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Josh rolled out of bed, nearly stepping on his backpack as he did. He wasn’t excited to see it there, and all it meant was that summer was ending and Sophomore year was about to start. The most exciting part about it was that Chris would finally be back in the same school as him. He remembered being held back in kindergarten. Bet those fuckers were shocked when he skipped the seventh grade. Right back where he belonged.

But Chris, his best friend, had been in his sister’s grade. Though it had been awkward alternating years of being in Beth or Hannah’s class- because for some reason the school thought the twins needed to be separated- he was glad he finally got to be properly ahead of them.

It was still hot. September had a bad reputation of being a cold month, but it was still AC weather.

Looking at the clock, he groaned, realizing that in only a few days, he’d have to wake up at least two and a half hours earlier. Every. Day. His stomached rumbled and he stretched the sleep out of him before scratching his bare chest. It usually took him a few minutes of lollygagging before he could function.

But finally, he made his way into the kitchen and went straight for the orange juice in the fridge. As he chugged the juice from the bottle, he realized he could hear a sound from behind him. It wasn’t the usual sounds he’d heard, this one was like running water or something.

He turned to see an unfamiliar girl standing next to the coffee machine, bent over and intently watching it pour. Other than the blessedly clear view of her ass, he couldn’t see much of her, just blonde hair tied back in a ponytail. She was in a graphic tee, some band he didn’t recognize with tour dates listed down the back, and baggy blue pajama pants that had patterned hamburgers all over them.

No amount of staring at this girl could help him figure out if she was real. There was no real reason that she should be, but that was a pretty weird outfit for him to conjure up, and his mind could go to some strange as hell places.

His parents weren’t home, they were helping with the overbooked event at the lodge. Beth and Hannah didn’t seem to be around. There was no one to verify that she was really there. Hell, might as well go with it, then.

Raising an eyebrow, he kept his eyes on her and slammed the refrigerator door shut.

“Shit!” she practically screamed, knocking into the table with the coffee machine.

Her brown eyes immediately went from Josh’s face to his shirtless chest. He watched her turn beat red and stare up at the ceiling to compose herself before she finally met his eyes again.

He cracked a smile, still unsure if this beautiful girl was a reward of perfection from his imagination, or fate, taunting him in his own house. He leaned forward on the island counter and set the juice aside. Though he didn’t have jock-sized muscles, gym was a requirement so he wasn’t as scrawny as he had once been, and for this moment only, he was grateful they forced him to climb ropes. He could see the girl staring again, and he moved his head to cut off her line of sight.

“Are you here to steal that?” he asked, gesturing to the coffee maker.

“What?” she asked turning. With a nervous chuckle, she started to feel more comfortable. It showed in her eyes, which were able to hold his without wandering. “Oh, no. Sorry, I’m Samantha. Sam.” She held out her hand, and Josh looked at it. Who shakes hands?

But her smile and warmth had him grabbing her hand back. “I’m…”

“Josh!” Hannah yelled, racing into the kitchen. “What are you doing?”

He let go of Sam’s hand, just in case Hannah couldn’t see her… in case she was only real to him. Instead, he gestured to the juice with his head as Hannah rounded the corner. “Want some? I might have backwashed into it, I don’t really know.”

“You’re disgusting, Josh. Sam, I’m so sorry. This is my brother, Josh.”

Beth walked in and gave him a once-over. “No one wants to see you half naked, Josh. Put a shirt on.”

“Morning, Bethy.”

She rolled her eyes and took a seat at the island. She turned to Sam. “You drink coffee?”

Sam glanced over at Josh, who was loudly pulling on a zip-up sweatshirt from the pile of washed laundry in the hamper beside the table. “Not often. My parents don’t really want me to, but I’ve been staying up late to try to enjoy the end of summer.”

“What exactly do you do so late at night, Sammy?” Josh asked with a mischievous grin.

She glared at him, and Hannah stepped forward, trying to usher Josh from the room, but he stayed where he stood leaning against the counter.

“Josh, stop! You’re going to scare off our first high school friend. We only met her at orientation. You’re going to give us a bad reputation.”

“Don’t worry, Hannah,” Sam said, strolling confidently up to Josh. She looked him squarely in the eyes, no signs of timidness like she’d shown earlier. It had taken her a minute, but she was more confident than she appeared. “I’m not easily rattled. Especially not by little boys.” She reached around Josh, pushing him aside as she did, and grabbed the sugar. She grinned cheekily and went back to her coffee without another word.

Josh watched her walk away with a pleased smile on his face. He looked at Beth and nodded in approval of their new friend. He liked her. And there would be no denying it.


Quick A/N: This is my first time writing one shots, so I'll start small. This is my first ever post on AO3, so here's hoping it all goes smoothly! I'm not even sure if this is formatted right. Is this thing on!? I guess we'll see next time!

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

“Well, who do we have here?” Josh asked, strolling up to Hannah. The beautiful and very real girl from his kitchen, Sam, was here again. Though she was covered up by a dress, he could see the tie of a bikini around her neck. Everyone was gathered by the pool in the still-hot September weather.  

Sam shook her head and stared blatantly at his bare chest. “Do you own any shirts?”

Hannah started snickering.

Josh grinned and took a step closer to Sam. “Want to go up to my room and see?”

“Gross, Josh!” Beth said, walking by. “You’re disgusting. No one wants that from you.”

Sam smiled. “He’s harmless. Anyone who has to resort to that kind of line isn’t someone who bothers me.”

“Aw, Sammy, you wound me.”

Her eyes narrowed. “Sammy? My name is Sam or Samantha.”

“Yo yo!” called a new voice as the owner of it crashed straight into Josh. “Hey Han, Beth.” Then he pulled away and looked at Sam, pushing up his thick glasses. “Who are you?”

Sam,” she emphasized, holding out her hand.

“Uh,” the boy said, looking at it. He took her hand anyway. “I’m Chris. Josh here is my boiii.”

“Your what?” Beth laughed. “Say that again.”

“You know what?” Chris said, setting his glasses down dramatically. “I’m not going to answer that.” He wrapped his arms around Beth and threw them both into the pool.

“Chris!” she screamed, though she was in her bathing suit. He hadn’t even bothered to take off his shirt. “Ugh.”

Hannah laughed and set her own glasses beside Chris’. She jumped in after her sister. “I’ve got you, Beth.”

“Han, help me drown him!”

“Dramatic!” Chris laughed as he tried to fend off the twins, though they managed to push him under. They giggled from the surface until Chris pulled them down from underneath.

Sam held up her hand as she walked past Josh. “I don’t need you to help me get into the pool either. I don’t know you well, and I don’t like your flirty comments, so if you could lay off, that would be great. I’m here for Hannah and Beth, not you.”

Josh leaned against the table, holding his hands up in surrender. She watched him carefully, making sure he wasn’t going to imitate his friend and surprise-toss her into the water.

“Ask and you shall receive,” he said, keeping his eyes poignantly off of her as she pulled off her dress. He realized it had been a long shirt, and she was in shorts as well, but her bikini was white with fun little flowers with faces. He looked away again before she could check on him.

“Sam?” Beth called from the pool. “Can you put our phones under a towel by the pool?”

She instinctively reached to see if her phone was still in her back pocket before nodding. “Sure.”

But with all the splashing, Sam’s foot skidded over a wet spot beside the pool. She could feel herself falling. As she went, her only thought was on her brand new phone, and how ruined it was about to be.

But she felt a hand against her wrist, jerking her backwards.

An arm wrapped around her stomach and helped her back away from the pool safely before letting go. “Can’t ruin that phone,” Josh said breathlessly before jumping into the water himself. He was beyond thankful for the concealing ripples on the surface of the water as he kept himself as close to the side of the pool as possible, waiting for Sam to finally get out of his sight so he could think of saggy old women and not the girl in front of him.

He held his breath as he shadow passed across his face and then there was a resounding splash behind him. He listened to the water ripple with movement, drowning out every other voice.

“Thank you for saving my phone,” Sam said moving to the edge beside Josh. Damnit, she wasn’t a saggy old woman. Not by a long shot.

“No problem,” he mumbled.

“Listen, Josh, your sisters and I have become close, so we’ll probably be seeing each other often. I don’t want it to be awkward for either of us. Can you just lay off the jokes?”

He cast a sidelong look at her, his face the epitome of seriousness. “Probably not. I live for humor. Dark humor, usually. Sexual humor, modestly. Sarcasm, fluently. I’m not actually trying to lure you into my room every time I talk to you. Though, feel free to join me while you’re still wet.”

Sam’s mouth dropped open and she whacked his arm with a decent force. “You just did it again!”

He couldn’t help but laugh at her innocent expression. “See? I can’t help myself. Bad habit. Like cocaine, but healthier.”

“Cocaine?” she repeated.

“Sorry, yeah, I’m actually a drug addict.” Well, not far off with all the meds he was on everyday.

Sam tsked. “Fluent in sarcasm. I’m catching on.”

“What if I told you that one was true? That I am a drug addict.”

Sam studied him for a bit and shook her head. “I guess it could be true. But at, what, 15 years old? It’s not cocaine.”

Josh laughed again. “No it’s not. More like pills. Duloxetine addiction, you know?”

“What?” she asked, not understanding. She had no idea what word he'd just said. He grinned at her and she rolled her eyes. “Humor. I’ll learn.” But as Josh took in her features, he noticed that she was also smiling now.

Smiling at him.

Damn, her friendship with the twins was going to be his own personal hell if she kept coming over to their house.

Chapter Text

Ashley looked up from her food to see that a lunch tray had plopped down in front of her.

“Ashley, right?” A cute boy with raven hair and a dreamy expression was staring at her. She knew him.

Mike Monroe, aka the most popular boy in the class.

“Yes?” she asked cautiously.

“I hear you’re the one to ask if I needed help with something in a class. Did I find the right girl?”

She looked back at the table where he normally sat. Popular kids. Some watched her, like Mike’s girlfriend, Rachel. Ashley tried to look casual, but she wasn’t sure she’d ever even said hello to Mike.

“I guess. I don’t have some big reputation for helping others though, so I don’t know where you got your information from, but it’s probably not the best source.”

Mike grinned and leaned forward. “I don’t reveal my sources.”

With a sigh, Ashley sat back in her chair. “What do you need help with?”

“English. I can’t figure out this Romeo and Juliet shit out. I don’t know why they make us read it. The guy’s been dead for thousands of years.”

Ashley’s eyes scrunched up and she leaned forward against her arms. “How old do you think Shakespeare is?”

“Is this a test?” Mike asked with another cheeky smile.

“Maybe. I might just help you if you answer my question.”

Mike pursed his lips like he was thinking before conceding. “Fine. Shakespeare was one of those Greek or Roman guys like the Odysseus guy.”

Ashley cleared her throat and nodded. “Okay. I’ll help you.”

“Did I pass?” Mike said, taking a bite of his lunch.

Ashley tried to keep her face stoic. “Not really. I mean… maybe you could say you were close?”

“You’re one of those girls who tries to be nice even when you’d rather be brutally honest. I respect that. Do you have anything to do after school today?”

“No.”

Mike stood up and tapped his fingers against the table and picked his tray back up. “Perfect. Meet me in the library after the last bell? We can get started right away. There’s a chapter test on Friday.”

“Yeah, sure.”

“See you.”

 


 

“Why don’t you just fucking break up with me then, Rach? If I’m pissing you off so much, maybe you should leave.”

Ashley’s head shot up from her journal and she closed it slowly, inching it discreetly back into her backpack as she listened to Mike’s voice rise in the hallway.

“Oh my God, Michael, would you just back off? I don’t want to talk to you right now.”

“Fine, Rachel. Text me later, if you want. I don’t care.”

Mike came through the open library door and hiked his backpack higher up on his shoulder. He was too cool for two straps, she noticed. When he found her, he casually sauntered up to her as if nothing had happened.

“Glad you came,” he laughed. “I almost thought you were going to leave me.”

“I considered it, but then remembered how far off you were about Shakespeare and knew it was my civic duty to help.”

Mike cracked a smile and pulled out his notebook. “Okay Wonder Woman, where do we start?”

Ashley liked when he grinned at her. His little half smile was endearing, and it made her heart rate spike. Probably like Romeo to Juliette.

“Well, I’m not in your class. Where are you?”

“Whose class do you have?”

“I have Mrs. Towers in Honors English.”

“I’ve never heard of her. I have Mr. Hornell.”

Ashley shrugged. “Never heard of him.”

Mike slid his note from his bag and handed it to Ashley. “Here’s where we are.”

To her surprise, the notebook was filled with detailed notes. Some were clearly copied off the board, but she could see scrawls of his own thoughts. “You take notes?” she asked.

He scoffed. “I’m asking you for help because I need it, not because I haven’t tried.”

Ashley felt her face burn red, and her hand instinctively went to her black beanie, tugging it for support. “Sorry, I just assumed… I shouldn’t have. I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay,” Mike said, leaning back. He stretched his arms, riding his shirt up just enough for a glimpse of his stomach muscle before he leaned forward again. “It comes with the territory of being popular. You get all the stereotypes that go with it. But I can’t get onto the debate team or mock trial if my grades don’t average a B, and this is bringing me down.”

“Debate?” she asked. “You strike me as a basketball player.”

Mike laughed. “You’re not wrong. I do sports instead of taking gym, but I’m not going to become president without learning how to talk. Tossing a ball at people’s heads might be relieving, but it’s not going to help me.”

“You want to be president? Of the school, a company, or…like the United States?”

“USA, baby!” he said with enthusiasm and a hearty laugh. Ashley couldn’t help but find herself laughing along, his grin obnoxiously contagious. His smoldering eyes moved to her notebook which was lying open off to the side of the desk. It was filled with doodles. “You want to be an artist?”

Ash’s eyes followed his. “Oh, no. Well, yes, I suppose, but not that kind of artist. I want to write. Books, ideally, but really anything involving writing is where my heart is.”

“Are you a romance novel girl?”

She chuckled. Like she’d tell him that. Really, she might not even want to mention the collection of manga on her shelves either. “I’m all over the place. I’m reading a historical fiction book right now, but last week I wrote a short story about miniature aliens from the past who visit Earth.”

Mike’s eyes lit up in amusement, and Ashley cleared her throat. “We’re so off topic. Okay, Romeo, wherefore art thou in this play?” she muttered, keeping her eyes off Mike’s stare as she pulled his notebook toward her.

Chapter Text

“If you wanted to study somewhere else, it should have been a coffee shop or a public library,” Ashley said, pulling her backpack higher up on her shoulders as she followed Mike down the street.

They’d ditched their final period, study hall, in favor of taking their tutoring session elsewhere for a change of scenery. But Mike refused to tell Ashley where they were going. ‘I have a plan’ was all he kept repeating.

And that’s how they ended up at the pirate museum.

“Where are we?” Ashley asked as Mike held the door open for her. She stepped inside, expecting to see tables and chairs for them and their stuff, but instead, she was met with a gift shop.

“What are we doing here?” she tried again, but Mike was talking to the cashier.

“Two for the next tour, please.”

“Tour?”

Mike flashed Ashley a grin as he handed the cashier a coupon. “We both need a break. I’ll bet even Shakespeare went out for a few drinks while writing that stupid play.”

“A pirate museum?” she asked, picking up an eyepatch.

“Free coupon.”

She turned around to see Mike with a large feathered pirate hat and hook for a hand. He wasn’t looking at her, but rifling through a pile of more things he could put on. He grabbed a long coat and a foam sword before turning to look at her.

And he was met by the camera on her cellphone.

She was giggling as she watched him, but he posed for her video, growling before laughing to himself while she lowered the phone. He tossed the hat at her while he pulled off the coat and hung it back, replacing the other items he’d donned.

Shy, as always, Ashley held the hat in her hand with a bemused expression. Mike jogged over to her and firmly placed it on her head.

“You’re not a bad looking pirate,” he said, eyes traversing her entire body.

Ashley flushed and moved to the mirror, giving herself an excuse to get away from Mike’s intense stare.

“How much for that hat?” he asked the cashier.

“That’ll be $9.99.”

Ash could hear fabric rustle, a sure sign that Mike was digging through his backpack again.

“No, no, Mike. Don’t waste your money on me.”

He handed over a $10 and change before heading back to Ash. “You’re not a waste of money.”

“Anyone for tour 3, please stand near the door,” called a worker. There was no one else waiting, but three people from the last tour came out of the exit door that led back into the gift shop.

Ashley and Mike stood awkwardly waiting for the door to open. And when it did, they were face to face with a full-on pirate.

“Is this my salty crew, then?” asked the pirate tour guide. “Very good, then let’s be off with ye!”

Ashley pinched her lips as she tried not to laugh. Mike, however, had no such qualms. He burst into laughter. “Ahoy, mate!” he said between snickers.

The guide grinned. He had fake gold teeth. “Aye, we have a right first mate… and a swabbie,” he said with a disappointing look at Ashley. “Seems you’re to be sent below deck or off the plank!”

Mike grabbed Ashley by both hands and pulled her toward him. She gasped and stumbled against him. He smirked, having a grand old time. “You’ll have to walk the plank, m’lady.”

“Why? she chuckled. What did I do to deserve that?”

"We can add a cannonball to your leg, like in Aladdin. That’ll be sure to sink you.”

Ashley turned in amused horror at the tour guide. “He’s trying to kill me. Point me to the nearest badass female pirate so I can take care of this.”

Mike flicked her hat. “That would be you.”

“Next closest, then.”

The tour guide smiled and walked them over to the nearest female wax figure. She was standing beside two other pirates. One looked distinctly feminine. Two women.

“This here be Anne Bonny, Mary Read, and Calico Jack Rackham. While you may not know them by their names, they were among the most recognizable of pirates in the Golden Age of Piracy. You know something about them, though.” He gestured to the skull and crossbones black flag. “The Jolly Roger was Rackham’s flag. Spread fear throughout the Caribbean, it did.”

The guide went on for some time about all of the pirates in the main room before leading them through a replica of a town with mechanical pirates drinking and laughing. He told stories of men boasting of their feats at sea that led them to their ultimate dooms. That brought them into the dungeons.

Replicas of the cells were available to try, and Mike and Ashley couldn’t even fit together in one. They continued, looking at the skeletons lying in the cells while listening to the guide’s tale of the different ways pirates died.

Ashley and Mike peered into the cells. Each was decorated with a different scene, depicting the horrors of being confined into an area so small. Some of the dummies were animatronic, which gave the dark room an even creepier vibe than it would have if they’d all been still.

In the last cell, just before the exit, the guide was explaining how long the prisoners had to wait. One of the dummies was leaning with their back against the cell, while others were sleeping on the ground, their heads turning periodically. One even strummed a guitar while acoustic music played from nearby speakers.

Ashley couldn’t believe how much fun she was having. A weird museum… with Michael Monroe.

She’d caught him staring at her as she listened, intrigued by the stories. This was her thing. This was her happy place.

Then, the dummy against the bars whipped his head around.

Ashley let out a scream and stumbled back, crashing into Mike. He, too, stumbled, but he caught her and wrapped his arms around her, his head tossed back as he roared with laughter.

“Miss?” the man in the cell said, reaching through the bars. “Get me out?”

Ashley could feel her racing heart as she rested against Mike, trying to calm herself. “Oh my God, I hate scary things like that. I think I almost died! You could have used my corpse as a prop!”

“What’s a prop?” the man in the cell all but moaned before returning to his original pose with his back facing them.

The tour guide was suppressing a laugh. “Old codger. He’s always doing odd things like that. But be not a’feared, mates, he’s harmless.”

“’Be not a’feared’ he says after I already had half a stroke,” Ashley mumbled. Mike kept his arm around her as they headed up the steps towards the bright and completely out of place exit sign.

“That concludes our voyage! I hope to see you ashore again soon!” The door opened, and they stepped out back into the giftshop.

“Your face,” Mike chuckled.

Ashley shook her head, embarrassed. “I didn’t know that was going to happen!”

“It was priceless.”

“What made you come here? Besides the coupon.”

Mike’s cheeks turned pink. He was… blushing?

“You said you liked this stuff, like historical fiction and stories and you write, so I figured you’d probably enjoy coming here.”

He did it… for her? He’d thought about what she’d said, what she’d done. She loved everything about this place, even the creepy pirate. But most of all, she loved the company.

“Hey,” Mike said, gesturing to the door with his head as he slid his hand from her waist and into her own hand. “Want to go grab something to eat? It might calm you down.”

“Yeah, absolutely,” she said calmly before his words sunk in. Food, hand holding, a museum… she was on a date, a full-blown date, with Mike Monroe.

 

Chapter Text

“Oh my God, Mike, what the hell are you doing?” Emily hissed as she leaned closer to Mike. “That girl can’t be real. Like, you’re joking, right? She’s a full-blown nerd.”

“I didn’t take you for a jealous girl, Em,” Mike laughed before waving Ashley over to sit.

Emily turned to her best friend, Jessica. The blonde girl was not afraid of anything, and had a knack for being a bitch. If Emily needed her to whip out her claws, then so be it.

