Jessica woke up feeling more than a little sore, but wonderfully happy. Sleepily, she reached across to Sam’s side of the bed but found it empty. She groped for her watch. It was almost ten-thirty. No wonder Sam was gone.
Jessica climbed out of the bed and tied on her robe. She wandered over to the window. It looked like a beautiful day: bright sunshine and a gentle breeze stirring the leaves on the trees outside the window.
Someone tapped lightly on the door and opened it without waiting for an answer. It was Claire, and she was carrying a mug of coffee.
She held out the mug. “Hey, lazy. I brought you some go-go juice.”
“Gimme!” Jessica said eagerly. She accepted the mug with a grin.
“The boys went on a beer run.”
“Oh.” Jessica couldn’t hide her disappointment, but she recovered quickly. Sam had probably been awake for ages and must think he was doing her a favour by letting her sleep so late. They had six weeks to be together; a few hours were not important. Jessica sipped her coffee. It was strong and very sweet – just perfect.
“Did you have a good time last night?” Claire asked slyly.
Jessica’s disappointment lifted. She leaned back against the window and smiled widely. “Oh. My. God!” she exclaimed.
Claire closed the bedroom door. “I knew it! Spill, girlfriend.”
“We didn’t, uh, disturb you, did we?”
Claire giggled. “No thin walls here, Jess. This house is solid. I didn’t hear a thing.”
“Oh, good. Because I think I might have screamed the place down.” Jessica settled herself on the bed. “Oh, god, Claire, I can’t tell you. Sam is amazing.”
“Marry him,” Claire instructed. “No matter what crappy habits he’s got. A guy who’s that good in bed is a keeper.”
Jessica giggled. She was thinking along the same lines herself.
“Sam seems really…deep,” Claire added, getting into it. “That story he told last night – ”
“It’s just a story, Claire. He doesn’t really believe that stuff.”
“Well, of course. It’s just…well, what do you know about his background? His family?”
“Not much,” Jessica admitted. Sam didn’t talk about his family much. “We’ve only been together a month,” she added defensively. “Sam’s mom is dead, his dad travels a lot and he has a brother. Why?”
Claire looked very serious now. “It’s nothing, maybe. But do you remember what he said at the end? About living with fear?”
“Sure. When it stops that’s a happy ending.”
“I don’t think he was talking about the girl in the story. It sounded like he was talking about himself.”
Jessica frowned. Claire was a psych major but she wasn’t as good at reading people as she thought she was. She’d told Jessica she thought Brady was a closet sadist and that was why she wouldn’t date him. But Jessica knew Brady pretty well and Claire was full of it. He was no more a sadist than she was. Still, she remembered how seriously Sam told that story, and the look in his eyes when she criticised his happy ending. Maybe this time Claire had a point. It wasn’t something Jessica could ask Sam about until they knew each other a bit better, but she would remember…later.
She finished her coffee and forced a smile onto her face. “How long will the boys be gone?”
Claire shrugged. “I don’t know. The nearest town is an hour away if you drive fast.”
At least two hours, then. “I’m going to take a shower. Then, let’s head down to the beach.”
They left a note on the mini-bar to let Sam and Brady know where they were going. They packed a bag with drinks, snacks, sunscreen and towels and then headed out.
The route down to the beach was a steep path that zig-zagged down the cliff. There were iron rods in the rock holding a very old, weathered rope which was the only safety rail the path had. It would be dangerous in wet or windy weather, but today the weather was fine and clear. Jessica found it easy enough to climb down, though she had to be careful in places. She could tell it would be a tough climb back up to the top and made a mental note not to wait until she was too tired to make the climb.
Claire scampered down the path as if she’d done it a hundred times, and she probably had. They had a wonderful morning on the beach: sunbathing and swimming and talking about everything they could think of. Claire had packed the latest issue of Cosmo and insisted on reading aloud an article about how to get the most pleasure out of sex. Jessica, too happy to take it seriously, burst into giggles every time something in the article reminded her of something she and Sam did. She did make a mental note to try out one thing with him, though.
Jessica sat up and brushed away the grains of sand clinging to her legs. She tilted her head back, her eyes closed. The sun was warm on her face and there was a faint breeze stirring her hair. “Do you think…?” she began, but broke off as her phone rang. She picked up the phone: the display read SAM <3.
The phone crackled a little but Sam’s voice came through clearly. “Hi, Jess. How’s the beach?”
