands up to rest on her shoulder blades, holding her as I continue to work at her neck. 

“Chris.” She sighs huskily, spurring me on. 

She’s gasping in breaths, sighing as she breathes out while I tease lovebites against her neck.

I gently kiss over her bruised skin. Then I move my lips back to hers, they’re soft and warm, and I can taste her strawberry lip balm. 

I move my hand back down onto her ass, squeezing it tightly. She sighs into my mouth, our hot breath mingling. I use my grip on her to help guide her uneven pace as she grinds against me. And shit, fuck does that feel good. 

“Ah-f-f-f-jeez.” I gasp as pleasure courses through me as she moves in just the right way. 

She sprinkles light kisses over my face as my breath returns to normal. She kisses me one last time and then leans away slightly.

“Happy valentines day.” She grins, giving me a kiss on the cheek. 
“Aw, babe, but I didn't get you anything.” I mock whine.
She laughs. “I love you.”
“Love you too.” I kiss her gently.

“Shall we finish this film?” I nod to the laptop.
Ashley glances at the time and makes a face. “Actually, I should probably be heading home. My parents…” She trails off.
“Ah, yeah, don’t want them getting suspicious and finding out about our PG13 grope session.” I joke.
“Oh, that’s a very classy way of putting it.”
“I try my best.” I grin.

She bites her lip nervously.
“Hey, don’t worry about it.” I kiss her neck softly. “You head home now, they’re gonna have no idea. They still think you’ve been at Sam’s this whole time right?”
“Yeah.” She nods.
“Well, Sam’s not going to rat on you.”
“I suppose not. I just… I don’t like lying to them.” She sighs.
“You know you don’t have to if you don’t want to. We could tell them about us and I’ll have you home by seven pm every Saturday just in time for beddy byes.”
“Chris! It’s not funny.” She gives me a gentle shove.
“Sorry. But, I mean it, we can tell them, if you want to.”
“I don’t want to have to live my life by their rules.”
“I know.” I wrap my arms around her waist.
“I don’t want to go to mass tomorrow.” She curls up, burrowing her head into the crook of my neck.
“Well don’t.”
“Are you kidding me? If I don’t go to mass then…” She trails off.
“What?”
“Nothing.” She says quietly. “I gotta go.” She pushes my arms away and gets up.
"Ash?" 
“I'm just going to go change.” She grabs her clothes and hurries out of the room. 

Did I say something wrong? Did I do something wrong? Did she not enjoy that? Maybe we're moving to fast? I don't know!

She comes back in her sweater, skirt and tights.
“I’ll walk you to the door.” I volunteer, hoping that perhaps I can make up for whatever I've done with chivalry. 
“Oh no, you don’t.” She pushes me back down onto my bed and plants a kiss on me. “You’re staying right here. I think I can see myself out.” She picks up her bag and coat from the floor of my room.
“But-”
“No buts, and… you’ll call me if you need to… right?” She looks at me uncertainly.
“I will Ash, promise.” I reach out and squeeze her hand.

“See you on Monday?” She asks.
“Yeah, library, after school.” I nod.
“Bye.” She gives me a peck and leaves.

I sigh and press play on the film. I might as well finish it on my own. Hopefully, it will distract me from my thoughts for an hour before I start micro analysing everything that just happened to figure out what I did or said to upset her. 

Chapter Text

02:46:28

02:46:29

02:46:30

It’s like watching paint dry, lying in the dark, feeling each second slowly slip by in the middle of the night while the rest of the country sleeps.

There's a dull ache in my chest and head. I can’t find a comfortable position, every which way I turn some part of my body is in pain. Why was I such an idiot? Get yourself beat up Chris, that’s a great idea! Not!

I sigh into the darkness. 

Just close your eyes and try to get some sleep. I attempt to make my mind go blank. 

“RUN! GO! NOW!” The stranger yells at me.

The deformed mangled creature lands on all fours right in front of me, I stumble back as I’m yelled at to get out the way.

There’s fire all around us, burning at the trees and shrubs, then quickly being extinguished by the snow.

I stay as still as my quivering knees will let me, just like I was told to.

“We’re out in the open. We gotta get out of here!” 

As I turn to him, I see it. It streaks across the clearing, just a blur of limbs.

Blood spills from his throat, gushing out down his coat and onto the ground. He collapses to his knees, his body sags backwards. His head hits the ground, blood pooling in the snow around it, mouth open, eyes glazed over. 

Oh God! I’m gonna be sick. I quickly lean over my bed and grab the bin from under my desk.

My chest burns, a stabbing pain ripping through it in protest.

I get the bin close enough to me just in time. I vomit into it as the image of the stranger's head lying lifeless in the snow lingers in my mind. 

I look up into the dark room, cradling the bin in my arms and my eyes meet two milky white ones.

I freeze.

It’s not there! It’s not there! It’s not fucking there!

I know it can’t see me if I don’t move but it feels like it's staring into my soul.

I notice the inked butterfly on its right shoulder. Fuck! Hannah is dead!

It is not there Chris!

God Hannah, I’m so sorry, I didn’t save you. I shouldn’t have been drunk that night. Josh and I... we were meant to look after you all. 

It’s not there. She’s not there. It’s not there. 

I should call Ashley. I promised I’d call her. But it’s almost three am and she’s got mass tomorrow. And what was with her leaving so suddenly? I must have done something stupid. 

You promised Chris.

Agh!

But my phone's over on the desk. I glance at it and then back at Hannah.

If she’s not there, then I can move, right?

I slowly reach my hand out to my desk, keeping my eyes fixed on the creature in the corner. It doesn’t move, just keeps staring. 

I bring the phone over to me and shakily open up Ashley’s contact. I stare at it for a few moments. I really shouldn’t wake her up in the middle of the night. But I did promise. I look up, and my breath gets caught in my throat. 

She’s closer. 

I press call before I can change my mind. Please pick up and tell me this isn’t real. 

“Chris?” Her sleepy voice answers after a few rings.
“Tell me Hannah’s dead,” I whisper, still staring into those milky white eyes.
“What? Why? What’s going on Chris?”
I take a deep breath. “Just please tell me she’s dead.”
“Okay, yes, she’s dead Chris, she’s dead!”
“Then what is she doing in my room?” I groan, burying my face in my hand.
“What?”
“I don’t know... I was trying to sleep and then I couldn’t stop thinking about the old man and I threw up and then she just appeared in the corner of the room staring at me.”
“Chris, Hannah is dead, whatever you’re seeing, it’s not real.”
I close my eyes.
“She’s not real.”
“No, she’s not,” Ashley says softly. 

I take a couple of deep breaths and open my eyes. All that’s in front of me is a dark, blurry, empty room. 

“What is happening to me, Ash?” I groan, putting my bin on the floor and leaning back onto my bed, then cursing as my chest twinges.
“Is she gone?” Ashley whispers gently.
“Yeah, she’s gone,” I cover my face with my arm, “along with my sanity.”
“It’s okay Chris. At least you knew it wasn’t real.”
“But what if one day I can’t tell the difference anymore?”
“I’ll be here, to remind you what's real.” She reassures me. 

“Oh God! Those eyes, they were staring right at me. Like they were accusing me. I shouldn’t have got drunk, I could have saved them.”
“Chris, we all did a lot of things we shouldn’t have done, and you were the least to blame. You have no idea if you could have saved them, for all you know, you might have got killed too or instead. Please don’t blame yourself.”
“I’ll try not to.” I sigh.

“Sorry for waking you up.” 
“I’m glad you did.”

“I’m such a fuck-up.” My voice cracks.
“You’re not Chris, you-you saved my life.”
“I shot myself with a blank.”
“You didn’t know that at the time.”
“Why am I only brave when it doesn’t count?”
“You yelled at a wendigo, you moron! If that doesn’t count I don’t know what does! Look, Chris, it’s easy to obsess over the ones we could have saved and forget the ones we did.”

She’s right. I, in a way, saved her from the psycho, and a wendigo when we went back. I helped Mike defeat a wendigo twice. And we managed to save Josh. We lost Hannah and Beth, and things will never be the same because of that, but I’ve saved more lives than I’ve lost. So… can I stop hating myself? 

I sigh. “I hate it when you’re right.”
“Hey, usually it’s me saying that, feels nice to be on the other side for once.”
“Don’t get used to it.” I chuckle. “I should let you get back to sleep.”
“Chris?”
“Mmm.”
“Are you going to be okay?”
“For tonight… I think so. In the future, who knows, you might have to lock me up with Josh.”
“Don’t say that.” Ashley sighs sadly. “You promise to call again if you need to?”
“I do.”
“Love you, Chris.”
“Love you too Ash.”
“Goodnight.”
“Night.” I hang up. 

There’s a part of me that wishes I could have kept her on the phone all night. She’s a pretty good distraction from my insanity. But there’s no sense in us both becoming sleep deprived and she’d probably just have to repent for yawning in mass. I wish she was here, despite her anxiety and her jumpiness, despite the fact that she took off so quickly this evening, she manages to have a calming effect on me. 

I look at the clock. 

03:05:56

It’s going to be a long night.

Chapter Text

There’s a knock on my door.  
I look up from the game on my laptop and call, “come in.”

Sam sticks her head around the door and says something. I frown and pull my headphones off. 
“Sorry, what?”
“I just said, ‘hey Chris’.” 
“What are you doing here?” 
“Gee, nice to see you too.” She grins, walking into the room. “Ashley sent me, your mom just let me in.” 
“Ashley sent you?” 
“Yes, you are under the care of Nurse Giddings today.” She puts her hands on her hips. 
I groan. “Don’t I get a choice in this?” 
“Well, seeing as you went and got yourself in this state,” she gestures to my bruised face, “Ashley and I have made the executive decision that you are no longer allowed to make choices.” 
“Since when were you two the executive committee of my life?” 
“Since your brain went on strike.” 
“Fair enough.” I wipe my face with one hand, trying to rid myself of the thoughts from last night.

The image of Hannah’s mangled, stretched form crouching in the corner of my room, staring at me, seems burned into my brain. 

“So what can I get you?” Sam asks.
I shake the image away and wince as my chest aches from the movement. 
“Some fresh ice packs would be great actually.
“Coming right up!”

As soon as she’s left the room I grab my phone and text Ashley. 

you set sam on me!?

She’s at mass so she won’t reply with her usual speed but at least she’ll know I feel betrayed. Okay not really. She’s just looking out for me. But do I need to be babysat? 

Sam changes my ice packs, reluctantly gets me a coffee, checks I've taken my painkillers and makes sure I do ten breaths on the hour. It feels like Ashley's written her a manual that she's sticking to religiously. Still, Sam's not bad company, in an annoyingly, preachy, kid sister kind of way. 

“So, what are we going to do today Nurse Noakes?”
She rolls her eyes at me from where she’s sitting on my desk chair, arms crossed.
“I brought some movies we could watch.” She shrugs.
“You brought some movies?”
“Yeah,” she picks up her bag from the floor and pulls out a couple of DVDs.
“Sam, in an age of Netflix and Putlocker why are you carting around such ancient technology?”
“Chris, Putlocker is really bad for the movie and TV industry, you know that.”
“Hey, even movie industry offspring and wannabe, Josh, uses Putlocker… or at least use-d.” I trail off, I doubt they allow stuff like that wherever he is.
Sam sighs and looks down at the DVDs in her hand. 

Fuck! Shouldn’t have brought up Josh. It’s weird to have to be careful about mentioning him in conversation. It was the same with Hannah and Beth, it took a long time to stop talking about them like they were alive. Not that Josh is dead. Thank God! He’s just a bit of a... sensitive subject. 

I miss them all. They were like a second family to me. 

“Okay, hand them over, let's have a look at what you brought.” I hold out my hand. 
She gives me the two boxes which turn out to be Blackfish, a documentary about the captivity of killer whales and Marley and Me. 
“Wow! Some really light-hearted watches. Are you trying to make me cry?” 
“Well, you come up with something better then.” 
“Alright.” I grab my laptop. 
“And legal.” She adds. 
I roll my eyes. “Netflix it is.” 

“How about Pineapple Express?” I ask, scrolling. 
“Is that a Seth Rogan?” Sam pulls a face. 
“That's a no then.” I continue to scroll
“They have 12 Years a Slave!” Sam points to it over my shoulder. “It's meant to be really good.” 
“Once again, I would prefer to have dry eyes by the end of whatever we watch.”
We sit in silence for a while as I click through the lists. 

“What about Little Miss Sunshine? It’s got a great cast.” 
“Alright,” I shrug, I haven’t seen it before, it should be alright. 
“Thank God, I thought we'd be choosing forever.” 
“You should see how long it takes Ashley and me. At least when Josh is around there's no argument, you just have to watch what he wants.” 
“Although sometimes he picks really weird films,” Sam smirks. 
“And sometimes he picks utter trash.” I grin. 
Sam laughs. “And occasionally, very occasionally, he finds an absolute gem.” 
“Big group movie nights used to be so great.” I smile. 
“Especially when you started up a gambling ring over how bad the film would be, who would sit with who and who would get into a fight over the last slice of pizza.” Sam rolls her eyes. 
“Hey, I wanted a new phone.” I shrug. “I needed to pay my way somehow.”
“I’m pretty sure you lost money.”
“Only because everyone was always so predictable.”
“Speak for yourself, you’d find any excuse to end up sitting with Ashley.”
“Oh yeah, well you were always in the middle of some kind of Washington sandwich.”
Sam gulps and looks at me with glassy eyes. I bite my tongue. 

After a few moments, she says in a very quiet voice. “I still really miss them, it feels like it never gets any easier.” 

I miss them too. 