Ashley took a seat beside Mike and he made a point to kiss her cheek when she sat. It earned a disgusted look from the other two girls.

“So, you’re Ashlynn?” Jess said with her fakest smile.

“Ashley, but you were close,” she said, narrowing her eyes. It was abundantly clear just from the looks she was getting that she wasn’t wanted at this table. She had no problem eating alone. In fact, it might even be more comfortable.

“You’ve been with Mike for a while. Why haven’t we met you before?”

Ashley turned to Mike for help. She didn’t have an answer, and these girls were about to pounce. It was beyond obvious.

“I didn’t want to subject her to you two, that’s all,” Mike said, throwing his arm around Ashley.

Emily giggled. “Well, I don’t think we’ve done anything wrong. Matt, are we scary?”

A jock from the next table over turned around and shrugged. “What?”

“Are we scary?”

“Matt? Matt Taylor?” Ashley asked, her eyes wide in excitement. “No way!”

“God,” Jess muttered, though there was no attempt to lower her voice. “We have a fangirl for the popular jock. Mike, watch yourself.”

“Ashley!” Matt said, sliding out of his seat to make his way around the table. Ashley stood up too, and Matt lifted her in his arms. She was so short, and he was athlete level tall. Her feet dangled off the ground.

“Wow,” Mike said, that one word betraying the intense level of jealousy he felt. “You two know each other, or has your reputation grown, Taylor?”

“Ease up, Monroe, I don’t want to be class president.”

Matt set Ashley back down and she moved the messy strands of hair from her face. “Matt and I went to the same school for years, and then we went to summer camp together, but then he moved in the seventh grade. I had no idea you’re the Matt everyone talks about! How have you been?”

“Pooch died a few months ago, so that was a real bummer.”

“No!”

“Yeah, but we could tell it was coming. She’d been really sick.”

Mike could feel Emily and Jess’ eyes on him. “What?” he asked, turning around in annoyance. How he was friends with them, he still wasn’t sure.

“And you called me jealous,” Emily whispered, winking at him. “We could show them how it’s really done. Want a repeat from a few weeks ago? That’ll bring your girl right back to you… or it’ll make her break up with you.”

Mike grinned. That’s why he liked them. Both Jess and Emily were unapologetic. Everyone knew Emily was crushing on Mike, even him, and that fact didn’t stop her from pursuing him. He liked that.

“I like Ashley. Do not bring that up.”

Emily shrugged and took a bite of her salad.

Ashley could feel the burn of eyes on her back. “Hey, so we should get lunch or something this weekend and catch up.”

“That would be great. I won’t take up your time now,” he said, eyeing Mike.

The two popular boys, running in circles that are just far enough from each other that they were competitors for everything. Mike was no jock, but he had a way with words when he wanted. His leadership skills were through the roof, and he could turn a room to his cause with enough effort. But Matt was the school jock, a scholarship clearly in his future. He wasn’t even the quarterback, but he was beyond talented at anything involving a ball. It made him popular by default, and his charm brought it home.

Ashley sat back down and the tension she’d felt disappear was back as she looked at Jess and Emily.

“What,” Emily said with her own bitchy voice that rivaled Jess’, “Did you two fuck or something?”

“What?” Ashley asked, mortified at the thought. “The last time I saw him we were 11 or 12.”

“Fine, then were you make-out buddies?”

“You’re awfully close,” Jess added.

“No,” Ashley said with as much finality as she could. But Emily wasn’t done.

She looked devilishly at Mike. “Well, it’d be okay if you were. Mike and I have been all year. I think even just a few weeks ago we were getting it on.”

“Em!” Mike said with a hiss.

Jessica giggled as she watched Ashley’s face burn.

“Ashley, come on,” Mike said, offering her his hand. She took it and grabbed her bag of chips and pushed her tray into their own, leaving the girls with her food scraps to clean before going back to class.

When they were out of hearing range, Mike turned apologetically to Ashley. “I’m sorry. I swear, we’re not together anymore. I mean, we never really were together, but you know what I mean. She shouldn’t have brought it up.”

Ashley shook her head. “It’s okay,” she said meekly, though she couldn’t get the thought of Emily and Mike making out to leave her head. “I didn’t really know you then. It’s none of my business.”

“And Matt is none of mine.”

Ashley rolled her eyes “There is no ‘business’ with Matt. We were good friends. That’s all. He’s not my type. You are.”

She wasn’t going to mention the huge crush she’d developed on Matt when they’d gotten to middle school. Hell. No.

But her answered seemed to please Mike. He pulled her close to him and kissed her. With how intense it was, Ashley had to peek behind Mike for a moment to see if any teachers were coming. And when she saw Mrs. Ray coming from her classroom, she had to move away from Mike, her face burning like fire. She grabbed her arm and motioned to Mrs. Ray with her head so Mike would know.

He turned and saw, understanding.

“I guess I’ll see you after school. Want to catch a movie or we could just hang?”

“Yeah, we’ll figure something out. Can I have a ride with you, then?”

“Of course,” he said, kissing her cheek. Mike’s older brother picked him up on his way home from work, and it was much cooler to get a ride when it was his brother, not his mom, getting him from school. Ashley, on the other hand, took the bus.

Ashley could hear the echoing giggles of Jess and Emily as they headed down the hall. “Okay. I’ll see you then,” she said before hustling to her locker.

“God, what a loser,” Emily muttered to Jess as they watched her and Mike head in separate directions.

“We’ll get you and Mike together, Em. There’s no way that relationship will last.”

Emily looked almost pitiful for a brief second as her true emotion showed on her face. Jess was the only one who knew just how well Em could hide it. “Do you really think so?”

Jess took Emily comfortingly by the arm and pulled her excitedly to their own lockers. “Yes. Trust me, I’ll make sure of it.”

Chapter Text

“So, Lily,” Jess asked, looking up from her phone for a second before looking back at the blonde in front of her. She was gorgeous.

Her short blonde hair bounced in a way that Emily’s never could. It was ethereal, like Lily was some kind of goddess. Jess was almost jealous of the viridian eyed beauty. Almost.

“You understand what happens now, right? You do this for me, and I forget everything, never to be brought up again. How’s that?”

Lily’s wide-eyes were flooded with relief. “God, Jess, I’m so thankful. Thank you. I mean it, I’ll do anything to forget that ever even happened.”

“Good!” Jess said with an excited clap of her hands. “Okay, I have someone on my end already working her magic. You just have to do what we talked about. Go on, do your job.”

Lily nodded and adjusted her shirt, pulling it down to show just that extra bit of cleavage that threw guys like Mike over the edge. And as she made her way over to where he stood against the wall of the auditorium, she went over everything in her head one more time. God, she could do this. She had to if she ever wanted Jess to stop looming her… indiscretions over her.

“Mike?” she asked with a small wave.

He’d seen her around before. She wasn’t in his circle of friends, but it was hard to miss a bombshell like her walking around the hall every day.

“Hey, Lily.” Think of Ashley, he had to think to himself as his eyes drifted lower than he’d meant.

Her smile was forced, but Mike didn’t seem to care. Just do what she said, Lily repeated again and again.

“I was wondering something, actually. I’m glad I found you here. I figured you might be, especially with that debate tonight.”

“You know about the debate? Aren’t you a little busy cheering?”

Lily shook her head. “I actually keep up with what’s happening. I was actually considering running next semester for treasurer or something. I really want to get involved in school politics. You’re the man, right? Want to give me a few notes?”

“Notes?”

She fumbled. Despite the incident Jess knew about, Lily wasn’t actually the biggest flirt in school. She wasn’t even very good at it. I mean, how could she be? She was barely 15.

“I mean, do you have anything you could… I don’t know. Teach me? A way to talk, or something to be prepared with?”

“Oh, yeah. Sure. I mean, it’s a little soon. I can give you ideas when it gets way closer.”

Lily patted her pockets. “Oh damn, my pen.” She strolled back to the aisle to find her ‘discarded’ pen, like Jess had told her. She said to bend slowly, to be as sexy as she could.

And as Lily lifted her head from the pen, she caught sight of Jess in the doorway, watching. Making sure she was doing as she was told. Lily could feel herself starting to shake, nerves and anxiety washing over her like a hot red tide.

But she turned quickly and saw that Mike’s wandering eyes were right where they should be. He looked up at her face and blushed.

She tried to ignore how awkward it made her feel. She didn’t want to do this, but she practically skipped over to Mike, grabbing his hand and leaning her body into his as she lifted his palm to write her phone number. “Sorry, I don’t have my phone, so I can’t just put your number in my phone. Text me so I’ll have yours.”

Tipping her head up, she could see that his lips were open, his eyes on her own. This is it. This is all I have to do.

She pushed herself up on her tip-toes and firmly pressed her lips to his, pulling him down to her level with her arm. Mike resisted at first, but within seconds, he was kissing her back.

That was all she needed. “Oh, Mike, oh my God, I’m so sorry. I don’t know what came over me. I’m truly sorry.” She backed up, heading for the door as fast as she could.

Jess pulled her by the arm off to the side of the atrium. “That wasn’t half bad. How’s it feel to be a homewrecker twice now?”

“Please, Jess,” Lily said, tears coming to her eyes. “I did what you asked. Please don’t tell anyone about Justin. He lied to me. You know he did. It wasn’t me, but I can’t lose Lindsey. She’s the closest I have to a friend here. Please.”

Jess shrugged. “You’re released. Incident forgotten.”

Lily all but ran, leaving Jess alone. She checked her phone. The video looked great. It was clear, Mike was visible, and honestly, so was Lily, but Jess didn’t care. Like she’d said, she’d do anything for Emily, and Emily wanted Mike. She didn’t care how far she needed to go for her best friend.

Linking the video to a text, she pulled out a piece of paper with a number on it that she didn’t have or want in her phone. From a friend, it said. And she hit send.


 

Ashley sat on the dirty stairs that clearly hadn’t been cleaned since the summer began months ago. Had it been that long? She’d known Mike for several months, and they dated for… wow, had it been two months already? It had certainly been the most exciting two months she’d had in a long time. Thinking about each of the dates they’d gone on, Ashley twirled her phone around her hands.

“Hey, I’ve been waiting for you,” Mike said, holding out his arms in mild annoyance. “We were supposed to meet like, ten minutes ago.”

“Yeah.”

“What’s wrong with you? Are you okay?” he asked, getting a closer look at her face. It was blotchy and red. “Are you sick?”

She handed him her phone without a word.

He looked at the blank lock screen. “Do you want me to open it?”

She nodded and turned to stretch her legs along the step, her back against the wall. Watching his face as he saw the video was like watching a horror movie in slow motion. Shock: that clearly wasn’t what he expected to see on her phone. Or maybe it was shock that he’d gotten caught. Fear: he didn’t want to lose her. The wheels in his brain were racing, and it was clear.

“Ashley, please, this isn’t what it looks like.”

She shrugged. “I don’t care. You didn’t push her away.” She wiped her eye. “I told you what happened with my dads. You know that this is the only thing I would never put up with, but you did it anyway.”

“I know, and I’m sorry. But Ashley, I think I was set up.”

“Set up, or acting on your own, you acted.”

He flipped her phone over in his hand. “How’d you get this? Were you recording it? Are you the one who set me up?”

“God, you’re so stupid,” Ashley said to herself, though Mike’s eyes widened, assuming she meant him.

“Fuck you, Ashley. I didn’t do anything wrong!”

“Someone sent it to me. They said ‘from a friend.’ Guess what, Mike? I don’t have any friends here. So obviously someone tried to do this on purpose. Obviously. But you didn’t stop it. She did. What the hell?”

“You’re taking this all wrong!”

“I’m giving you time to explain, Mike.”

He paused, stuttering. “I-I- I was set up. I would never do that to you!”

“You knew what hell I went through as a kid. I’m done, Mike. This is too big for me to brush off or forget. I just don’t want to look at you.”

Mike put her phone on the step beside her and took her hand, but Ashley wrenched it away. Her face was somber, only stray tears betraying her emotions. Mike, however, was flustered, pacing, grabbing at his hair and neck anxiously.

“What can I do?”

“Nothing. Right now, or ever. I don’t want to be with you, Mike. I want you to get out.”

“Ashley…”

“Please,” she sobbed before reigning it back in. “Go away.”

Mike stood there for a few more minutes before slamming his fist against the wall and storming out the door, slamming it behind him.

Ashley had only a few moments to herself before the door swung open again. In front of her, a confused look on his face, was Matt.

“Was that you?”

He took in the tears in Ashley’s eyes. “Oh, Ashley, what happened?”

I had my heart broken for the first time, she wanted to say, but she couldn’t find the words. Instead, she stood up and wrapped her arms around Matt, needing her only friend to comfort her.

“Did you send it?”

“I don’t know what you mean,” he whispered, squeezing her tighter.

Ashley knew that if it had been him, he’d have gloated about how Mike was a cheating ass who never deserved her in the first place.

She truly didn’t care. There wasn’t a single kind word she could say about Michael Monroe, and if she couldn’t say anything nice, she wouldn’t say anything to him at all. Ever.

Chapter Text

“I mean, I guess I don’t know what you’re doing?” Beth said as she looked at her brother in his light blue tux with a strangely colorful tie that he actually planned to wear to this Homecoming dance. Maybe she could pretend she didn't know him. “You can’t be going with a girl, right? No girl is going to want to go with you. You look like a clown.”

Hannah shrugged as she looked at her brother as well, not surprised. Her eyes kept wandering to her contact case. “Do you think Mike would want me to take off my glasses? Like, that’s a thing guys care about, right?”

“Don’t bother,” Josh said with a yawn, grabbing his phone to respond to a text from Chris. “Mike’s a prick.”

“Fine, Beth then. Glasses on or off?”

Beth made a face and tossed the contact case onto the coffee table. She knew her sister hated contacts. “You’re keeping your glasses on, Han. You’re not even going with Mike. Mike doesn’t speak to us.”

“He’s spoken to me,” Hannah muttered, more to herself than to anyone else. Besides, no one was listening.

“Hey, they’re here,” Josh said, grabbing a jacket before hustling outside. Beth and Hannah grabbed their purses and sweaters and locked the door behind them before joining Josh outside.

“Hi, Ms. Hartley!” Hannah said sweetly before hopping into her large van. It was the only car with room for everyone, and the Washington’s were away again, so Chris’ mom had volunteered to bring them to the dance. None of them had a license.

“Cochise!” Josh yelled, clapping Chris on the back before giving Ms. Hartley a hug from behind. “Momma H! Thanks for this.”

“No problem, hon!” she said with a bright smile. Josh had been at her house more times than he could count since he met Chris in the third grade. “Beth, Hannah, you girls are looking beautiful!”

“Thanks Ms. H!” Beth said, leaving room for Sam as she settled in the far back of the Van.

Ms. Hartley made a U-turn and went towards Sam’s house, which was blissfully close.

“Does she know we’re here?” Ms. Hartley asked.

“I texted her,” Chris and Hannah answered at once. Chris turned from his far-front seat and grinned.

Hannah rolled her eyes. “Of course, you did. You probably tweeted and messaged her, too.”

Chris scoffed. “Nothing wrong with being extra prepared.”

Sam ran to the car, her parents hovering in the doorway. She didn’t want to look back. There’d be a camera involved if she did.

“Hey everyone,” she said as she opened the door. “Ms. Hartley, thank you for the ride.”

“You look beautiful too, Sam.”

Josh pushed his seat back so Sam would have more room to get by him to get to the far back seat, but she still had to practically crawl over him. His hands were up to avoid touching her, as much as he wanted to. The contact she made with him was so sudden. She stumbled into Hannah’s seat and groaned in frustration before finally taking her seat next to Beth.

“That was tragic,” Beth laughed.

“Heels, man. Can’t live with them, and when you’re this short, you can’t live without them,” Sam laughed, checking to make sure she hadn’t already broken her heels.

 


 

“So,” Sam asked, moving to stand between Josh and Chris. They were both significantly taller than her. “Who are you both staring at and why?”

“Why? Are you jealous?” Josh asked with a smug grin. He wrapped his arm playfully around her, which she expertly dodged with a laugh.

“Oh please. If I wanted you to stare at me, all I’d have to do is stand a few feet in front of you. You’re too easy, Josh. What’s the real answer?”

Hannah and Beth followed behind her and all five of them were staring at a group of people who all looked slightly uncomfortable to be at the dance.

Josh pointed slightly so that the whole group could see. “Chris thinks that girl sitting down is the hottest girl he’s ever seen, but he won’t even introduce himself.”

“The one sitting?” Sam asked, craning her neck for a better view. She couldn’t see everyone who was sitting.

“Her name’s Ashley Brown. She’s smart as fuck,” Chris said.

“Oh, Ashley. I’ve got a class with her. Go say hi.”

Chris snorted, like it was the dumbest thing anyone’s ever suggested to him.

Sam rolled her eyes and fixed her dress. “Really? Did you boys never learn how to make friends?”

“No,” Josh said pushing Chris in the arm. “I didn’t need any other friends, so I gave up learning the art.”

Beth chuckled and sighed. “I don’t know if that’s incredibly bromantic, or just really sad.”

Sam pushed Chris out of her way, but he grabbed her arm in a panic. “What are you doing?”

Rolling her eyes again, she freed her hand. “I’m going to go tell her that you’re desperately in love with her, write her name with little hearts in your notebook, can’t wait to marry her and have babies with her.”

Chris looked mortified as Sam walked over to the red head.

Her hair was braided off to the side and she looked as uncomfortable in a dress as Sam felt in heels.

“Hi,” Sam said with a big smile. Ashley looked at her like it was weird for someone to even be talking to her, so Sam continued. “Sorry, but I saw your dress and I absolutely love it. Where’d you get it?”

Ashley looked down at herself in disbelief. “My dress? My dress is from Target.”

Sam couldn’t help the chuckle at the girl’s bluntness. “Well, I’m going to have to check out their dresses. It’s been too long since I’ve been there.”

Ashley smiled. “I go all the time with my parents. Like, they’re probably at home now having withdrawals. I’m starting to shake just thinking about it.”

“I’m Sam,” she said as soon as she stopped laughing with Ashley. “I think we have Bio together?”

“Yeah, with Mr. Dries. What a perfect name for someone as boring as him. I’m Ashley. I’m shocked you noticed me; I sit in the back.”

Sam shrugged. “I hate to break it to you, but you can still see the people who sit in the back of the room.”

Ashley feigned a sigh. “You’ve just crushed all my hopes and dreams!”

“I’m sorry!” she laughed. “Hey, are you here with anyone? You can come hang with me and my friends if you want?”

Ashley looked behind her to see who she was referring to. “Sure, I’m going to warn you that I’m socially awkward and make jokes about being addicted to Target too often.”

“You’ll fit in perfectly then!”

They both grinned as they headed back to where Chris, Josh, Beth, and Hannah stood. Chris looked like he might have a heart attack.

“Hey, this is Ashley.”

Hannah waved slightly. “Hi. I’m Hannah, and this is my twin sister Beth. That’s our not-twin brother, Josh.”

He turned to Hannah and made a face. “That’s fine, you can introduce me.”

“Well, introduce yourself then. Not like I’m offended that she said who I am,” Beth said with an eyeroll.

Josh turned back to Ashley. “Hi. I’m Hannah’s not-twin brother, Josh.”

Ashley chuckled and swayed anxiously on her feet as she turned to Chris.

“Hey,” he started before clearing his throat. “I’m…”

“Chris,” Ashley filled in. The surprise on his face must have been beyond obvious, because she started to stutter. “I-I mean, we have a few classes together. You learn a person’s name once you hear it three or four times a day.”

“Yeah,” Chris said with an awkward laugh. “I totally get you.”

Josh stared at Chris with a tight smile. It was judgmental without reserve.

Sam cleared her throat as everyone stared at each other in silence. “Do you have classes with Hannah or Beth? Josh is a year ahead, so you wouldn’t. Or are you in remedial English, Josh? You know, taking sophomore classes with us.”

Josh’s lips puckered, and he nodded slowly. “That’s how it is, Sammy? You want to play?”

She grinned and started to back away. “I don’t play.”

Beth rolled her eyes, but it was clear that she wasn’t annoyed. More so that she had expected Josh to challenge her, and everyone was living up to her expectation. “Are you in our Spanish class?”

“No,” Ashley said, watching as some inside joke continued to pass between Josh and Sam. They’d totally disconnected from the conversation. “I take French. It’s one of the classes I share with Chris.” She looked at his reddening cheeks and started to fumble her words again. “Sorry, that was weird. Now I sound like a stalker. First I know your name, and I know what classes we share. I swear, I’m not stalking you.”

But Chris looked more flattered than anything else. “If you’re a stalker, then so am I. I could tell you the classes we share together, too.”

“Wow,” Beth laughed. “You do both sort of sound like you’re stalking each other.”

“Did they ask you for your opinion?” Hannah said with a sharp nudge into her twin. She could see that this was painfully awkward flirting. “Beth, do you see Mike anywhere?”

