Maxim ran to her, screaming her name. At first sight, she seemed in shock. She didn’t even look up to him. When he arrived near the young girl, she literally collapsed in his arms. She suddenly seemed to remember him. Philip went to help his friend carrying Dominique in the cabin. Once back inside, Nancy hastened to take towels to dry and warm her. Rachel sobbed in the arms of Christopher. As she wiped Dominique’s hair, Karen noticed a long bloody drag on her face. Slightly under the hair on the left side of her head, she found a deep gash. She recoiled, throwing a glance at her friends. Julie went to get the first aid kit in the bathroom on the ground floor. The wound must be cleaned. She also noticed that the blood still flowed. She watched Dominique, trying to break her dull gaze.
The young girl looked straight ahead, her eyes foggy. Her boyfriend spoke to her, but she didn’t seem to hear. She was totally wrapped up in her little word. Rachel also tried to get information. Nothing worked. All that was left to do was to wait for her to come out of her stupor and finally tell them what had happened to her. But when would she be able to do so? She seemed oblivious to the things around her. She barely blinked her eyes as her gaze was lost in contemplation of a single thing she could see.
Maxim took her hand and led her up the stairs. According to him, she had to rest. Obediently, she obeyed without looking at him. Rachel went up the stairs behind her. She really wanted to know everything if her friend finally started talking. Christopher offered his help, but she gently asked him to stay with the others. She preferred to isolate Dominique a little, surrounding her with people she trusted. Once the trio upstairs, the others breathed a sigh of relief.
“Someone has a theory to share?” Joel quietly said, leaning on the sofa.
“She was attacked,” Karen answered. “Hit on the head, that’s for sure.”
“How long she was gone?” Nancy added. “It happened around here because she was able to walk back.”
She turned to Christopher.
“Your closest neighbor is how far?”
The young man scratched his head, calculating the approximate distance.
“About five hundred yard, I think. But I don’t think they’re here. They usually take their vacations during the hunting season. At least that’s what they have already told my father.”
“Do they have a phone?” Julie suddenly asked. “In case of emergency, there’s nothing here…”
“I don’t think so.”
“And there’s no network either,” Karen sighed, watching the last bar of the cell network disappear. “Not very practical.”
“We need to call the police,” Joel said. “She was attacked near here. We must prevent them.”
His friends agreed, but they should wait until their victim sees a doctor. She could suffer a concussion or more serious internal injuries. Except that nobody dared to volunteer to go back in town with Dominique. For now, they hoped that she got out of her sort of catatonic state soon to tell them what had happened. Julie curled on the couch, heavy eyelids. She really wanted to sleep. She decided to close her eyes for a moment. Her friends settled not too far away to talk quietly. She was too exhausted to follow their conversation. She stood up slowly. She just wanted to sleep. She went upstairs. Matthew followed her, hoping to talk to her. He touched her arm, but she pulled away quickly.
“Leave me alone,” she said in a tired tone. “I want to sleep.”
“I just want to explain to you…”
She shook her head, preventing Matthew to finish his sentence. She didn’t understand the reason of his determination. Why he insisted to give an explanation she didn’t want to hear? He begged her with his eyes. She crossed her arms over her chest, saying she gave him only a minute.
“But use it well.”
“Do you really feel something for me?”
“I thought I made myself clear about that.”
“But I need to know!”
“While allied yourself with her? To be able to stop me from implement ideas inside Maxim’s brain? If you still had any doubts, you should have come to me first.”
“I wasn’t really thinking.”
“That, I already noticed.”
He bowed his head, ashamed. She didn’t like to see him like that, but she had no intention to dwell on the subject any longer.
“I… I’m sorry…”
She heaved a deep sigh.
“Your time’s up. Good night, Matthew.”
“There are two beds in this room. You can sleep there or take your stuff later and spend the night on the sofa. Do whatever you want.”
She closed the door behind her, ending their conversation. She changed slowly before slipping under the covers. Sleep came to her very soon.
In the morning, she noticed that Matthew had decided to spend the night in the same room. She watched him for a moment before shaking her head. She left the room without making any noise. She wanted to take a shower to wake up. When she returned with her stuff, he was still asleep. He groaned and buried his face in the pillow. His hair fell over his eyes. She had a little smile. Nevertheless, he was still cute. Basically, he had been her friend. She went down to join those who were already up. Nancy gave a small nod to her so she’ll come joining her on the sofa. Julie sank near her friend with a deep sigh.