The way Hannah and Sam would always run around together, so excitable, so vibrant, so full of energy. So alive. 

And the way Beth would trail around after them, cleaning up any messes they made. It was ironic how the youngest Washington was the most responsible, often telling the rest of us off for being idiots. Her ‘I told you so’ face was iconic. Even so, she was always there to help you out of a scrape when you needed her. 

And Hannah, quiet and with her head in the clouds but optimistic and passionate. She was always laughing and smiling. Always so hopeful and full of energy and life and love. 

Yeah, they could both be annoying at times. Beth putting a stop to the fun and Hannah always wanting to be involved in everything and suggesting the stupidest ideas. 

I still miss them. A lot. 

But they’re gone. 

I accepted that a while ago. 

It’s Josh that I miss most. 

We’ve been friends since we were eight years old. It feels as if he’s always been a part of my life. I don’t really remember a time without him. 

Then after Hannah and Beth disappeared, he stopped talking to me. My cunning, scheming, crazy best friend who was always getting me in and out of trouble disappeared from my life… and I did nothing to stop it. 

Now all I can do is sit around waiting for him to come back… if he even wants to come back. He might not ever want to see me again. I wouldn’t blame him. 

I miss his crazy schemes, his weird taste in movies, his devil may care attitude, even his lewd jokes. I miss my best friend. 

I sniff, blinking back tears.
“Yeah, yeah… I miss them too.”
Sam nods but doesn’t say anything, just stares down at her lap. 

She looks tired and worn out. Her whole body is shaking slightly. Her arms wrapped tightly around her torso are the only things that appear to be keeping her together. 

“Have you talked to anyone else about this Sam?” 
She shakes her head. “I've been at work all week. Monday you guys came over. Tuesday I help out at the animal shelter. Wednesday I cooked to give my dad a break. Thursday Matt and I went bouldering and he's having loads of problems with football at the moment. Friday my dad and I went hiking with the dogs. Then yesterday I went jogging when Jess called me having a break down so I went over and looked after her for the day. I've just… I’ve been busy.”
“And you say I don't look after myself.” I roll my eyes. 
“Which of us has two broken ribs, a concussion and a face which looks like a bruised apple?” 
“That was just bad luck.” 
“What actually happened?” 
“I fell down some stairs?” I suggest uncertainly. 
“Ashley told me you got beat up Chris.” Sam raises her eyebrows. 
“This is besides the point, we're talking about you.”
“Do you think we could watch the film? I don’t… I don’t really want to talk about it right now.” She says quietly, rubbing her arm nervously.
“Yeah, sure Sam, of course,” I say gently. 

I make room for her to sit on the bed beside me. She sits down and brings her knees up to her chest, wrapping her arms around them and resting her chin on them as well. It’s like she’s trying to make herself as small and compact as possible. Like she’s trying to disappear. 

I sit the laptop in front of us and press play. 

***

At the end of the film, I wipe the tears from my eyes. It wasn't even a sad ending, it was just so hopeful and uplifting, I couldn't stop myself. Sam turns to me and laughs.
“What?” I chuckle through tears. “I’m not crying, you’re crying.”
“You’ve always been a cry baby.” She rolls her eyes and wipes a little at her own eyes.
“I’m just in touch with my emotions.” I dramatically put my hands to my heart.
“I wish I could say the same.” She sniffs and then bursts into full-on sobbing.
“Oh, Sam.” I sigh and put an arm around her. 

She leans into me, burying her face in my hoodie, scrunching up the material as her hands ball into fists. I don’t say anything. I’m not sure what to say, so I just let her cry it all out. I keep my arm around her and gently pat her back, shushing her quietly. 

After a while she begins to calm down, her sobs get quieter and quieter and then she sniffs and leans away. I let my arm fall away from where it was resting around her shoulders. 

“Thanks, I-I think I needed that.” She wipes her face.
“That’s alright.” I half-smile. “You wanna talk now?”
“I just… I still feel guilty, for not managing to stop the prank and not chasing after Hannah and Beth. Then for leaving Mike and Josh. And-and for that moment in the lodge... where I-I considered running out and letting everyone burn just to save myself. Everyone’s always going on about how good and selfless I am, but what kind of good person has thoughts like that!?”
“The human kind Sam. Thinking that doesn’t make you an awful person. Besides, you didn't run out, you chose to risk your life, to save the rest of us.”
“But I was such an impatient bitch when we went to go get Josh and then I saw H-h… and I just broke. I let my two best friends die and then watched as their brother went mad.”
“Hey, I was freaking out about the same thing last night, I kept thinking, what if I wasn’t passed out that night, could I have stopped it all? Am I responsible for their deaths?”
“At least you didn’t burn one of them alive.” Sam mumbles.
“Sam, by doing that you saved the rest of us! Do you want to know what Ashley told me last night when I was blaming myself.”
“Sure.” She says bitterly.
“She told me that it’s easy to obsess over the ones we could have saved and forget the ones we did.” 

Sam’s quiet for a good, long moment. 

She sniffs and wipes her nose with her sleeve.
“Ashley’s smart.” She admits reluctantly.
“Yeah, she is sometimes.” I nod. “I think she must hide an extra brain in her beanies.”
Sam frowns at me for a moment and then bursts out laughing. I join in too. We laugh until we can barely breathe. 

“Thanks, Chris, I feel like you’re the big brother I never had.” She grins through tears of laughter after we’ve calmed down a bit.

“Lunchtime.” Mom calls up the stairs.
“I’ll go get it.” Sam hops up.
“No,” I say, slowly getting up.
“Chris! Ashley said you were meant to stay in bed.”
“Well I’m going to have to leave it at some point, I can’t be bedridden forever.”
She frowns, crossing her arms, trying to decide whether to fight me on this.
“Come on, it’s just lunch, I can’t exactly injure myself eating a sandwich.”
“I wouldn’t be surprised.” She mutters.
“Thank you for your vote of confidence.”
“Come on kids! Soup’s getting cold!” Mom shouts.
“Yeah, come on Sam! Soup’s getting cold.” I smirk, punching her playfully and heading toward the door.
“I guess there’s no stopping you and what’s the harm really.” She shrugs and follows. 

We have lunch with my family. They know Sam pretty well seeing as Sam’s been my friend almost as long as Josh has. Sam has a presence that’s good at easing tension. She easily gets into conversation with both mom (who still hasn’t completely forgiven me) and dad (who’s generally quite quiet). And somehow, at the same time, she manages to keep Annie entertained. I do not know how she does it. 

After lunch, Sam and I get roped into a teddy bear’s tea party by Annie. Well, more specifically, Sam gets us roped into it. So here I am, still sitting at the dining room table, surrounded by soft toys and small cups of sugar water, which is not a pleasant beverage. I tried to convince Sam to make me a coffee but she refused, saying that too much of the stuff was bad for me and then went on a rant about how appalled she is that my coffee comes in plastic packaging. 

It’s not too bad though, the politics that Annie makes up for her soft toys are quite amusing. This bear doesn’t like that bunny because it once gave the last biscuit to another bear. It’s all very complicated in a perfectly simple way. 

Besides I have plenty of ways to tease and annoy Annie by getting toy’s names wrong or by stealing biscuits. Sam’s very good at playing along, serving tea (sugar water) and biscuits to each toy fairly and addressing them all by the right names. Of course, she tries to sneak in her own political agenda here and there, talking to Henry the dalmatian about the importance of the environment and why he should not buy a car. 

Honestly, having a younger sister means so many strange, unexpected conversations happen in this house, I don’t remember ever being as nonsensical as Annie. 

Eventually, the tea party ends and Sam and I settle down in the lounge, draped across the couch sleepily watching some crappy nature program on TV. 

Sam nudges me awake. 
“We fell asleep.” She smiles sleepily. 
Why do I only fall asleep when I'm not trying too!?

“I think I'm going to head home.” She gets up and stretches. 
“You mean, I'm being trusted to look after myself.” I gasp dramatically. 
She rolls her eyes. “To be honest I think you've looked after me today more than I looked after you.” 
“You could fix that by getting me that coffee that you refused to make earlier.” 
“Not going to happen.” She crosses her arms, smirking. 
“Well if you’re going to be like that, leave and never come back.” I point to the door. 
“You're so rude.” She rolls her eyes again. 
“Go on, get.” I get up and start shoeing her into the hall. 
“I need to get my bag first.” she heads toward the stairs. 
“Alright, take your belongings and go,” I call after her. 

A minute later she hurries back down the stairs with her bag. 
“You know, if you're going to be so rude I won't come back.” She smirks. 
“Good riddance.” I nod. 
She raises her eyebrows as she begins pulling her boots on. 
“Okay, I'll stop now.” I chuckle. 

Once she's got her coat and shoes on and her bag slung over her shoulder she turns to me. 
“Thank you for today, Chris.” 
“Thank you, Nurse Noakes.” I salute. 
“Can you be serious for one second?” She softly punches me. 
“Sorry... If you ever want to talk again... I'm always happy to listen.” 
“Thanks, same to you.” She nods. “Goodbye.” 
She surprises me by wrapping her arms around me tightly. My chest twinges a little but I appreciate the sentiment and return the hug, giving her a tight squeeze. 

She lets me go and takes a step back.
“Bye Sam.” I smile.
“Bye.” She says again. 

She walks out the door and unlocks her bike from where she's tied it up and then cycles off. I shut the door behind me. 

I think that I got something right today.

Chapter Text

I get to college and hide in the corner while we wait to be let into the lecture theatre. I bury my face in my phone hoping that no-one is looking at me or noticing my cuts and bruises. I don't look up to check. I'd rather not know. 

Ashley didn’t reply to my message yesterday. It kept me up all night, not that there was much chance of me getting any sleep anyway. It’s freaking me out. She never ghosts me like this. 

Is it because of what happened on Saturday? Did she not enjoy it? She seemed to be enjoying herself. But then she got all freaked out afterwards and left. Maybe we’re moving too fast for her. I must have done something wrong. Maybe I should send her another text apologising. 

Would that seem too needy though? I’ve already sent her a couple more messages this morning that she hasn’t replied to either. 

I hope she doesn’t think I’m annoyed at her for sending Sam yesterday. I did tell her that in my follow up messages but she hasn’t read those yet. 

I hope she’s okay. 

Josh and Ashley are tied up. I can’t get to them. There’s a saw spinning toward them. There’s a lever in front of me. I have to choose who to save. I have to choose who dies. Don’t make me choose. I can’t choose. 

“I see. You have chosen... to save Ashley.”

What!? No! I-I didn’t turn the lever. 

Thank God. Ashley will be okay. 

No! That’s-that’s an awful thing to think!

I want it to stop! I want to undo this! 

The saw spins toward Josh. 

No, no, no, no, no, no. 

NO!

I cover my eyes. I can’t watch. Josh’s screams ring in my ears. 

I look up. 

I feel faint. His torso hangs limp. His guts trailing out of him. Blood everywhere. Splattering the walls, covering Ashley. 

Ashley. 

She’s okay. Thank God! I have to get her out of here. 

You just killed your best friend. 

I have to get Ashley out. 

You’re a murderer. 

Get Ashley out. 

Murderer. 

The door to the lecture theatre opens. I jump. A couple of people shoot me odd looks. With shaking hands, I shove my phone in my pocket. I take a deep breath and trail in with everyone else, trying to avoid eye contact. 

I sit alone, at the back. Slumped down in my chair, laptop in front of me. I try desperately to concentrate and make decent notes. 

My phone buzzes. I jump. Damn! I haven't been listening to a word of this lecture. Not much point in starting now. 

I pull my phone out of my pocket. It’s Ashley. Finally! 

Can we meet at yours instead of the library? 

That's odd. She never usually bails on the library. I wish I knew what’s wrong. I text her back quickly. 

sure, u alright?

I place my phone next to my laptop for easy access and then try to zone back in on the lecture. It’s no use though. I keep nervously glancing at my phone, worrying about Ashley. Concentration is impossible. 

I jump again when it finally buzzes and snatch it off the desk. 

I’ll tell you later

That does not make me feel any better. In fact, that worries me even more. 

***

I try calling her at lunch but she doesn’t pick up. This is so unlike her. 

I could call Jess or Matt to find out if they’ve spoken to her. It would be weird to call them though. But something is definitely wrong with Ash and I need to make sure that she’s okay. I grit my teeth and force myself to call Jess. 

“Chris?” Jess answers almost straight away, confusion in her voice.
“Hey Jess, sorry to bother you, it’s just… well, Ashley isn’t answering my calls and I was wondering whether you had spoken to her today.”
I hear a faint male voice in the background which sounds like Matt.
“He wants to know if we’ve talked to Ashley.” I hear her reply. “Matt!”
“Hey Chris, what’s going on?” Matt’s voice says.
“Uh… I’m trying to find out whether either of you has spoken to Ashley.” This is a nightmare.
“No. We haven’t. I… I think she’s avoiding us.”
“She’s not answering my calls.”
“That’s not a good sign.”
“No, it’s not.”
“You want me to see if I can catch her?” 

I want to say no, to keep him away from her as much as possible. But it’s more important to make sure that she’s okay. I squash my stupid jealousy down and reply. 

“Yeah, if you can.”
“Okay, we’ll keep you updated.”
“Thanks, Matt.” I force myself to say.
“No problem man.” Perhaps he’s not so bad.
“Bye.”
“Bye.” He hangs up. 

***

Exhaustion, pain, the mountain, Ashley. They all make it impossible to focus on anything for the rest of the day. If things keep going this way I’m going to fail. 

Matt and Jess didn’t manage to find Ashley at lunch and she still hasn’t replied to me. If she doesn’t turn up at my house later I’m going to form a search party. 