“Mike?” Ashley asked, unable to hide the disgust in her voice. “You mean Michael Monroe? He’s dancing with Emily Davis.”

“Oh,” Hannah sighed. “I was thinking of asking him about joining debate. He’s the captain this year.”

Ashley rolled her eyes. “Yeah, I know. He’s also an asshole.”

Hannah’s eyes widened, like Ashley had said the most unfathomable thing in the world. “He’s not, really. He’s pretty sweet. We talk sometimes.”

“I won’t tell you what to do,” Ashley said, wringing her fingers together, “But just watch out for him. He’s done some pretty sketchy stuff… I hear.”

Hannah’s smile was tight. “Thanks for your concern.”

Beth eyed Ashley suspiciously, but she’d already turned back to Chris and Josh.

“Don’t worry,” Sam said, putting a consoling hand on Hannah’s shoulder. “I’m sure she just had something happen to her. Mike’s a good guy, but not everyone has to think so.”

“I know, but it sucks that she’d talk about him like that.”

Beth crossed her arms. “I don’t think I like her.”

Hannah and Sam looked at each other. But it was Hannah who spoke. “I don’t know. She tried to help. I don’t think it was malicious. I think I might like her.”

Sam smiled at her before turning to Josh. He was looking at her as well. He made a subtle motion to Chris, who was talking up a storm with Ashley.

Sam ran over to Josh, grabbing his sleeve excitedly. “Oh, hey come here, I need to show you something I found in the hall really quick. Looks like a weird bug.”

“Ew,” Chris blanched before continuing to talk to Ashley.

When they were out of hearing range, Sam bowed. “Mission success. Thank you, thank you.”

“Thank fuck,” Josh laughed. “He wouldn’t shut up about her. I’ll bow to you anyday, Sammy.”

For a moment, Sam and Josh stared at each other, content with the silent presence of the other. But the spell was broken as two chuckling girls walked by.

“We should go back in. Fake bugs can only be interesting for so long,” Sam said, laughing nervously before running back towards Hannah and Beth.

Josh stood in the doorway for a moment, watching. The group looked perfect. No one needed him there.

Walking over to the drinking fountain, Josh pulled two pills from his pocket, stuck his mouth into the water, and swallowed before spending the rest of the evening alone on the front steps of the school.

Chapter Text

Ashley could see Chris and Josh from the dance sitting at a table with a few others she didn’t recognize. The five boys looked to be deep in conversation about something. Ashley wished that anyone she’d met at the dance also had this lunch period, but she was alone. Matt’s friends wouldn’t want her around, and she sure as hell wasn’t going to sit with Mike.

There was a table free behind Chris, and it was one of the few empty seats left anyway. She paid for her food and hurried to the chair before anyone else could take it.

After a few bites, her ears pricked up at the mentions of familiar names.

“I don’t get why Morrigan just can’t be the queen. Like, she’s a hot badass.”

“Anora is the only queen for me. I became king my first playthrough.”

Then she heard Chris’ voice. “My elf had bigger problems. Like saving the world. I didn’t care who ruled.”

Ashley tapped her foot. It was a favorite game of hers, and it took everything not to turn around and join in. She took a bite of an apple and tried to let the crunching drown them out.

“I just hate that Morrigan had to get pregnant. Like what a fucking shitty way to destroy her badassery.”

“I didn’t even get it. What the fuck did it do?”

“Sucked out the Archdemon’s soul or something.”

She couldn’t take it anymore and spun around in her chair. “Did you even play the game? It would have prevented the Grey Warden or your character from dying because the soul of the archdemon would have jumped into her demon darkspawn-tainted human hybrid baby making it a god. How the hell does that destroy her being a badass?”

All five guys turned to look at her and she felt her whole body warm up anxiously. She could feel Chris’ eyes boring into her, and she became even more self-conscious than she’d felt before. Even Josh was there, looking at her like she had five heads.

“Sorry,” she muttered before turning around.

But one of the other boys at the table challenged her. “And how did you end it? Happily ever after with Zeveran, or you and Alistair on the throne?”

Ashley scoffed. “My elf mage convinced Alistair to stay with the wardens and then sacrificed herself at the end. She also killed Zeveran because she didn’t want to take the risk that some plot wouldn’t make him turn on her. And it didn’t, because he was dead. Anora made a good queen because even though her father was a traitor, she was smart. Oh, and Morrigan will leave you before the final battle if you don’t impregnate her with a demon spawn. Sorry to disappoint you.”

“How many playthroughs have you done?” Chris asked curiously. There was no challenge, unlike the others.

“Two. I’m on my third, but I took a break while we’re getting back into school.”

“Have you seen the trailer for the new one?”

“Obviously!” she laughed. Chris chuckled with her and she felt less nervous.

“Hey,” Josh called to her. He looked between her and Chris before scooting his chair over. “Ashley, sit with us. Pete is having a hard time in the Circle.”

She hesitated, but could see that most of them didn’t seem to mind. Only one of the boys looked like he didn’t want her there. Chris pulled an empty chair over to him. She put her tray down, grabbed her bag and eagerly took the seat.

“Okay,” Ashley said, all too excited. “I assume you don’t mean the Harrowing that’s three seconds into the Mage story…”

Chapter Text

“What movie are we watching tonight?” Beth asked as she threw herself into the seat beside Hannah. She handed her the bucket of popcorn and took her own handful.

Sam crossed her arms and leaned against the wall, waiting to hear what movie Josh had picked this time.

Saw III. I’m going to make you get through them all if it’s the last thing I do.”

“No,” Sam moaned. “There are more of them? I could barely stomach the first two.”

Josh grinned at her mischievously. “There are seven of them.”

“I think there’s been a mistake, it’s definitely Hannah’s turn to pick the movie, right Han?”

Hannah looked at Beth for support, but Beth just grabbed another handful of popcorn and began chomping. “Don’t look at me. I don’t hate these movies like you two do.”

Hannah and Sam shared a disgusted look. If only Beth had backed them up.

“What up, what up, people?” a voice practically yelled as he came into the room. Chris sauntered down the steps and raised his hands triumphantly.

Josh went to greet him with a hard clap on the back and turned back to Sam. With a quick flick of his head, Josh gestured for Sam to look behind Chris. Standing timidly behind him was Ashley.

“Hey guys,” she said with a slight wave.

Beth rolled her eyes and didn’t acknowledge her, but Hannah smiled warmly. “Hey Ash. I didn’t know you were coming.”

She pointed her thumb accusingly at Chris. “He asked. Besides, I needed a break studying for that chem test.”

“Glad you’re here, Ash,” Sam said as she crossed the room toward the soda machine. She bumped Josh purposely as she walked and heard him excuse himself a second later to join her.

“’Sup, Sammy?”

Sam grabbed a cup and made a face, like it was an obvious answer. “How’d you do that? With her and Beth being so awkward with each other, I didn’t think anything would get her here again.”

Josh grinned wildly. “I got mad skills.”

Rolling her eyes, Sam pushed the water button on the dispenser and nudged him. “Of course you do.”

She could hear Chris and Ashley talking about something as she went back to the seats. Beth hadn’t gotten up from her place on the end, and Hannah was sitting just beside her. Josh jumped over the row to sit beside Chris, who also sat near Ashley. That left Sam beside Hannah and Josh. No way was she going to jump over the top of the chairs… not in this skirt. Beth still looked pissed at Ashley’s appearance, so she didn’t want to aggravate her by climbing over her legs.

Leaning over the seat, she put her drink in the cupholder and went to step over Ashley instead. She had no problems standing up to let her by, even though Sam didn’t need that much room. It was a pretty spacious row, but not as nice as the one at the lodge. Oh, the pains of having home movie theaters in every building you own.

Chris casually moved his feet under his chair, which was plenty. Josh, slouched in his chair as he was, stuck out his leg just in time for Sam to crash straight into it. She lurched forward, and Josh sat up to steady her, not intending to send her flying to the ground. Hannah held her hands out for Sam to catch, and both siblings kept her on her feet.

Turning accusingly on Josh, Sam punched him in the shoulder. “What was that for, asshole?”

“My leg twitched,” he said with a hearty chuckle. Chris joined in, and Sam shook her head, her lips twitching up as she took her seat.

Don’t believe that smile. She really does think you’re an asshole. People say their true thoughts when they’re angry, their uncensored mind comes out. She hates you. Josh watched her until it became obvious and then reached into his back pocket where he had an extra dose of his meds. He popped it into his mouth and swallowed.

Josh had seen every one of these movies before, and he enjoyed the sounds of disgust or horror his friends made as the movie went on. Hannah was cowering almost entirely against Beth, trying to keep her eyes off the screen. Ashley was biting her nails, and Chris looked sick, all-talk when it came to watching gory movies.

The reaction he enjoyed the most was Sam. For most of the movie, she was either sitting forward, elbows perched precariously against her knees, or cowering back as far as her seat would let her. But either way, her eyes were glued to the screen.

A scene with a circular saw had her pressed back against the seat, her feet curled up next to her into a protective ball. As the gore intensified, he could hear her muttering to herself, “Shit, shit,” and covering her mouth as if to stifle a scream. Josh grimaced, forgetting her new vegetarian mindset occasionally translated to fear for on-screen animals as well. As the moment continued, she jerked to the side and grabbed his arm.

He watched her curiously. He was almost positive that she didn’t know she’d taken hold of him, but her grip was a vice around his arm and she gradually pulled herself closer to him. Her nails dug into his skin and he hissed, but he made no attempt to get away. The pain felt good and he welcomed it. She only let go minutes later when she leaned forward once again, never noticing his eyes on her the entire time, too engrossed in the movie to even know what she’d done herself.

Josh wrapped his arm over Sam’s seat and leaned comfortably back. Nothing about this shit scared him. Plus, he knew everything that was about to happen. So, he waited for the next jump-scare.

It was coming up quickly, and honestly, he debated choosing Chris as his target, but he wanted an excuse to touch Sam’s skin. He waited, timing it perfectly, and just as the moment approached, the music subsiding just enough to give the illusion of false safety, Josh brushed the back of Sam’s neck with his finger, holding in a laugh of his own as he knew perfectly well what would happen.

Just as the music intensified, images of horror and gore on the screen.

Sam screamed.

“Josh!” she hollered, jumping up from her seat to check behind her to make sure there wasn’t a real killer in the room. “Oh my freaking God, Josh!”

“What’d you do?” Chris asked with a chuckle.

“He touched me! You don't touch someone's neck when this is on! Do you see this movie? Does this look like a movie to scare someone during? Oh, God, that was awful. Dammit, Josh!”

“How many more times are you going to say my name?”

She held up her middle finger and sat back down so the others could enjoy the movie. Instead, she leaned into Josh. “You’re an asshole.”

Josh simply winked at her in response. He could already see her cooling down, and by the end of the movie, she’d laugh with him. He like that about her. She had a strange sense of humor and loved being scared, though she’d never admit it. She loved to laugh at herself more than she liked to laugh at others.

He grabbed her hand. “Scared? Need to hold on now?”

She scoffed. “No. I just want to know what happens.”

His lips tipped up into a crooked smile as he focused back on the movie, not willing to try that a second time in one night. But his focus never made it entirely back to the screen.

Sam never let go of his hand.

 

Chapter Text

“I’m really happy eating this cotton candy and pretending I earned it after going on that thing,” Ashley said, taking a bite. She offered it to Chris, who eagerly took a large piece.

“Honestly, guys, I’m pretty happy eating this, too.”

Beth rolled her eyes. “Come on! I’m so sick of Josh being my only ride partner!”

“You know I’ll go,” Sam said, breaking from her own conversation with Josh to interject.

“Right, I mean you and Josh barely count though.”

“Thanks,” he muttered before laughing at something Sam said.

“Still not what I mean,” Beth said, pleading eyes glued on her twin. “I want to see Chris on a ride, for once in my life, and you Han. I have to see the scaredy cats on a ride. It’s like a bucket list thing. Please! Han?”

Hannah scoffed and grabbed her sister by the arm. “How many years have you known me now?”

“Fine.” Beth sat on the stone wall and stared up at the massive rollercoaster. The drop looked deadly, corkscrews, loops, speed, slopes. It wasn’t for a first-time rider.

“We’re ready when you are,” Josh called out to Beth. “Don’t get comfy.”

“I want my sister to go on a ride and scream with me!” She glared at her twin, though Hannah seemed pretty unaffected. She was used to it.

“I’ll go in one haunted house, maybe,” Hannah promised. “But I am not going on that death trap.”

“What will you guys go on? You’re a waste of admission fees.”

“Harsh,” Chris muttered, taking another bite.

“I have an idea,” Sam said, leading the way. She didn’t know if anyone was following her until Josh trotted up to her side. At least she had one person.

“So, Sammy, what’s your plan? Need a sidekick?”

She grinned and wriggled her eyebrows playfully. “We’re getting them on a ride.”

They ran straight ahead, and Josh started to laugh when he realized they were headed away from the haunted lands and into the water park. Sam stopped in front of the log flume: a ride with three drops, though it was a build up from a small drop, medium drop, and finally, a much larger one.

“No!” they could hear from the distance. It sounded like Hannah.

Turning, they saw disapproving looks from all of their friends, even Beth.

“It’s October, Sam. It’s cold.”

“Don’t wimp out on me now, Beth! Come on, it’ll be fun. It’s not even a tall drop.”

“No,” Hannah said, more firmly this time. She sat down and crossed her arms.

“Fine,” Josh said, giving up. “We’ve never been here, it’s Halloween, and we’re not going to get you on any scary rides with drops. I think we get it. But can we at least do something fun? Like that ride with the dragon. That one looked fun, and the car didn’t even have a harness.”

“That’s a water ride too, Josh,” Beth reminded him. Josh glared at her, and she changed her tune quickly. “But you’re right. The water is really just for the ambiance. I hear there’s a water dragon scene in the back.”

Sam held up her hands. “Exactly! Let’s go try that! Is everyone okay with that?”

“We’ll see,” Hannah said, glancing at Ashley and Chris. He was on his phone, but she nodded along.

It didn’t take long to get there, since the water under the track deemed it a water ride.

But Hannah took one look at the exterior and started shaking her head. “That whole thing is enclosed. What are they hiding? Is it a roller coaster?”

“Sam?” asked a new voice.

She turned around. It hadn’t come from any of her friends. Looking around, she finally saw someone pushing through a crowd until he stood right in front of her.

Michael Monroe. Followed closely by Emily and Jessica.

“Mike! What are you doing here?”

“I got a free admission coupon.”

Hannah grabbed Beth’s arm, her heart rate spiking at the sudden emergence of the tall heartthrob. Just his presence was enough to make her feel like she was on a rollercoaster.

“Hey,” he said with a head nod to the rest of the group. His eyes landed on Ashley for a moment before he had to look away with guilt. “So, you all going on this thing? We can go together.”

“Mike,” Emily hissed in annoyance. Her eyes were darting between Ashley and Hannah with jealous rage.

“What?” he asked, turning to her with a mocking glare. “The others are all on that weird ride, and besides, it’s not like this is a date. Hell, we have Jess third wheeling us anyway.”

He turned to grin at Jess, but she rolled her eyes and checked her phone. “I’m not going on this. It’s cold. I’m going to see if I can find Justin where we left them. They’re probably still in that God-awful line, though.”

 “That’s perfect! This is an eight-person ride,” Sam said, rushing for the line before anyone could back out.

Everyone piled into the line.

At first, it was awkward. There wasn’t much crossover between the two groups, and it was tense. Sam and Mike, however, were the two who managed to bring the tension down. Emily had resorted to talking to Jess on her phone, disinterested in being with the losers. Hell, if Mike hadn’t been here and she wasn’t trying to make a good impression, she’d probably have slapped half these bitches before storming off.

Mike didn’t have a problem with anyone except Ashley. He knew she didn’t want to speak to him, and she made no attempt at polite conversation. Every now and then, he’d get a weird look from Chris. If they were dating, Mike wasn’t aware, but they sure looked close. Almost as close as he’d been with her before dating. Chris didn’t seem hostile enough towards him to assume he knew about him and Ashley, but he didn’t want to piss her off and tip anyone off. If anyone, Chris and Josh- who seemed to almost be communicating silently to each other in a way that only siblings and age-old friends could- would be the first to figure out that little secret.

And Hannah, she was a sweet girl. As much as he loved Emily’s alpha personality and her cold-hard confidence, he also liked the total opposite, like Hannah. She was shy, clearly crushing on him, and humble. Her sister, Beth, was more like Emily and more his type, but he already knew, just from the looks she gave him, that they’d never hit it off. She looked protectively over her sister. Besides, though she was his type, he wasn’t too sure he was hers.

Sam, on the other hand, was someone he felt easy with. She wasn’t his type, and he wasn’t hers, but they hit it off as friends the second the bell rang in their art class. Neither could draw, and they sat together. It led to horrible projects and several self-deprecating jokes over the past few months. She was funny, maybe drier than he was, but there was a definite non-romantic chemistry that he felt every time he spoke to her. He was glad to have more than one class with her. Even Emily and Jess didn’t hate when she joined them for lunch on occasion.

After several long minutes in line, Josh and Chris had joined the conversation, with Ashley and Emily being the only two refusing to participate. They were nearly at the front when they figured the configuration of their own little car:

As much as Hannah wanted to ride in the seat with Mike, she knew Emily was never going to sit with anyone else. She was happy enough to sit with Beth, on the condition that she could hold her hand the whole time without complaint, and that they were at least a row away from hearing Josh’s commentary. Josh, on the other hand, demanded the front seat. He was determined to take a reaction video of everyone. He was probably the happiest on the ride, though Sam was just as excited, sitting next to him and eager to watch the panicked rows behind them. Ashley and Chris begrudgingly sat behind them, in direct line of the camera. Hannah knew she needed to keep her head behind Chris, if she could remember, to avoid the film. It left Mike behind her with Emily pouting beside him. Each of them was given a pair of 3D glasses to wear, which Hannah and Chris struggled to keep over their own glasses.

They were each strapped in, and Josh turned selfie-mode on on his phone immediately.

“There are safety bars on this thing? I thought you said there was no harness?” Hannah began panicking. But as she remembered Mike directly behind her, she tried to keep calm. He was brave. What would he think of her panic?

And the ride started out calm, like a safari to watch animatronic dragons in the distance. There were a few holographic ones, made possible by the glasses. But the lights in the room went out and there was a sudden screech. The car rumbled, shaking violently, as the tour guide’s disembodied voice came through the speakers.

“Oh my God! It’s got us!” it yelled before the car sped up to an unbreathable speed.

Though Josh’s video was black, it captured Hannah’s every scream. But she wasn’t the only one panicking. Chris’ voice was almost as loud, though his panic was a string of expletives that never ended.

The lights came on, and the glasses revealed that they were in the air, caught by a flying dragon’s talons. The track was hidden by the fake illusion that they were above the tree line. But they could feel the sudden ascent of the dragon in the tilt of the seat.

“Fuck! We’re going high!” Chris yelled.

“Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit, oh shit,” Ashley chanted, grabbing Chris by the arm. She let go quickly, both from embarrassment, and from her desperate desire to hold on to the metal bar in front of her.

Hannah forgot about Mike and the camera. She was clinging to her sister for dear life, trying to focus their breathing as they climbed.

Josh and Sam, however, had to stop laughing so they could hear everyone else’s reactions. She had a feeling Mike was enjoying the show in front of him as well, though Emily probably thought the entire car were all babies.

They reached the peak of the ride, slowing until they were coasting at a leisurely pace through the sky.

That is, until another dragon came at them in full on 3D, crashing into their captor and releasing them from the talons to fight amongst themselves amid several ear-piercing screeches.

This left them to fall from the sky, or rather, down the track’s tall drop.

Hannah was the worst, followed by Chris. Perhaps the fact that they both needed to wear the glasses over their own made them more susceptible, but Josh suspected that they just happened to be the most frightened of the group. Ashley and Emily’s screams mingled with Mike and Sam’s excited whoops into the air. The ride wasn’t much longer, the freefall ending in a large splash of water that covered every passenger, pretense being that they landed in a large body of water and floated to safety.

An attendant waited to let them off, but Hannah could barely let go of Beth, even after the others had all passed them.

“You got your wish, okay Beth?”

“I’m so proud of you, Han,” she whispered back. “And to think, all it took was tricking you into it and having your hot crush sit behind you.”

“I’m not doing it again,” Hannah laughed. “Not for all the Mike’s out there.”

“You don’t have to. That’s all I ever wanted. I just wanted my sister to be on a psychotic ride with me, and this will have to do, I guess,” she grinned, joking. “But, we aren’t leaving without that picture. I’ll bet you’re half choking me with your mouth open. God, I can’t wait. I’m going to buy so many copies!”

“Beth! No!” Hannah giggled as she chased her sister into the ride’s gift shop.

Chapter Text

“Like, what the hell is she thinking?” Jess’ shrill voice asked as she and Emily walked to their car.

Josh wanted to roll up the window, but he found himself eavesdropping instead, sticking his head out of the window ever so slightly. They didn’t see him anyway.

