"Matt, are you going to tell me what's wrong or am I just going to lose the feeling in my hand for the rest of my life?" Cleo worked hard to keep up with Matt's long stride. She stopped, feeling her heel slide out of her shoes. "Ow! Matt, will you hold on?"
She sighed a scoffing sigh when Matt turned back toward her and dropped her hand. He placed his hands on his hips, then folded his arms, waited while Cleo gingerly balanced on her shoe covered foot and tried to pull the other one back on. Cleo looked up at him with a curious expression. "What's the matter with you?"
"Nothing," Matt replied.
"Isn't that the biggest lie ever told in history," Cleo shot back. She pressed her foot back in and folded her arms, mimicking his stance. She looked him in the eye. "What's really going on? You can't tell me that that poor man actually scared you."
Matt rolled his eyes. "He didn't scare me." He shook his head. "He just…"
"Never mind, it's nothing. Can we go please?" Matt reached out his hand toward Cleo once more. She looked back at him. Matt raised his eyebrows, continuing to wait. Cleo folded her arms and looked back at him. Matt dropped his hand and slapped it to his side. "Cleo…"
"Are we just going to be saying each other's names now?" Cleo watched as Matt rolled his eyes once more, despite the sides of his mouth turning up. "I know you're starting to smile, but you've been acting weird since we got here."
"I'm just…" Matt turned on his heel and started walking down the sidewalk once more. Cleo fell in step along with him. She angled herself to the side, watching his face as they walked. "I'm tired from the drive down here. Maybe this wasn't a good idea, going to the bar."
"Matt, we're just going to see your friends. No one said anything about staying here all night—"
"I don't think—"
"—And I don't want to have to argue about this again. You said we could go out, let's go out. We have tomorrow to spend more time with your family. We're going to watch the homecoming game and all that. But I want to get to know you. The real you. And the best ones to do that are your friends from school. So…"
Cleo and Matt turned forward to see Sam and Mike standing in front of them. Mike removed his arm from Sam's shoulder as Sam stepped forward, that peculiar smile still she had at the gas station still on her face. Sam reached out and gave Matt a quick hug before greeting Cleo the same. Surprised, Cleo's eyes widened but she wrapped her arms around Sam and gave her a hug back.
"We're glad you guys came," Sam continued, taking a step back. "It'll be nice to see everyone again." She looked to Mike, who shrugged noncommittingly. "I heard that Jessica and Emily are going to be coming, too."
Matt's eyebrows rose. He looked to Mike, who looked back at him, seeming to be as surprised as Matt did. Cleo watched their expressions then turned to face Sam once more. She thought for a moment then tilted her head to the side, watching her boyfriend closely. "So, which of Jessica or Emily is your ex-girlfriend."
"Which one do you think is bitchier?" Mike commented. He laughed while Sam elbowed him hard in the side. "I mean, isn't that what homecomings are for? To meet up with your old friends, and to run into your exes in some of the worst ways possible?"
"How many of them have you run into, Mike?" Matt asked with a smirk. "Didn't you go through, I don't know, half the school?"
"Nah, it was more like a third." Mike waved his hand. "I think you're forgetting about freshmen year. When I didn't grow into my looks yet."
"Oh yeah, your nose was too big."
"That wasn't the only thing that was big," Sam murmured with a light roll of her eyes.
The first crack in her armor, Cleo thought, watching Sam closely. It was the first time that stepford smile seemed to drop from her face. Cleo had a lot of experience with that smile, it was similar to the ones they wore when they were performing. You had to put on a smile, an air of confidence, anything that would mask what may be going on in their personal life.
There were more than enough times Cleo was breaking down inside from the course load, from the pressure of her friends, from the pressure of her parents, from everything bad going on in her life and she went out on stage and pasted on the biggest and brightest smile she could while she performed. Then when she was offstage, she would go into her corner and cry hysterically. Letting out all the pain deep inside her. Then, once the pain was gone, she was back on her feet and smiling warmly, that time for real.