When my last lecture ends I’m the first on my feet, bag already packed. I rush out the room ignoring stares from all the people who are still sluggishly lifting themselves from their chairs. 

I sit on the bus impatiently, wishing I had a car so that I could get home faster. The loud noises of the rickety old bus are even more nerve frying than usual. I’m jumpier than a fucking kangaroo and my chest feels like it’s on fire. 

I get home, go up to my room and dump my bag, then start pacing, staring at my phone. Willing Ashley to get here or call or text or... something. 

I keep pacing back and forth, phone in hand, stepping over clothes and other junk. It’s an absolute mess in here. I grab some dirty clothes from the floor and shove them in the laundry hamper, trying to distract myself. 

God, it stinks in here. I open a window, the room quickly fills up with cold fresh air. How did Sam stand being in here yesterday? Where is that smell coming from? Oh, fuck! I never cleaned out my bin when I threw up on Saturday night. Disgusting. I run to the bathroom and clean it out. 

I walk back into my room, it’s looking a little cleaner, it smells a whole lot better. I pick up a couple more items of clothing, glancing at the time on my phone as I do. Where is Ashley? She should be here by now. 

The doorbell rings. Thank God! I drop the clothes I’m holding and rush down the stairs. I fling open the door, hoping desperately to find Ashley. 

I sigh in relief. She standing in front of me on the doorstep. She’s okay. 

She charges in before I can pull her into my arms and starts quickly yanking off her coat and boots. I’m a little taken aback by her abruptness but I brush it off, just glad that she’s here and that she’s safe. 

“Ash, you don’t know how worried I was!” I exhale slowly.
She doesn’t say anything, instead, she grabs my hand and pulls me upstairs, toward my room.
“Ash, what’s going on?” I’m instantly worried again. 

What’s happened? What’s wrong? Did I do something? Is she hurt?

She drags me into my room and quickly closes the door. Then she does a couple of anxious strides back and forth. Her breathing is laboured, her eyes frantic, something is wrong. I don’t know what to do. I feel like such a chump, just standing here, watching as she's freaking out. 

“Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God!” She cries tearfully. “Oh my God, Chris!”
“What? What is it, Ash?”
“They… they shut me in there, for hours! I had to confess my sins! It was… Oh my God!” She rants hysterically. 

I catch her as she paces across the room once more and pull her into my arms. She instantly breaks down into sobs, burying her face in my chest. I hold her tightly. Her shoulders shake violently. She’s crying so much she can barely breathe. This is going to turn into a panic attack soon. 

“Ash, breathe with me,” I whisper, taking in a big breath so that I know she can feel it.
It causes a stabbing sensation in my chest but I keep doing it anyway. Ashley’s still sobbing.
“Come on Ash, breathe,” I continue breathing in and out slowly and she starts to join me. 

I feel her shaking shoulders rise and fall as she copies my deep breaths. Slowly, she quietens down, and, for a little bit, we just stand there. I listen to her slightly laboured breathing returning to normal. I can feel her tense muscles, how tightly her hands are balled into fists where they rest on my back, how much her whole body is quivering. I wish I could make everything better for her. I sigh and gently rest my chin on her head. I’m happy to stand here for as long as she needs me to. 

Eventually, she takes a deep breath and steps back out of my arms. She quickly wipes her face with the edges of her sleaves, sniffing slightly.
“I’m sorry.” She says shakily. 

“Don't be.” I reach out toward her lamely but don't know what I can do, so I just let my arm fall limply back down to my side. 

She sighs and takes a seat on the edge of my bed. I stand there, feeling awkward, and not knowing what to do. The room is quiet apart from the occasional sniff from Ashley. 

I still don’t know if I did something wrong. I don’t know what happened to get her in such a state. If she’s annoyed at me, then why did she come to me? She was saying something about being shut in somewhere. 

I swing my arms back and forth a couple of times, I need to stop standing around like an idiot and do something. I take a deep breath and force myself to sit down on the bed next to her.

“Everything is such a mess.” She buries her face in her hands.
“You can say that again.” I grimace. 
“It was awful Chris.” 
I gently rest my hand on her back, hoping that it’s some sort of comfort. 
“They locked me in the confession booth! Commanded me to repent! I-it was okay at first but then it all started to come back to me, the saws and being tied down and those tunnels and the wendigo. I freaked! I started hyperventilating. I couldn’t breathe in that tiny space. But I couldn’t let them know that. They’d say it was a symptom of my sin or something. So I bit down on my tongue and suffered through it until they let me go home.” 
“That's completely fucked up Ash!... Maybe you should tell someone?”
“But my parents...”
“Locked you in a confession booth for a whole fucking day.”
“I-it wasn’t the whole day.” She squirms nervously.
“Come on, you can’t make excuses for them, that was completely fucked.”
“B-but w-what if they got in trouble, w-what if I was taken away from them?”
“Look, Ash, I don’t want to condemn your parents but maybe think about the possibility that perhaps they should be in trouble?” 
“But I’m they’re daughter… I-I can't do that to them!” She says frantically. 
“It's okay Ash,” I shush her quickly, “it was just a suggestion.” 

“Sorry I didn't answer your calls, I just knew that as soon as I started talking I'd break and I needed you to be there when that happened.” 
“It's okay.” I wrap my arms around her, pulling her closer. “I'm just glad you're safe.” 

She nestles in against my chest, I resist wincing as she puts too much pressure on a tender spot. 

“Chris.” She whispers softly, pressing a light kiss against my jaw, sending a shiver down my spine. “I want you to distract me.” 
“How?” 

She tugs my face down and presses her lips against mine, hard and fast. Ah. That’s how. 

I can taste the salt from her tears on her lips. Should I be kissing her after she’s just been crying? 

“Chris,” she whispers, her hands gently travelling down from my face to my neck.
Her breathy voice makes my stomach do flips. I kiss her back. She asked for a distraction, so I’ll give her one. I match her pace, attempting to do exactly as she said. 

I create a trail of kisses travelling away from her mouth and across her cheek. Her face is still damp from crying. Does she really want this right now? Her breath hitches as I plant more kisses down her neck. She sighs as I gently nip at her collar bone. I feel her hands bunch up the material of my hoodie and begin to pull me back onto the bed on top of her. 

All I can think about is the fact that she’s just been freaking out and crying and the way she just up and left on Saturday. I feel like I’m taking advantage of her. I don’t like it. I can’t do this. 

“Ash,” I break the kiss, and lean back, resisting her attempt to pull me back onto the bed, “I'm not sure this is such a good idea.” 
“Why not?” She sits up. 
“I… well… you’ve just been crying and… on Saturday, you-you kind of... freaked out and then you left. I was worried... you know, that you didn’t like… have fun...” I explain awkwardly. 
“Oh Chris,” she gently places a hand on my cheek, “no! Not at all! I was just anxious about my parents, that’s all. I had lots of fun.”
“You sure?” I look her directly in the eyes.
“Very sure.” She grins and pulls me toward her again. “Now make me forget about them.”
“Yes ma’am” I salute.
She laughs and then leans in, pressing her lips against mine. 

Her hands move down from where they’re resting on my cheeks to my chest where they bunch up the material of my hoodie again.
“Off!” She commands.
“Demanding much?” I chuckle.
She tugs at the hem eagerly, hiking the material up. I roll my eyes at her and pull away so I can get my hoodie off without too much pain. 

I hear her sigh impatiently as I slowly pull the hoodie off over my head, grunting slightly with pain. 
"What is this? A striptease? Could you go any slower?" 
"I'm getting there," I mumble.
“Seriously! You’re wearing a shirt and a t-shirt?” She snorts.
“I get cold, okay!” 

Just as I’m pulling it over my head it gets caught on my glasses. Damn! I always forget to take them off when I’m taking off sweaters.
“Uh, Ash, a little help here, my glasses got caught.”
She laughs and gently untangles me, planting a kiss on my lips as I manage to pull it the remaining way off my arms, dropping it somewhere unimportant. 

She pushes my shirt back, down my arms, trailing her hands down them as she goes. I pull the shirt off my wrists, grunting slightly as my chest twinges. She sighs gently, her hands moving to cup my face, pulling me closer. Once my shirt is discarded elsewhere I slide my hands onto her waist. 

She quickly pulls away and pulls off her own hoodie a lot quicker than I managed to pull off mine. Her beanie comes off in the process, hair spilling out around her shoulders. Damn! She’s wearing a tight grey top, I can practically make out the outline of her small, perky breasts through it.
“God, you’re hot.” I murmur.
She smiles, a slight blush rising to her cheeks and then leans back in, grasping at my face pulling me back toward her, kissing me hard and fast. 

I slide my hands back onto her tiny waist. She trails her hands down my neck, grabbing at my t-shirt and tugging me back onto the bed, over the top of her. 

“Ow! Ash, your knee,” it’s digging painfully into my stomach.
“Oh, sorry!” She blushes, adjusting so that I’m in between her legs.
Oh my God! I’m in between her legs! 

She sinks into the mattress beneath me, her body feels so small against mine. Her hands let go of my t-shirt, snaking up over my shoulders and onto my neck, dragging her fingernails through my hair, causing me to shiver against her. 

I gasp as she grinds her hips up into mine. 

I push her further into the mattress pinning her down, kissing her fiercely. She moves her hands away from my neck, trailing them down my chest and then underneath my t-shirt, gliding her fingers across my stomach and then over my back. She moans as I push my hips against hers more forcefully. 

I slowly lift up the hem of her top, my fingers lingering against her soft skin. I slide my hands over her stomach at a leisurely pace and then trace them over her ribs. She wraps her arms around my neck pushing her chest up toward me.
"Someone's impatient," I chuckle. 
"You waited four years to ask me out, of course, I'm impatient," she drags her teeth across my lip. 
"Point taken."
I push my hands over her breasts. She sighs into my mouth. I grasp at her, running my thumbs over her hardened tits. She sighs loudly. God, I hope no-one can hear us. 

“Chris, I need…” she rasps as she grinds her hips up against mine.
I get the message, pushing my thigh in between her legs, giving her something more solid to grind on. She gasps as I lean my weight into her, and she pushes herself against me harder, bucking and rutting against my leg.
“Chris!” She gasps. 

The fact that it’s my name that she’s moaning, that I’m making Ashley feel like this is fucking amazing, it’s fucking with my mind that I turn her on. 

I move my lips away from hers, tracing a line of kisses across her cheek then nipping love bites down her neck. I stop at her collar and suck at the delicate skin, inciting quiet moans from her.

At the same time, I let my hands get to work, massaging her breasts and squeezing her tits. God, her skin is so soft and warm, I can’t get enough of her. 

She gasps as I bite at the now fragile skin on her neck and then gently glide my tongue over it. 

I return my lips to hers, kissing her more softly and slowly than before. She slows down as well, the frantic movement of her hips coming to a stop. I slide my hands out from underneath her top, letting them rest either side of her as I drag out the kiss. 

The grip of her arms around my neck softens and she breaks the kiss, slowly lowering herself onto the bed. I push myself off her, collapsing beside her, panting heavily. 

That was fucking fantastic! I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of kissing and touching Ashley like that. 

I notice her moving. She rolls over so she’s facing me, a frown on her face. Fuck! What’s wrong? Is it me? Did I do something she didn’t like?
“You okay?” I reach out and brush some stray hair away from her face.
She chews on her lip nervously. “You-you-I-I’m not-” she stutters.
“Ash,” I whisper gently, making direct eye contact with her, trying to let her know that she can say whatever she needs to.
“Youdon’thinkI’maslutdoyou?” She bursts out in a rush.
“What?” I turn onto my side, propping my head up on my hand so I’m facing her.
She gulps. “T-this doesn’t make me a slut, does it?” She asks anxiously. 

I almost want to laugh at the absurdity of the question, Ashley could never be a slut. I’m a little bit stumped that she’s even asking. She must see it on my face. 

“It’s just… i-if my parents knew, that’s what they’d say. They always say you go to hell for this kind of thing.”
“Ash, we can… I mean... we don’t have to… we can stop or slow down.”
“No!” She says rather forcefully, and then blushes at her own reaction.
I smirk at her.
“Sorry... I-I don’t want to slow down.”
“Well, it’s kind of a knock to a guys confidence when you turn to him after an intense make-out with a frown on your face.”
She smiles gently, “I’m sorry,” she kisses me tenderly, making me want to push her back down into the mattress and start all over again. 

“It’s just… really confusing to have these two different voices in my head, one that wants you so badly,” I gulp as she says that, looking up at me through her long lashes, “and one that tells me I’m a slut and a sinner and I’m going to hell,” she shuffles up closer to me, burying her face in my chest.
“Well, hell, let’s burn together,” I grin throwing an arm around her. 
She smiles up at me. “I wish my brain were that simple.”
“Excuse me, what are you insinuating about my brain?”
“It’s not fucked-up like mine,” she flicks the side of my head gently.
“Uh- are you sure that it was you on the other end of the phone on Saturday night?”
“Yeah, good point, your brain is fucked too,” she smirks.
“I guess we’ll have to be fucked-up assholes together,” I sigh.
“Hey! I only claimed to be fucked-up, I said nothing about being an asshole,” she protests.
“Sorry, you don’t get to be picky about what kind of fucked-up you are.”
“Well, as long as it's with you I don’t mind what kind of fucked I am,” she grins.
“How romantic,” I roll my eyes.
She laughs. 

We lie in silence for a while, Ashley wrapped up in my arms, lightly pressed against my chest, her feet tangled around my calves. I feel as her body gently rises and falls with her breath. 