“Mike is my man,” Emily said, pulling her designer jacket in a show of pomp. Josh couldn’t help but roll his eyes.

Jess smiled tightly. “He sure as hell is and no bitch or her twin can intimidate you. I don’t give a fuck if Hannah thinks she and Mike are destined to be together, no one messes with my girl and her man.”

“Honestly, Jess, sometimes I think you’re the only one who has my back.”

Josh felt an overwhelming desire to roll the car forward… at a high speed. Oops.

Pulling the shift out of park and into drive, he let his foot off the brake, deciding.

Do it. They’re after your sisters. Before they hurt either of them, take the bitches out.

Beth and Hannah would never forgive you, no matter how much they’ve been hurt.

There was a loud thud against the front of his car. “Hey!” Sam screamed, slamming her hands down on the hood of his car. She was off to the side of the car, safe. “Did you forget how brakes work? They stop the car from rolling.”

“Sam,” Josh said, relieved. He put the car back in park.

“There you go.”

“Where are Hannah and Beth?”

Sam looks into the road before moving to lean into the driver’s window.

“Fuck!” another voice cried out, hurrying over to Josh’s car. It’s Chris.

“Damn, I’m popular today. What’s up, Cochise?”

“I couldn’t ask her to the dance. Fuck! I’m such an idiot.”

Sam and Josh looked pointedly at each other. Obviously he meant Ashley. “Maybe she’ll be the one with the balls and ask you?” Josh suggested.

Sam shook her head. “Not after that Mike thing. There’s no way she’d ask someone. She told me all about it, I’m pretty sure it scarred her. She’s waiting for someone she trusts to ask her, even though I said she should just be assertive. But she just isn’t, which is fine. But that leaves it all up to you, Chris.”

“Wait,” Chris said. Josh’s face looked equally confused. But Chris looked pissed. “What happened with Mike?”

With a grimace, Sam shrugged. “Oops. I thought you knew.”

“What happened?”

“It’s not my place, Chris. Especially if she never told you, she probably just wants to forget. Ask someone else if you have to, but I’m not going to tell you. Beth might.” She tapped the car and hustled back a few steps. “Sorry, I really have to go! See you.”

It was perfect timing. Beth and Hannah were running towards the car. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry!” Hannah yelled. “I was looking for my book and I just couldn’t find it! Hey Chris.”

Beth tossed her and Hannah’s bags into the back seat while Hannah climbed in the front beside the new permit holder. “Okay Josh, can you get us home without killing us this time?”

“Wait, Beth!” Chris said, stopping her from getting into the car. “What’s this thing I heard about Ashley and Mike?”

Beth shook her head. She didn’t care for Ashley, but she didn’t hate her. “Why?”

“Just heard something and I figured you’d know.”

Josh scoffed and got comfortable in his seat.

“Hey,” Hannan protested. “What makes you think I don’t know?”

“I don’t think that,” Chris said, patting her shoulder through the window. “I just think you won’t tell me and Beth will.”

“True,” Beth said with a smile. She was a gossip and didn’t care what anyone thought about it. “Ashley and Mike dated for a little while last year. Rumor is that he’d been cheating on her, but Sam said it was a onetime ‘accident’ according to Ash. But, here’s where it gets interesting. Ashley got a text with a video of Mike and that other girl making out. That means there was blackmail and sabotage going on. She never figured out who had the video, but someone wanted them broken up and didn’t want to ruin Mike, since the video never got out. I think it was Emily. She’s been waiting to dig her claws into Mike forever now.”

Josh looked at Chris’ downtrodden face. “Happy you asked?”

Chris gave Josh the middle finger and tapped the car. “I think I have to find her. See you later.”


Chris sat on the couch with a sullen grimace on his face that was hard to conceal as he tried to covertly watch Ashley and Matt as they laughed together on the couch. Matt looked annoyingly happy to be with Ashley, and she didn’t even cast a second glance in Chris’ direction. But he couldn’t take his eyes off of her. Her black dress was just above her knees, white flowers decorating the entire piece. She wore converse sneakers, undaunted this time, unlike the last dance they’d gone to. Her hair was down, falling just over her shoulders, her bangs pinned back from her eyes.

“Anything yet?” Beth asked, looking up from her phone.

Sam shook her head, checking her phone and looking out the window almost compulsively. “He should have been here. We’re so late, and then there’s the limo. I feel awful. Where is he?”

“Sam, calm down,” Hannah said as she rubbed circles on her best friend’s back. “Maybe he just couldn’t find the house?”

“Or I could just kick some ass?” Beth offered nonchalantly. “Grab some of my dad’s shit over there, as long as you don’t care about a seriously bitter taste.”

“I might,” Sam said, staring at her phone.

“He’ll show,” Ashley said, looking out the window. All she could see was the limo they’d rented together and that was costing more money to keep it running, waiting outside.

“Are you still here?” Josh called from the other room. After no one felt like answering him, he came out. Josh was the only one in regular clothes, not wanting to go to another school dance.  

“What’s going on? Did your fancy limo not show?” Josh mocked.

Hannah gave him a dirty look, still holding on to Sam. “No, they’re outside. Sam’s date didn’t show. We’re still waiting on him.”

Josh didn’t want to get any closer to Sam. From where he was, he could barely see her. All he could see was her bare shoulder, and that was all he needed to be tempted. He could see some sort of intricate hairstyle braided in the back of her head, but he was grateful he couldn’t see her in her dress. “Who the hell would leave you waiting, Sammy?”

“Rob,” she muttered.

“Rob Bartley?”

She nodded, but so did Hannah, who he took his cue from.

“Oh, wait,” Sam said, perking up as her phone buzzed. “Oh, he texted.”

Beth rolled her eyes and went to fix Chris’ obnoxiously crooked tie. She had no doubt he’d been anxiously fiddling with it. “What the hell is his excuse for making us all wait?”

But Sam didn’t answer.

“Sam?” she asked, turning from Chris.

Beth immediately dropped the tie and ran over to Sam, seeing her stunned face. Hannah grabbed her knee, whispering something to her about crying and makeup.

Josh took a step closer to see what was happening, and he could see Sam’s shoulders shaking.

“Sam?” Matt asked this time. He, Ashley, and Chris debated saying anything or just letting it play out.  

Sam handed Hannah her phone and wiped her eyes before standing. She looked too composed.

“Oh my god,” Hannah muttered.

Sam cleared her throat and pulled her hair down. “You guys go ahead without me. I’m going to just go home.”

“No,” Hannah said putting the phone down. Beth picked it up and made a face. But Hannah hustled over to Sam before she could sulk away. “I’ll stay with you. We’ll have a girls’ night in.”

Sam hugged Hannah and shook her head. “I want you to go. You’ve been looking forward to this forever. And Beth needs you. I’m just going to go home.”

“You shouldn’t be alone.”

Sam started to walk past Josh and Chris to get back to Hannah’s room, but she felt arms wrap around her. Josh had her.

He could feel her bare arms under his hands, and he started to playfully sway her side to side. “You can stay here with me. I’m not going to this dance, but I’m not a girl so this won’t be a girl’s night in. Plus, it fulfils my sister’s desire that you not be alone. I’ll even let you pick some sad dramady to watch.”

Sam looked at Hannah, who was nodding encouragingly.

Sinking into Josh, she sighed. “Fine. But you have to actually watch the movie, not just let me pick it out.”

“Deal,” he said with a grin.

“Go,” Sam sadly whispered. She knew the twins would tell everyone else about her texts.

They slowly waved their goodbyes and started leaving. Though Hannah wanted to put up more of a fight, she also knew that Sam was one to set her mind and not change it.

Josh leaned into Sam’s hair. “Whatever he did, he’s a prick who doesn’t deserve you or to see how hot you look in that dress.”

“You had to ruin it,” she laughed. Hannah and Chris were the last two out the door, and they watched with a final glance as Sam lightly whacked Josh.

Josh shrugged and let her go. “You know me.”

He watched her walk away, finally taking a look at her in the dress. It was pale, just a few shades pinker than her skin, with no back and a beaded, dipped neckline. The only jewelry she wore was around her wrist.

Sam went to grab her phone and tossed it to Josh, making him turn his attention pretty quickly. He unlocked it and looked at the text.

Sam im not coming to the dance with u. U know Kathy Sullivan yea? Ive been waiting for the chance to go out with her and shes here and wants to go to the dance. Imma shoot my shot. U didn’t deserve this late notice but its all I got . Sorry Sam.

Josh scoffed and handed the phone back. “You actually dated this douchebag?”

She shrugged. Her face, normally unshakably lit up, was riddled with heartache.

“Okay, I’m going to go finish up what I was doing in my room, then I’ll come right out. Have that movie picked out, yeah?”

“I’m going to change first, then.”

“No,” Josh said, grabbing her arm. “You should leave it on. It’s hot, really. Plus, what a waste of money.”

“I want my sweatpants, Josh.”

Josh grinned mischievously and winked at her. “Indulge me for like, the opening credits at least.”

She pulled the strapless dress up higher, covering as much of her chest as she could when she saw him staring. “You’re a pervert. Go do whatever.”

Sitting on the floor in her dress, she checked the bottom shelf of the Washington’s extensive DVD collection and pulled out a few options. She knew their organizational system and wasn’t as afraid as she used to be that Bob Washington would find out she rifled through his movies. She ran to the clean laundry pile in the corner near the kitchen and grabbed a one of Hannah’s large  sweatshirts that she loved to wear around the house, pulling it over her head. She grabbed her backpack with her clothes and pulled her sweatpants out, pulling them on under her dress. There. Satisfied, she went to sit again, narrowing her choices further.

Sam could hear Josh’s returning footsteps about ten minutes later. She held two DVD’s in her hand and turned to see which had Josh’s vote, but she nearly dropped them when she saw him.

He was dressed up, a button-down black shirt with a pair of jeans and a tie around his neck. He wore legit fancy shoes and an expensive looking watch.

And Josh burst out laughing when he saw her on the floor in her dress, DVD’s in hand and an oversized comfort sweatshirt on with sweatpants under her dress. “What the hell are you doing, Sammy?”

She had to blink from her daze for a moment before following his gaze to her legs. “I told you I wanted them. What are you doing, Josh? Are you going to dance with me in the middle of the living room to pretend I’m not missing out or something? Are we going to be the rom-com?”

He grabbed his car keys and jingled them. “Hell no. We’re going to go, find that doucheface, and we’re going to show him how fast you got a date and you’re going to have a good time and we’re going to rub it in. That fucker isn’t going to win. We’re going to ‘shoot our shot.’”

Sam chuckled. “Oh my god, is this really what we’re doing?”

Josh held out his hands. “Do I look like I put effort in for nothing?”

“You do look good,” she said casually in their usual bantering tone, but she couldn’t help but try to hide the truth underneath the words. The truth that they were real. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you go to an event dressed like normal people dress. Not even that time your dad brought you to the convention with him.”

She slid out of her sweatpants and kicked them off to the side, folding the sweatshirt on the couch, and slid back into her heels. “I messed up my hair. I don’t think I can redo it that fast.”

Josh looked her over. Damn, she looked good in her dress. Though it covered her up, he thought it looked beyond sexy. “Take your hair down. It looks good like that.”

She went to the mirror and examined the mess she’d made. He was right about one thing: she’d have to take it down. She did, shaking her head to loosen the braid. It left her hair wavy rather than her usual straight locks. “I guess it’ll have to do.”

He held out his arm for Sam to put hers hand through. “You ready, Sammy?”

She grinned. “Let’s do it, then.”

Chapter Text

The screaming had been muffled, but Beth had heard it. She'd pulled Hannah's earphones off her head and they'd followed the noise straight to Josh' bedroom.

“Josh!” Beth yelled, shaking him awake. “Josh, wake up! Hannah! Get mom or dad now!”

Hannah ran into the doorway to Josh’s room just in time to see his eyes open. He stared at the two of them for a long moment before shaking his head.

“You’re not here. You can’t be here again.”

“I’m here, Josh. It’s Beth.” She turned to see Hannah still in the doorway. “I said get mom or dad!”

Hannah ran off, leaving Beth with their brother.

“You died. You died! Get away!” He pushed at her, though he didn't seem to have any strength. 

“Are you sleeping? Josh, tell me what’s happening? Wake up!"

Josh sat up, pushing himself to the end of the bed. Beth scooted away, surprised by his fast movement. But Josh just looked at her blankly, like he was seeing straight through her. “I told you before, we can’t go there again! Stop! I just want to be good! I don’t want to do that!”

“Josh?”

“Get away!” he said, shoving her harshly to the floor.

She landed with a thud, but sprang back up, grasping her brother’s arms. “Listen to me, Josh, this is Beth! This is your little sister!”

His eyes seemed to focus on her for a moment. “Bethy?”

“Yeah, it's Bethy,” she smiled, rubbing his arm to keep him focused.

“Where’d Grandad go?”

“Where’d…. Grandad? Josh… he’s… he died years ago.”

Josh ducked down, placing his head in his hands. He was rocking, his body in a constant motion. “He was here. He promised...me. My knife. I need my knife. They’re there. I know what I know, you don’t! Please, freeze my knees!”

“What?” Beth asked, but when he began to fiddle with his pillowcase, Josh’s fingers tightly gripped a small pocket knife. She all but launched herself at him, quickly attempting to wrench it from his fingers. “Let go!”

She managed to pry it from him and tossed it out into the hallway.

Josh's body started to shake with rage, his nostrils flaring as his voice rose. He moved to stand up, but Beth held firm. It only agitated Josh more. “I need to fish with that! Grandad is taking me fishing!”

“Oh God,” she muttered. “Hannah! Hurry up!”

“Hannah?” he asked, softening. “Hannah is here? Hannah! Hannah! Help me! Beth's attacking me! Hannah!”

Beth could feel her vision blackening with pure panic. “Josh, where are your meds? You have to take your meds!” she fumbled around his nightstand, desperately searching for one of the bottles she knew he had been prescribed. She didn't even know what his meds were called. 

Suddenly, she felt a sharp pain in her wrist as Josh's tight grip all but crushed her bones. “Don’t tell me what to do! You’re all always telling me what to do! I don’t want them! I don’t need them! Stop telling me to take them! You don’t get to tell me what to do!”

“Okay!” she said, relieved to hear thudding footsteps racing up the stairs.

“Josh!” Bob Washington yelled as he raced into the room. He managed to separate Beth from Josh before holding his son in his tight grip. “Melinda, call 911. Call them now!”

Josh fell limply into his father’s arms, sobbing.

Bob held him, but he looked at his daughters. “Girls, get out. You did enough. You don’t want to see him like this. He’s just depressed again. It'll pass.”

Beth scoffed, moving closer, though her father’s warning look had her stepping back. “Are you sure this is depression? He thought Grandad was here.”

“You know they were close. He’s going to be fine. We’ll find him a better psychologist. Maybe Dr. Hill at Boxford Point.” Bob pulled Josh closer. “He’ll be fine, girls. He’ll be fine.”

Chapter Text

Lounging on the couch, Josh watched Sam stroll around the kitchen as she searched the cupboards for something to eat. She grabbed a box of vegan cookies that she’d bought specifically for when she came over. Though she insisted they tasted completely normal, Josh grimaced whenever she made him repeatedly try one. And like a sucker, he always did.

Sam went to pour herself a glass of water from the sink when Josh snapped out of his daze. “Oh, Sam, I got you some of that disgusting milk you like.”

She stopped for a second and stared at him. “You got me my own milk?”

“You’re here often enough racking up my water bill, I figured this might save me some money.”

She raised an eyebrow as she went to the fridge. “First off, you don’t pay the bills. Second…” she trailed off as she picked up the milk. “This really is what I drink.” After examining it, she put it in front of him suspiciously. “Did you switch this with your kind? Is this some prank?”

He balked. “The seal is unbroken, right? I don’t waste my precious time and effort to prank a jug of expensive con-artist milk.”

She took it, satisfied. “Then thank you. Really.”

Josh laid back against the armrest and watched the ceiling fan spin.

Sam joined him, curling up with a cookie in one hand, milk on a coaster, and her phone in the other hand.

“Do you think,” Josh started, bringing her attention back to him, “Do you think that fan could chop off my hand?”

Sam looked up and then back at him. “That’s the slowest spinning fan I’ve ever seen. No way.”

He reached out his socked foot and tapped her side. “C’mon, Sammy. Use your imagination. See? Now it’s spinning faster.”

She took a bite of the cookie and looked back up. “No. They did a Mythbusters about that. You’d be fine. Why? Are you going to try it? Like, should I change my answer?”

“Nah, just thinking.”

After a few moments of silence, Sam went back on her phone.

She started to laugh to herself as she watched something sideways on her phone. Josh turned away from the spinning fan to watch her. There was always something mesmerizing about her laugh. And as much as he didn’t want to, it brought a smile to his face.

She turned her phone back upright and her face went white, the smile wiped from her face immediately. Josh could see tears began to well in her eyes and she stood abruptly, dropping everything off her lap, and took off towards the bathroom.

She must have noticed you staring. You disgust her. You should.

Josh sat forward and reached to pick up her fallen things. He put the bag of cookies on the coffee table and picked up her phone.

She’d left it unlocked.

Looking behind him first, he checked to see what all of the fuss was about.

The screen was on a text. The last two messages were from her. The first was dated six months ago, and all it said was “I miss you.”

He almost put the phone down then and there, not wanting to let his eyes wander any further. He didn’t want to know what guy she might have sent that to.

But then he saw that the second message had been a video of people being chased by geese that she'd just sent. He chuckled and looked at the top of the screen to see who she’d sent it to.

Hannah.

“Fuck,” he muttered to himself. Her horrified reaction almost made sense now. Standing, Josh went to the closed bathroom door, listening to Sam’s sobs from the other side. It was a familiar sound. It was all he ever heard anymore. Sometimes it was his parents, sometimes it was himself, but it had never been Sam.

Knocking once, he pressed his forehead against the door, waiting. But Sam never responded.

“Sammy, hey, I creeped on your phone. You’re not actually, like, taking a piss, right? Stop me if you are, because otherwise I’m coming in.”

When he heard no warning from the other side, he let the door slowly creek open before sticking his head inside. Sam was on the floor, head pressed against her knees as she shook with sobs.

Josh crept into the room and sat beside her. For a moment, he wasn’t sure what to do, but listening to her and doing nothing wasn’t an option. Doing nothing was never an option. Not again. Not ever again.

He instinctively put his arm around her and pulled her against him. She responded immediately. While he thought she might have some comeback, she didn’t. She just pressed herself up against his chest and tried to calm herself.

She had to focus on anything. His skin was warm against hers. His heart beat wildly against her ear, and she selfishly wondered for a minute if it was because of her. But she shook the thought away. They were thinking about his likely-dead sisters.

When she felt calm enough, she felt like she had to explain. “I didn’t even think. It was just something she’d think is funny and for a second, I forgot. I’m the worst fucking friend, Josh. I forgot.

He tightened his grip on her. “You sound like the voice inside my head, Sam. I hear it all the time, telling me I’m not a good brother because I couldn’t find them, or I didn’t save them. I didn’t stop that prank, and I was too drunk to follow them. You think you’re the worst fucking friend? Try being the worst fucking brother.”

He tried to fight it, but there were tears in his eyes. She looked up at him and nestled closer to him. “Nothing you say will make me feel any less like shit, Josh.”

“Same to you, Sam.”

She sniffled and rolled her eyes, annoyed with herself. “So, do we wallow here?”

Josh shrugged, bouncing her whole body as he did. He eyed the bottle of prescription pills that rested against the sink. “We can wallow for a minute, but then we get up.”

Chapter Text

Josh pulled his mask on and looked around one final time. It was a habit, even if he knew everyone was occupied. Opening the door just a crack, in case she was looking, Josh peeked into the bathroom. Sam was lying in the tub, her head tilted back, asleep with headphones in. The lodge’s bathtub was big enough for all of them to fit inside, and he almost wondered how Sam hadn’t already slipped under.

With calculated movements, Josh went straight for her clothes, trying to move as fast as possible before she could wake up. He stuffed them into her backpack and threw it all over the balcony to the bottom floor so he could grab it much faster on his way out. He left a single sock. If she wanted it, she could have it. Looking around the bathroom, he considered taking the towels away. That would certainly get more views, but he didn’t want to do that to Sam. Anyone but Sam. Besides, it wasn’t like that kind of video would be allowed anywhere but the dark web, and this shit would be too viral for that.

Done with everything he needed in the room, Josh took another look at the peaceful sleeping expression she wore. He couldn’t resist as he strolled over to her and knelt down just next to her.

Don’t look at her. Respect her and her privacy!

He tried to keep his eyes on her face, but had to look at her iPod just to resist the temptation. She was listening to some classical shit. He had to stifle his laughter. Of course she would be.

As he went to leave, Hannah’s voice rang out in his head, screaming for him to stop. He did.

You’re not even going to take a peek? I mean, damn, I always knew you were a coward, but I never thought you were a virgin. I’d want Mike to look. I’d want that to be what he thinks about the next time he jerks off. Mike would. Mike’s the bigger man here. Just look at her. C’mon, you fucking coward, do it!