“What happened with Matthew?”
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
Karen sat on the coffee table, her chin in her hands.
“You guys had a fight?” she asked her. “It happens sometimes.”
“Mind your own business!” Julie cried out irritably. “It’s simple, right? I don’t want to talk about it!”
“Because you caught his conversation with Dominique,” Nancy said. “Is that right?”
“What were they talking about?” Karen added, frowning.
Julie sighed again.
“She probably told him lies, as usual.”
Karen was silent for a moment, merely touching Julie’s hand as a sign of compassion. Nancy was biting her thumb’s nail, pensively. She seemed to have several questions she didn’t dare to ask. Julie asked them if they could leave the cottage now. Her friends frowned in surprise. The young girl told them that something was wrong from the beginning. Dominique was attacked for no apparent reason, even though almost everyone at the cottage wanted to strangle her for a long time. Matthew and Maxim fought… The picture she had found in her locker…
“Oh…” Karen moaned. “Don’t start with that again.”
“What do you mean?” Nancy asked.
“Well the picture we took yesterday is no longer on the refrigerator door. This is where you’d put it, isn’t it?”
Nancy nodded, biting her lower lip. She hesitated a moment before admitting she had found a strange thing in Joel’s bag. She mentioned that she found a provocative picture of Rachel, practically naked. Julie frowned. Another one? How many are there in total? She couldn’t reveal to them that she had already found two in Philip’s stuff without Karen know about it.
“What does that mean?” Karen asked them.
“I think someone came here,” Julie said.
Karen recoiled and asked her not to say such a thing. She was scared. Julie shrugged. She couldn’t help it. She had a strange feeling and she was unable to get rid of it. The feeling of being watch… Karen was afraid and went up to her room. Nancy congratulated her for her achievement.
“You don’t have that impression?”
“No,” Nancy said on a dully tone. “You, you need to sleep. You become paranoid.”
Maxim and his girlfriend went down shortly after. Dominique slightly looked more alive and seemed back to reality. She could speak and remembered what happened. When they asked her to tell them, Karen stormed out of her room. She had pictures in one hand.
“Philip Sylvester!” she yelled. “You better give me a great explanation on it!”
She threw him the pictures, furious. Her boyfriend had cringed while pictures were falling everywhere around him. Julie could have a brief overview of what was on one of them: they were all from the same photo session as the previous. And most likely in the same kind as the one found by Nancy. How many more are they? Karen said she had found them in his stuff. Philip’s face became completely white. He swore it wasn’t his, but his girlfriend didn’t seem to believe him. She slapped him, screaming she hated him. Nancy sprang on her feet to control her by grabbing her shoulders. Julie stood up to help her. Rachel walked slowly and leaned over to pick a photo. Her eyes widened.
“Where did you find this?” she exclaimed, turning to Karen.
“As if you didn’t know!” Karen replied scornfully. “I guess it was your idea to put them there!”
“But what do you mean? Those pictures are private! How did you get them?”
“They aren’t mine!” Philip replied sharply. “I swear!”
Dominique leaned over to pick one up. She looked up at Rachel.
“You did nude photos?” she asked her, bewildered. “Why?”
“The guy… He gave me a good price for my portfolio… and he… he wanted to keep a souvenir… A sort of compensation for the price…”
“So why your photos end up here?” Julie asked, frowning.
“I have no idea! I never brought… that with me…! Why are you asking me that?”
“Because I also found one in Joel’s stuff,” Nancy replied, “and Julie believes that someone broke into the cottage.”
Nancy released her grip on Karen who seemed slightly subsided. Dominique looked around her to each person present in the room on the ground floor. Tears ran down her cheeks. Maxim took her in his arms to comfort her. She told them about her mishap from yesterday. At least, what she remembered. She recalled having taken a walk. Reaching the dock, she heard a noise behind her and then everything went dark. When she finally woke up, she felt her body was dragged on the ground. She couldn’t see who it was, but she recognized the voice that spoke to her. Hands were suddenly around her neck to strangle her. She remained calm, playing dead. Then she began to cry. Maxim pressed her a little harder against him and frowned when he saw many bruises mottled on the skin of her neck.
“Its voice… called my name…! Saying that it was our fault, that we should have done something… I didn’t understand what was happening!”
“Our fault?” Rachel launched. “What does that mean?”
“I don’t understand,” Christopher said.