“How come you wear so many layers, you say you get cold but you're perfectly warm right now,” she snuggles into me.
“Well, you know what they say,” I smirk.
“No?”
“The best way to warm up a man that’s freezing to death is to put him in bed with a naked woman.”
“I’m not naked,” she shrugs.
“Perhaps I wish you were,” I grin.
“Chris!” She kicks me.
I chuckle into her hair.
“Joking… mostly.”
“Perhaps I wish you were naked,” she raises her eyebrows. 

I feel myself going bright red. I meet her eye. She’s smirking at me. Oh, it’s on. She wants a competition on who can embarrass the other the most? She’s got one. 

“That settles it then,” I nod.
“What?”
“We should both get naked,” I announce.
“Okay, you first,” she grins.
Damn! Didn’t see that one coming, really should have though.
“What happened to ladies first?”
“Age before beauty.”
“I resent that.” 
“Chicken,” she pokes me playfully with her foot.
“Fine,” I sit up and pull my t-shirt off, wincing as I do at the pain it causes. 

I look down, expecting to find Ashley laughing but the smile has vanished from her face. She’s staring at my chest. I follow her eyes to the dark purple and blue bruising covering my chest as well as taking in the various other cuts and bruises. 

“I thought battle wounds were meant to make me sexy, not kill the mood?” I try to crack a joke.
Ashley sits up, still staring.
“Okay, it’s starting to get creepy now Ash.”
“You didn’t really think you deserved this Chris, did you?” She chokes up a little.
“I dunno,” I shrug uncomfortably, reaching for my t-shirt wanting to cover up my bruises, feeling like an idiot.
Ashley grabs it before I do and holds it behind her back grinning.
“Hey! Perv! Give that back!”
“Why should I?”
“It’s not fair.”
“Fine,” she huffs. 

Rather than giving me back my t-shirt, which is what I’m expecting her to do, she strips off her own shirt revealing her small, round breasts. I gulp back saliva that’s threatening to choke me. I can’t tear my eyes away from her pale, smooth, freckled skin.
“Stop gawking.” She throws both shirts at me.
“You mean I finally have a girlfriend, who, by the way, is a hot piece of ass, and I’m not even allowed to gawp.” I grin. 
“You act like you've never seen boobs before.”
She shifts uncomfortably.
“Here.” I hand her shirt back to her.
“Thanks.” She takes it and pulls it back on.
I do the same, slowly pulling my t-shirt back on, trying not to hurt myself. 

“Shows over?” She smirks awkwardly.
“‘Fraid so.” I laugh. 
“How about we go downstairs and I'll thrash you at Mario Kart?” She suggests. 
“It's on,” I grin. 

Chapter Text

This feels weird. This feels… wrong. I'm tempted to just get off the bus and go home, but I promised Ashley I'd be there, so I have to go. 

The bus jolts. I jump and then wrap my arms gently around my chest, groaning quietly. Fuck, that hurt!

Why did Sam decide to arrange a group movie night? Why?! It was probably inspired by our chat on Sunday. Ugh, I wish I hadn't brought it up. 

It just feels so wrong to be having one without the Washingtons and especially without Josh. It was their thing. They had the cinema room, the popcorn machine, the massive collection of movies and all the eccentric tastes. 

The bus jolts again and I flinch. My chest aches from the movement. I hate these damn busses! 

I'm worried that people will be disappointed with a movie night in Sam's living room. Too much light will come in through the curtains, there won't be any surround sound and the screen is half the size. I'm worried that Sam won't cope well if this night goes wrong like I expect it to. 

I sigh as I get off the bus, waving a quick thank you to the driver. I take a deep breath and start the short walk to Sam's house. Please let this night not end in disaster. 

I get to Sam's house and ring the doorbell. There are a couple of barks from Sam's dogs and I hear footsteps quickly coming toward the door. 

“Chris!” Ashley beams, opening the door. 
She throws her arms around my neck. I'm taken aback as she plants a kiss on my lips. At the same time, Sam's dogs have come to investigate the most recent visitor. One is jumping up at me and another is sniffing me. 

“What was that for?” I ask, feeling slightly flustered when Ashley releases me.
She shrugs as I try to navigate my way around the dogs, “does there need to be a reason?”
“I-I guess not.”
She grins, “come on, we’re choosing what to watch,” she begins to drag me toward the lounge.
I groan. I was hoping that by the time I got here they would have picked something and I would have missed this debate.

“Hey, guys.” I wave an awkward hello as Ashley pulls me into the lounge.
They’re all sat on the couch, leafing through all of Sam’s DVDs. They don’t even look up as they return my greeting, which is probably just as well, seeing as my face is still a bit of a state. 

I collapse into the nearest chair, hoping that I won’t be required to take part in the choosing of the movie. Ashley sits herself down on top of me.
“Oi! There’s another chair,” I poke her, pointing to the other end of the room.
“You’re comfy though,” she wiggles herself into a comfortable position.
I flinch as she accidentally nudges a tender spot on my chest.
“Oh my God! Chris, I’m so sorry,” she gasps, covering her face with her hands, “I’m such a noob, I’ll go sit over-” she begins to get up.
I wrap my arm around her waist and pull her back.
“It’s okay,” I gently kiss her temple.
“Are you sure?”
I take a deep breath, I promised her that I’d be more truthful.
“Yes, that hurt, but I want you here,” I smile softly at her, squeezing her lightly, "just, be gentle." 
“Okay,” she smiles, settling back into me. 

“So, what are we thinking about watching?” I ask the others.
“Well-” Matt looks up, “Jesus, Chris! What happened to your face?”
“You two didn't warn them?” I look between Sam and Ash. 
“Please don't try to claim you fell down some stairs again,” Sam groans. 
“He got beaten up,” Ashley puts bluntly. 
“Thank you, Ash, you really help to keep the mystery alive,” I say sarcastically. 
“You're welcome,” she grins. 
“What happened?” Jess asks, eyes wide. 
“Some idiots accused us of…” murdering the stranger, I gulp back, I can’t say it out loud. 

His head hits the ground. His body sways gently, hanging from that meat hook. I feel sick.

Ashley gently squeezes my hand and I shake the images away.
“...They were talking shit about the mountain and I got mad and called them all idiots, so they decided to beat me up,” I shrug and then wince, “that’s pretty much all I remember.” 
“He also fell chasing me down the road in his pyjamas,” Ashley adds.
“Again, thank you, Ash,” I chuckle, “I had a concussion, I had no idea what I was doing.”
“So what’s the damage?” Matt asks.
“Two broken ribs, a concussion and minor bruising and scratching. It’s not as glamorous as it sounds.”
“It doesn’t sound glamorous you dweeb,” Ashley elbows me but carefully avoids my chest.
“You mean it doesn’t sound like I’m a badass?”
“No, it sounds like you’re an idiot that got yourself beat up.”
“That’s a more accurate but less fun way of putting it.”

“But back to my original question. What are we going to watch?”
“John Tucker Must Die!” Jess cheers.
Everyone, including me, groans. Jess is infamous for wanting to watch that movie every time she goes through a breakup.
“Come on Jessica, you’ve made us watch that movie a million times,” Ashley objects, “even Matt doesn’t want to watch it.”
“I’m easy, I’ll watch anything-”
Jessica opens her mouth.
“-except that movie.”
I groan, “that’s worse than having an opinion and is in fact, the opposite of easy. What about you Sam?”
“I think,” Sam takes a deep breath, “that it would be great if we watched Cowspiracy.”
“Sam you’ve been trying to get us to watch that since it came out so let me explain the facts to you: NE-VER GONNA HA-PPEN,” Jess states loudly.
“You wouldn’t mind watching it would you Matt?” Sam asks.
He makes a face, “I’d prefer not to witness the death of any animals this evening.”
“See! I told you. Anyone who claims not to mind, or that they’ll watch ‘anything’ is lying.”
“It’s an expression,” Matt excuses, “it doesn’t mean absolutely anything, I’m not about to happily sit here and watch a porno with you lot, am I?”
“Now there’s an idea,” Jess grins.
“No!” Sam objects, “do you know how sexist and demeaning the sex industry can be to women?”

“Ash, any bright ideas?” I ask, trying to steer the conversation back on track.
Jess huffs and we all turn to her.
“What is it, Jess?” Sam asks.
“We’re just going to end up watching whatever Ashley wants to watch because you and Matt are pushovers and Chris will just go with whatever his girlfriend wants, hoping to get lucky,” she complains.
“She’s not my…” I say instinctually, after years of teasing. 

Ashley freezes. Sam shakes her head at me, telling me to stop. Jess has her arms crossed and is glaring at all of us. Matt looks about as panicked as I feel. It feels like the whole world is about to implode at once. I knew this night would end in disaster. 

Matt’s mumbled, “I’m not a pushover,” gets lost in Jess’ loud, “it’s not fair,” as well as Ashley’s “I’m not your what Chris?” As she stares daggers at me.
“Why don’t we all just calm down?” Sam suggests.
“Shut up Sam!” Jess and Ashley both turn on her at once.
“Hey! Don’t talk to her like that,” Matt snaps.
The room goes quiet. 

“Anyone want some tea?” I ask, hoping to break the tension.
“Tea sounds great Chris,” Sam sighs.
“Okay, one tea,” I slide out from underneath the fuming Ashley, hoping some space will let her calm down before I apologise for being an idiot, “anyone else want anything?”
“Water, please,” Matt says, sounding exhausted.
Jessica mutters something.
“Sorry what was that Jess?”
“Tea.”
“Ash? Tea?”
She nods, not meeting my eye. 

“Do you know where everything is Chris?” Sam calls as I head out the room.
“Yeah, I’ll be fine,” I call back, more because I want to get away from them all and less because it's true. 

I walk into Sam’s kitchen, her dogs at my heel, probably hoping for food. I put the kettle on and then open up a couple of cupboards in search of mugs. 

There’s a cough from the door. I look up and find Ash is leaning against the doorframe, arms crossed. I wince at the sight of the frown on her face. I’m such an idiot. 

“I’m not your what?” She repeats her question.
“Come on Ash, you know I didn’t mean it,” I try to excuse, turning back to the cupboards.
“Then you shouldn’t have said it,” she says as I finally find the mugs and begin to get a few down.
“I know and I’m- ah- shit!” I have to catch myself on the counter as a sharp pain stabs through my chest while I’m reaching up for a mug.
Ashley sighs, “here, let me.” 

She walks over and reaches up, pulling out four mugs and a glass for Matt.
“I’m sorry Ash. It’s just years of Josh’s jokes have practically made it a reflex,” I get out of her way and lean against one of the counters.
“It’s okay,” she sighs, setting the mugs down.
“If you want I’ll go and announce it or something,” I babble, trying to find a way to make it up to her.
“No,” she turns and smiles up at me, putting a hand on my cheek, “that’s okay. It’s more amusing to keep them all guessing,” she grins, “sorry for getting mad,” she grabs the glass and goes over to the sink to fill it up.
I shrug and then wince, “you weren’t wrong to.”
“Chris,” she frowns, “you’re supposed to be resting.”
“Yeah,” I rub the back of my neck, “it would appear I’m not very good at that. I like to be doing something,” I pick up the tea tin and grab some tea bags, dropping them into three of the mugs that Ashley got out.
“I’ve got something for you to do,” she smirks setting down the glass of water.
I blink at her for a second, trying to remember how to speak.
“And what might that be?” I try to be smooth but my mouth has gone dry and my voice cracks.
“Why don’t you come here and find out,” she grins up at me through her eyelashes. 

God, she’s hot! I could never say no to a proposition like that coming from those lips. I sidle up to her, still leaning against the counter and lean down to press a light kiss against her lips. 

When I go to move away her hands go to my face, keeping my lips securely against hers. Her eagerness sets a fire off in my chest, my heart beating rapidly. 

She moves closer, positioning herself in between my legs, pushing herself flush against me. I slide my hands onto her waist as she moves hers down from my cheeks to my neck, beginning to play with the hair on the back of my neck, sending a shiver down my spine. 

Her lips start to move fast, pressing themselves hard against mine, I barely have time to breathe but I don’t care if I suffocate as long as Ashley is pressed up against me like this. She drags her teeth across my bottom lip and I can’t help but groan in her mouth. I push my hands down onto her ass, pressing her against me. She moans softly, raking her nails through my hair. 

“You owe me five dollars, Matt!” We jump at Jess’ loud voice.
She’s standing in the doorway leaning on her crutches, leering at us. I feel my ears heat up and duck my head, trying to hide behind Ashley which is difficult considering our size difference. I remove my hands from her ass but continue to hold her close.
“Jess you pervert,” Ashley huffs.
“What? Matt bet me five dollars that you two weren’t doing it in the kitchen. I wanted to cash in,” she shrugs.
“We were not... Matt, do not give her five dollars!” Ashley calls out. 

Matt and Sam wander out into the hallway to see what's going on.
“Oh come on. Given half the chance you so would have,” Jess teases.
“Yes, please, everyone, come in, see the show,” I complain sarcastically.
Ashley giggles still pressed up against me, and it does not help my situation.
“Jess I believe your exact words were ‘fucking like rabbits’ and that is clearly not what is happening, therefore, Matt does not owe you five dollars,” Sam smirks.
“Yeah, pay up,” Matt demands happily.
“What? No! I bet Chris’ dick is hard as nails right now.”
Okay now I am definitely very, very red and hiding behind Ashley is still not working.
“Please, can we not discuss the status of my boyfriend's… manhood.” Ashley stutters incredulously.
I snort, she turns and hits me.
“Don’t laugh at me when I’m defending you,” she rolls her eyes at me trying to keep the smile off her face. 