“Shut up,” Josh muttered under his breath, but in the end, her words were all he could hear.

So he looked.

God damn, if he didn’t die just then and there.

Through the clear water, he could see everything almost perfectly, and she was even more goddess-like than he’d ever imagined. More than anything, he wanted to reach out and touch her.

That’s when her eyes opened. She looked at him without fear or reaction, and took off his mask, like she knew it was him somehow. Josh could feel himself shaking as she practically threw herself at him, shoving her tongue down his throat with a fiery passion. All he could do was take his gloves off so he could feel her soft skin against him. God, did she feel perfect.

He found himself pulled into the tub beside her. She was kissing him, his neck, his collar, all while working to take his layers off. He, on the other hand, was helping with something else as his hands explored everywhere on her body.

It was only when she finally said his name that he was back to the real world, and she was still asleep. Another hallucination.

“Dammit, Sammy,” he cursed as he looked at her body once again.

Then she stirred. He slid behind her as fast as he could, hoping she wouldn’t turn around. Instead, she moaned, like she was annoyed at being woken from her nap and longed for more time to sleep. She changed the song on her iPod and began to bob her head to the music.

Josh stood when he was sure she’d closed her eyes again and watched her for a moment longer. She was so beautiful. She didn’t deserve this.

She didn’t warn Hannah fast enough. She knew, and she couldn’t stop it. She didn’t even try to stop them. Guard the fucking door if you’re so concerned for Hannah, Sam. Or go after her with Beth. Allegedly, they were best friends. I can’t see it. She’s as guilty as you are. You should have saved them. They were your sisters, and you fucking failed them.

She deserved this. She could have stopped it.

He slammed the door and listened from the staircase. He could still hear her words, though they were muffled.

“Hello? Guys? What are you doing out there? Being creepy? Oh... kay...oh for Pete's sake. My clothes? Really? Whichever one of you did this is off my Christmas list. Seriously, not cool, guys. Not cool at all.”

Josh went down a few steps when he heard the knob rattle.

“Chris? Josh? What the hell?”

He smiled. He was the first person she thought would do this. He wouldn’t put it past Chris either, to be honest. He’d do it to any girl or guy in their friend group… anyone but Ashley.

He watched Sam wander, eying the balloons with directions suspiciously, reluctant to follow. “Chris? Mike? Emily? This is really getting out of hand, okay? It was all very funny, ha ha, look at Sam walking around in a towel, but now I just really want this to be over, alright? You had enough?”

She went down the steps finally, still talking. Josh kept following at a safe distance, hanging on her every word.

“Can I have my clothes back now or am I supposed to hang out in a towel for the rest of the weekend?” She paused for a moment, but there was no reply. “... Towel it is, then.”

As she continued walking, Josh almost felt bad for her again. He could see her clutching the towel for support, but she kept moving. “Okay, if you were trying to freak me out, guess what, you succeeded.”

She found a flashlight, and Josh ducked as far behind the stairs as he could. He was glad for his action, and the beam passed right over where he’d been standing. He could hear her stepping forward and dared to follow her again.

“Where the hell are you guys? Hey! Guys come ON! I am DONE with this! I really don't appreciate the silent treatment here!”

Josh hustled to the doors and slammed one, grateful that it moved both sides of the door at the same time. He could hear Sam’s high-pitched scream. It was fear. Real fear.

She’s guilty. She’s just as guilty.

He ran into the projector room and looked at her through the hole. He knew it would be too bright for her to see him if she tried looking. Instead, she shone the light around the room, lighting up every corner.

“Hello Samantha. Looking for me? I don't think you'll have much luck by looking, Samantha.” He liked the speaker system he’d set up, and the voice changer he’d bought.

As she looked around more, he plugged his phone into the projector that had the footage of her bathing.

“What the... What the hell...!”

“You're only going to see what I want you to see... And I have quite a lot to show you.”

What is... What is going on...!?”

He could see that she’d closed her eyes, stressed. He needed her to see. What was it like being filmed without knowing it while venerable? If only they could ask Hannah. She’d have an answer. “Open your eyes.”

As she appeared in the bathtub, Sam muttered in horror, “Oh my god.”

Josh couldn’t help but admire the screen again.  “She's quite beautiful, isn't she. A beautiful bathing bird...”

“How... why... why did you...”

As he spoke to Sam, all he could think of was the video of Hannah. “Do you think she has any idea what lies ahead? Do you think these were the last happy moments of this creature's life?”

“Why are you showing this to me...?” she asked, still looking at the screen in disbelief that so much of her private bath had been recorded.

Josh paused. “Why are you watching?”

He couldn’t help but feel butterflies in his stomach as he swapped the video to his own “death.” How would she react?

“Josh!” she screeched as she saw him tied up. The sawblade was moving closer toward him, and some part of her held on to hope that this wasn’t real.

“How does it make you feel?” He needed to know.

But as the blade touched Josh and he cried out, Sam screamed, covering her mouth as her eyes burned with hot tears. She wanted to throw up. “OH MY GOD WHAT DID YOU DO?!”

But she didn’t have time to process any of it. Josh leaned forward, watching her even more intently. “I'm going to give you ten seconds... Nine.” He stood and climbed down the steps from the projector room and watched her back up into the door, begging as he counted.

He couldn’t listen to her beg anymore. Seven was close enough. “Sam,” he said walking closer. He had to watch himself, as he’d almost said Sammy. “Sa-am?” he said again.

Sam bolted out the opposite door without another word. Josh wasn’t worried. Even if she managed to get too far from him, he’d removed the doorknob of the only way out and locked the other rooms. So he took his time following her and pulled a syringe out of his pocket, prepping it as he followed her cries of “shit, shit, shit, shit!” as she ran.

Sam must have taken a breather, because she was right in front of him when he opened the door. With a panicked noise, she crawled over the bed, looking back one more time before taking off once again.

Josh grinned as he followed her. She was determined. If it had been Ashley, he was almost positive he would have gotten her immediately, and if it had been Emily, she’d have tried to demand the needle from him just because her skin was too expensive to ruin.

He was glad he’d left the basement door open for Sam, because as he followed, he noticed that the other hallway could have looked just as appealing. He couldn’t hear her anymore, or see her, but he knew she was either hiding or stuck in the wine room. But when he heard her enraged cry of: “Are you kidding me? No HANDLE?!” he knew exactly where she was.

As he turned into the room, he could see her struggling to pull down the shelf of wine, probably to slow him down. All he really wanted was to catch her here, pin her against the wall, and have her realize it was him. He wanted to share this prank with her. But her role wasn’t done.

When he saw the shelf fall and Sam reach for the door handle on the floor, he picked up the pace. She wasn’t supposed to find that. She stuck it into the door and Josh knew he had the room to grab her and wrap her in his arms, pull her down, and stick her with the needle. He knew it. But the one small voice in his brain begged him to let her go, and he did. She closed the door, and it was enough to snap him back. He needed her for this prank. He needed her to get back at Matt and Mike. He needed them all.

Reaching through the hole, he tried to pull the lock, but Sam shut the peek hole, crushing his hand violently until he pulled back.

“Fuck!” he muttered. This was not what he had planned.

Taking off back into the previous room, he took another door that led to the deep basement and ultimately, the old hotel. He had to hustle to catch up to her, and he kept his thoughts as focused as he could.

Finally, he could hear the patter of her running feet and her labored breathing down a nearby hallway. He pulled the syringe out again and ran, colliding with her violently. He caught her as best he could and pulled her against him to steady her as he plunged the syringe into her neck. She went limp in his arm almost immediately

 “So sorry,” he said with genuine regret as he gently helped lower her to the ground. He knelt over her and watched her eyes flutter shut before moving a piece of her disheveled hair from her eyes. “Sorry, Sammy.”

He tossed the empty syringe into a corner and pulled her into his arms. It immediately reminded him of all the times he’d ever held her. Times he’d thrown her into the pool, or once when she’d torn a ligament in her foot while ice skating.

There were about thirty minutes until she came to, and he had other things to attend to. He held her close and tightly as he brought her back to his workshop. Propping her up in a chair, he tied her loosely around the chest to keep her from falling, but tied her arms and feet together with a more realistic tightness.

“Your segment is guaranteed to be a fan favorite. I know you’re my favorite. Alright, Sammy, where am I off to next? Chris and Ash are nearly there. If this goes right, the rest of this weekend they’ll need a sock on their door 24/7. You’ll see. I am legit the best fucking matchmaker since that bitch from Mulan. You’ll see. They’ll thank me.”

 

 

Chapter Text

“Hey, Sam!” Hannah called over the balcony. “Can you make me one of your vegan meals? I want to try it out!”

“I’m not a vegan yet,” Sam corrected. “I’m getting there! Still having a hard time switching from good old fashioned butter.”

“Can you make it anyway?”

“Of course! Does Beth want anything?”

“Beth?” Hannah called into an open doorway. Sam could only hear mumbling, but Hannah leaned back over the railing with a wry smile. “She said she wants a sausage egg and cheese. I don’t think that’s what you meant.”

Sam rolled her eyes. “I could make you watch that chicken farm video again! Do you think that would change your mind?”

Beth came out of the room, fully dressed. “No. It would make me sad, but it wouldn’t help. Don’t worry, I’ll make it.”

Hannah went into her room and closed the door.

Sam and Beth laughed as they cooked, joking about something they’d watched on TV the night before.

“Hey!” Hannah yelled. “I can’t find my glasses! Can one of you help me?”

Sam laughed. “Flip this in a minute? I’ll help her.”

She ran up the stairs and into the room, spotting the thick frames almost immediately while Hannah stumbled around.

“Here,” Sam said, putting the glasses straight onto Hannah’s face. She had to adjust them, but she thanked her. They went to leave the room to go back to the kitchen. “It must suck being so blind.”

Then suddenly, Josh’s door opened.

Only it wasn’t Josh.

“Oh, hi,” said the squeaky voice of Jessica Riley. “I didn’t think anyone would be directly in front of the door as if they were listening in.”

Sam stared open mouthed at Jess, who was only wearing a long shirt of Josh’s. Josh, on the other hand, came over to the door, shirtless and in his boxers.

“Hey,” he said as if this was a sight they should be accustomed to.

Hannah shook her head. “Well, this isn’t what I expected… or ever wanted to see in the morning.”

Sam could hardly breathe as she tried to keep her eyes ANYWHERE but on Josh and Jess.

“We were just going down for some food,” Sam muttered, though her voice had gone hoarse.

“Did you make me anything?” Josh asked, as if there was nothing wrong with this scene. But God, there was so much wrong with it.

“No,” she said, going for the stairs, but Jess moved in her way.

“Excuse me, but I really need a shower. Josh said I could. I’m so dirty.” She gave Sam a deliberately savage look.

“Hell yeah you are,” Josh leaned down to kiss Jessica. It was fiery, nothing timid for their audience. Hannah and Sam felt like they were trapped in the bedroom alongside them.

Jess finally moved towards the bathroom and out of Sam’s way.

Sam took the opportunity to rush down the stairs, away from Josh and back to the kitchen.

“Who’s he got in there?” Beth whispered.

“Jessica.”

“Shit,” Beth said, handing Sam a plate. “That’s weird.”

Hannah followed close behind, covering her mouth in shock. “When did that happen?”

“I don’t know,” Sam whispered back.

“That’s awful,” Beth chuckled. “They’re a weird pairing.”

Josh came running down the stairs in a plain tee-shirt and a pair of jeans. “Done gossiping about me yet?” he asked as he went to reach for Beth’s breakfast sandwich. She swatted his hand away.

“Is it a joke?” Beth asked.

“No, it’s not a joke. We’ve been dating for a few weeks, but we’ve kept it private.”

“It’s fucking weird, Josh,” Beth said. “Jess?”

That got Josh defensive. “What? I can’t bring a girl over, but you can?”

Hannah looked at Sam, waiting for her to retaliate, but she still looked like she’d seen a ghost.

Beth snorted. “Sam’s our best friend. It’s been like, three years or something. You’re going to complain now?”

“Not Sam! Your secret girlfriend. You think using the back door is crafty?”

“She’s not my girlfriend, first off,” Beth said, crossing her arms, “We’re just dating. Secondly, I don’t care what you do. You can marry Jess for all I care. I’m not helping you pay for divorce lawyers, that’s all.”

“What? I can’t have some fun while I’m still young? It’s not like I have anyone else… not like I’m pining away for someone I can’t have.”

He kept his eyes off of Sam, but instead, the twins both took a step forward. Beth poked Josh in the chest and pulled Hannah behind her. Her first instinct was always to protect Hannah.

“You ever talk about our sister like that again and I will shove you head first into a meat grinder and sell you in a pie like that sick little play you like so much. Don’t talk about her like that. I will hurt you.”

“You’re psychotic,” Josh muttered. “I wasn’t talking about Han.”

“Am I that bad?” Hannah asked.

“No!” Beth and Sam answered at once. But Sam continued. “There is nothing wrong with liking Mike. Ignore him.”

“I—” Josh sighed and put his hand down on the counter. “Sorry Han. I just don’t like being jumped first thing in the morning.”

“Oooo! Who’s jumping on who?” Jess asked as she came down in her own clothes and wet hair. She wrapped her arms around Josh. “Beth, I love your shirt. Where’d you get it?”

“Uh…” Beth said looking at the unicorn on her black shirt. “I don’t remember.”

“That’s fine! I’ll just have to keep an eye out for it.”

Josh gave Beth a dirty look. Jess wasn’t all bad. At least, not when she wasn’t around Emily.

Beth rolled her eyes at him. “Maybe we can go together.”

With genuine excitement, Jess’ eyes lit up. “Yes, I’d love that! I’m in!”

“Cool,” Beth’s eyes slid over to Hannah and Sam, but they were both dumbstruck.   

Jess just smiled at them, one that wasn’t hostile or bitchy as they were so used to at school. Then they looked at Josh. And Beth had to admit, for the first time in awhile, he looked happy. But as she looked to her left, there was a different face that wasn’t happy.

She couldn’t believe she’d missed it. For years, it’s been under her nose.

Sam liked Josh.

Chapter Text

Ashley sat at home, alone again. Whenever her dads had their date weekend, she was glad for them, of course, but she also longed for the company and conversation that came with them being home. Chris, Josh, and the twins were spending the weekend at one of the Washington’s 1000 lodges because obviously rich people need more than 5 different properties.

She would call Sam, but honestly, she’s bugged Sam enough at school this week and didn’t want to push it. So, she sat outside on the small hammock that was tied between the two trees in her backyard with her notebook in hand.

The trees were starting to change colors, a sign of the October season. It was inspiring, and she tried to write some poetry. It wasn’t usually her thing, but she decided it was worth a shot. She looked around and began to jot down some notes first.

Red. Yellow. Orange. Brown. Green= Leaves… Rhymes? No. Flowers? Yes, still flowers, still bugs. Bugs- bees, flies, cater some weird thing crawling (look up later), ants. Wasp maybe? Not sure what a wasp looks like. Google that. Air is not super cold. Hoodie weather.

She looked down at her notes and sighed. Ripping the page out, she scratched at her arm and closed her eyes. Nah, she was never any good at poetry. She’d rather write a romance novel, or a mystery, or a fantasy book. She sniffed and rolled onto her side, closing her eyes. But she couldn’t drift off. It was more relaxing than a nap.

Well, it was relaxing for every reason except her itchy arm. She pinched a spot on her wrist that was the most annoying, hoping to stop the annoyance. It faded into the back of her mind for awhile while she rested, until it came back with a vengeance.

“Oh fuck off,” she muttered, sitting up. Going to scratch again, she noticed her hand had completely swollen up, her skin puffed out like an inflating balloon. She tried to pull her ring off, but it would budge.

“Shit,” she said, pulling out her phone. Quickly opening her internet app, she typed in “swollen hand”.

Swelling  occurs when extra fluid gets trapped in your body's tissues. Several things can cause this, including heat, exercise, or medical conditions.

Well, she hadn’t been exercising and the heat was hardly there. It was getting chilly. She bit her nail anxiously as she read on, but most of the results had to do with arthritis. It would be fine. A fluke, she told herself. Just some water and moving around would bring the swelling down. She went into the kitchen and grabbed the bottle of Tylenol, noticing how much it hurt to hold the bottle, and popped a few before going to watch whatever she could find on tv.

But a few commercials in, she felt tears in her eyes and she rubbed them again and again, but nothing could stop the tears. She felt sick, and the Tylenol was doing absolutely nothing.

Grabbing her phone, she went to call her dads, to get their advice and see what else to take, but she didn’t want to ruin their weekend. God, her head was starting to kill her.

She went to call Chris, but forgot he was in the woods with the Washington’s. Instead, she scrolled down and called Matt.

“Ashley?” the voice on the other end asked after a few rings.

“You’re allergic to peanuts, right?”

“Uh… no?”

“Shit. Do you know what an allergic reaction looks like? I feel like shit, my hands are swollen, I want to throw up. This fucking sucks. I looked it up and it didn’t say this was an allergy. I haven’t eaten anything. How can it be an allergy?”

“Ashley, stop,” he said. “Call 911 so they can get you to the hospital, just in case it is.”

“No,” she whined, closing her eyes tight. “I don’t want to. Maybe I’ll drive to the walk in.”

“Please go to the hospital. Look, I can get over there if you can’t drive. I know that might be weird, but I’m here if you need me.”

“No, I’m going to drive myself. I’ll go slow. It’s sort of hard to see. Thanks anyway, Matt. Call you later.”

Ashley hung up and went to grab her sneakers, but opted for the flip flops that were still out from summer. She slid into them, noticing her feet swelling as well, and grabbed her keys.

The drive was hard. Her phone wouldn’t shut up, and she opted to turn it off. Maybe calling Matt wasn’t the best idea. She should have called Sam.

But finally, she got to the emergency room at the local hospital and leaned heavily on the counter.

“I think I’m having an allergic reaction?”

The woman at the desk looked her over. “Name?”

Ashley reached for her wallet in her pocket and pulled out her license and her insurance card. “Here, I don’t know what you need.”

“Are you having a hard time breathing… Ashley?”

She handed the cards to the woman beside her and went to open the door to the ER, but Ashley stayed against the counter.

“Oh God, I don’t know.”

“Come on, let’s get you right in. I’ll bring back your license for you when she’s done.”

And that’s how Ashley ended up hooked up to two IV’s in a room with General Hospital in the background while she waited for her dads to return home from their hotel that was a few hours away.

Still a 17 year old minor, there wasn’t much that the hospital could do without her parents’ signature. A hasty phone call gave them verbal permission to get her hooked up to medicine, but without their signatures, she’d be stuck there. Though, admittedly, she knew she’d be in the ER for a long time whether they were present or not.

After a while, she gave up on the soap opera and decided to take a nap. The meds were fighting whatever was happening to her body, and her eyes were sore from tearing up. So, when she heard the curtain to her room flap open, she was so ready to talk to her parents’ about getting her home.

But it wasn’t either of her dads.

It was Mike.

“Mike?” she asked groggily. “Is this some weird allergy dream?”

He chuckled and sat in the seat beside her bed. “No. Where’s your phone?”

“It’s off. Why?”

He leaned back with a smug look. “I’m guessing my name is right next to Matt’s, isn’t it?”

She looked at him for a moment, confused, but his words slowly began to sink in as she looked at her large and swollen fingers. “Oh my God, I didn’t call Matt.”

“No.”

“I’m so sorry, Mike. I didn’t mean to call you.”

“I figured you didn’t. But after getting that call, I had to make sure you weren’t dead or anything. Oh, and I told them I was your cousin so I could get in.”

Ashley chuckled. “I knew Matt had a peanut allergy.”

He stood up and shoved his hands into his pockets. “So, you’re okay?”

She sat up, as if to prove it. “Yeah, it was an allergic reaction to a bee sting or something. Nothing serious, like throat closing or anything, just serious enough to freak me out.”

“Okay, good. Alright, that’s all I needed to know. I don’t want to bother you. I mean, that was a freaky call so I had to check on you.”

“Wait, Mike, you can stay… if you want. You don’t have to, but you don’t have to rush out.”

Mike stopped. “You sure?” Ashley nodded, and he took his seat again. “I’m surprised you still had my number in your phone,” he said with a nervous laugh. “It’s been awhile.”

“You knew it was me right away. Guess I’m still in your phone.”

He rolled his eyes playfully. “Okay, okay, yeah, you are. I kind of held out hope you’d call way back when, so I never deleted it. I guess I just didn’t end up getting rid of it.”

Ashley made a face. “You’re not still holding out hope, right?”

Mike snorted. “I’m not desperate enough to hold out for three years. We’ve both moved on. But I wouldn’t hate it if it wasn’t so awkward when I have to partner up with you or be near you for something in class. That I have been holding out for.”

Ashley pulled up the blanket that was covering her. “We never really willingly talked after, have we? We just run in different crowds.”