“It’s lovely. The sand is beautiful, it’s warm and sheltered. You’ll love it.”
“Want me to come and join you?”
Jessica looked up at the sun and then down at the lengthening shadows. “No. I guess we’ll head back now.” She glanced at Claire, who was stretched out in the sun. Claire nodded a silent agreement with Jessica’s words. “We’ll meet you back at the house,” Jessica added to Sam.
“Okay. See you soon, then.”
Sam didn’t end the call, though. Jessica hesitated. They hadn’t been together long enough for her to feel right saying I love you, but the words seemed to be on the tip of her tongue. She bit back the impulse and answered, “Yeah, see you soon.” Then she ended the call herself.
From her position on the beach, the cliff looked terribly high. It might take longer than she thought to climb back up the cliff path. She sighed and began to gather up their things.
Jessica was fit and knew she needed to pace herself on the climb. Claire, as she had done on the walk down, scampered ahead and then waited at each turn for Jessica to catch up. Jessica was wearing sturdy sneakers, low-rise shorts and her bikini top with the bag slung over her shoulder. Even with such scanty clothing, she was covered with a sheen of perspiration before long and the loose hair around her face was clinging to her skin. But in spite of that, she was enjoying the exertion.
Until she heard Claire scream.
Jessica stopped dead when the scream pierced the air. Then, realising it was her friend, she hurried ahead. “Claire!” she called frantically. “Are you okay? Claire!”
There was no response.
“Claire!” Jessica screamed.
“Jess! Down here!”
Jessica followed the sound, her heart pounding. “Claire, keep calling!”
“Jess, I’m here! I fell!”
Then Jessica saw her. Part of the pathway had crumbled and somehow Claire had fallen over the edge. The cliff wasn’t completely vertical, which had saved her life. She hadn’t fallen very far. Claire’s belly was pressed to the cliff, her feet on a grassy ledge, her hands clinging to something Jessica couldn’t see clearly. She seemed temporarily safe where she was. Below her, though, the beach seemed terribly far. If Claire fell, she would die.
Jessica dropped the bag she was carrying and knelt down to approach the edge. The iron rods that held the safety rope were missing from this part of the path, but the rope itself was still there, on the ground. She gripped it with one hand and leaned over the dizzying edge. “Are you okay?” she asked. “I mean, are you injured?”
Claire didn’t tell her it was a stupid question. “I…I think I’m okay. I’m just bruised.” She sounded very shaky, but Jessica believed her.
“Can you climb up? Do you have a handhold down there?” Jessica wasn’t sure climbing was a good idea at all, but she couldn’t bear the thought of leaving Claire to get help. Claire was only just out of reach: if she could only climb a little way Jessica would be able to take her hand.
“I don’t know!” Claire called back, panic in her voice now. Jessica heard her muttering to herself, “This isn’t happening, it can’t be happening, oh, god…”
Panic was the last thing Jessica needed. “Claire! Relax. I’ve got my phone – ” she realised it only as she spoke the words “ – I’m going to call the boys.”
Jessica pulled her cell from the bag and speed-dialled Sam’s number. Nothing happened. She looked at the display. There were no signal bars and the display read SERVICE UNAVAILABLE. Damn it! Damn it! Not really expecting anything new, Jessica tried again, punching the numbers herself instead of calling up Sam’s number from the phone’s memory. Once again, nothing happened. She couldn’t get through. How could she call for help if she couldn’t freaking call anyone? She tried again. This time, when the call refused to connect, frustration filled her. Jessica raised her arm and threw the phone as hard as she could. It was completely irrational, and she regretted it as soon as the phone left her hand.
She took a deep breath. She was not allowed to panic. Claire needed help. No one was coming. It was up to her.
She lay down flat on the ground. Rough stone scratched her bare skin, but she ignored the discomfort. She ignored everything but Claire. Carefully, she wriggled toward the edge and, when she’d gone as far as she dared, she stretched out one hand toward her friend.
“Reach up toward me,” Jessica instructed. “But careful. Keep a tight grip with your other hand.”
Claire reached up. Jessica stretched down. As she’d suspected, Claire was just out of reach. Their fingertips actually touched for a moment, but that was the best they could manage.
“I can’t reach you!” Claire cried. “Oh, god, Jess, what are we gonna do?”