“Five dollars Jess,” Matt holds out his hand.
“Wait! She admitted it!” I’m impressed by the way Jess is still able to bounce with excitement even on crutches.
“Admitted what?” Matt frowns.
“That Chris is her boyfriend,” Jess grins triumphantly.
“Well, it’s not exactly a secret,” I shrug, “Sam knew.”
“You knew!” Jess turns and tries to hit Sam, who easily dodges, “and you didn’t tell me!”
“Jess you still owe me five dollars.”
Jess pouts, “they were practically doing it.”
“Not everyone is as sex-crazed as you Jess, now just give Matt the five dollars,” Sam smirks. 

“Guys, can you like, go,” Ashley says.
Thank God.
“No! If you two are going to start fucking I need to be there so that Matt owes me five dollars.”
Sam rolls her eyes, “come on, back to the living room Jess. You’re not supposed to be on your feet for too long,” she gently herds the other two away. 

“Thanks,” I say to Ashley once they’re gone.
“No problem,” she grins, giving my jaw a quick peck, “you good now?”
“Uh-huh,” I nod.
She moves away from me and goes over to the kettle which has boiled by now.
“That is the last time you seduce me in a public place,” I say, regaining some composure and grabbing the coffee.
“Seduce you?” Ashley laughs.
“Why don’t you come here and find out,” I mimic her, batting my eyelashes, “how was I supposed to resist?”
“Oh come on Chris, it wasn’t that bad, it was kind of funny,” she starts to pour boiling water into each of the mugs.
“Easy for you to say, you weren’t the one that was compromised,” I mutter.
“Should you be having that much coffee?” She frowns at the number of spoonfuls I’ve put into my mug and then pours the kettle anyway, “besides, I was too compromised, you had your hands on my… butt.”
“Yeah, but you weren’t exposed in any way,” I go over to the fridge and get out the milk carton. 
“Neither were you.”
“Was too,” I mumble grabbing the sugar pot as well. 
“Would it make you feel better if I went and flashed them all.”
“No,” I grumble, “it would make me feel better if you flashed me though,” I smirk.
Something hits me in the face. I look down and find Ashley’s beanie at my feet.
“You know, throwing items of clothing at me when I talk about seeing you undress kind of achieves the exact opposite of what you want to achieve.” I put the sugar and milk down with the mugs. 
“How do you know what I want to achieve?” She raises her eyebrows leaning in close to me.
God, she’s intoxicating. She’s so close I could kiss her again.
“Nope,” I quickly straighten up, “not falling into that trap again.”
She laughs, “come on, let’s take these through before they get cold,” she motions to the mugs. 
“Don't forget your hat,” I quickly scoop it up from the floor and hand it to her, "don't want you exposed in public," I chuckle. 
“Thanks,” she rolls her eyes as she takes it and pulls it back on while I pile everything onto a tray. 
“Let's go make sure Matt got his five dollars,” I grin at her as I pick up the tray.

Chapter Text

It was idiotic to think that the arguing was done for the night. As soon as I bring the topic of what to watch back up, we descend into petty squabbling again. I'm tempted to tell the rest of them to let Jessica watch ‘what's his face must die’. 

Josh would set them all straight. He'd know what to watch. He'd be able to shut Jessica up. He'd pick something and, somehow, convince everyone to watch it. They're all doing their best to come to a decision. But they're not Josh. I wish he was here. 

“Hey,” Ashley whispers, nudging me gently. 
“Mmm.” 
“What are you sighing about?”
“Nothing,” I brush my thoughts away. 
“Josh?” She smiles sympathetically. 
“How…?” 
“I miss him too,” she sighs. 

I notice Sam staring at us. When she realises that I've seen her looking she offers me a half-smile and then quickly turns her attention back to the DVDs. 

“I don’t think we’re the only ones,” I murmur.
Ashley follows my line of sight to Sam.
“Mmm,” She nods.
“He’ll be back one day.”
“I think that’s partly what we’re all worried about," she nervously chews on her lip, still looking at Sam. 

“Clueless!” Jessica cries out.
Everyone groans.
“Jess,” Sam puts a hand on Jess’ shoulder, “I think it's safe to say no-one wants to watch a chick flick tonight.”
“It’s not a chick flick! It’s a classic!” Jess wines.
“Here we go again,” Ash mutters.
“Shut up bitch,” Jessica shoots her a playful glare.
“We could pay homage to Josh by watching one of his favourite movies," Matt suggests.
“Doesn’t that seem a little cruel,” Jess makes a face, “watching Josh’s favourite movies without him while he’s locked up in the loony bin.”
“Hey-” I start, about to protest.
Sam cuts in quickly, “I don’t have many horror movies anyway.” 
I bite my tongue, Sam’s just trying to keep the peace. I’ll respect that. 

“How about something classic like-” Ashley starts.
“Nu-uh!” Jessica protests, “your classics are very different from my classics. My classics are Clueless and Mean Girls, your classics are just weird, like so weird, Ashley.”
Ashley mutters quietly to herself, even I don’t catch what she says, but I doubt that it's kind.
“You got something to say, Ash?” Jess smiles too sweetly.
I wince, Ashley has never got on that well with the other girls, with the exception of Sam. Ashley just shoots Jessica a glare and says nothing.
“Don’t want to share it with the class?” Jess continues.
I look at Ash. Her jaw is tensed, she’s probably biting down on her tongue to stop herself from lashing out. 

“Hey! Let’s watch this!” Sam pulls out a DVD and holds it in the air, trying desperately to break the tension.
“What is it?” Matt asks.
“What we did on our Holiday. It’s British, it's pretty funny, one of my dad’s favourites.”
“I’m down,” Matt shrugs.
Sam turns her eyes to me, a pleading look in them.
“Yeah, sure, sounds good,” I would probably have agreed to just about anything at this point.
“Ash? Jess?” Sam tries to get their attention, they’re still glaring at each other.
Ashley breaks first, tearing her eyes away from Jessica’s and focusing on her hands sitting in her lap, burying herself further into the chair and my chest.
“Sounds like a great idea Sam,” she says quietly.

There’s silence in the lounge as everyone waits for Jessica’s reply. We all know that if Jess says no we’ll have to find something else or there will be hell to pay. Jessica is still glaring at Ashley who is doing her best to ignore the other's stares.
“Jess?” Sam says again.
“Yeah, fine, whatever,” Jess grumbles after a beat, throwing herself into the depths of the couch, hunching her shoulders and crossing her arms.
“Great, it’s settled then,” Sam moves toward the DVD player, the relief in her voice palpable. 

“You okay?” I whisper to Ashley as Sam gets everything set up.
“Fine,” she mutters.
I sigh, I knew this movie night was a bad idea. 

Sam sits back down on the couch next to Jess and presses play. It feels wrong to actually pay attention to the movie. Surprisingly, group movie nights used to include very little time watching movies. People would always be chatting all the way through, bickering and teasing, despite Ashley and Josh’s protests, although half the time it was Josh that started it. But tonight I concentrate on the movie as much as my tired brain can, wanting to distract myself from the tension in the room, from the tangible absence of the other half of our friends. I’m only vaguely aware of Ashley, a fidget through and through, taking one of my hands in hers and beginning to play with my fingers and knuckles. 

A while later a beeping drifts into the lounge, coming from the kitchen.
“Pizza’s ready,” Sam pauses the movie and stands up.
“You want some help?” Matt asks.
“Sure,” Sam shrugs.
They both head for the kitchen leaving the remaining three of us sitting in awkward silence. 

Jess still has her arms crossed and is staring stonily at the paused movie on the TV screen. Ashley has moved all her attention to my hand which she is still fiddling with, staring at it intently. I can tell that neither of them is going to strike up a conversation anytime soon. If I start talking to Ash, Jessica will probably be offended but the idea of trying to start up a conversation with Jess fills me with dread. We have nothing in common, what are we supposed to talk about? I sigh and decide to give it my best shot. 

“So… Jess… how have you been?”
“Peachy,” she grunts.
“You enjoying the film?”
“Look Chris, no offence, but you are the worst conversationalist that I know.”
“Ouch! Okay, you do better.”
She sighs and turns to me forcing a smile onto her face.
“Okay then.”
She reaches into her pocket and pulls out her phone.
“Oh, real sociable.” 
“Don’t be a dick,” she rolls her eyes, “I just got a new phone, the iPhone 6.”
“Jess, how many times have I explained to you that Apple is an evil empire and their products are practically a con?”
“Shut up. I didn’t ask for your opinion on my choice of phone you nerd. I’ve got a lot of spare time on my hands at the moment seeing as I have to rest a lot and I was wondering if you had any good games I could play to stop me killing myself from boredom.” 
"What do you currently have?” 
“Have a look,” she chucks her phone at me. 

I'm a mile off but luckily Ashley catches it and hands it to me. 
“This,” I point her phone at her, “is why you go through so many of these.” 
She sticks her tongue out at me. 
“Charming,” I nod and start to look at what she has on her phone. 
“Well no wonder you're bored, you've been playing Episode? Seriously, that game is such a scam. You want a story, go read a book.”
“Just give me your recommendations, you ass,” Jessica demands holding out her hand for her phone.
“You have to ask nicely if you want tips from me,” I shake my head and hold her phone out of reach. 
“Please,” Jess huffs. 
I hand the phone back to her as I think about what to recommend.
“Uh, okay, have you heard of 2048?”
“Oh yeah, my friend-” 
“Yeah, don't get that game, the original game is called 'threes’, get that one, all the others are just knock offs.”
“You turning into Sam?” Jess snorts.
“No, it's just generally accepted as the best version.” 
“If it was the best wouldn't it be the one that everyone's talking about?”
“No, because people are stupid.” 
“But my friend-”
“Do you want my advice or not?”
“I was just trying to prove that I'm a better conversationalist than you and I succeeded,” she grins. 
“Well… fine then… I had another really good game for you but I guess you don't want to hear it if you were just trying to prove a point.” 
“Oh, I'm sorry Chris!” She mocks me, sticking out her bottom lip, “did I hurt your feelings?” 
“No, I'm fine,” I shake my head, “I… I feel sorry for you.” 
“Really? Why's that?” 
“Because you're going to miss out on a great game.” 
“You wanna tell me about that game?” 
“No, because you clearly don't care,” I shrug, feigning nonchalance. 
“Please Chris,” she pouts, “I'm just so bored while I recover, I can't walk very far.”
“I feel for you,” I roll my eyes, “the pitty card's not gonna work, Jess.” 
She continues anyway, a grin spreading across her face, “I'm in bed all the time! Really, really, really bored. And my mom isn't home...”

Where is she going with this?

“And you know I just feel like... I need to find other uses… for my fingers.”

Okay, okay, I do not need to know this, I do not need that picture in my head. My insides are squirming and I can feel myself going red. My inner cringe radar is going mad. The awkwardness of the quiet room is physically painful. 

“I'll tell you, please stop, I'll tell you. Jesus! You should apply for a job in Guantanamo bay.” 
She grins.

“It's called Monument Valley, the protagonist is a little princess character, it's a puzzle game, beautifully designed-” 
“You had me at princess,” Jessica stops me as she taps away at her phone to download it. 

“Pizza is served!” Sam comes in followed by Matt both holding trays with pizza on them. 
“Thank God! Chris is such an awful conversationalist, I was so bored, I was worried I was gonna have to-”
“Hey, I told you the game, stop with the torture!” 
Sam raises her eyebrows at the two of us as she sets the pizza down on the coffee table. 

“Well, dig in,” Sam smiles. 

*** 

“That wasn't a complete disaster,” Sam sighs as she comes into the kitchen with more items for the dishwasher. 

Ashley and I are washing up the trays that the pizzas were cooked on. I'm washing, Ashley is drying, the other two have already left. Jessica's mom came to pick her up to make sure she gets to bed on time now that she needs lots of rest. Matt accepted a lift home from her as he needs to be up early for training tomorrow. 

“Mmm," Ashley grunts. 
“Sorry that Jess ripped into you a little bit Ash.”
She shrugs, “s'okay, I'm used to it. I've always been the weird ginger girl.” 
“Just as well, that appears to be Chris’ type,” Sam teases. 
“I've been into brunettes on occasion,” I defend myself. 
“Yeah and the only one that anything ever happened with turned out to be gay,” Sam smirks. 
“Two very separate facts,” I insist. 
“Wait!” Ashley looks at both of us, “did you and Beth?” Ashley's eyes widen. 
“You mean you haven't heard the story?” Sam beams. 
“Chris, why did you never tell me this?” Ash gives me a little shove. 
“And face Beth's pure heavenly wrath? No thanks.” 
“Oh my God! What happened?” Ashley laughs. 

“We were about thirteen, Josh throws one of his first house parties when his parents are gone for the weekend. It was a lot tamer than anything you would have ever been to. Still, there was music and dancing and food, but Beth and Chris, being awkward dweebs don't join in with any of this. They just sit on the couch and chat the whole time.” 
“Sounds about right,” Ashley nods, “you haven't changed much.” 
“Who needs to change when they've already reached perfection?” 
They both just laugh at me. 
“Anyway,” Sam recovers, “Hannah had recently kissed a boy for the first time and I think Beth felt a little left out and figured Chris was an easy target.” 
“Easy target? Pft,” I cross my arms. 
“Would it make you feel better if I said she felt safe with you.” 
“That's only slightly better. Come on! No guy wants to be told their 'safe’.” 
“Oh suck it up,” Sam rolls her eyes, “so it's getting quite late and they've been talking for like ever and Beth sees her chance and-” 

Ashley's phone goes off loudly, she quickly pulls it out from her pocket and a look of horror melts onto her face. She answers the call and shakily holds it up to her ear. 
“Hi, dad.” 
Sam and I both give each other a worried look. This cannot be good. 
“No!” Ashley grabs my phone out of my pocket and looks at it, she winces and hands it back to me. 
“I'm really, really sorry dad! It took us ages to choose a film and I wanted to be nice and help Sam clean up and I didn't notice how late it had gotten.” 
“Yes. Yes. I'm sorry. I'll come home straight away.” 
“I know. I know. I didn't mean to disobey you. I just lost track of the time. I'm really sorry, dad. I promise I'll make it up to you.” 
“Okay. See you soon,” she sighs and hangs up. 