She could always see it in other people. Could see when they were trying to hide things. It's what made her and Matt so close when they first started to hang out. There was a sadness, a darkness about him she could see that other people didn't seem to notice. A dark cloud that followed him around. Not to toot her own horn, but the dark cloud didn't start to go away until she started to talk to him. To bring him out of his shell.
It's what worked for her when she was in her hospital stays for chemotherapy. Sometimes she would spend full days in an arm chair with a book, a drip in her arm, and wrapped up in a blanket, talking to the others in the ward who were waiting for their bags to empty before going home. Sometimes she would stay to herself, having some of her more off days as she worked through her own darkness that continued to envelop her when she didn't have that bright shiny, conversationalist around to keep her up.
She worked hard to keep herself in as good as mood as she possible could. But it was hard. Cancer was hard. Cancer ruined her life, ruined her prospects of looking forward to anything. How "lucky" was it to have been caught "early"? When "early" meant she was a child, wondering why she was bruising easily, why she was so tired, why she had to change her diet, why she had to go to the doctor so much. Why her hair started to fall out?
Catching it early meant she was supposed to be able to get the medicine to stop it and it'd leave her alone. Not continuously come back, making her fight harder and harder as they days went on. As the years went on. Not having to worry each year when she went in for a screening, for a physical to see what was going on. Having to worry about the anxiety and fear that plagued her as the days went on, wondering when she'd finally get the results.
Fielding messages from her parents as they wondered when they'd finally get the results.
Cleo shook her head, brushing her hair behind her ears as she tried to keep the comparison from her head. It was jarring, who quickly she flashed back to some of the worst times in her life. The times she wasn't sure was going to become bad again, all because she found a, what, kindred spirit in someone she didn't know. Didn't know how or why she was as broken as she was.
She focused when noticing the looks Matt and Mike were giving her; Matt, incredulous, and Mike, smarmy. "I meant his ego, gosh."
"I knew you looked!" Mike declared. He clapped his hands together gleefully. He looked to Cleo. "I went streaking before the big homecoming game senior year and little miss Sam here claimed she missed the whole thing. But I knew she saw and liked it! Liked the appearance of Mike Jr. Mr. Man Meat."
"Liked it?" Sam snorted. "I'm a vegetarian."
"So when did you break that? When you were choking down-"
Sam elbowed Mike hard in the stomach while Mike continued to laugh at his own joke. Matt and Cleo smiled politely. All laughter ceased when two girls walking by came to a stop and turned toward them. Cleo watched Mike recognize the two, look at Sam, then stepped back. The blonde girl gave a ghost of a smile, folding her arms, while the dark-haired girl looked at the group. "Well, if this isn't a family reunion," she cooed. "Didn't think I'd see you guys again."
"Hi" the blonde added waving her hand quietly. She nodded to the two. "It's good to see you."
"Hey Jess," Matt said. He smiled warmly to her, reached out and gave her a hug. Cleo watched as "Jess" wrapped her arms around Matt and hugged him tightly, resting her chin on his shoulder, then lowered it so that her forehead rested against him.
Cleo was never a jealous person, never had been. Life was too short for that. Literally. But she was starting to feel there were a lot of things he hadn't told her. He never mentioned a Mike, Sam, "Jess", or Emily. And Yet, everyone suddenly seemed to be showing up.
That's okay, Cleo thought. There's a part of you that you haven't told him. That you haven't wanted to tell him. Maybe he didn't want to tell you this. Nevertheless, she reached out and gently rubbed Matt's back, grabbing his attention while he released from his hug.
"How's everything going, Jess?" Matt asked, as if Cleo wasn't there.
Cleo's eyebrows furrowed.
"Good. Good." Jess tucked her blonde hair behind her ears and folded her arms once more. However, there was a light to her eyes that added to the small smile that came to her face. A face filled with scars, Cleo noticed. Otherwise, Jess was very pretty. Sort of sad, but pretty. "I've been busy. I've had a lot of jobs I've been working on lately. They still want me as a model even though…" she gestured toward her face.