Jessica considered using the bag to extend her reach, but discarded that option straightaway. It was only a cheap beach-bag and if the strap broke, Claire would fall. She inched forward and examined Claire’s position again. It wasn’t quite as precarious as it seemed at first. There seemed to be good hand and foot holds in the cliff; Claire should be able to climb up. Jessica wished she had some rope. If wishes were horses…
She tugged on the guide rope, pulling it taut, then wrapped it around her wrist. The rope was thick and awkward; Jessica was sure her hand would slip through all too easily, but it was the best she could manage. She reached down with her free hand. “Can you reach me now?” she called encouragingly.
Claire tried, and Jessica almost cried with relief when Claire’s fingers clasped her hand. Claire gripped her tightly, so much so that Jessica felt the edge of Claire’s ring digging into her skin.
“Don’t let go!” Claire begged. “Oh, god, Jess, don’t let go. Please don’t let go.”
“I’ve got you,” Jessica promised. “I won’t let go.”
“Don’t let go,” Claire babbled.
“Claire!” Jessica said sharply. “I’ve got you. Now, I need you to try to climb up. Just hold me tight and find a foothold, okay. I’ve got you. You won’t fall.”
“You don’t have a choice! Claire, please. You can do it. I won’t let you fall.” Jessica squeezed Claire’s hand tightly. She held her breath.
Claire moved. She felt around for a secure handhold and gripped the cliff face hard. Then, her face dead white as she gazed up at Jessica, she felt blindly with her foot for a hole or a jutting rock. It seemed to take forever. Eventually, Claire moaned, tightened her deathgrip on Jessica’s hand, and pushed herself upward.
It was enough. Jessica freed her hand from the rope, praying her weight would be enough to hold her there, and offered her hand to Claire. Each girl grasped the other’s wrist. Then Jessica carefully loosened her hold on Claire’s other hand to adjust her grip there, too. She wriggled back onto the path, tearing her skin on sharp stones as she moved.
“Okay. Now climb again. You’re doing great, Claire. I won’t let go. I swear I won’t let go.”
That was how they did it. One precarious foothold at a time. One tiny climb after another until finally Claire could drag herself onto the pathway. She lay there, panting, shaking with reaction.
Jessica rolled onto her back, unable to comfort her friend because she was so fucking scared herself. Now the crisis was over she felt her body react, all her strength draining away and she couldn’t have moved from that spot if her life depended on it. She kept herself from having hysterics but that was the best she could do. Claire almost died!
She turned her head to the side to look at Claire. “Are you…okay?”
Claire pulled herself together, but Jessica could see what an effort it was. “Yeah. I think so. You?”
“I need to get off this path. Can we please go?”
They managed to get up and, staying really close to the cliff wall this time, they began their slow progress up the zig-zag path.
Sam’s shout sounded very far away but Jessica still felt tears of relief sting her eyes. She tried to blink them back but felt a single tear escape, leaving a wet path on her dusty cheek. She didn’t want to cry. If she let herself cry she was going to fall to pieces.
“It’s Sam!” she told Claire, but her voice came out tight and hoarse. She quickened her pace as much as she dared on the now-frightening path. Her arms ached where she had overstrained the muscles helping Claire to climb, and pain stabbed through her abdomen with each step she took. Jessica did her best to ignore it all and pushed onward, wanting only to reach Sam and get off this damned path.
Jessica longed to call out to him, to guide him to her, but she was just too tired. She just kept climbing, hand-in-hand with Claire, trusting that Sam would find them. After all, he knew they’d been on the beach.
Sam appeared above them. “Jess!” he sounded horrified.
Jessica stopped climbing, raising her hand to wave.
Then Sam was there, hugging her close. Jessica held him tightly for a moment, but his belt buckle dug into her skin and she gasped in pain.
Sam he stood back, holding her at arm’s length while he took in her appearance. “My god, Jess, what happened? Are you alright?”
Did she look alright? “I’m fine,” Jessica answered automatically. “So’s Claire.”
“But you’re hurt!” Sam protested. He was looking down at her stomach. “Jess, you’re bleeding. What happened?”
“Claire fell,” she explained shortly. She glanced in Claire’s direction and saw Brady already at her side. It seemed to Jessica he’d appeared from nowhere, though he must have been with Sam. She just hadn’t seen him. Brady had his arm around Claire’s shoulders and was carrying her bag. Claire was safe with Brady.
Finally free to be selfish, Jessica clung to her boyfriend. “Please, Sam. Let’s go back.”
“It’s just a few scratches!” Jessica protested. She was sitting on the big table in the kitchen, where Sam had put her so he could examine her injuries. She felt very self-conscious, sitting there in her shorts and bikini top.