“I've got to go guys. Sorry I can't finish helping.”  
“It's okay,” Sam shrugs, “you go too Chris, there's not much left to do.”

Ashley rushes out into the hall, throwing her coat and shoes on. 

“I can stay Sam, I don't-” 
“Go with her,” Sam gives me a look. 
“Oh, okay,” I nod, “thanks, I'll see you soon Sam.” 

I hurry out into the hall, following Ashley. I quickly shove my shoes on and grab my coat off the hooks as Ashley opens the door. 

“Wait a second Ash,” I say shrugging my coat on. 
“I can't! I can't! You heard how mad my dad is,” she hurries outside. 
I follow her, “bye Sam!” I call, closing the door behind me. 

I jog to catch up with Ashley. 
“Oh my God! I'm such an awful daughter,” she groans, “I'm going to be in so much trouble.” 
“Hey, you didn't do anything wrong.” 
“I broke curfew.” 
“But not on purpose.” 
“Like that makes it any better. Now I'm bad and careless.” 
“You're not bad Ash and you're anything but careless.” 
“God! Why didn't I keep an eye on the time? When's the next bus?” 
I grab my phone from my pocket and check the bus times. 
“Five minutes.” 
“I'm such an idiot! Stupid! Stupid! Stupid!” She berates herself. 
I laugh. “Ashley, if you're stupid that gives the rest of us very little hope.” 
“There wasn't much hope for you anyway,” she mutters as we reach the bus stop. 
“That's the spirit. Insult me instead. That's much more productive. I might learn something from you.” 
“I'm sorry Chris,” she sighs, covering her face with her hands. 
“Don't worry about it,” I pull her close, wrapping her up in my arms. 
She laughs into my chest, “easy for you to say.” 

I breathe in and out deeply so that she can feel the rise and fall of my chest. 
“Chris,” She looks up at me frowning. 
“What? I'm just enjoying the fresh air,” I flash her an innocent smile, “why don't you join me?”
“Don't think I don't see what you're doing.” 
“Humour me,” I grin at her.
She sighs and takes some deep breaths in and out. 

“Feel any better?” I ask.
“A bit,” she mumbles into my chest. 

I gently smooth down a bit of her hair. She sighs quietly, I can feel her shoulders shaking, too much adrenaline pumping through her body. I hold her tighter, not caring that it hurts. I just wish I could make it all go away. I wish I could make everything better for her. 

I see the headlights of the rickety old bus coming down the road and slowly release her. She wipes her face with her hands and brushes her hair back, readjusting her beanie. 

The bus pulls up, we get on and find some seats. It's pretty empty at this time of night so it's not hard. Ashley takes the seat by the window as always. I sit down next to her, my fists balled up in my lap, ready for the noises that I know will trigger images of the mountain. I close my eyes as I hear the engine start, bracing myself. Ashley places her hand over my fist. I open my eyes and turn to her. She gives me a small smile. The bus backfires, jolting into action. I jump. The image of the wendigo flashes across my vision. 

“Chris,” Ashley whispers, squeezing my hand tightly, “we're not on the mountain anymore. You're safe.” 

I've squeezed my eyes tight shut, I slowly peep at her. I think about Josh curled up in the snow, chanting to himself as a Wendigo circles us. I think about Josh and Ashley, both tied up, a saw spinning toward them, a lever in my hand, one of them must die. 

“It's not me that I'm worried about,” I mutter. 
“Everyone is safe, Josh is safe, I'm safe.” 
“Are you?” I look her straight in the eyes. 

She was locked in a god damn confession booth for hours on Sunday. How is that safe? 

“Of course, I'm home, I’m safe.” 
“Do you really believe that?” 
“I do not need this from you right now,” she huffs, taking her hand away from mine and crossing her arms. 
“I'm worried about you Ash, is that a crime?” 
“I love my parents,” she says through gritted teeth. 
“I didn't say anything about your parents.” 
“But that's what you're getting at, isn't it?” 
I sigh. 
“I thought so,” she mutters. 

Damn it, Chris! Why do you keep fucking up?

“I'm sorry.” 
She takes a deep breath, “Chris, I promise you that if I'm ever truly worried about my parents, I'll tell you.” 
“What if you're too close to see it… what if there's… a conflict of interest?”
“I could say the same about you.”
“Fair enough,” I nod, conceding. 

She picks up her backpack and opens the front pocket, pulling out her earphones.
“Wanna listen?” She says, making some kind of peace offering.
“Sure. What are we listening to?” I ask taking one of the earphones from her. 
“Wolf Alice, Creature Songs, i-is that okay?”
I shrug, "whatever you want." 
She smiles softly at me and pulls the album up on her phone. 

We sit, listening to the music. I ask her to turn it up, hoping to drown out the sound of the bus. She does so, and I'm grateful because I know she likes to have her music quiet. She pulls a book out of her bag and settles down to read for the short journey. I rest my head back and close my eyes, anything to try to get even a second of rest. I'm exhausted. 

Ashley nudges me as the bus pulls up to our stop. I haven't managed to sleep a wink. There's no way I'm going to be able to sleep when my head hits the pillow tonight. I sigh and take the earphone out, handing it back to her. The bus stops, Ashley rushes off it, I follow slowly, feeling lethargic. 

“Wait up, I'll walk you home,” I try to catch up with her. 
She whirls around, “no! Please don't. I mean, thank you, but they'll probably be looking for me and if they see you, I don't know. It's not a good idea. I have to go,” she turns away again. 

“Ash, wait,” I call, grabbing her hand as she tries to rush off, having barely said goodbye. 
“Chris, I need to-” she starts. 
I pull her into my arms and kiss her tenderly. I hold her tightly despite my aching chest and slowly the tension I can feel in her muscles seems to dissipate and she lets herself melt into me. I just want to make everything else disappear, I want to make everything better for her. 
“I love you,” I murmur into her mouth. 
“Chris,” She gently breaks the kiss, sounding tearful, “I-I need to go.”
She pushes me away, breaking my embrace, turns and runs down the sidewalk. 

Well shit! I watch her form getting further and further away until she disappears around the corner. She didn't say it back. Is she mad? Did I do something wrong? I sigh and turn around, starting to walk in the direction of my own house. Why can't I protect her?

Chapter Text

I ring the doorbell and wait. I stare at the empty driveway. 

Ashley's parents are out. It's Thursday. They have bible study on Thursday. We often stay late at the library on Thursdays or go grab dinner together or see a movie or something. But we NEVER spend the evening at her house. You can’t know when her parents will get home because, as I've heard Mrs Brown say, 'prayer is not predictable’, whatever that means. 

So why has she invited me over? Is it to do with yesterday? I’ve been worrying about it all day.

I sigh, turning back to the door as I hear footsteps approaching from the other side. I wipe my face with my hand, shifting my glasses slightly as I do. 

There'll be trouble if her parents find out about this. If we just stay in the lounge and watch a movie it might be okay. Although, she did break curfew yesterday, so maybe not. 

Ashley opens the door wearing a frame-hugging, striped, turtle-neck sweater, skinny jeans and of course, a beanie. She looks good.  
“Hey,” she smiles.
She looks better than good.
“Come in.” 
She moves aside to let me in.

Before closing the door, she sticks her head out and looks both ways down the street. 
“Uh… whatcha you doin’?” I ask as I kick my shoes off. 
“Checking the neighbours aren't spying on me for my parents,” she shrugs, closing the door.
“Was everything alright yesterday?”
She hugs her arms to her chest, “it was…” she grimaces, “ well, you know how they can be.”
“Yeah… are-are we good, Ash?” I ask nervously, shoving my hands in my pockets.
“O-of course, why wouldn’t we be?”
“Um… you… I was just… this is stupid,” I mutter, sighing and staring up at the ceiling, “like so stupid… but, you didn’t… yesterday… when I said…”
“I love you,” she grins at me.
I sigh in relief and let a smile creep into my face, “I love you too.” 

“So… what was the purpose of my invitation to casa a la Brown?” I shrug off my coat and hang it up. 
“What are you talking about? You come over all the time. I should start charging you rent.” 
“Yeah but why not a restaurant, or a movie, or casa a la Chris?” 
“Why does your house belongs to you but mine belongs to my family?” 
“Casa a la Chris sounds better than Hartley.” 
“It's called alliteration.”
“I knew that.” 
“As if,” she smirks. 
“This is besides the point and does not answer my question.” 
She shrugs and then looks shyly at me with a glint in her eye that makes my stomach do flips. 

“Come on,” she laces her fingers through mine and begins to pull me up the stairs. 
So… not planning on a movie in the lounge. We are in so much trouble if they get home early. It would be a good idea to suggest we stay downstairs. I look at the slowly retreating lounge door then back at Ash. How am I meant to say anything when she's smiling at me like that? 

She pulls me into her room and shuts the door. I stand in the middle of the floor, wondering what to do, surveying the area. Ashley's room is immaculate, as always, although, not without a distinct Ashleyness in the overflowing bookshelf, the stacks of notebooks, the notes neatly tacked up on the walls and various geeky trinkets decorating the place. 

I turn back to Ash, she's watching me from where she's leaning against her door.
I feel like I’m being judged, “what?” 
She takes a few steps forward, grabs me by my hoodie and presses her lips to mine. I close my eyes and drink her in. God! I still can't believe that Ashley wants to kiss me like this. 

She pulls me by my hoodie until her back bumps into the door. I place my hands either side of her, against the door. Her lips are soft and warm and eager. 

Her hands grasp at my face, pulling me closer. She pushes her body against mine and I, in turn, trap her small frame against the door. 

I glide my hands down her waist, onto her hips and down to her butt. I pull her firmly against me. 

I try to set a leisurely pace. I want to savour her, to memorize her touch and taste. But she's too impatient, her hands go to the zip on my hoodie, fumbling to undo it. She hastily pushes it and the shirt I'm wearing down my arms. I oblige and pull the layers off my wrists, dropping them on her floor and then quickly returning my hands to her ass. 

My heart lurches as her hands trace the waistband of my jeans before coming to the hem of my t-shirt and pushing her warm hands onto my bare skin underneath. She'll give me a heart attack at this rate. 

I squeeze her ass, pulling her against me, trying to eliminate all the space between us. I squash her against the door, pressing my lips hard against hers. Her hands move gently across my chest. I bite her lip as her fingers brush over a tender spot and I wince. 

I gasp as her body begins to grind against me. She can't move much because of how I've trapped her against the door but she can move enough that I can feel her desperation. I move my hands down to her thighs and, using the door, lift her up. She moans, wrapping her legs around me and kissing me more frantically. 

I move my lips away from hers and across her cheek. She leans her head back against the door, exposing part of her neck. Her breath hitches as I trace a line of kisses downward. 

Her hands slide down my chest, over my stomach and then down to my belt buckle. My stomach flips. She clumsily tries to undo it. 
"Ash-Ashley, what are you doing?" I lean back, examining her face. 
She flushes as bright red as her hair and looks down at her fingers on my belt, refusing to meet my eyes. 
"Well, I-I guess I'm trying to have sex with my boyfriend," she licks her lips and looks up at me. 

Fuck! God, I want her so badly. I don’t know what to say or do. We can’t just do it right now. Can we? Her parents could get home. I don’t have any protection either. I wasn’t exactly expecting this. But God I want her. 

"D-don't you want to?" She bites her lip worriedly.
Fuck, I’ve been quiet for too long. 
"Jesus, Ash, of course- of course, I want to. I mean, I think that's pretty obvious." 
She smirks. 
"But, I dunno, I thought we’d make it special or something, book a hotel room, I don’t know… Besides, I wasn't expecting... I didn't exactly come prepared." 
"Oh… yeah…I hadn't thought about that," Ash frowns, "we should probably talk about it or something, shouldn't we?" 

We should at some point, but right now, pressed against her, her legs wrapped around me, with her fingers still on my belt, I have other things on my mind. 

"You know…" I gulp, "there are... other things we could do…" 
She grins, excitement lighting up her eyes, "what kind of things?" She raises her eyebrows. 

Crap! Does… does she want me to talk dirty? How do you do this? 

"Uh… you know… things with… uh... fingers and... tongues."

Shit, that sounds stupid!

She snorts, "you don't make it sound very appealing." 
"Would you prefer I say fingering and-" 
She slams her mouth against mine. 

"Shut up," she mumbles through the kiss, planting her feet back on the ground and pushing me roughly, backward into the room. 

The force of her hands against my chest sends a stabbing pain through me. I gasp, the wind knocked out of me.
"Ow, Ash!" I quickly stop her, taking her hands off my chest, "broken ribs, remember, you need to be gentle with me." 
"Oh, yeah, sorry," she blushes, hugging her arms to her chest and looking bashful. 
"I'm loving the enthusiasm, but slow down a bit, okay?” I chuckle, “there's no rush."
“But... my parents could get home…” She rubs her arm, a nervous look crossing her face.
“Then let’s leave it for another day.”
“But I don’t want to wait, I want you now,” she looks up at me earnestly. 

God help me. How am I meant to be sensible when she says things like that and looks up at me with those big, green, doe eyes? I take a deep breath. 