“We really need to take her to the hospital,” Rachel moaned, “and talk with the police…”
“She’s right,” Philip said. “Dominique was attacked. There may be a dangerous psychopath who watches us.”
Rachel knelt down to pick up her pictures, sobbing. Nancy stooped beside her to help her. Then Christopher took her in his arms to calm her. Dominique had to go to the hospital very soon. She might need care quickly. But she refused that Maxim come with her. She preferred to be accompanied by her best friend Rachel. Joel and Nancy volunteered to drive her to the emergency room before going to the police station. Rachel thanked them for their help. Dominique wanted to rest a bit, clear her mind before having to retell her story to the police. For the moment, she didn’t feel very well. Nancy agreed to give her a little time before leaving. Maxim helped his girlfriend to go to their room for her to rest. Once up the stairs, she turned to the others. Her lower lip trembled again.
“When we get back, I want to leave this place. I suggest you do the same.”
Joel asked her not to rest too long, if she wanted to leave. He wanted to return as soon as possible. An hour or two, not more. Julie still wondered what Dominique’s attacker meant. Christopher lit a fire in the fireplace to counteract the cold outside. The temperature outside hadn’t improved since yesterday, confining all of them inside the cottage. Philip had a long discussion with Karen, swearing that the photos weren’t his. Even Rachel dared to interfere. For once in her life, she seemed really sincere. They eventually calmed her. Christopher took a card game to entertain everyone. They settled on the coffee table in front of the fireplace. Julie drew her knees up under her chin, watching the flames. To her surprise, Rachel sat down beside her. She smiled weakly looking away.
“Did you know that Matthew is in love with you?”
Julie sighed deeply.
“It doesn’t concern you.”
“It’s so obvious!” the young girl continued, acting as if she hadn’t heard anything. “No matter what happened, he really wanted to do it for you.”
“It still doesn’t concern you.”
“Just like between Christopher and me.”
Julie sighed again.
“We talked a lot and…”
“What I’ve done to make you think I wanted to chat with you?”
Rachel mumbled without actually articulate any complete sentence. Julie stopped her by replying her private life wasn’t that interested. She didn’t want to hear her love stories, or talk to her about her own life. And most importantly, she refused to act as if they were good friends.
“I just wanted to be nice,” Rachel murmured.
“No reason to be.”
“I just want to end our relationship on a better note… I always thought you looked friendly and I…”
“It’s not what you’re saying most of the time.”
Julie looked away to watch the card game, which took place near her. Dominique came down, followed by Maxim. The rain had finally stopped falling. It was now time to go to the hospital. The two volunteers got into the car, followed by Dominique and Rachel. Julie looked the vehicle getting away, wondering why she hadn’t gone with them too. Turning her head, she saw Matthew climbing the stairs at fast speed. She decided to catch him up so they could actually talk. Presumably their holiday at the cottage would be shortened and he would eventually avoid her. She called him out once on the first floor. He turned to her, surprised and miserable. She motioned for him to follow her and they entered the little boudoir. She sat on the sofa with a deep sigh. She looked up at him. He hesitated before taking a step toward her.
“I’ll let you explain.”
She motioned for him to start talking. He entered the room, biting his lower lip. He trusted his hands into the pockets of his jeans.
“I… Yes, it’s true that I wanted to know what Dominique planned, but I didn’t want to participate.”
“But it doesn’t change anything.”
“She said she had a plan and I was curious. Not you?”
Julie raised her eyebrows. She still wondered what Dominique had behind the head. Without going further. She was asking herself questions without really wanting to get an answer in time of pure curiosity.
“Well me,” Matthew went on, “I wanted to know.”
“I don’t call it curiosity.”
“You don’t have to believe me.”
“Don’t worry about it,” she replied in a dry tone. “Because even if you were saying thinking she was weird, you still agreed to listen.”
“Yeah, so? That still doesn’t prove anything.”
She suddenly straightened up, feeling a wave of anger overwhelm her. He thought he was wrongly accused. He really didn’t understand anything. She wasn’t accusing him or even a trial. Perhaps he had been acting to know more, as he claimed. But it was only his word she should or shouldn’t believe. She shook her head, trying to calm down.
“She might have something interesting to offer me! And I’ve also seen how he looks at you. I’m not stupid. It’s not my fault if I don’t want to lose you! Maxim doesn’t deserve your attention…”
“He’s my friend.”
