I was practically bouncing on my feet. Excited is the understatement of how I felt. After years of scheduling, postponing, and waiting, I and my band of friends are finally going to Stephen’s family’s cottage in the woods about a hundred miles from the city.
Stephen is Katie’s cousin who happens to be my best friend. The two other guys were Stephen’s best buddies in high school, Mark and Ollie. I had a crush with Mark when we were in high school but as a lady’s man, Mark almost always had a girl hanging on his arm so I didn’t stand a chance. Ollie is the creepy friend I never felt safe to be alone with.
We have been planning this trip since high school but my parents were very protective of me and won’t relent until I was 18. Well, 18 turned to 20 then 22 and I’ll be a senior in the fall so this might be the last chance we have to bond together. Between college and 2 jobs, I never had the time for a vacation. After graduation, I plan to take my master’s in psychology so I can work as a counselor, preferably in a local high school. My plate had always been full. No wonder I’m single but excited for this trip.
My duffel bag was ready by the door. I spent the night checking my list twice just to be sure I did not forget anything. Flashlight, power banks, food, her journal, survival kit, check. Having protective parents made me cautious of everything and that means the survival kit is a must for a weekend getaway. In any case, the cottage was off-grid so we would need just about anything practical.
Katie, on the other hand, is the opposite of my practical self. I can easily visualize my friend’s bags (yes, Katie cannot survive with just one bag). Trendy clothes, makeup and nail set, and her cellphone, laptop, multiple power banks, probably a portable ring light for her selfies and videos. While I moved to another state for my psychology degree, Katie chose to stay and go to the community college to be near her aging mother. But Katie hit it big on YouTube when she posted her first makeup tutorial series and I could never be prouder of her.
Someone honked and I nearly jumped out of her skin, too lost in thought. I grabbed my duffel bag and purse and gave Mom a quick kiss before dashing out of the door. I’m glad Dad already left for work or I would have to endure at least an hour of to-dos while in the cottage. Not that he forgot the litany while we were having dinner the other night.
“Girl!” Katie gave me a bone-crushing hug as soon as she opened the door.
“We’re driving this?” I gestured at Stephen’s small car.
“Better than the minivan your dad wants you to drive”, Katie said. “That’s why I’m calling shotgun!”
I groaned, meaning I have to ride in the back, squeezed between Mark and Ollie. Thankfully, Mark scooted over as I opened the backseat door. He smiled at me, looking smug as always. I have a feeling Mark knows of my crush on him. Stephen gave me a shy wave while Ollie just ignored me, still playing some online game on his phone. Katie cranked the stereo up and soon we were singing offbeat and off-tune as we drove to Stephen’s cottage.
A few hours later
I groaned as I stretched my body when we got out of the car. The log cottage was quaint if not for the overgrowth around it. It was obvious no one had visited it for some time. Stephen went to pick their old mower and went ahead to mow some of the most offending weeds on the front. The rest can wait for the next visit, he assured us.
Inside, the cottage was surprisingly clean, thanks to the dust covers. After giving it a quick sweep, Katie and I settled in one of the smaller rooms which has a bunk bed, thankfully. As much as I love Katie, Katie was also the worst hog when it comes to sleeping space. The boys got the bigger room but it seems Stephen will be taking the couch if the way he threw a spare blanket over it was an indication.
It was already getting dark so Stephen turned on the generator set for the lights. The cottage was under a thick grove of trees. Stephen’s family cannot set up a solar panel so they rely on the generator as a backup. Katie and I went on to prepare dinner which was just sandwiches and canned soda. Tomorrow, we will be foraging. Stephen, the local foraging expert, was only too happy to show us how to forage. I was excited; Katie, not too much. Ollie wanted to hunt but since it’ was prohibited, he said he’ll just stay and play on his phone. Mark volunteered to carry the foraging basket so I was secretly elated to spend time with him.
By the time we came home from foraging, our basket was full of mushrooms, berries, some flowers I cannot name, and some random fruits Stephen found for us. I picked some wildflowers for the dinner table while Katie was busy taking videos of their activity for her vlog. Mark was unusually quiet but he smiled at me every time he caught me looking at him.
Ollie was still on the couch where we left him but judging from the smoke coming out from the chimney, he had been busy in the kitchen.
“I’m bored”, Katie said as she plopped on the couch next to Ollie who was playing on a different phone after lunch. I wouldn’t be too surprised if his bag has 2 or more phones and power banks in it.
“We can play some board games”, Stephen offered. Mark was still tidying the kitchen.
“What are we, five?” Katie rolled her eyes at her cousin.