“Ash, on a scale of one to ten how worried are you about your parents getting home while we’re… messing around?”
“I don’t know. Maybe a seven or eight.”
“And how are you meant to enjoy yourself if you're going to spend the whole time worrying that much?”
“Not as much as I would like to,” she sighs.
“So perhaps leaving it for another day is best.”
“Why are you always right?” She pouts.
“Trust me, I take no pleasure in it.” 

“So… now what?”
“Dominion?” I suggest.
“It’s at your house you noob.”
“Oh... “
“I think Lord of the Rings is here.”
“We should really keep track of what is at whose house, don’t even get me started on what belongs to who.”
“Yeah, I feel like that’s a lost cause,” Ash smiles, and shrugs, “what’s mine is yours.”
“Woe there Ash, we’re not married.”
She blushes, “t-that’s not what I meant.”
“Of course not,” I smirk, and ruffle her hair, knocking her beanie askew.
“Chris!” She groans, “you know I hate it when you do that.”
I chuckle, “come on let's find this game.” 

She quickly locates the game and we set up the cards across her bedroom floor. 

“Shall we have some background music?” Ash asks.
“Sure,” I shrug.
She hops up from where she’s sitting on the floor and opens up her laptop, plugging in her speakers, first with a USB and then with the audio jack.

“Ash, you know I love you but you need to enter the twenty-first century," I put my hands together in prayer, "please, for the love of God, get yourself a Bluetooth speaker.”
“This one still works perfectly fine, I will get a new one when I need it.”
“Ugh, you sound like Sam.”
“It’s not that. I’d much rather save for college than spend all my money on the latest tech. You do it too! Have you looked at your laptop recently? That thing is falling apart.”
“I like to think of it as well-loved.”
“Think of it however you like. You get a new laptop, I’ll get new speakers,” she hits play.
Some Paramore song comes on. I laugh.
“What?” She frowns at me, settling herself back down on the floor, sitting opposite me.
“You never really got over your emo phase did you?” I smirk.
“Oh, shush,” she rolls her eyes, “come on, let’s play!”

*** 

A couple of games later Come on Eileen comes on, I instantly look up at Ash as I hear the first few notes. 

“Oh no!” She groans, “do not do the dance.”
“Oh come on, you have to do the dance!” I grin, hopping up onto my feet, “and would you look at that, Josh is not here, so I am in need of a partner,” I hold out my hand to her.
“Please don’t make me,” she shakes her head and covers her face with her hands, retreating into her mane of bright red hair.
“Nope! You are not getting out of this!” I walk around behind her and slide my arms underneath her armpits, pulling her up.
“Chris!” She groans, “you know I don’t dance.”
“You do now. If you didn’t want to dance you shouldn'ta played this song.”
“Why do you and Josh even have a dance to this song? You’re such nerds.”
“Almost time and… now,” I say leaping into action. 

I dance wildly, opposite Ashley, who still does not look altogether happy about being dragged into this. Still, she joins in with the dance moves and, as the song gets on, slowly gets into it, letting a grin spread across her face. 

I turn around dramatically at the beginning of the bridge and we click our fingers while walking toward each other in time to the beat. Ash can’t stop laughing especially when we reach each other and are intensely clicking in each other's faces. 

In the run-up to the chorus, I grab Ashley’s wrists and we whirl around the room. The aim has always been to see who can make the other fall over. Ash screams and laughs loudly. 

The door slams open, we both almost topple over in shock.

Mr Brown stands in the doorway looking livid, face red, fists clenched. Ashley stumbles across the room, scattering the already messed up cards and quickly presses pause. The silence that fills the room is so thick I could choke on it. 

“Dad,” she turns to him, still a little breathless from dancing, “I-I can explain.” 
“Ashley Marie Brown, how dare you so blatantly disobey me.”
“We were just dancing...” Ashley says quietly, almost in tears.
“And to what kind of filth? Would you like to read out the downright vile lyrics to that atrocity.”
Ashley shakes her head and looks at the floor. 

I should say something, but I don’t know what. Come on say something, Chris. You could save this. 

“And not only that, but dancing with a boy, in your room. You know the rules.”
“It’s my fault, sir,” I try to interject.
“Do not interrupt me,” he glares.
Ashley cringes. I think I just made things worse. 

“I think it best if you leave Christopher.”
With the look on his face and all the crap Ashley’s parents have put her through recently I’m not so sure I should.

I look at Ash. If she wants me to stay I will. She doesn’t look up from where she’s staring at the floor. 

“Ash-” I start.
“Do not address her,” Mr Brown demands.
“I…” I should stay, “okay, I’ll go,” I quickly pick up my shirt and hoodie from the floor, pulling them on. 

I look back at Ash as I leave the room. She still refuses to meet my eyes. I sigh and walk down the stairs. 

Mrs Brown is in the hall, hanging up her coat and taking her shoes off.
“Christopher,” she frowns at me.
“Mrs Brown, I-I am so sorry.” 

She doesn’t say anything as I shove my shoes on and grab my coat. She opens the door for me. 

“Please just know, that this was all my idea, it wasn't Ashley’s fault.”
“Christopher, you’re a smart boy and I say this with the best intentions, I think it best if you don’t see Ashley for a while.” 
“Oh, o-okay,” I stutter walking out the door.
Mrs Brown swiftly closes it behind me. I can still hear Mr Brown’s booming, angry voice as he yells at Ashley. 

Fuck!

Chapter Text

I can’t stop thinking about Ashley. About how angry Mr Brown was. 

I’ve texted her I don’t know how many times. I’ve called her and she’s not picking up. I’m really, really worried about her. 

I can’t believe I left. Why the fuck did I leave? What is wrong with me? 

I try to call her again. My hands shake as I unlock my phone and hit call. 

It goes to voicemail. 

I take deep breaths, trying desperately to rid my mind of the thoughts that keep creeping in. 

I hurry down dark, snow-covered paths, following a trail of blood, dark red against white. A scream cuts through the quiet night. I quicken my pace. I call out her name. I hope that that scream didn’t belong to her. 

Ashley and Josh, tied up by their wrists, a saw spinning toward them, two paths it could take. We’re only separated by a door but there’s nothing I can do. I clutch the lever tightly in my hand. I can’t bring myself to turn it. I can’t choose. Don’t make me choose. 

She’s sitting opposite me, a bruise darkening around her eye, tears trailing down her cheeks. Saws are spinning above our heads. There’s a gun in my hand. I’m not failing her again. I point it at my chin. 

I’m limping down the tunnels, there’s no sign of her, I realise I’ve left her behind. Where could she be? There’s no way I can find her now, not on this ankle. I just have to hope that she makes it back to us. 

I run out of the lodge, away from the monsters and away from my friends. I’ve left them all behind. I’ve left her behind again. 

She’s got too close to a cage. A long boney arm reaches out toward her. I throw myself at her, pushing her out of the way. Sharp claws close around my throat. 

It’s in the trees, it’s hunting us. If we don’t kill it, it will kill us. I can’t let any of them die. I can’t fail them again. Especially not Ashley. I run out into the open, waving my arms and shouting as loud as possible. 

Mr Brown, standing in the doorway, face red, fists clenched. He looks angrier than I’ve ever seen him before. Ashley is quiet, she stares at the floor. She won’t look at me. He tells me to leave and I do. I leave her. 

I left her. 

I’m on the floor of my bedroom. My clothes are drenched in sweat. I don’t remember how I got here. It’s pitch black. 

I fumble around in the darkness, feeling for my phone. I find it in my pocket and pull it out. I blink as my eyes adjust the bright screen. 

It’s two in the morning. 

Still no reply from Ashley. 

I turn my phone torch on and stand up. I can’t just sit around doing nothing. I have to make sure that she’s alright. 

I grab my walkie talkies and go down to the kitchen. I get a bottle of water and make a flask of hot chocolate, definitely not my best work because I’m rushing but it will have to do. 

I go into the hall and shove my coat and shoes on. I put everything into a bag, sling it over my shoulder then head into the garage. I walk straight over to the ladder that’s leaning against the garage wall. I pick it up, hoist it over my shoulder and head for the front door. 

As I open the door I hear footsteps on the stairs. I turn to find mom in her dressing gown, bleary-eyed and yawning. When she sees me carrying the ladder her eyes narrow and she crosses her arms.
“What do you think you’re doing?” She hisses.
I gulp, “something important,” I hope she won’t try to stop me.
“Nope! No!” She shakes her head angrily, “I have had enough of this behaviour Chris! You will put that ladder away and go to bed right this instant.” 

I sigh. I’ve really screwed things up with mom. I look out the open door at the dark icy street. Ashley could be locked away somewhere, freaking out, unable to calm herself down, unable to breathe. I can’t stay. 

“I-” I look back at mom and gulp, “I’m sorry mom.”
I turn toward the door and walk out onto the street without looking back.
“Chris! Christopher! You come back here right now!” 

My cheeks feel damp as I walk the couple of blocks to Ashley’s house but I don’t have a free hand to wipe it away. I have the urge to curl up and shove my fists into my eyes until this feeling stops. Instead, I take a deep breath and push on. 

I stop in front of Ashley’s house. My breathing is heavy. I didn’t realise how fast I was walking. As I catch my breath I look around to check that no-one is watching. Pretty much all the houses on the street are dark. Everyone is asleep. 

I sneak into the back garden through the side gate and lean the ladder against Ashley’s window. At least… I hope it’s Ashley’s window. Fuck! Now I’m having doubts. No, I’m pretty sure this is her window. I test the ladder to make sure it’s secure. I take a deep breath and then slowly and quietly climb up. 

Thankfully her window is just open enough that I manage to get a hold of it and slide it open. I crawl through, trying not to mess up everything on her desk. I misjudge it and go tumbling onto the floor.
“Shit!” 

I hope her parents didn’t hear that. I lie on the floor for a second, heart pounding, chest aching. I expect Ashley to get out of bed and tell me I’m being ridiculous and that she’s fine. Or, at least, that’s what I hoped for. That doesn’t happen though. 

I hear a quiet sob coming from the other side of the room.
“Ashley?” I whisper, “Ash?”
She doesn’t answer. I hear more quiet sobs and follow the sound. 

I find her curled up at the foot of her bed. 
"Ash?" I sit down nearby. 
She doesn't look up from where her face is buried in her knees. 
"Ash?" I gently lean toward her and put a hand on her shoulder. 
She looks up. 
"Chris! What are you doing here? If they find you…" She sobs frantically, “you have to go." 
She pushes me away. 

I notice that she's naked from the waist up at the same time she does and she quickly curls back in on herself, covering up. 
"Sorry," I whisper, averting my eyes, "do you... um... want me to get you a shirt?" 
She shakes her head. 

I shuffle up next to her and am about to put an arm around her when I notice why she doesn't want a shirt. I can only just make them out in the dim light. Red, angry welts across her back, and in some places bleeding, broken skin. I choke back a sob. 

"Oh, Ash, I…" 
I stick the base of my palms against my eyes, pushing my glasses out the way, forcing myself not to cry. 
"I'm so sorry, I-I shouldn't have left." 
"N-no, this isn't your fault Chris. If you'd tried to stay it would have just made things w-worse."

Her voice cracks and she’s crying again, horse, painful sobs that make it sound like she’s been crying for hours. She’s gasping in breaths, choking as she does and descending into a coughing fit. 

Do not cry, Chris. You cannot fall apart right now. She needs you. 

“Ash,” I say quietly as I pull my backpack off, “Ash, listen to me, you need to take slow, deep breaths, okay?”
“I-It still h-hurts.”
“I know,” God, hold it together Chris, “I know,” I pull the water bottle out of my bag, “come on Ash, breath in,” I break the cap off the bottle and open it up, “and out.”
She does as I say, hiccuping and coughing, but doing her best to take a deep breath.
“Here,” I hold out the bottle to her.
She accepts it and I press it into her shaking hand, making sure she’s got a firm hold on it.
“Small sips.”
She takes a small gulp from the bottle.
“S-seven t-time-s,” she breaks back down again.
“Oh, no, Ash, no, don’t think about it.” 

Think quickly Chris, distract her. I stick my hand out in front of her face.
“Look at my hand Ash, I want you to take deep breaths in and then as you breathe out you need to try to blow my hand away, otherwise, you know that cute little button nose of yours?”
“Uh-huh?” She looks at me, confused, tears trailing down her cheeks.
“It’s gonna steal it. You wouldn’t want that to happen would you?”
She shakes her head.
“Good, so deep breath in.”
She takes a deep breath, still looking a little bit baffled by what’s happening.
“And blow the hand away before it gets your nose,” I move my hand toward her nose as if to steal it, and then move it back again when I feel her gently blow.
“There you go. And again.” 

After a while, she’s quietly taking sips out of the bottle and is breathing normally. I let out a deep breath of relief and lean back against the wall, closing my eyes and collecting myself for a moment. 

I open my eyes again and catch sight of Ashley’s back. I choke back a sob. 

“God! Fuck! I-I’m so sorry Ash,” I put my head in my hands.
“It’s okay,” she whispers.
"It’s really not. Sorry, I shouldn't be crying when you're…" I wipe more tears from my eyes. 
"Stop saying sorry," she gently nudges me with her shoulder. 
She’s calmed down now and is wiping her face with her hands. 

I route around in my bag and pull out the flask.
“I... um... I brought you some hot chocolate too,” it feels kind of stupid now, I should have come sooner rather than wasting time on making a subpar hot chocolate.
“Thanks,” she takes it and unscrews the lid, hands shaking slightly.
“I hope it’s alright, I was in a bit of a rush,” I mumble.
She cups the flask in her hands and brings it close to her face. She closes her eyes and takes a deep breath in. Her shoulders relax slightly as she breathes out again and then takes a small sip.
“It’s perfect,” she sighs.
We’re quiet as she slowly drinks. 