“Not really, if you think about it. We’ve both got Sam in our groups, and… uh… we’re both friends with Hannah.”

“My friends are friends with your friends. But yeah, if there was a dance or something, I’d wave at you. I think we can be at that waving stage. It was just, like, I was so young and vulnerable. What you did really hurt me. That’s all. I’m way over it now, but it was big for me. I had a hard time trusting people. Like, you were my first boyfriend and you cheated. It was just a weird time.”

“Freshmen, right?” Mike joked, but there was a weird look in his eyes.

“Ugh, I wouldn’t want to go back.”

Mike smiled, and Ashley found herself smiling as well.

She never thought she’d be here, with Mike Monroe, in a hospital, having a good time.

Chapter Text

“Are you ready for this?” Jess asked as she pulled out her laptop. She propped her feet up on top of the bed and scooted over to make room for Beth. 

With a deep breath, Beth nodded. “Okay, let’s do this.” 

Jess made an excited face and logged in. “Okay, here’s an easy start. Name. You going to use your real name, or do you want to be a catfish?”

Beth looked at her in exasperation. Jess shrugged. “It’s a legit question. Not everyone wants to use their real name and picture on these things. Besides, you could totally do a fake one as a trial run.”

“No, Jess. That’s an actual horrible idea.”

“Okay,” Jess conceded as she typed ‘Bethany Washington’ into the name field. “Another easy one… interested in girls. You’re a female. Your birthday is…”

She glanced over, completely unsure. 

“February 2. Hannah and I want to have a party for the big 18. Normally, we just have, like, Sam and Chris over.”

“Ooo,” Jess said, though she’d resumed typing. “I’d go to that. Don’t forget my invitation.”

Beth leaned back, watching Jess as she kept filling in basic info on the screen. “Yeah, I’d forget my brother’s girlfriend.” 

Jess sat up and raised a finger. “Hold the phone. Josh and I are not official. We both agreed that this was just going to be fun. We’re dating, that’s all. I like Josh, I really do, but he’s not my forever guy and I told him right off the bat.”

Beth took the laptop away. “Maybe we need to make YOU one of these profiles!”

“Please,” Jess scoffed, “I could get any guy I want. And I know who I want. It’s just not something that can happen. Fuck, I even told Josh.” Jess paused. “Perfect timing: are you looking for something serious, a hookup, friendship, whatever else these options are?”

“Looking for a girlfriend but wouldn’t be totally opposed to what you’ve got in the meantime.”

“Great, so I’ll put ‘friends with benefits’ down.”

“Don’t!”

“You’re right, me and Josh aren’t really close as friends or anything.”

Beth rolled her eyes and sighed, handing the laptop back over to Jess so she’d stop obnoxiously leaning over to type. “No, just put that I’m looking for a relationship!”

’Looking for my forever partner,’” Jess typed with a chuckle.

Beth sighed and threw herself down on the pillow. “I’m going to fucking fire you if you put something like that.”

“Fine. How about: ‘Sporty punk-rock ass kicker who’s 5’8” and feels grrreat!’

“Yeah,” Beth said nodding. “Yeah I like that. Let me see?”

Jess handed the laptop to Beth.

“Thanks,” Beth said, slamming the lid. “You’re fired.”

With a sigh of disgust, Jess rolled over and grabbed her own laptop off the floor. “Fine, then I’m going to go on my fake profile.”

“Why? Wait, your what?”

Jess typed quickly and pulled up an account of someone who was definitely not her. “See? I use it mostly to mess with people. Let’s see if Tara has one…”

“Tara? No!”

 “Oh look, she does!”

Beth took a step away. “Listen, Jessica, if you message her or anything on your sketchy fake account, I’ll never talk to you again.”

“Why?” Jess asked innocently. For once, Beth could see that to Jess, this was supposed to be helping. “It’s not like I want to date her.”

“Just because we broke up and I’m fucking pissed at her doesn’t mean I want her to be trolled by a catfish.”

“I’d do it.”

“Well, that’s a problem, Jess. You should delete that account, you know? That’s not really fair.”

With a yawn, Jess closed the laptop and put it back. “You’re right, I will. Tomorrow. I’m too tired.”

“Is that your way of kicking me out?” Beth asked with a laugh as she slid her laptop into her bag.

“You can totally stay on the floor if you want.”

She looked at Jess wryly. “Mhmm. I’ll see you tomorrow at my house. I’ll go work on this profile, alright? It’ll look so good tomorrow.”

“Wait!” Jess called, sitting up before Beth could leave the room. “Do NOT look at any matches without me. I want to be there for that!”

Beth chuckled. “Sure. I can do that. Thanks for your help. I wouldn’t have even made the account without you. It’s not really my thing, but I’m actually excited. It's something new.”

“Good, I'm glad. Trust me, with my help you’ll get over Tara in no time.”

Chapter Text

“Hey, what are you watching?” Sam asked as she hopped over the arm of the couch and grabbed a handful of popcorn from Hannah.

“I don’t really know, I just started it really. It’s some show called Agent’s of S.H.I.E.L.D. It’s really action-y.”

Sam threw the rest of her body over and fully joined Hannah on the couch. “Oh, Marvel, right?”

“Yeah.”

Beth walked over and shook her head. “Nope, I’ll be in my room. DC for me.”

Hannah scoffed. “I can’t believe we’re related. DC sucks.”

Sam chuckled and focused on the tv. Some woman she recognized from the Marvel movies was talking to a dark-haired man. Well… if he was a lead in the show, she could get used to it.

The woman was speaking: "Everything's changing. A little while ago, most people went to bed thinking that the craziest thing in the world was a billionaire in a flying metal suit. Then aliens invaded New York and were beaten back by, among others, a giant green monster, a costumed hero from the 50's, and a god."

"I don't think Thor's technically a god," the hot guy said.

"Well, you haven't been near his arms."

Sam chuckled. “Well, that’s true. This girl speaks the truth. I’m in for this show. Is she the lead?”

“I don’t think so. This is only the first episode though. I think this guy is one of the leads. His name is Grant Ward. He’s so hot.”

Sam shrugged. “Yeah he definitely is, but I’m with that girl. Thor and his arms are” she clicked her tongue, “on point.”

“No way. All or nothing for me with Ward here.”

“They call him ‘Ward’ and not ‘Grant?’”

Hannah laughed. “I think so. I’d call him a lot of things. Good thing I’m not an agent. I'd totally be fired”

 

 

 

Chapter Text

“Whoa,” Sam said, slipping on a wet leaf. Her hood kept the worst of the rain out of her eyes, but it was starting to pick up. She hugged herself, trying to keep warm in the biting wind.

The Washington’s had too many properties. It was almost nauseating as she walked alone through the woods of their cabin. It was far less exciting than the lodge up in the mountains, and even the beach house.  It was smaller than the normal house, but then again, there were only six of them, and no one really cared about personal space.

All of this would have been comforting to her if she hadn’t gotten turned around while they were trying to escape the rain and get back to the cabin.

It was still bright out, though the clouds fought against the sun to darken the sky. Every now and then, the sun managed to sneak past the clouds for a moment before it was overtaken again.

Sam had absolutely no idea where she was. This stream sure hadn’t been something she’d crossed, and of course none of the trees were familiar. But she couldn’t just sit and wait for someone to hopefully find her in this random patch of trees.

But as the dark sky betrayed signs of evening, Sam finally felt her pent-up panic start to break free. Her feet moved more quickly, and as the temperature dropped, she felt herself shake.

“God damnit!” she yelled, frustrated with herself more than anything. There was no fucking service in these woods. None of the Washington properties were known for it. They needed an upgrade, bad.

With a sigh, Sam was glad to see that she’d finally stumbled into a construction area. She didn’t know of any construction at the Washington’s, but at least it was a place on someone’s map.

She looked around to see if there were any leftover snacks, radios, flashlights, or even sheltered areas. There was no luck. Everything looked carefully put away, and there was nothing lying around. It almost looked abandoned. She kept moving, hoping she was missing something.

And that’s when Sam felt it.

Her body gave way and her head was the first thing to hit a wall of dirt. When her feet finally hit the ground, she groaned in pain before she noticed her new predicament.

“Fuck,” she muttered, looking around the small space.

She’d fallen straight into a hole.

The ground beneath her was wet and muddy, a small layer of rainwater sitting just above the dirt. She tried to grab anything, to get a foothold, literally, anything, but the walls were too wet as well.

Her head jerked up, her eyes snapping open from their light slumber. It was hard when you were sitting in mud with only a hood to keep the rain off. There was noise.

It was hard to pick out, just a murmur, but there was a voice, she was sure of it.

“Hello?” she yelled as loud as she could.

The muffled voice got closer, louder, but not clearer over the rain.

Sam fiddled with her coat pockets and found her phone. She still had a fair bit of battery. It’s not like she could use it up here. She turned on the flashlight and aimed it up, waving it wildly.

“Hey! Hey! Whoever you are, over here! Hey!!”

“Sam?” the voice called again, closer.

“Oh God, hey! Guys! Here, look here!”

A shadowed head appeared above her, and she quickly moved her phone to avoid blinding them. She put it away, letting her eyes adjust again, and finally she saw who it was.

Josh.

“Sam!” he breathed, relief flooding his features.

“Oh my God, Josh. Thank God.”

“What the fuck are you doing in there?”

Sam stared at him, open mouthed and dumbstruck. “Do I look like I chose to hop in this hole? Yeah, actually, I wanted to know what it felt like to be a fox so I crawled into this hole.”

Josh’s lips tipped up and he shook his head. “Well, if that’s what you want.” He disappeared from sight.

Sam knew he wouldn’t leave her, but his disappearance caused her attitude to spike. “Hey! Where are you going?”

He appeared again moments later holding a chain. “I’m getting something for you. Jeesh.”

“Sorry, I’m a little annoyed,” she said without even a hint of sympathy. Josh didn’t blame her.

He dropped one end of the chain to her and she started to try ways to safely wrap it around her.

“I’ve got her, guys. She fell into a hole at the construction site.”

Sam’s ears perked up. “Is everyone with you?”

“No, that was a walkie. We split up.”

“Oh thank fuck,” Beth breathed on the other end, muffled and static-y, but there all the same.

“Is she okay?” Hannah asked. Sam couldn’t tell if Beth and Hannah were sharing a radio or not.

Josh angled the walkie-talkie towards Sam. “They’re scared shitless. Just say hi.”

She could hear that he’d hit the button, and she sighed. “Um… I’m alive. Not having as much fun as before, but I’m not dead.”

Before Josh had moved his finger away from the button, Hannah was all but sobbing. “Oh, Sam, I’m so glad!”

But Josh interrupted her. “Hey, I need my hands to get her out. Can you stop making me talk?”

“Do you need us to come up there?” Beth asked.

“No, we’ll be fine,” Josh assured them before putting the walkie talkie back into his heavy coat.

Sam held up the chain. “It’s not rope. I’ll just have to hold it and you’ll have to pull.”

Josh flexed his knuckles. “Good thing the jock found you.”

She wrapped her hands in the chain, already preparing for the bite that would bring. “All those video games with Chris better have given you some muscle.”

“You ready?”

“Yeah,” she said, more than ready to get out.

“Go!” Josh called as he started to tug the chain as hard as he could. Sam held on to the painful, rusty, wet metal with all she had. Her toes dug into the mucky wall. Though there wasn’t enough of a grip to be on her own, there was enough to help Josh not break his back trying to pull her near-dead weight out.

She grabbed the ground as soon as she could, and Josh helped to pull her up.

“Thank God,” she muttered again, looking into the pit.

Josh went to grab her, but she sidestepped him. “I’m covered in mud, Josh. You’ve done enough without covering yourself in this shit.”

He eyed her and grabbed her anyway before she had an opportunity to dodge again.

She had to admit, as her arms tightly wrapped around him, that he felt good. She was warm against him, and safe.

“You’re shaking. How cold are you?” Josh asked, pulling away.

She was freezing. “Not that cold.”

Josh felt her nose, but she couldn’t jerk away fast enough. He started to unzip his coat. “Take that one off, it’s soaked and doing nothing.”

“No, Josh. You won’t have a coat and it’s cold. You’ll get soaked too.”

It didn’t stop him from taking it off, holding it out to her.

“I can’t…”

“Dammit, Sammy, just put the coat on.”

She rolled her eyes, defeated, and took her own jacket off. It was a soggy, muddy mess of fabric. Wincing in pain, she knew there would be some red mark on her hands from that metal, but she slid her arms into his sleeves, she knew this was exactly what she needed.

Josh moved her shaking hands aside and zipped up the coat for her, and lifted the hood over her head. He took her old jacket from her and draped it over his arm.

He reached into the pocket, grabbing the radio again. “I’ve got her out, and we’re headed back now. See you in a bit.”

Flipping it off, he plopped it back in the same place and reached into the back of his jeans, grabbing a miniature flashlight. “Watch for holes,” he cautioned her with a grin as he turned it on.

She bounded forward and whacked his arm gently, but she didn’t move away. Instead, she kept hold of him. If he noticed or cared, he made no notion of it. At least, not until they reached a fallen log.

Sam had been slightly intoxicated by the warmth of the jacket, the smell of Josh lingering on the fabric, some combination of aromas mixed with mint. But Josh stopped, and she found herself beside him, waiting for him to climb over the log.

He held out his hand and she took it, climbing carefully and dropping back down. She went to let go of him, but he held on. When Sam didn’t pull away, he swallowed and felt his heart race as fast as it had when he was looking for her. He laced his fingers through hers and cast a sidelong glance at her.

She grinned and pushed a strand of hair from her face before she noticed his eyes on her.

They walked like this, hand-in-hand until the cabin came into view.

“Wow, you really did know your way around,” she said. They’d walked for far longer than she would have thought to get back.

“It’s pretty useful in case anyone- no names mentioned- gets lost out here.”

“You could easily survive a horror movie out here,” she laughed.

He grinned and went to walk again, but her hand pulled him back.

“Wait, Josh,” she reached up on her tip-toes, and he bent down for her almost on instinct. She was, after all, a foot shorter than him. She pressed her lips against his cheek and finally pulled her hand free of his. “Thank you.”

Josh was starry-eyed, though he tried to hide his daze. She’d kissed him. It hadn’t been what he’d always dreamed of, but it was enough. And there was no way he’d let her know. Instead, he pointed a finger at her playfully.

“I have a reputation to protect, Sammy. I’m the court jester, not the hero, so don’t go acting like I was.”

Sam could see that there was something behind his eyes, something that he wasn’t saying. “Well, you’re my hero today, anyway. But now, I think I need a bath.”

Chapter Text

“Josh?” Jess asked as she walked into the silent house.

There was no noise, no chatter in the background or echoing off the railings from the twins as they bounced from room to room. They were gone. There wouldn’t be noise like that again.

“Josh? I just need my iPod. I forgot it here last time I came over.”

She crept into the living room, feeling like she was invading some sacred space. But as she went to check the couch, she let out a sharp scream.

“Josh! What the fuck? Why didn’t you answer me?”

Josh was lying on the couch with a beer bottle spilled over onto the ground. His eyes were half open as he stared at her.

“You’re fucking loud, Jessica.”

“Jesus Christ. Sorry, you just scared me. You didn’t respond. I didn’t know you were here.”

He yawned but didn’t respond.

Jess looked him over. “My iPod. You’re listening to it.”

“Your shit is better than mine,” he mumbled, turning so his face was in the pillow.

Crossing her arms, Jess wasn’t sure what to do. “Look, Josh, we broke up. Sort of. I mean, we were never officially dating, but you know what I mean. But I’m still your friend. Did you want to talk?”

Josh rolled over again. “Talk? About how my fucking sisters are missing? About how you and those shitters I called friends made it happen? Friends. We’re not friends, Jess. Not anymore. I don’t want to deal with any of you fuckers. Fuck you. Get the fuck out of here.”

Jess wasn’t offended. She thought about it every night. Yeah, it was her fault. And she damn well should have been blamed.

“Okay. We’ll talk another time. But I’m getting Sam or Chris over here. You can’t drink while on your meds.”

She felt a heavy pillow crash into her arm, and Josh had thrown himself halfway off the couch to do it.

“No!”

“Shut up, Josh. I’m leaving. Call me if you need me.”

She took one more look at the iPod and shook her head. Next time.

As she went back to her car, she called Sam.

“Hello?”

“Hey, Sam, it’s Jess.”

“I know, I have caller ID.”

Jess laughed. “Right. Sorry, just came out of the Washington’s. I don’t know how good you and Josh are doing, I assume you’re still friends, but he hates me and he’s drinking and on his meds. I think his parents are back at the lodge looking for… well… you know where they are.”

“Is he okay?”

Jess could hear the jingle of keys on the other end of the phone.

“He’s physically fine. Mentally, no, but I don’t want anything to happen. He’s really bad.”

“Alright Jess. Thanks’ for the call. I’ll head down there.”

“Sure. Oh, and Sam? If you see my iPod, which he’s currently listening to, can you swipe it back for me?”

“Yeah, no problem.”

“Thanks. Bye.”

Jess hung up and threw her phone onto the empty passenger seat.

Holding her head, she had to get the thought to leave. Sometimes, she could forget it, but other times, it ate at her. Did I kill the twins? Did they die in the snow that night because I wanted to play a prank? And her brain would repeat this for hours until it gnawed at her core.

“It was only a prank,” she said out loud to herself. She had to convince herself. She had to. “No one told them to run. It was a harmless prank. Em knew. Mike knew. They had responsibility too. And Matt, and Ashley. It wasn’t just her. It was only a prank.

Turning the engine on, she grabbed her phone and sent a quick text, glad to see an equally fast response. It made her smile, and she quickly turned down the road.

It didn’t take long for her to reach the ski shop, and she headed inside like it was her home. She knew it well now, especially since Mike had been working there for the winter. Someone in his family owned it. She didn’t know who.

“Hey stranger,” she said as she came up behind him in the helmet section.

“Shit, that was fast.”

“I went to get something from Josh’s house. He’s a fucking wreck.”

“Man. I don’t blame him. What’d he say?”

Jess grinned and leaned forward on the cart that Mike had been wheeling around to restock. She made sure her best features were on display. “Oh, he told me to go fuck myself. It’s not a bad idea, actually.”

She smiled deviously as Mike’s eyes widened and his eyes drifted exactly where she wanted them to. He coughed after a moment and tried to gather himself. “I mean… yeah… that… hmm.”

With her desired outcome, Jess took something from the carriage. She had no idea what it was, but spun it around in her hand anyway. “Would you have hit that?”

Mike’s eyes bugged out again, and he tried to stop looking at her. “Hmm?”

“Hannah?”

“Oh, man, come on. She’s probably dead. I don’t want to talk about that. Plus, I’m with Em. I wouldn’t… not with Hannah. I mean… not with anyone.”

Jess giggled. “Oh, Mr. Cool-Guy, are you stuttering? Am I making you nervous?”

“Fuck,” Mike hissed as he moved behind the carriage. “Listen, Jess, let’s get food or coffee or something later. I have a lot of shit to do.”

She shrugged. “That’s fine. I just needed someone sane to talk to.”

“I’ll text you when I get off-- out. When I get out. Of work.”

“Sure. I’ll talk to you then!”

She started to head back to the front when she turned to see Mike discretely making his way to the men’s room. She smirked.

Looking at her phone, she saw a missed text from Emily.

“Need to talk. I have to bitch about Mike again. My house?”

Rolling her eyes, she knew that this was all Emily did: bitch about Mike. If it hadn’t been for these sessions, Jess never would have known that they were struggling. On the outside, they were the perfect power couple. But she could see what Mike needed. He needed someone who appreciated him.

And that wasn’t Emily.

Chapter Text

“Josh?” said a familiar and all-together too mesmerizing voice.

Josh turned, frantically hiding the cigarette behind his back. He scoffed and looked Sam in the eye. “What the fuck do you want now? Go away.”

Sam, however, responded with little more than a raised eyebrow. “It’s Sam. I haven’t seen you since… well, it’s been awhile. You weren’t responding to my texts or calls.”

“I talked to you this morning and I told you to get the fuck off my case about this,” he hissed, holding the cigarette up in her face.

“We haven’t spoken in weeks, Josh.”

He leaned back against the tree that was all-to-close to his dorm building. Closing his eyes, he put the cigarette in his lips and shook his head. Nothing was real anymore. Nothing.

“What do you want?”

“What do I… what the hell is wrong with you, Josh? I thought you might be, I don’t know, happy to see me? I get that it’s hard to be happy, but I’m not… well I wasn’t pissed off about the idea of seeing you again.”

Josh just stood taking long, deep breaths. He didn’t respond or make any form of acknowledgement towards her.

“Maybe I shouldn’t have come. I’m sorry. I guess you need more time.”

“Wait,” Josh finally said, opening his eyes. “Are you going to go to college here, too?”

Sam crossed her arms. “No, this is a film school. That’s not what I want.”

Josh reached out an arm and touched Sam’s cheek lightly. “What are you doing here?” he asked softly, with far less hostility than before.