“Scratches from the stones on the cliff,” Sam told her seriously, “which could have traces of bird shit, rotten plants and god knows what else on them. A scratch today could be septicaemia tomorrow.”
“Ew, Sam!” Claire protested. She pulled a face.
Jessica didn’t really want to hear about all the icky things that might be on the cliff path, but she understood Sam’s point. Sam was laying out the things he thought he’d need on the table beside her: a large bowl of water, towels, a saucer, other things. He even had the tweezers she used to pluck her eyebrows: he’d scrubbed them thoroughly with soap before adding them to his carefully arranged tools.
Sam gave Claire an angry look. “You’re next,” he snapped. He added soap to the warm water in the bowl and pulled the shrink-wrap off a household sponge. Without looking up from the task, he said, “Brady, there was some liquor in the bar. Bring me the strongest you can find. 151 Bacardi if you can find some.”
“I thought you were a whiskey man,” Brady answered with a grin.
“I’m not going to drink it,” Sam snapped impatiently.
Jessica had never seen Sam like this, so focussed, snapping orders like they were a military unit instead of a group of college students. She tried to smile and said lightly, “You must have been a boy scout.”
Sam shook his head. “We were never in one town long enough, and my brother always said scouts were losers.” He wet the sponge in the soapy water. “Hold still, Jess. I need to clean away the blood and make sure there’s no cr- foreign matter still in the wounds. So this is going to hurt.”
Nervous now, Jessica tensed up. “Sam, if it’s that bad, maybe…”
“You’ll be fine,” he promised with a smile. “If I thought I couldn’t handle this, we’d be at a hospital by now.”
“Where did you learn to do this, if you weren’t a scout?”
Sam’s reassuring smile vanished. “My Dad’s a marine. Uh…ex marine.”
He began to wash her stomach with gentle strokes of the sponge. He stopped work occasionally and laid the sponge down to probe with the tweezers. That hurt, and Jessica had to bite her lips and grip the table really hard to keep from crying out. Each time Sam found something – a splinter, a thorn, a piece of stone – he placed it in the saucer beside her.
While he worked, Sam asked Claire, “What happened out there? How did you fall?”
Jessica saw Claire frown as if she couldn’t remember. “Well…” she began hesitantly, “part of the path had crumbled and it was quite narrow there. But there was enough of the path left to walk on and I could see it. I was walking ahead of Jess and…I don’t know.”
“What, Claire?” Jessica prompted.
“I thought there was someone there,” Claire confessed. He voice had fallen to barely above a whisper.
Jessica wouldn’t have noticed Sam’s reaction if he hadn’t been touching her. He didn’t look at Claire and his expression never changed. But Jessica felt him freeze for an instant, his whole body going tense. The next instant he went on cleaning her scratches as if nothing had happened.
“What was it?” Sam asked casually. “A shadow or something?”
“No idea,” Claire answered. She bit her lip nervously, scratching at her leg. Then her frown smoothed out and Jessica saw her mind click into academic mode, giving her the detachment she needed to explain herself. “Human memory is slippery,” Claire said, almost lecturing. “We think we record our experiences like a video camera with all senses on, but that’s not what happens. The brain only records pieces of our experiences. When we try to recall a memory it’s like a computer reconstruction: bits of it are accurate but mostly it’s the brain filling in the parts it doesn’t have recorded with whatever seems to fit.”
“In other words,” Sam summarised, moving on to Jessica’s thigh, “you’re saying you didn’t really see what you think you think you saw. Right?”
“So what does your unreliable memory think you saw?”
Claire sighed. “I saw…there was a person, someone bigger than I am, a man I think. He just appeared right next to me. It startled me, hell, it made me leap out of my skin. That’s why I fell.”
Sam frowned, still concentrating on his work. “You’re sure it wasn’t Jess?”
“No!” Jessica protested. “I was further down the path when she screamed. Not even close.”
Brady returned with several bottles in his arms. “No 151,” he reported.
Sam took the bottles from him and examined each one. He finally selected a vodka and opened the bottle. “Jess, this will work as a disinfectant but it’ll hurt like hell. Are you okay with me doing this?”
She knew it would hurt. But Sam seemed to know what he was doing. She looked down at the collection of things Sam had pulled from her flesh: little chips of stone and plant-matter. It scared her.
She nodded. “I trust you.”