“I think I’m getting some nap”, I told them. I smiled to myself as Stephen and Katie continued their bickering.
“Mark!” I bolted from bed when I heard Mark on the other side of the door.
“Still planning on that nap?”
“May I?” Mark gestured at the bed and proceeded to lie next to me.
“Where’s Katie?” I asked Stephen when I woke up from my nap.
“Went for a hike”, Stephen looked from the book he was reading, giving me a strange look.
“It’s almost sundown. Does she know what she’s doing?” I ignored his weird expression, too worried about Katie.
“For the most part? No.”
“Does she know the way back here?” I asked him again as I plucked the bok from his hands and glared at him.
“I don’t know”, Stephen shrugged.
“Where’s Ollie?” He gestured to the other room.
“This is exciting, isn’t it?”
“You tell me.”
“Nah, I mean we left the city for the weekend but did not leave our usual thing behind”, I pointed out.
“Well, at least you had some action”, he muttered.
“What do you mean?” I glared at him.
“Mark…” I slapped at his chest before he could say anything. He caught my hand before letting it go after a few seconds.
“It’s getting dark”, I said, trying to break the awkward moment. He must think Mark and I had sex. “I think we should look for Katie.”
“I’ll go get the boys,” Stephen nodded and went to get Ollie.
With everyone assembled in the front room, Mark volunteered to look for Katie while Ollie told us he’d stay in case Katie comes before us. Stephen pulled me to him as he gave his flashlight to Mark. “You’re coming with me.”
After a while of looking, there’s still no sign of Katie. We were already deep in the woods and I was hoarse with shouting. Then we heard it.
“The brook! She must be here somewhere!” Stephen pulled me suddenly, getting my hair tangled on some low-hanging branch. He helped me untangle my hair from the branch, his face dangerously close to mine. For the first time, I got nervous around Stephen. I know he is handsome but he is way out of my league. The captain of the basketball team and the bleacher girl do not go together. Mark had been my crush all along but with the way the flashlight gave us so little light and his body so close to mine, I’m becoming aware of Stephen.
“There,” he said as he removed the last of my hair on the branch. I blushed down to my toes when he caught me staring at his lips.
“Sheena,” he looked at me with an intensity I cannot fathom then lowered his lips on mine. I was shocked but I also felt relief. I tugged at his shoulders and kissed him back, no longer thinking of what’s ahead.
“Sorry,” he sighed as he laid his forehead on mine, still holding my hips. I turned to the sound of the brook without saying anything and he followed me. We had been silent earlier; I was too pissed at him for thinking I had sex with Mark but with the kiss between us, things got more awkward. Well, except that he hasn’t let go of my hand after he kissed me. I let him, thinking he just wanted me to keep up with him, especially with the darkness finally settling around us. We followed the brook and had been following it for some time when I heard someone scamper away.
“Katie!” I called, panic suddenly rising. We went in the direction of the movement and after some time found Katie on her back behind a tree on the other side of the brook, unconscious with her shirt torn, her shorts’ fly open.
“Oh my God, Katie!” I ran to where she was lying. “Katie! Katie, wake up!” I fumbled at her fly, blinded by my tears. I hugged her more forcefully than I intended that the only word she managed to croak when she came to was ‘Mark’.
“What happened to Mark?” I asked, looking at Stephen who had been silent all along, but his jaws were so clenched I wonder if he might break some tooth.
“He, he....” Katie said as she hugged me again. Understanding dawned on me.
“Did he...?” I wanted to know. I wanted to confirm if my longtime crush tried to rape my best friend. Did he really think he could get away with it? I feel Katie nod on my shoulder, still clinging to me.
Stephen moved between us to scoop Katie in his arms. We trudged silently through the woods, trying to trace our way back to the cottage. I wonder how Stephen could walk faster, not thinking of the low branches or the nettles we passed earlier that I have to keep reaching out for branches before he or Katie got caught in them. My right hand started to swell from all the nettle I had to brave but I know we should get Katie to the cottage as soon as we can.
As soon as we neared the cottage, Stephen put Katie to the ground and ran through the back door, his voice booming as he called for Mark. Katie, disoriented from the sudden movement, staggered and crashed to the ground before I could catch her. I was too tired to help her to her feet that I just joined her on the ground and cradled her head on my lap, picking at the leaves and grass on her hair.
“Damn!” Stephen cursed as he came to us, his face red with rage but his face mellowed as he saw us on the ground. He helped me up then scooped Katie again as we continued into the cottage. Ollie entered the front door as we struggled into the back door.