Sam took a step closer to Josh so he wouldn’t have to reach so far. She didn’t realize how much she needed physical contact with someone until that moment. Everyone had been treating her like porcelain, like a breakable doll on a shoddy shelf.

“I’m here to see how you’re doing. You ghosted everyone, even Chris.”

Josh ran his fingers along Sam’s cheek and towards her hair, though his motions took on a life of their own, as if he didn’t even realize he was making them. “You know, sometimes they’re here with you and Chris. I can touch them. They’re real. Then I turn around and they’re gone. It’s like that day all over again.”

“Josh?” Sam asked, feeling her heartrate rise as she noticed for the first time just how bloodshot his eyes were.

“I know this is you just as much as I know it’s you with Hannah and Beth. You’re all the same. You’re all… here.”

“Josh? Hey. I’m here. It’s really me.”

“It can’t be. You’re in school.”

“It’s Spring Break. I came here for my break. It’s still me.”

His eyes blinked hard, staying closed for far too long before he could open them again. “They’re dead, aren’t they?”

“No. They could still be alive. There’s always a chance.”

Josh started to laugh, though it was devoid of emotion. “You’re so goddamn stupid, Sam. They’re fucking dead. I can’t do this. I need to leave. I need to get out of here.”

“Do you think you should see Dr. Hill?”

Sam let out a soft shriek when she felt Josh’s hand wrapped fiercely around her wrist. “Don’t tell me what to do! Don’t ever tell me what to do!”

“Let go of me, now!”

Josh didn’t hesitate, but he began to walk away, stumbling with every step.

Sam grabbed her phone and sent a quick SOS text to Chris before following Josh. He had stopped walking, and when she got to him, he dropped to his knees.

Sam looked around for help, but the campus was deserted for Spring Break. She jogged to his side and knelt beside him.

“They’re dead,” he muttered again. “But I see them.”

“It’s okay. You’re going to be okay.”

“Did I hurt you?”

Sam looked at her wrist. It was red. “Yeah, a little.”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it. Please, don’t leave.”

She leaned forward and saw a stream of tears running down his cheek. “I won’t leave, Josh. I promise. Do you want me to take you home?”

“To the house that I used to live in with my sisters? No. But I can’t stay here. I’m failing. I’m a fucking failure. I couldn’t even keep my little sisters alive. You know, I’m their brother. I had one fucking job in this world, and I let them die.”

“You didn’t. We all let them down that day, but none of us let them die.”

“No, it’s my fault. It’s my fault!”

Sam stiffened as his voice raised, but she stood her ground. Leaning in closer, she wrapped her arms around Josh, holding him tightly.

He squirmed around for a moment before relaxing, resting his head against hers.

“I need to find them.”

Sam nodded. “We will.”

“They’re dead.”

Sam took a deep breath. She knew Josh. She knew his past. “You didn’t take anything, did you?”

“I took my pills, Sammy. Don’t worry, they’re just to make me fucking happy. They aren’t working.”

 “You can stay with me or with Chris. We talked before I came out here. He misses you.”

“He should miss Beth and Hannah. They’re dead.”

“Stop, please. I don’t like hearing that. I get it. I get it, but I don’t like hearing it.”

The two sat in the grass together, silently staring at nothing, for far longer than either realized. Sam fought back the urge to burst into tears. Tears for Beth, Hannah, Josh, and herself. Because she lost the closest people she had to sisters in her life. Because she could see the pain on her best friend’s face. Because she could see that he wouldn’t be able to handle the guilt in this state. It hurt, physically hurt, to let herself feel the weight of their deaths.

“Do you want to go?”

Josh nodded slowly. “Yeah… I need to get out of here.”

“Josh?” said a familiar and all-together too mesmerizing voice.

Josh turned, frantically hiding the cigarette behind his back. He scoffed and looked Sam in the eye. “What the fuck do you want now? Go away.”

Sam, however, responded with little more than a raised eyebrow. “It’s Sam. I haven’t seen you since… well, it’s been awhile. You weren’t responding to my texts or calls.”

“I talked to you this morning and I told you to get the fuck off my case about this,” he hissed, holding the cigarette up in her face.

“We haven’t spoken in weeks, Josh.”

He leaned back against the tree that was all-to-close to his dorm building. Closing his eyes, he put the cigarette in his lips and shook his head. Nothing was real anymore. Nothing.

“What do you want?”

“What do I… what the hell is wrong with you, Josh? I thought you might be, I don’t know, happy to see me? I get that it’s hard to be happy, but I’m not… well I wasn’t pissed off about the idea of seeing you again.”

Josh just stood taking long, deep breaths. He didn’t respond or make any form of acknowledgement towards her.

“Maybe I shouldn’t have come. I’m sorry. I guess you need more time.”

“Wait,” Josh finally said, opening his eyes. “Are you going to go to college here, too?”

Sam crossed her arms. “No, this is a film school. That’s not what I want.”

Josh reached out an arm and touched Sam’s cheek lightly. “What are you doing here?” he asked softly, with far less hostility than before.

Sam took a step closer to Josh so he wouldn’t have to reach so far. She didn’t realize how much she needed physical contact with someone until that moment. Everyone had been treating her like porcelain, like a breakable doll on a shoddy shelf.

“I’m here to see how you’re doing. You ghosted everyone, even Chris.”

Josh ran his fingers along Sam’s cheek and towards her hair, though his motions took on a life of their own, as if he didn’t even realize he was making them. “You know, sometimes they’re here with you and Chris. I can touch them. They’re real. Then I turn around and they’re gone. It’s like that day all over again.”

“Josh?” Sam asked, feeling her heartrate rise as she noticed for the first time just how bloodshot his eyes were.

“I know this is you just as much as I know it’s you with Hannah and Beth. You’re all the same. You’re all… here.”

“Josh? Hey. I’m here. It’s really me.”

“It can’t be. You’re in school.”

“It’s Spring Break. I came here for my break. It’s still me.”

His eyes blinked hard, staying closed for far too long before he could open them again. “They’re dead, aren’t they?”

“No. They could still be alive. There’s always a chance.”

Josh started to laugh, though it was devoid of emotion. “You’re so goddamn stupid, Sam. They’re fucking dead. I can’t do this. I need to leave. I need to get out of here.”

“Do you think you should see Dr. Hill?”

Sam let out a soft shriek when she felt Josh’s hand wrapped fiercely around her wrist. “Don’t tell me what to do! Don’t ever tell me what to do!”

“Let go of me, now!”

Josh didn’t hesitate, but he began to walk away, stumbling with every step.

Sam grabbed her phone and sent a quick SOS text to Chris before following Josh. He had stopped walking, and when she got to him, he dropped to his knees.

Sam looked around for help, but the campus was deserted for Spring Break. She jogged to his side and knelt beside him.

“They’re dead,” he muttered again. “But I see them.”

“It’s okay. You’re going to be okay.”

“Did I hurt you?”

Sam looked at her wrist. It was red. “Yeah, a little.”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it. Please, don’t leave.”

She leaned forward and saw a stream of tears running down his cheek. “I won’t leave, Josh. I promise. Do you want me to take you home?”

“To the house that I used to live in with my sisters? No. But I can’t stay here. I’m failing. I’m a fucking failure. I couldn’t even keep my little sisters alive. You know, I’m their brother. I had one fucking job in this world, and I let them die.”

“You didn’t. We all let them down that day, but none of us let them die.”

“No, it’s my fault. It’s my fault!”

Sam stiffened as his voice raised, but she stood her ground. Leaning in closer, she wrapped her arms around Josh, holding him tightly.

He squirmed around for a moment before relaxing, resting his head against hers.

“I need to find them.”

Sam nodded. “We will.”

“They’re dead.”

Sam took a deep breath. She knew Josh. She knew his past. “You didn’t take anything, did you?”

“I took my pills, Sammy. Don’t worry, they’re just to make me fucking happy. They aren’t working.”

 “You can stay with me or with Chris. We talked before I came out here. He misses you.”

“He should miss Beth and Hannah. They’re dead.”

“Stop, please. I don’t like hearing that. I get it. I get it, but I don’t like hearing it.”

The two sat in the grass together, silently staring at nothing, for far longer than either realized. Sam fought back the urge to burst into tears. Tears for Beth, Hannah, Josh, and herself. Because she lost the closest people she had to sisters in her life. Because she could see the pain on her best friend’s face. Because she could see that he wouldn’t be able to handle the guilt in this state. It hurt, physically hurt, to let herself feel the weight of their deaths.

“Do you want to go?”

Josh nodded slowly. “Yeah… I need to get out of here.”

Chapter Text

Lights.

It looked the way a scene did before Josh could figure out how light it properly. Sometimes, he just stared at lights for hours. This time, the room was lit, and he was the subject.

“No, don’t let any of them know. Not this time.”

Josh tried to blink, to get the lights away from him. He didn’t want light… he wanted darkness.

“Chris and Sam won’t stop calling. They know something is wrong.”

“Sam went to get him last time. They can’t know.”

Josh couldn’t speak or open his eyes more than a crack. He was numb. No arms, no legs, no heartbeat. And though he couldn’t move anything else, he could feel himself smile.

Finally.

He felt himself drift off into the dark.


“Josh! Oh my God! Bob! Bob!”

“What?” Bob Washington asked as he hurried into the room. “Oh God! Call an ambulance, Melinda!”

Bob knelt beside his son and grabbed the fallen bottle of pills next to a shattered glass that reeked of absinthe. Absinthe from his store of liquor in the basement.

Rolling Josh onto his side, Bob shoved two fingers as far back into Josh’s throat as possible.

“Don’t do this, Josh. Not you, too.”

“Help him, Bob! They’re on their way!”

“What do you think I’m doing?” Bob yelled back.


“Josh?” Mr. Washington said wearily. “Listen, son, I know you need a support system, but you can’t tell them. You can’t tell your friends what you did. You’re here because you were injured, okay? That’s all they’re going to know.”

“Why? Josh asked groggily.

Bob hesitated. “They’ll never treat you the same. It was those quacks we had you seeing. They gave you the wrong dose of your meds. It had to be that.”

“I wish you’d asked us before inviting them to visit you,” Melinda said with a huff.

But Josh scoffed. “I didn’t know I needed your permission to exist. Oh wait, I guess I did know that. You wouldn’t even let me die in peace.”

“Shut up!” Melinda hissed viciously. “Don’t even joke, Josh.”

Nodding slowly, Josh let his eyes close. “I wasn’t.”


“You left us! You left us out there to die! You’re our brother. Please, please, Josh! Find us.”

Josh cradled his head in his hands, fighting the overwhelming urge to scream into the pillow on his lap. “Stop talking! Stop it! I get it! I’ll go back up this weekend. I’ll find you.”

“No, we can’t be found there. We’re scared and alone. Please, we need you. We need our brother.”

“You fucked up, Josh. You’re the only one who can make it right. Come with us. Don’t let us be alone.”

“How?” Josh asked, fighting back a sob. “Tell me what I need to do!”

“You know, Josh. You know what you need to do.”


“Hey,” Sam said as she crept into the room with a smile. She put something down on the chair and took off her jacket before making her way over to where Josh was laying down.

“You came?” he asked with a shocked smile.

“Duh. Why wouldn’t I? I can’t believe you fell off the ski lift. Like, how did that even happen?”

Josh started to laugh and sat up. “You know me.”

“Can I hug you, or are you in pain?”

Josh scoffed, widening his arms. “Aw Sammy, I’d hug you even if my ribs were sticking out of my skin.”

Sam hesitated. “Gross. They aren’t, right?”

“Just… just come here.”

Sam sat on the bed and wrapped her arms around Josh’s neck, now afraid of touching any part of him that might have been injured in his “fall”. But Josh pulled her closer by the waist, breathing in the scent of her. The real her. A real person. Real. This was real. This is real.

“Your parents cornered Chris outside. He’s coming in.”

“You know, we could give them all a shock. Just take off your shirt. They’ll think they walked in on us in the heat of passion.”

Sam scoffed and let go, softly pushing his head back. “Oh, you’re fine. You’re literally perfectly normal… by your standards, anyway.”

The door to the room opened again, and this time, Chris swaggered in with an exaggerated bravado.

Josh grinned. “Cochise! What’s up, bro!?”

“You know, not falling out of a ski lift. You?”

“Trying to kill myself,” he said, grinning at his own sense of morbid humor. His eyes slid to his mortified parents.

“Yeah,” Chris said looking around. “I don’t blame you. Look at this place. It’s awful.”

“Yeah…” Josh said, thinking of how much he wished to hell and back that Hannah and Beth were in this room, stuck to machines… but alive. How this hellhole of a room would be the most beautiful thing if it meant that they were alive.

He wanted to hear his little sisters teasing him for actually falling from a ski lift. He wanted to see them play with the machines that clearly said, “Do not touch”. He wanted to hear the nurse ream them out for playing with the buttons they were told not to press.

For now? He’d have to settle for hearing Chris and Sam talk to him like he was a person rather than the poor thing his parents thought he was. He wanted to go home, he realized.

He just wanted to go home.

But without Beth and Hannah, he wasn't sure that would ever be possible again. 

Chapter Text

“Michael Monroe, what are you doing?” Jess couldn’t help the look on her face as she crossed her arms and watched him lean his forehead against the wall.

Mike sighed. “I just got off the phone with Em. I can’t take it much more.”

He froze and turned to her. To Jess. To Emily’s best friend.

“Oh God, Jess, I didn’t mean that. I love Emily, I do. Right now, she’s just getting on my nerves. We fought. That’s all.”

Jess’ smile was mischievous. “Oh please, Michael, I’m so over that high school bullshit. I wouldn’t tell on you if I caught you in here with Mr. Washington. What you do is your business.”

Mike chuckled and watched as Jess started to circle him like a vulture. But… like a hot vulture. No, that’s weird, he thought to himself.

“So, I you came in here and I was, for some reason, getting it on with our friend’s dad, you wouldn’t even care?”

“I’m not friends with any of the Washington’s. What do I care?”

“You wouldn’t tell Em? Or Josh, who I know you’re friends with because Hannah, who I am friends with, told me you were at their house.”

Jess stilled and put on her best smile, though it was tight. “Okay, so Josh and I were friends. But still, it’s not my business.”

Mike smirked, but his face quickly soured as he started to think of Emily again.

“Em… she wants me to move to LA with her once we graduate. She got into some school there, but I don’t want to. I told her that. It didn’t go over well. Now I feel like she’s going to pop up behind me and stuff me in a trunk until moving day, then bring me with her.”

“That’s morbid.” Jess sighed, genuinely feeling sorry for him. She knew Emily could be tough. “Hey… Michael… if… never mind, forget it.”

“What?” Mike said, his interest piqued. “Now you have to tell me.” Jess shook her head, and Mike reached out and grabbed her hand. “Hey, come on. What?”

Jess felt her face blush. She actually blushed. “Well, I was just thinking about a place you might be able to relax for a minute.”

“Oh, yeah?”

“Yeah. I worked there last summer, and I think…” she said, digging through her bag. “Yep, I still have the key.”

“The key to where?” Mike asked, narrowing his eyes.

“You’ll just have to trust me. Do you?”

Mike grinned and put his hands in his pocket, shrugging. “You’re being a bit dodgy which almost makes me nervous… almost. I trust you enough to learn about this key.”

Jess beamed and held her hands out to her side, a welcoming challenge. “Alright Michael, get in my car… if you dare.”

She giggled and held open the doors that led outside and unlocked her car. Mike brushed past her slowly, his eyes locked on hers in playful distrust. But he couldn’t even hold his fake expression for long.

Jess’ smile lit up the room. Her laugh was infectious. She was genuinely happy. It was something he rarely had with Emily anymore, and it was a refreshing change. Emily would be scowling right now, stomping her feet and demanding that he listen to her, that he does what she wants to do. Jess was different. If he said he didn’t want to go, he knew Jess would back down. Or if he said he was just having a bad day, he wouldn’t hear a story about how his day was far better than hers.

Jess slid into the driver’s seat and turned on the car, immediately playing Britney Spears. Mike’s eyes slid over to her, his eyebrow raised playfully.

“What? She’s inspiring.”

He wasn’t sure that’s quite the word he’d use as “Womanizer” played. Or, maybe it was, from her perspective anyway. But Mike rolled down the window and rocked his head to the catchy tune.

“Oooh! Michael Monroe, you are jamming out to Brittney in your head, aren’t you? Are you a secret fan? You don’t strike me as a pop music guy.”

Mike scoffed. “I can appreciate pop. God knows Emily made me go to enough concerts with her. But no, I’m more of a hip-hop guy myself.”

Jess nodded. “I got you. You’re like—” she dramatically cleared her throat and held her hand up to her mouth, like a beat boxer. Out came the worst singing voice he’d ever heard: “‘Can we go back, this is the moment, Tonight is the night, we'll fight till it's over, So we put our hands up like the ceiling can't hold us, Like the ceiling can't hold us’!”

Mike cringed, but he couldn’t fight the smile that was breaking through. “Yep, that’s exactly me. You nailed it.”

Jess glanced at Mike’s face and chuckled, hitting him in the arm. “Shut up!”

After a while longer in the car, Jess pulled into a parking lot and jumped out of the car. She hurried up to the door and held her card up the reader. It beeped green and she turned the handle. “Perfect! It still works. Come on.”

Mike followed her in, looking around the small hallway. “Is this breaking and entering?”

Jess shrugged and continued forward, opening one more door. She stepped aside and let Mike in.

The room was a giant indoor swimming pool. He sniffed in the blatant smell of chlorine and bleach. Some of the lights turned on, and the pool began to ripple. Mike turned to see Jess returning to his side with a triumphant smile on her face.

“See? I told you. A quiet, peaceful place.”

Mike nodded in approval. “This could work.”

Jess tossed her bag and jacket on the ground and kicked off her shoes. “You can do what you want, but I’m going for a swim while I’m here. The water’s heated, so that’s even better.”

“A swi—”

Mike couldn’t even finish his thought before Jess had peeled her shirt off, leaving her in a yellow polka dotted bra. She quickly stepped out of her jeans, revealing a mismatching pair of sky-blue bottoms. She turned deliberately towards Mike. “Are you going to gawk at me all day, or are you coming? Because I don’t mind, but I think you should return the favor if you’re joining me.”

A wry smile spread over Mike, and he quickly undid his belt. Jess was watching him with unhidden interest as he also stepped out of his jeans and out of his shirt. She looked him over hungrily. “Boxer briefs? Emily never mentioned that.”

“She never mentioned my…” Mike scoffed. “Of course you know all about our sex life.”

Jess shrugged and sauntered over to him. “Sounds like it’s been a bit infrequent lately.”

 “I don’t want to talk about that,” he muttered.

Jess grabbed his hand and pulled him closer to the edge of the pool. “Sorry. We don’t have to talk.” She was looking up at him with wide, puppy-dog eyes, equally alluring and endearing all at once.

“That’s not what I—”

Jess grabbed him tightly and dragged him as she jumped into the pool. He flopped along with her, making a huge splash as he ungracefully crashed into the water.

Jess giggled as she surfaced, Mike quickly following her. He whipped the hair from his face and spat out some water from his mouth, but he was laughing.

“God, I haven’t laughed this much since—”

His words were cut off as Jess wrapped her arms around his neck and pressed a firm kiss on his lips. It was nothing crazy. She was testing the waters, so to speak.

So, when she pulled away and Mike was smiling rather than in a panic from her kiss, she leaned in for another, one he happily reciprocated. This time, it was aggressive and passionate. Mike realized that as much as he loved being an Alpha male, he much preferred Alpha women. And Jess certainly was that.

But he pulled away, regardless. “Oh, God… Emily. We can’t ever tell her.”

Jess ran her nose along Mike’s cheek before nibbling at his ear. Her hand was over his chest, and she could feel his racing heart.

“We’ll never tell her. It’s just you and me here. She’ll never find out, Michael. Not from me.”

Chapter Text

Sam yawned as she watched the kids play around her. She didn’t hate kids, but she certainly didn’t want to spend her Saturday at her cousin’s 9th birthday party.

She took out her phone, wishing she hadn’t been dragged here. She hated having to go to boring kid’s parties alone. And she’d tried so hard to convince Hannah and Beth to come, but they were shopping with their mom. She’d tried to get Josh to go, but he just laughed, along with Chris, who was apparently with him.

She tried to play a mindless game, but her heart wasn’t in it. She sighed and put it away in her pocket and looked around. There were either children of all ages, or a table of adults, half of them drunk and the other half the designated drivers. She considered trying to sneak over to grab one, but she was sure she’d be caught.

Though watching some of the kids fall over in the bouncy house was amusing, it wasn’t enough to keep her entertained. She got up and walked around, deciding to stretch her legs, even if she had to do that for the remainder of the party.

After circling the bouncy house about four times, she leaned against the fence, feeling her eyes droop. At the risk of passing out, she took a seat in the grass.

“Sam?”

She looked up, blinking the sleep from her nearly-dozed-off eyes and saw Mike Monroe standing in front of her.