Sam offered her his left hand, while holding the bottle in his right. “Squeeze my hand,” he instructed.
Jessica slid her hand into his. She gritted her teeth and somehow managed not to scream when Sam poured alcohol on her open wounds.
Sam and Jessica went to bed early that night.
Jessica’s usual sleepwear was a cropped top and pyjama pants, unless she fell asleep after sex in which case she was more than likely naked. She wasn’t a big fan of lingerie – the lace irritated her skin – but she had bought some for the vacation, just in case she wanted a special night with Sam. While preparing for bed that night she picked up her usual cropped top and couldn’t stand the thought of wearing something that would expose the ugly wounds on her midriff. She thought over the clothing she’d packed, but nothing seemed right until she remembered the red, lace-edged camisole with its matching panties. It would cover the scratches on her stomach. She ran her hand lightly over the scabs as she dressed and hoped it wouldn’t scar.
Sam must have guessed why she wore the camisole, because he didn’t try to make love to her. He did let her know how sexy he thought it was, with a smouldering look and a kiss that made her tingle all over. But then he climbed into the bed with her and simply held her close, letting her rest against the warmth of his body.
Sam stroked her bare arm with light fingers. “You were amazing today, you know. You saved Claire’s life.”
Jessica knew he meant it as a compliment, but it made her uncomfortable. “I don’t think so. I mean, she could have climbed back to the path without me.”
“That’s not the way she tells it.” Sam was silent for a time, then he said, “Jess, were there a lot of people on the beach?”
“No, it’s lovely and private.” She thought about it. “We weren’t alone, there was a couple with children and a dog, and someone who came up to the beach in a dingy. But it’s a small beach and the cliffs curve around. When the tide is high, the cliff path is the only way to get in or out.”
“I don’t want you going down there again,” Sam said firmly. “Not unless we’re all together.”
Jessica bristled, and Sam must have known she would. “Don’t you dare go all alpha male on me!”
“I’m not!” he protested. “Listen, Jess. What if Claire really did see someone on the path?”
“Claire told us – ”
“She’s rationalising it. That’s what Claire does. If she saw pink elephants and flying pigs out there she’d come up with some kind of psychobabble to explain it. But think for a moment. Claire knows better than to jump at shadows, especially when she’s on the edge of a cliff. Something made her fall. If there was a person there, even if he didn’t intend to scare her, that person didn’t try to help her. Didn’t even call for help.”
“Because there was no one there,” Jessica explained patiently.
“I hope so. But there’s a lot of ugly in this world, Jess. Maybe it’s all that kidding about this house being haunted but…” Sam hesitated, then went on. “Jess, we can joke all we like about hauntings – ghosts don’t scare me. But if this is more Camp Crystal Lake than Hill House…that’s more than we can joke away.”
Jessica sat up, turning so she could see his face. He was deadly serious. “Sam…whatever Claire saw today, I’m one hundred percent certain it wasn’t a supernatural serial killer in a hockey mask.”
He nodded, but he didn’t smile. “I know that. But we’re so isolated here, Jess. I just want you to be safe.”
She kissed him. “I don’t plan to go down to the beach alone. And I do plan to stay safe, in every sense. But you can’t lay down rules for me, Sam.” She lay down, half on top of him. It stretched her injured stomach and hurt a little, but she wanted to make her point. Sam was being needlessly paranoid. They’d all been scared today, but this was just silly. “Think about it, Sam. Let’s say Freddy or Jason really is out there sharpening his axe. There’d be nothing you can do about it. The last one standing in those movies is always a girl.”
He did smile then, and drew her in for another kiss.
They talked for hours, just lying together in bed. Occasionally they kissed, touched, but no more than that. Eventually, conversation ebbed into a comfortable silence, occasionally broken by a new thought. Jessica shifted slightly, cuddling into the hollow of Sam’s arm, her eyes closed and her contented mind already nearly asleep.
The sound of running feet and muffled laughter in the corridor outside the room brought her back to wakefulness, but failed to clear the sleepy fog from her mind. She raised her head a little, glancing toward the sound.
Sam stroked her hair. “Just Claire, I think,” he murmured. “Go back to sleep.”
Jessica snuggled back into his embrace and, moments later, she was back to that very-nearly-asleep state. She felt Sam slide his arm from beneath her head, careful to keep from disturbing her, and then the mattress shifted as Sam quietly slipped out of the bed. It was a bit late for a bathroom break, but Jessica thought little more of it as she drifted into a dreamless sleep.