"So, is no one going to ask about me?" The other girl asked. "I know I can be a bitch sometimes, but that doesn't mean you have to ignore me like I'm not here."
"Hey Em," Matt replied. He smiled what looked to be a smarmy smile toward her. "How're you?"
"Good thanks," Emily replied in the same smarmy tone. "Now that everyone's decided I exist again." She then turned to Mike and Sam. "Oh and if it isn't the perfect couple."
"Hi Emily, Hi Jess," Sam greeted them pleasantly. "It's good to see you guys again." Then her smile faded, just slightly. "I didn't know you were still in the area."
"Anyone would if they picked up the phone," Emily pointed out. She looked around the group. "Unless we're all avoiding phones right now." Then her eyes landed on Cleo and she looked her up and down before looking toward Matt. "I see you've finally decided to try out the other side." Then her eyebrows rose. "Wow, she's really pretty. You always did go after the pretty ones." Then she thrust her hand out toward Cleo with gusto. "I'm Emily, the ex-girlfriend that he's probably never mentioned."
Cleo took her hand and shook it firmly. "Cleo. Matt's mentioned you before."
"Really?" Emily asked, eyes widening in surprise.
"Really?" Mike repeated. He motioned with his thumb toward Emily. "Because I don't mention her at all. Ow!" Sam smacked him one more.
"Hey, we're all here for the same thing, apparently," Sam said, jumping into the conversation. "To have some drinks…and to see old friends." She looked around the group. "So…let's go." She shot Mike a warning look before making her way down the sidewalk and toward the bar. The rest of the group fell in with her, moving in silence.
Cleo pressed her lips together, watching the friends as they went. Or, former friends, if her assumptions were correct. Something had happened with them, tore them apart. The history was there but…something had ruined the friendship from moving forward. Distance wasn't it, you had to work to keep a friendship with distance as much as you had to work to lose a friendship due to distance. It didn't seem like they tried to do anything with it either way.
The tension continued to mount with each step until they made it to the bar where they suddenly came to a halt, seeing the 'CLOSED' sign that sat on the door. Cleo let out a breath she hadn't realized she was holding. Relief. Maybe the night wasn't a good idea after all.
"Well, if this isn't the best turn of events," Emily declared. She clapped her hands together. "So we'll see each other again in another year?" She looped her arm through Jess's and started to turn her away. "See you freaks later."
Suddenly, the door to the bar flew open and a blonde bespectacled man poked his head out. He looked at the group and motioned them inside. "Chris!" Sam said, her smile brighter for him than for the girls that arrived. "It's so good to—"
"—Yeah, yeah," Chris interrupted. "We can talk when you get inside."
"What's with the closed sign man?" Mike asked, bustling toward the door. "It doesn't really look like a party in there." But Mike followed Chris's lead and stepped into the bar, bringing his arm back to leave around Sam as she moved into the bar as well.
The rest of the group piled in. Cleo looked around the bar, noticing how creepy it was when there was no music and no patrons. And even creepier from the way that everyone turned to look at each other. Sizing each other up.
"So, Chris, where's Ash?" Sam asked brightly.
Chris waved her off, pacing the floor. He ran his hand over his chin, then up his face, rubbing at his eyes. He took off his glasses and set it onto the bar top. He let out a short breath. Mike's eyes widened as the seconds passed.
"She didn't die did she?" Mike asked. Matt cringed. Sam rolled her eyes. Emily snorted. Jess seemed not to notice. "What? It's just a question!"
Chris folded his arms and gave him a look. Then he let out a long sigh and said so quietly Cleo almost didn't hear. "I saw Josh."
Sam was the first one to speak. "Josh is dead." She said it so matter-of-factly that it made the Stepford smile look ghastly. "We know that."
"No, he's not, Sam." Chris shook his head, along with the trembling in his voice. "He's alive. I saw him. He came down from the mountain…" he sucked in a deep breath. "Just like the rest of them have."
"The rest of what?" Cleo asked.
Matt made a move to stop Chris, but he continued as if Matt weren't there. "The wendigo."