"Ash?" I say after a while. 
"Mmm." 
"H-has this happened before?" 
"A-a bit, when I was little, before I knew you, never this bad though," she sniffs, "I got good at being, or at least appearing, perfect, but I guess with everything that's happened, that's been slipping lately." 
"God, I'm-"
"Don't say sorry again. None of this is your fault." 
"Right…" 
We fall quiet again. 

"Ash," I say quietly, "you have to talk to someone, you know that, right?" 
"No, Chris, it's my fault, I shouldn't have disobeyed. I'll be better. It won't happen again." 
"Jesus Ashley! No!"
"What?" 
"This is completely fucked up Ash. Even if you broke the rules he shouldn't have…" 
"Chris please, they're my parents, I can't," her voice wavers, on the brink of tears again as she puts down the flask. 
"Y-you can't expect me to just leave this, I can't leave you knowing that…" 
"But Chris, what will happen to me?" She sobs, "what will happen to them?" 
"Please Ashley, promise me, tomorrow, you'll talk to someone at school." 
"I can't, Chris, I can't, I can't!" 
"You can. It's the right thing to do. You wouldn't be committing any crime against your parents by reporting it. They hurt you." 
"But Chris, y-you don't understand, I'm bad, Chris and they-they see that. They're just trying to make me better." 

I have to gulp back tears again. It's like hearing Josh's insane ramblings back on the mountain. How can I change her mind when they've so clearly brainwashed her? 

"I'm sorry but if you won't tell someone I will, even if you hate me for it, I can't just do nothing while they hurt you." 
"No, Chris! Please!" She cries out. 
"Shhh," I hush her, worried that they’ll wake up. 

"Come on," I sigh and stand up, sensing there's no use in arguing about this, "let's get you to bed," I pull her to her feet. 

She's still wearing her jeans. I frown, sigh again and head over to her closet. I rifle through it until I find some pyjama pants. 

"Here you go," I hold them out to her. 
She doesn't take them. I stand there, arm outstretched, holding them, hoping that she'll take them from me for a long time. 

"Ash please," I say quietly. 

She doesn't listen, just keeps on crying and holding herself tightly, staring at the ground. I squeeze my eyes tight shut to try to stop myself from joining her. 

I take a deep breath. "Ashley, I'm going to take your jeans off, okay? If you want me to stop just let me know." 

I take a cautious step toward her. She doesn't move away, she doesn't say anything. I take another step and now I'm standing right in front of her. 

“Ash, is this okay? Please, just tell me.”
She slowly nods her head and when I nod mine in return she nods a little harder. 

I gulp and slowly reach out my hands. I gently undo the button and unzip her fly. I pause, giving her plenty of time to tell me to stop or to move away but she doesn't so I continue. I slide my thumbs in to the waistband of her jeans and gently begin to pull them down. I crouch down in order to pull them lower and try to avoid looking at her. When I get them down to the floor she steps out of them. 
"Thanks," I whisper, and move them to the side grabbing the pyjama pants and holding them so she can step into them. 

She does and I quickly but softly pull them up her legs until they're on properly. Then with shaking hands, I tie the strings at the waist into a bow. I sigh in relief. 

"Come on." I gently guide her over to her bed and pull back the covers for her. 
"A-are you going now?" She suddenly looks up and asks. 
"Yes, I'm sorry, I-I'll go now." 
"No, that's not what I… stay Chris, please stay." 
"Are you sure?" 
She nods. 
"Okay, I'll stay." 
The corners of her mouth turn up slightly, almost into a smile. Then she climbs into bed, lying down on her front. I grab the chair from her desk planning to sit myself down beside the bed. 

"What are you doing, get in dummy," she nods to her bed. 
I have fantasised about getting into bed with a half-naked Ashley plenty of times. This was not how I imagined it. What if I get turned on? That would be… I don’t even want to think about it. 

"I just thought-" 
"Just get in you goof," she actually smiles this time. 

I suck in a deep breath, kick off my shoes, take my coat off and drape it over her desk chair and then clamber over her trying to squeeze into the small space between her and the wall without touching her. 
"Really Chris?" She turns her face toward me. 
"Sorry," I gulp, slide under the covers and shuffle a little closer. 

She sighs. She rolls onto her side so she's facing me. I instantly squeeze my eyes tight shut. I don’t want to see anything that she doesn’t want me to. She shifts around a bit and then I feel her pressed against me. 

"It's okay Chris," she whispers. 
I slowly open my eyes. She's pulled the covers over us and is pressed up against me, head tucked into the crook of my neck. I let myself relax. I take my glasses off and lean over her to place them on the bedside table. Then I drape my arm over her, careful to avoid her back and hold her tightly.

My neck feels damp. Is she crying again? 
"You okay Ash… I mean… in relative terms?" 
"Yeah," she sniffs, "just... thank you," she buries herself deeper into my arms. 
"No problem, Ash, no problem," I murmur back and lightly kiss her forehead. 

Chapter Text

It’s still dark when I wake up. White, milky eyes lingering on the backs of my eyelids.

I don’t know where I am. This isn't my room. I look around in the blurry darkness. I find Ashley curled up next to me and remember. 

I sigh, lying back down and staring at the ceiling. I can’t believe her parents would do this to her. My eyes water just thinking about it. I shove my fists into my eye sockets and take deep breaths. 

Ashley shifts next to me, sighing slightly in her sleep. I look at her, hair distinctive even in the dark, falling over her eyes, face smushed adorably against the pillow. Why would anyone want to hurt her? I wrap my arms around her and pull her close. I bury my face in her mane of red hair, breathing in her familiar scent. 

I should go soon. I don’t want to know what her parents would do if they found us right now. I want to make sure she’s okay before going though, I’ll wait for a bit to see if she wakes up. It’s not as if I’m going to accidentally fall asleep given my track record at the moment. 

What am I going to do? I sigh. This is such a mess. I can’t let her stay in this house. I will not let her get hurt again. Maybe I should take her home with me. Get her to talk to the police or someone. Surely what her dad did to her counts as assault? 

I get my phone out of my pocket and, holding the screen right up to my face, start researching, trying to work out the best course of action. Everything online seems to say that she has to report it. But what if she won’t? I clench my jaw, my chest tightening. The more I read the more hopeless I feel. 

I copy the numbers of some domestic abuse hotlines into the notes on my phone. I could write them down and give them to her but that seems like asking for trouble. I wouldn't want her parents to find something like that in her room. 

Ashley shifts again.
“Put your phone away,” she mumbles.
I look up at her, realising she’s awake. She squints at me through the darkness.
“Screen’s too bright.”
“Sorry,” I whisper, locking it and stuffing it back in my pocket. 

“Why aren’t you asleep?” She asks blearily.
I shrug. She gives me a knowing look.
“Nightmare.”
“Why didn’t you wake me?” 
I shrug again, “it wasn’t that bad, I’m used to being up most of the night by now. I hadn’t even thought of waking you up.”
“You’d wake me up if it was bad, wouldn’t you?” She looks up at me earnestly, glassy-eyed.
“Yes, I promise I would,” I smile at her and pull her close. 

“How are you feeling?” 
“Sshhh… go back to sleep,” she sighs as she burrows into my chest.
I adjust slightly so that she’s not putting pressure on my broken ribs.
“Ash?”
“Mmm…”
“I need to go.”
“Shh… to go to sleep.”
I take a deep breath, “why don’t you come with me?”
“Huh?” She pulls away a little.
I wince as she pushes on my chest.
“You’re not safe here.”
“What are you talking about? I’ll be fine.”
It takes everything in me not to lose my temper at this. How can she not see? I take a deep breath.
“Have you seen the state of your back?” I whisper angrily.
“I’ll be better, it won’t happen again.”
“Ash, please,” I find my anger melting away into panic.
I can’t leave her here with them.
“Please,” I find myself sobbing, “please.”
“...I-I can’t-” she chokes out.
I take a deep breath, “Ash, I-I know it’s scary, I’m terrified at this whole thing but you need to know that no-one, no-one, deserves to be beaten. If you want to go to the police or see a doctor or I looked up some people you can call that know about this kind of thing, I’ll be there for you, come with you if you want me to. I can’t just sit back and let this happen,” I shake my head, my chest is so tight, I’m finding it hard to breathe.
“Chris, look at me,” she puts both of her hands on my cheeks and holds me still, she gulps back tears, “y-you’re right,” she says so quietly I barely hear it, “but I’m scared.”
“I know,” I pull her into a tight embrace.
She curls up and sobs quietly into my sweater, her hands balling up into fists. 

“I’ll talk to someone,” she says quietly after a while.
“That’s great Ash, I’ll-”
“-but,” she takes a deep breath, “i-it needs to be on my terms. I need a few days to sort things out.”
“But-”
“No, Chris. I have to do this my way.”
“Okay, okay,” I nod. 

I get it. This must be fucking terrifying for her. I can’t force her to rush into anything. The fact that she said she’ll talk to someone is big in itself. All I can do is be here for her and give her whatever help she asks for. 

“I’ll be here Ash, no matter what.”
“I know, Chris, thank you,” she hugs me tightly. 

I sigh, “I should probably go.”
“Yeah…” Ashley admits reluctantly.
“You-you gonna be okay… relatively?”
“Can you ask again later?” She mumbles into my chest.
“Sure…" I wait for a beat, "you gonna be okay?”
She chuckles and gives my shin a little kick.

I sigh, as nice as it is lying here with Ashley, I really do need to go.
“Come on, release me,” I begin to unwrap Ashley’s arms from around me.
She reluctantly lets me climb out of her bed. She sits up, comforter wrapped around her and watches me as I move around in the dark pulling on my coat and shoes. I grab the water bottle and flask from down by the end of her bed, worried that if her parents found them they’d be suspicious. As I put them back in my bag I feel the walkie talkie that I put in there earlier. 

“Hey, Ash?”
“Yeah?”
“I’ve got a present for you.” 

I can just about make out her confused expression in the darkness. I pull the walkie talkie out of my bag and hold it out to her.
“So… so that you can still contact me if you need to, you know, because you don’t have your phone.”
She smiles softly, “thanks,” takes it and puts it in the drawn of her bedside table. 

I zip up my backpack and pull it on.
“Bye Ash,” I lean down and press a quick kiss to her forehead.
“Bye,” she whispers, hesitates, then adds, “you going to be okay getting out?”
“I’ll be fine,” I shrug, “bye.” 

As quietly as I possibly can, I climb up onto her desk and shuffle out of the window onto the ladder. I gently slide the window closed and then start the descent down the ladder. Miraculously, I manage to get to the bottom without injuring myself. Before I take the ladder away and leave, I look up at Ashley’s window one last time. 

I hope that everything’s going to be okay.

Chapter Text

“Chris? - bzzz - chshhh.”

I instantly sit up in bed.

“Chris?”

Shit! It’s Ashley on the walkie talkie. I reach out blindly for my glasses.

“God, I hope this thing is working.”

I grab them off my desk, shove them on and look around frantically for the walkie talkie. Where did I put that damn thing?

“Oh my god please answer!”

I move things around my desk desperately searching for it.

“Chris!”

I yank open the top drawer and let out a relieved sigh. I grab it and quickly reply.
“Ash, Ashley, I’m here, over.”
“Oh thank God! This is bad! It’s really bad!” 
“What’s bad?... over.”
“I had a panic attack at mass - it was the worst one I’ve ever had - I c-couldn’t breathe and all anyone did was pray - I c-couldn’t c-calm myself down - e-everything was just f-f-freaking me out - then I-I blacked out a-and I don’t remember much else… o-ov-ver-r.”
Fuck! Why couldn't I have been there for her? Why can't I be there for her all the time?
“Take a couple of deep breaths for me, over.”
“No! You don’t understand! Th-they’ve locked me in my r-room. Something bad is about to happen, some-something really, really bad...”
“What? over.”
“I-I don’t know. over.”
“You want me to call someone? over.”
“I-I don’t know. C-can you come and get me? over.”
“Of course, if that’s what you want. over.”
“Yes please. ov-”

I hear a voice in the background, “Ashley it’s time to go. Where-?”
“Shit,” Ashley whispers.
“What are you doing under there? Come on, out, right this second! Ashley Marie Brown, do not make me drag you out from under there.”
“No, get away!” I hear Ashley shout, “get away! Chris, please come quick! Chris!”
The line goes dead.
“Ashley?”
No answer. 

Fuck!

I bolt down the stairs, grab my coat and shove my feet in my shoes. Then I’m out the door and sprinting down the road. My chest smarts and aches like hell but I have to get there fast. 

As I turn the corner down her road I see her dad trying to push her inside their car.
“Ashley!” I call.
Her head whips around.
“Chris!” She cries out.

She’s shoved inside the car kicking and screaming. Her dad dashes around to the driver’s side.

I push myself to go faster to get there before they leave. I can see Ashley’s tear-stained face through the rear window.

The car starts up.

Run faster! I’m almost there.

The car starts to move.

I’m right alongside it. I can see Ashley. She’s trying to open the door. I grab the handle and pull on it desperately willing it to open. It’s locked. I keep running. I keep pulling on the handle.

The car speeds up.

The handle is wrenched out of my grip. I’m left behind. I’m still running but there’s no hope of catching up now. 

I stop, bending over, panting. My chest is on fire.

I look at the car retreating down the road. I see Ashley staring at me out the back, still banging on the window, trying to get out.

I have to do something. But what? What do I do now? I’m out of my depth. What should I do? 

I grab my phone out of my pocket, find her contact and hit call.
“Hello?” She answers sleepily.
“Sam, Ashley’s house, now!”