“Man, we’re stranded. Fuck boy took the car”, Ollie said. I can see his anger seething through him also as he helped Stephen get Katie on the couch. I washed my arms, too stingy from the nettles now, so I can get some water for Katie but Ollie beat me to it. They were already coaxing Katie to drink when I joined them with a fresh glass of water. I drank it instead and sighed as I settled next to Katie, still speechless and in shock with her nightmare.
We helped her to the shower and as she sank on the stool that Ollie placed there, I turned on the shower. Her floodgates opened and she clung to me so I hugged her back, both of us still fully clothed. After some time, she settled and we continued with our shower, still silent through it all.
“I still can’t believe it, “ I shook my head as I put on new clothes.
“Neither can I”, Katie replied, her voice too soft. “I’m sorry, Sheena.”
“Why?” I looked at her, perplexed why she’s telling me that.
“I guess I was too caught up in my jealousy that I went out without thinking”, she said sheepishly.
“What?” I took a step back, shocked at the thought that she was jealous of me.
“I resent how you always get the boys’ attention. Well, all the nice boys, I guess. Stephen, Mark, Ollie, Andrei…”
“What about Andrei?” Andrei and I dated in high school but we only lasted a week so I couldn’t count him as someone interesting in my life now. Aside from a few kisses, we never shared anything.
“I liked Andrei a lot…”
“Why didn’t you say so? I mean, I don’t even have a crush on him. I just went out with him because of the senior dance. After that, we drifted away,” I tried to see the ridiculousness of her jealousy. “And what about Stephen? He’s your cousin!”
“And he never stopped talking about you! So does Mark!” She suddenly turned, her wet hair whipping to her face. Ouch.
“Katie! I have no idea what you were talking about!”
“Yeah, that’s the part that hurts. You were so oblivious of their attention while I tried everything to catch theirs!”
“Oh, Katie, I have no idea! I’m sorry, really.” I said as I gathered her into my arms.
“Me too”, she said as she hugged me back. We sat on the bed when we heard Stephen knocking on the open door. He settled on the chair I sat on a few seconds ago while Ollie sat on the other side of Katie and pulled her to him. Katie cried again as she clung to Ollie who comforted her. I looked at Stephen but he just shrugged. I never knew Ollie had a weakness for Katie.
As Katie recounted her ordeal, skipping the part of her resentment, I can see that both Ollie and Stephen were shaking with anger. After an interminable time, we settled on Ollie sleeping with Katie and me with Stephen in case Mark comes back and tries something else.
I woke up sometime later, finding it too hard to breathe. When I opened my eyes, I could see smoke around us.
“Fire!” was all I said as I heard a revving car outside of the cottage. Stephen bolted next to me and by the time we went outside, Katie and Ollie were in the front room, trying to open the door.
“It’s bolted from the outside!” Ollie said, his face white with fear.
“No water!” Stephen shouted as he checked the bathroom. Katie was on the back door, trying to open it but it must be bolted too. Stephen grabbed some blankets to wet in the remaining water in the bath as we were engulfed by more smoke. This one time, I’m glad the boys forgot to unplug the drain to the bath.
“Stephen!” I squeaked as I felt the smoke suffocating me.
“Over here!” Ollie called from the room they slept in. Stephen caught up to me and bundled me with a dripping blanket. I felt him pull Katie as we moved to the other room. Ollie was already on the other side of the window and we barely moved out of the window when the cottage behind us started to collapse.
“Stephen!” I screamed through the raging fire when I did not find him with us. Ollie hugged me as I hysterically struggled to get to Stephen. “Stephen…” I crumpled to the ground, unbelieving that we lost him to this horrid fire.
“Stephen!” Ollie cried when he saw Stephen crawl through the gap in the rubble, still covered with the blankets. He collapsed, half of his body still in the burning cottage. Ollie pulled the wet blanket I was still hugging and threw it over him as he ran to rescue Stephen. Together, we pulled Stephen and Ollie from the fire, both of them sustaining more burns in the ordeal. We managed to pull Stephen out before the cottage collapsed entirely.
Stephen’s face sustained some burns, thanks to the wet blanket that protected it but his arms and legs were a different story. I can smell the acrid stench of burnt flesh as he moaned in pain. Ollie got some blisters on his hands and face but he will be alright. We tried to keep Stephen conscious by coaxing him to at least moan, Katie covered Stephen with the wet blanket he gave her earlier, trying out best to keep him cool under the wet blanket.
Ollie went to ask for help but as the night dragged on, we were hopeless. Our breathing was still labored from the ordeal as we wait for someone to rescue us. As the embers from the fire died out, we were engulfed with darkness. I was too tired to fight it so I lied down beside Stephen, holding his hand and let the darkness take me.