For a moment, she wasn’t sure if it was a boredom-induced dream. “Mike? What are you doing here? Is one of these yours?”

He chuckled. “Kind of. I’m chaperoning my niece.”

Sam patted the grass beside her, and Mike was quick to take the spot. “I didn’t know you had any siblings.”

Mike made a face and nodded. “Mhmmm, three older brothers.”

“How old are they? Wait, how old are you? Why do I feel like you can’t have a brother with an 8-ish year old?”

Mike started to laugh. “He’d kill me if he told you… but my oldest brother is 36. My parents got married right out of college and Daniel came pretty soon after.”

“I never knew that.”

“Yeah, I don’t talk about them at school. It’s weird. But hey, who are you here with?”

“My cousin is running around somewhere. It’s her party. She’s a second cousin… or something. First cousin twice removed, something weird like that. I don’t really get that system. I was dragged here to support my Aunt Victoria. I don’t know what that even means. I said hi to here. I guess that’s my support?”

Stretching out his arms, Mike yawned, clearly just as excited to be there as Sam. “My brother got called into work, and my other brothers aren’t local. I usually get the call before my parents do to take Callie somewhere.”

“Is that difficult? I don’t have any siblings so the whole art of sibling-hood is lost on me.”

With a grin, Mike shrugged. “It’s hard to explain. I’ve never known anything else. It doesn’t bother me to watch Callie. She’s pretty much just a short adult at this point, so it’s not like I have to talk about Elmo with her for seven hours anymore.”

“Oh,” Sam said, pretending to bite her nail. “Are they supposed to be over that stage by now? I only talk to Jill about Elmo.”

“You’re an attentive cousin.”

Sam laughed. “Well how about you? To be honest, I never really pegged you as a family man.”

“Because I date around?”

Sam shrugged guiltily. She and Hannah had talked about Mike like this before. Hannah insisted that Mike just needed the right girl in his life.

But it didn’t seem to bother Mike. “Emily and I have been off and on, you know? She always wants to get so serious about everything, but I’m just not into that sort of thing. I just want to have fun with her. And when she’s fun, she’s fun. I have such a good time with her when she isn’t so uptight. And then we split when she becomes my jailer, and then we’re back together somehow. Dating lets me have fun when she’s bringing me down. But that doesn’t mean I don’t love my family.”

“Oh, God, no, that’s not what I meant to imply. I believe you that you love them. I would never question that.”

“Relax, Sam.”

Sam brushed some hair from her face, determined to change the subject. “Are you looking at internships yet?”

“The mayor’s office has one I applied for. You?”

“No. I’m still looking.”

“Do the twins? You’re close to them.”

“You can ask them in pre-calc.” Sam grinned, and Mike nodded, appreciating her cheekiness more than she thought he would. She almost expected him to snap at her.

“Uncle Mike!”

“Callie.”

Callie was a short girl with her black hair tied back in a messy ponytail. She looked out of breath. “Uncle Mike, Jonah wants me to go to his house with James and Kelly. Can I?”

Mike made a face. “No. Your dad wants you home by dinner time.”

Callie looked between him and Sam. “Who’s this? It’s not another girlfriend, right?”

Mike rolled his eyes and stood up. “You know what, Cal? It might be time to go home.”

“No! I want to stay!”

“You just said you want to leave.”

“No! Uncle Mike, please!”

Mike turned to Sam. She shrugged. Mike sighed. “Listen, you can’t go to Jonah’s, but we can stay for a little while longer. But you have to apologize to my friend Sam. What you said was rude.”

Callie turned to Sam. Her face looked utterly dejected, as if she’d been told she wasn’t getting into her top school. “Sorry Sam.”

Sam smiled. “Thanks. Accepted.”

“Go play for a bit,” Mike said, urging her back to her friends before sitting back down. “Her dad would say yes, so she gets all pissed at me when I don’t because I’m not interested in going to another kid’s house.”

“I get it.”

Mike nodded. “Mind if I slum it here with you for a while? I don’t want to bother you, but I also really don’t want to go back inside.”

Sam shrugged, a playful expression on her face. “I guess talking to you is more fun than staring into the air. You can stay, I guess.”

“Oh, gee, thanks.”

Mike didn’t think he’d find enough to talk about with Sam for this long, but she was far more interesting than he’d ever thought. Sam hadn’t realized that he was more than the charming persona he puts on at school. Some of it is just genuine. And they sat in the grass talking until guests finally started to leave.

Against her better judgement, Sam could finally see why half the school wanted to date Michael Monroe.  

Chapter Text

Sam looked around in the cold winds. She couldn’t believe it. It was finally over. All of it… over.

She wasn’t sure how they managed to stand out in the field. The grass was damp from the incessant snow and rain mix, and each step she took drew her deeper into the muck. Her heels were ruined almost immediately, and she’d switched to her exercise shoes. They were the only ones in her trunk. She didn’t think anyone would even notice.

She wore her new dress, one she’d bought specifically for today. Stockings were a must. With the wind, they were the only protection her legs had from their bitter chill. Her black coat was long, knee length. A trench coat. She’d been made fun of it before… by Josh. He’d say that she looked like an old woman. Fitting. The events at the lodge made her feel like one.

The only accessory she wore today was new. A necklace. JBH was inscribed on the front with three birthstones. Two were the same. She placed her hand over it, a small act of comfort she’d found in the past few weeks.

Josh. Beth. Hannah.

She let go of the chain and headed into the cemetery with her head as high as she could manage.

She could see Mike cradling Jessica against a tree. His hand was still bandaged after his fingers had been infected once he’d cut them off. Jess still hadn’t recovered fully, and honestly, Sam was surprised that she was even there. Her face was still ripe with yellow bruises, her body limped over from the pain in her back. She’d had a few surgeries when she returned. The Washington’s had even agreed to help with her medical bills.

Until Mr. Washington had been found dead in his bed just days after learning about the final fate of his three children. Mrs. Washington had up and moved without a word.

Sam shook her head, brushing aside the thoughts. She didn’t see Emily anywhere. Like Mrs. Washington, Sam had heard that Emily moved as soon as the police said she was in the clear. She had made the trip back a few times, though. Surprisingly, it had been specifically to visit Jess.

On the other side of the graveyard, Chris clung to Ashley as if she was keeping him afloat in a vicious sea. She didn’t look so good herself, but she held as much of it together as she could for Chris’ sake. She lost a best friend that day, too. It just hadn’t been Josh.

Hidden under the sleeve of her jacket, Sam felt the sudden burn of her arm cause her to flinch. It reminded her of everything. It reminded her of that day. She’d managed to flip the light switch, ignite the lodge, and escape. But it had cost her some time in the burn unit. Her arm had taken the brunt of the blast, though she still had dead and healing skin on her body.

There were others who knew everyone: family, friends. Some people she recognized. There were people she’d seen at the Washington’s parties, people she knew from school, and people she’d only heard of, but recognized them well enough. But the deaths at the lodge had made the news. There were plenty of people, of strangers, that no one recognized. They came with candles, stuffed animals, flowers.

Sam felt her entire body shiver. Some of it was from the cold wind, but the other half was at the realization that she kept being hit with again and again. It was over.

The twins had been found. While, of course, everyone had presumed them to be dead for the full year, hearing the watered-down news reports, and Emily’s much more graphic descriptions of Beth’s body and Hannah’s descent into madness had Sam wanting to throw up more than once. And then, she remembered the Wendigo… no… then she remembered Hannah. What she had become.

And then she thought of Matt. Matt, who had been nothing but a bystander to this whole affair. Poor Emily, Sam thought. She’d seen Matt reach for her, to try to save her. And then, she never saw him again.

And.

And Josh.

Sam wiped an angry tear from her face as she thought about Josh. She thought about everything he put them through that day. He thought about the pure torture he’d put her through. She could still feel the needle in her neck before remembering the darkness.

She remembered her first private conversation with Mike. Though they’d talked for hours, one bit stuck out here and now as she stared at the graveyard.

“I’m sorry,” he said, wiping his face with the shirt sleeve of his hospital gown. They were both in the hospital still, and though they were both able to walk, they had been forced to use wheelchairs by the staff while they wandered the halls between each other’s rooms.

Though Jess was also hospitalized, she was still in the ICU.

“Why?” Sam asked dryly, wheeling herself back and forth. Mike watched her do this repetitive movement over and over before he answered.

“Fuck. A lot. But Josh, specifically. She pulled me under. I thought I was dead, but she let go and went up above the surface. I swam as fast as I could to get out of there, and then I came up. I heard him. He called her name. And she grabbed him. She fucking held him it the goddamn air with one hand. And he screamed.”

“Stop it, Mike.”

But Mike couldn’t stop, and he gritted his teeth as he remembered the haunting scene.

“He was screaming the entire time. She dragged him through the water and he was screaming.”

“Stop!”

“And I didn’t save him.”

Sam put her head in her hands, putting pressure on her eyes to stop the tears that might come.

“You fucking saved me,” Mike, on the other hand, had no problem letting the tears flow. In fact, Sam was sure he couldn’t stop them if he wanted to. “You didn’t hesitate to bring her attention to you. You saved my worthless ass. But I didn’t even try to save his.”

It took Sam a long time to answer. “You got us all out of the house. If you didn’t break that light, we’d still be there… as food. You made up for it.”

“Still,” Mike said wistfully, “I’m sorry.”

Looking around the graveyard, she saw everyone was paired up. Mike and Jess, Chris and Ashley. If it had been a different time, she’d be with the Twins, who at times like this, counted for one person. Or she’d be with Josh.

At the original memorial for just the Twins, she had been with Josh.

“We’ll find them. There’s still a chance!” She tried to lift Josh’s spirits, but it failed.

Josh turned to her, his eyes bloodshot but steeled and hard. “They were my sisters. My baby sisters. I had one job in this world, and I fucking failed.”

Sam put her hand on his arm. He flinched, but he didn’t pull away. She took that as encouragement and wrapped her arms around his, hugging his arm to her chest. “Stop saying that, Josh. You were… you are the best brother. And if you failed, then so did I. I couldn’t find Hannah in time. I couldn’t warn her. I couldn’t get to the door. I didn’t run into the snow after them. There are a thousand million billion things that I could have done but didn’t. And now they’re missing. As their best friend, I also fucking failed. This is not on you.”

“I failed you all, huh?” she whispered to herself.

She looked back at Chris and Ashley. Ashley had been talking to someone, someone that Sam recognized from one of Matt’s parties. A sibling? And Ashley all but wailed in their arms. Chris had to step away, dealing with his own crushing grief. She saw Ashley’s dads grab her and pull her into their arms, rubbing small, comforting circles on her back.

She saw Chris go to his mom, too. It was clear that she’d been crying. She’d known the Washington’s, specifically Josh, since her son had been in elementary school. But she kept on a well-practiced mask for her son. He needed her. She could grieve another time.

Beth’s girlfriend stood with someone Sam didn’t recognize. In fact, she was shocked that Jenny showed up at all. But they hadn’t broken up… Beth had just disappeared. But Jenny was clearly with someone else. The girl at her side held her comfortingly and gave her a quick kiss before leading her off to the side to grieve away from the crowd. Sam had to admit, it was nice that she’d come for this.

Sam looked at Mike and Jess. Jess was leaning against someone new, someone Sam had never seen before. But from the looks of him, he was her father. She started to limp away, holding on to her father, though he seemed to be carrying her weight for her, as they went to a nearby car.

Sam composed herself before heading over to where Mike stood.

“Is she okay?”

Mike jumped before letting out a relieved breath. “Yeah. Well, no. She’s in pain, so her dad’s taking her home. I don’t know why she even tried to come in the first place. Well, I know why. She and Matt were really close.”

“She was friends with Josh, too,” Sam said absently.

That surprised Mike. “Since when?”

For the first time in a long time, Sam cracked a smile. Since they were sleeping together, she thought. “I don’t know when. It was a while ago, but they hung out with me and the twins sometimes.” That was all she dared to say.

“Hrmm,” Mike grunted, though his mind seemed to already turn from the topic as he looked around. “How the fuck did we get here? We went to the lodge a year ago and our world went to shit since then. Magic cannibals with ancient curses? Dead friends? Look at Chris. He’s never going to get over Josh. They were all like his family. They were like your family. What are you even going to do?” He paused and then stuttered. “I don’t mean that in a… I’m not being sarcastic or anything. Have you actually thought about what you’re going to do?”

Sam shrugged, hugging her arms to herself. “I’m going to go back to school, get my degree, open a vet clinic somewhere far from here, and never look back. If I do, I’ll never leave. I’ll mourn them forever. I’ll try to figure out what happened to Josh. I’ll be a sideshow: one of the lodge victims. I’m going to go somewhere huge. Maybe Boston or New York.”

Mike looked visibly disappointed. “Oh. So, we’ll all just be names you try to forget?”

Sam shook her head. “No. There is no forgetting. I just don’t want to remember this. I got accepted to Cornell, but I stayed local… for the Washington’s. I might see if I can transfer for next semester. Get out of here.”

“I get it. I do. But… if you’re going that way… well, I didn’t tell anyone at the lodge, but I reapplied after the semester ended and I got into Yale. It’s not a full ride, but it’s a scholarship. I’m transferring. I didn’t want to make the lodge about me, so I didn’t tell anyone. But that’s only a few hours from Cornell. I can be around if you need me.”

Sam’s face lit up and she pulled him into a tight hug. “Congratulations, Mike! That’s incredible!”

Mike grinned and held his injured hand up. “I might write a new essay. Maybe get another scholarship.”

Grinning along, Sam nodded mischievously. “Honestly, what a good way to get around all the loans. I might write something, too.”

Mike started to chuckle to himself as he continued to stare out over the cemetery. “You’d never become a Wendigo. Of all of us, you’d have been the safest.”

“Why?”

Mike hesitated, but followed through with his crass joke, “Well, you don’t eat meat.”

Sam’s eyes bugged out as she processed what he’d said. His face fought back laughter, but the humor masked something else, something much deeper.

And despite herself, Sam found herself laughing along.

It was an odd thing, to laugh hysterically at a cemetery while others were crying. Eyes turned on them in disgust or curiosity. And the joke had been horrible. Truly. Not in a ‘bad pun’ sort of way, but a truly insensitive, horrible, poorly timed joke. But it had been such an absurd thing to actually say that she found herself laughing. And the more she laughed, the more Mike did. And as she listened to Mike, her own laughter grew again.

When she finally had enough breath to speak, she grabbed Mike’s arm and pulled him down so she could whisper. “That was truly the worst thing you’ve ever said.” Another chuckle. She fought it.

“I know! Oh my God, I can’t believe I actually said that.”

Sam wiped a tear from her eye and turned to Mike, keeping her face from the crowd as she continued to compose herself. “You know, I was going to take you up on that visit, but after that, I’m not so sure.”

Snorting back a laugh, finally calming down, Mike let out a deep breath. “I hope you do take me up on that.”

Sam looked back, curious. “Does anyone else know? Jess? Emily?”

“I haven’t talked to Emily since the lodge. And Jess… Jess is trying to break up with me, actually. She said she doesn’t want to tie me down, especially since she’s still in and out of the hospital. That fall did a number on her. I told her. She wants me to go, but when I do, we’re done.”

“I’m sorry,” Sam said, sincerely.

“Me too. I can’t put Yale aside for her. I want to. Especially now. But I think I’d resent her later on, and it’s not even her fault. She wants me to go.”

Sam shrugged. “You’re conflicted. I stayed. It was all for nothing, in the end. Josh, his dad, his sisters… they’re all dead. His mom is gone. I gave up a semester for a bunch of ghosts. I don’t regret it… I’ll never wish to take that time back because I learned things about myself that I never would have, but I do wish that I hadn’t done it in the first place.”

Mike sighed. “I’m going. I need to. I have to change things. Maybe… maybe start a non-profit for people with mental conditions like Josh.”

“I’d donate.”

They both fell silent and stared out into the crowd.

“I should go see Ashley and Chris. Chris isn’t doing well, and Matt was Ashley’s close friend in high school.”

Mike nodded. “I’ll come. Ashley probably won’t want to see me, but I was with Chris in the barn. There is no way he doesn’t feel responsible.”

Sam crossed her arms. “I don’t think any of us will stop feeling that.”

“None more than me,” Mike said as they slowly crossed the grass. “The whole prank was my fault. I’m the reason Hannah ran out. It’s all me.”

“I didn’t stop it. It’s on me. We all had a part to play, and each of us is responsible for something.” She paused and then rolled her eyes. “My doctor wants me to see a therapist while I’m here. She’s recommending some guy named Dr. Hill.”

“Probably not a bad idea for all of us.”

“Mhmm.” She shrugged. “I don’t think I’m going to go. They wanted me to go after Hannah and Beth went missing, but I didn’t.”

Mike’s phone beeped in his pocket, and Sam hesitated. It was the same tone that used to alert her to Josh’s texts. He’d been the only one with a different noise. But it wasn’t her phone. It was Mike’s.

“It’s Jess’ dad. She’s having a hard time. I’m going to go over there.” He put his hand on her shoulder, but it wasn’t enough. He grabbed her and pulled her tightly against him. She returned his embrace and felt Mike breathe heavily, like he was trying to steady himself. “Thank you, Sam.”

“Why?” she asked, pulling away.

“You saved me. You saved us all, but you stayed in the lodge. You flipped the switch.”

She smiled sadly. “You did your fair amount of work. But go to Jess. Text me… if you want. And let me know if you definitely pick Yale. I’ll visit you.”

“College pen-pals,” he laughed.

Sam shook her head with a chuckle. “Don’t ruin it.”

“I’ll try not to. Bye Sam.”

“Bye.”

Sam watched Mike walk away and turned to Chris and Ashley. But they were both heading in the other direction, leaving.

Sam realized that most people had left while she’d talked. Despite looking out over the graveyard, she hadn’t been seeing anything. But now, the spot by the candles was free. The stone marker hadn’t gone up yet, so the candles and some framed pictures were all she had.

She looked at the one of Hannah and Beth. If it had been up to her, she’d have given them each their own picture.  

“I’m sorry, Hannah. I let you down once. I hope that I did the right thing the second time around. I wouldn’t want to be trapped as one of those things. I’d want to be killed. Beth would want that for herself, too. Em said she died on impact. Did you, Beth? Were you saved from that shit show in the mines? You didn’t have to… survive. You didn’t have to mourn Hannah. So, Han, I really hope that this saved you.

“And Matt. I’m sorry. We weren’t close, but I liked you. You were a good guy. I saw you at school and I didn’t get the chance to really know you. And I’m the most sorry for that.”

She wiped a tear away as she turned to Josh’s picture. “Josh. God. You were so annoying when we met. And then I kept coming over for Hannah and Beth, and you were always home, or hanging around with Chris. I started to like you. But I never thought I’d love you. And I did… do. I don’t know if that will ever go away. I was stupid not to act on it before when… when we had the chance. Despite the crap you pulled at the lodge, despite everything you did to me there, I still can’t help how I feel. Maybe if you’d lived, I could have hated you. I could have talked to you when my anger didn’t literally make me want to punch you and maybe we could have saved something. But as it is… I hate you. And I love you. And you’re gone, so those two feelings will always be there now. And I’ll never know what you’d have said to defend yourself.”

She turned her head and looked at Josh. She knew he wasn’t there. There was no way, but her imagination went wild, and he sat smiling that cheeky grin at her.

“Sorry, Sammy. I thought you’d think it was funny.”

Sam scoffed. “Of course you’d say that. You were sick. You thought that faking your death was funny. Making Chris choose. Making me watch that video.”

“I was going to let you in on it. When you woke up, I was going to tell you everything. Then we’d go reveal the prank to everyone else. We’d watch the footage in the theater room. Hell, I’d get an Oscar for that.”

“Do you remember that night we were at the park after the movies? That skunk started to walk by and you grabbed on to me like it was the Devil himself. We walked back slowly until it was long gone, and then we had a good laugh. That’s the kind of horror movie I could have forgiven. Spray me with a skunk. But what you did? You made me go through your death twice. Only the second time… was real.”

The fake Josh’s image wavered in Sam’s mind. He didn’t move. Then, he faded, and Sam was left alone. She stood up and brushed herself off.

“Alone again,” she muttered, still staring at the pictures. There was even one there for Mr. Washington.

But this time, she was interrupted by her phone ringing. It was an unknown number. She answered it quickly. “Hello?”

“Is this Samantha Giddings?”

“Who’s calling?”

“Calgary Police. I’m sorry, but we need you to go to your local police station. One of our people has already landed. We’ve… found something relating to the lodge incident you were involved in. We’re going to need another statement.”

Sam gasped and shook her head, though he couldn’t see. She just wanted to escape. “What did you find? What’s happening?”

The officer hesitated. “We found… some… interesting new evidence. We just need you and your friends to shed some light on some… things… that went on in the mines. You’ll know more when you get there.”

Sam hung up without saying another word. She turned to the photographs in the graveyard and tried to catch her breath. Did they find everyone’s bodies? That had to be it. Because……

There were no more Wendigos.

That she was aware of.