“What about me? Surely more than him…”
He gave a little gasp. The tone was dry, leaving no room for negotiation. The look that Julie gave him made him take a few steps back. He knew then that he had completely lost all his chances with her. He had lost. He wanted to explain his point of view, but his time had expired. He opened his mouth. She raised her hand to silence him.
“Let’s leave it there,” she said in a harsh tone. “Back to square one. We’re friends.”
“I regret my decision so much.”
The young girl walked up the stairs at a rapid pace, shoving him on her way. She went down to get something to drink in the kitchen. Karen calmly discussed with Philip. She looked at her friend. Julie filled a glass with orange juice. She put the glass to her lips and drank almost all of it. Philip and Karen kept watching her with suspicion. She sighed deeply and deposited the glass on the counter.
“Yes, I just talk to Matthew. No, it’s ending here.”
“But why?” Philip asked. “What he has done?”
“The rest doesn’t concern anyone else.”
Karen gave a little moan that made her smile.
* * * * *
Finally the sun broke through the clouds and the ground dried out a bit around the cottage. But everyone seemed sluggish and nervous despite de warm rays. Karen walked in the backyard, pointing her cell phone to the sky. She was trying to get the network to join Nancy. They still hadn’t got any news from their friends. In the early evening, they made a fire. The air got cold very quickly. Karen wrapped herself in a thick blanket and settled near Philip. Julie joined them after she slipped in a thick sweater. They met all around the fire, enveloped in a rather uncomfortable silence. Karen regularly cast a glance at her cell phone, looking worried. Maxim bit his nails. Christopher seemed distraught that Rachel was no longer with them. Julie thought about Joel and Nancy. Would the police be here soon to inspect?
“Does someone can say something?” Philip implored on a pleading tone. “Please? Anything? I hate silence.”
Karen pressed a little against him.
“Silence can help to think,” Matthew said morosely.
“Well, I don’t need to think,” Philip replied, moving a little. “Our week is completely ruined. So why think?”
“I suggest that we leave upon their return,” Maxim said without leaving the flames from his sight. “No way am I staying here any longer.”
“I’m really sorry for everything,” Christopher grumbled. “It was supposed to be great vacation.”
“It’s not your fault,” Philip said, frowning. “You couldn’t predict what would happen.”
“Yes, but still…”
“I agree with Max,” Matthew threw in a neutral tone.
All eyes turned to him, surprised that he really agreed with him. He went further, saying that it could be dangerous if the police didn’t believe them or the psychopath returned to torment them. Karen began shaking her head vigorously, replicating she refused to leave without Nancy. She looked them one after the other.
“Don’t worry,” Philip said in a reassuring tone, “we will not leave without them. It’s going to be okay.”
He passed his arm around her shoulders, pulling her toward him.
“It’s been a while they’re gone,” Christopher replied. “Why aren’t they already back?”
“We can’t even reach them…” Karen moaned.
“This is not time to panic,” Matthew replied by throwing a piece of wood into the fire. “Doctors may do further tests on Dominique.”
The tone of his voice was reassuring. Julie watched him from the corner of her eye. He really tried to be reassuring, but did he really thought about what he was saying? She doubted just the way he avoided their eyes. In fact, he did his best to stay very quiet when in reality he asked himself the same questions as everyone else. A heavy silence fell again on the group. Christopher broke it by offering them something to drink or a snack. Philip offered to help him to carry everything out.
Julie looked at the flames dancing before her eyes, head buried deep in her thoughts. She finally got up to walk a little. She walked toward the water. A shiver ran through her body when she thought about the open wound on Dominique’s head. What had really happened to her? She told them that her attacker tried to strangle her and she played dead. Nobody deserved that. Not even Dominique. Someone was watching them since their arrival, she was sure. She hoped the police would be there soon. Sighing, she shivered again. The night was very cold and she was now standing far from the fire. She turned slowly and her heart suddenly stopped beating in her chest. From the corner of her eye, she caught sight of a shadow moving near the bushes behind her. She listened, trying to find out which direction the shadow had taken.
She held her breath, her eyes wandering all around her. Was she really alone? With the least possible noise, she went to the cottage. She noticed something in the grass. She leaned over to see what it was. Another picture…? Her blood froze when she recognized the Polaroid photo taken the day Dominique and Rachel had come to join them. In the dim light of the moon, she could see that some of the faces were scratched. Those of Joel, Dominique and Nancy…