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All About My Mother; The Whitley Household
Topic Started: Sep 16 2016, 10:07 AM (940 Views)
Laurels
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Cause what you see isn't always the truth
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June 1st, 2015, Afternoon

"Hello. My name is Kelly Whitley. I'm Noah's mother."

"I'm Angie Whitley, and I'm his stepmother."

"And I'm Edie MacIntyre, his grandma."

The three women sat beside one another facing the camera on top of Noah's computer. Kelly sat in the middle, her blonde hair tied tightly back and her eyes slightly red and puffy. Her mother, Edie, sat on her right, clutching Kelly's hand tightly. Angie sat up straight, her hands clasped tightly and resting on her lap.

"We're here to discuss something quite important," Kelly said.

"As you might have noticed," Angie continued, "Noah hasn't posted any videos to his channel in a few weeks. His social media accounts have also ceased to update regularly. This is not intentional on his part, and we're here to address the concerns some people have made in the comments."

"We know there have been a lot of questions and concerns from his fans," Edie said. "We appreciate your concerns and know why there have been some worries."

"As you might have heard, a group of students from Cochise High School in Kingman, Arizona, went missing in early May," Kelly said. "Noah has made it no secret he lives in Kingman, as many of his Pina Bucket videos have made clear where he has likened Kingman to something from an Ed Wood movie."

Angie briefly smirked, but turned serious. "We know there have been many comments about this. People have been asking if Noah was one of the abducted students, if he was dead, if he was sick. We've seen messages wishing him well, and we've also seen some quite tasteless messages now."

"Unfortunately, we're here to confirm that your suspicions are in fact correct," Edie said.

Kelly sighed. "Today, a video was posted online, revealing that Survival of the Fittest has returned for its sixth incarnation. The students participating are the missing students from Cochise High, and to our absolute horror, that includes Noah."

"We're here to make a plea to all of Noah's fans, to his friends, and to anyone who comes across this channel because of Survival of the Fittest," Angie replied.

"Please. Please do not watch Survival of the Fittest," Edie said.

"If you watch Survival of the Fittest, you are supporting the terrorists who abduct our children and force them to fight to the death," Kelly said. "You are engaging in a spectacle that reduces human beings to nothing but animals for the slaughter. It's not just that our son, our stepson, and our grandson was abducted. It's that these are the children of many families on our community. Our town is hurting, our town is suffering, and viewing the footage only adds to the pain these families are suffering."

"There is something you can do," Angie said. "Please avoid watching the footage. Send your wishes to the families who are suffering. But do not trivialize the students and their lives."

"With regards to Noah," Edie continued, "we ask that you put aside any issues you have with his character, his videos, or his sense of humor. He's still a person, and he's in a situation that no one should ever have to take part in."

"We're going to be actively monitoring his social media accounts and his channel for the duration of this time," Kelly said. "Anything inflammatory or insulting will be deleted and blocked. Noah may have made a name for himself as a comedian and a character on the internet, but right now, he's just a person stuck in a dark situation."

"We wish that people would think about Noah as he is and not how he appears on his shows and how he may come off on Survival of the Fittest," Angie said. "He may only be my stepson, but he's a wonderful person. He's creative, humorous, well-meaning, and a great big brother. I may only get to see him when he visits his father in Las Vegas, but I love him as if he were my own son."

"Noah is my only grandson," Edie said, wiping her eyes with a tissue. "I've seen him grow up from an energetic and wild little boy to a proud, goal driven young man. I'm so proud of everything he has done."

"Noah is everything to me," Kelly said. "He was all I had when I got divorced, and he's what has kept me grounded over the last few years. There were so many times I felt like giving up, but Noah was there to make me smile. He's completely figured himself out, and he has such a bright future ahead of him. It pains me to think that all his potential and his dreams might be crushed because of something so horrible."

Kelly started to sob. Edie pulled her close and let her cry into her shoulder. Angie's eyes started to water as well, but she faced the camera.

"So please," Angie said. "Do not watch the feeds, and please be respectful of the victims and the families in this situation. This isn't the time to be petty or cruel, but the time where we need to be there for one another and to love. We'll be sure to keep you updated on everything, but I think we need to take a break, shut off, and all help each other."

Kelly continued to cry into her mother's arms. Angie moved forward and stopped the video.

"Okay, I think we're good," Angie said.

Angie rubbed her eyes. The three women sat there in front of the computer and didn't say anything. They'd post the video to Noah's channel in a few hours, but for now, they had to face the reality of the situation.
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June 1st, 2015, Evening

Kelly kept her hands clasped in front of her face and leaned slightly forward in her seat. In the other room, she could hear the sound of cartoons playing on the TV. Ella was glued to the screen, watching the show play, completely unaware of what was going on around her. Kelly quietly sighed. Even though Ella and Noah were only related through their father, she could see a bit of Noah in the young girl. The way Ella sat quietly, even her posture, was how Noah used to watch Spongebob on Saturday mornings in his pajamas. Kelly could only see Ella from the back of her head, and she was sure if she could see the girl's expression, it would be one of bemusement and fascination.

Kelly looked away from the living room. Seated around the dining room table were the rest of the adults. Kelly sat at the head, with Edie sitting to her right. Beside Edie was Kelly's father, Arnold. Arnold had stayed silent the whole day, only speaking when he announced he was going outside for a smoke or if he was going to run to the store to get some milk. Arnold's gaze was down at the table, and Edie was grasping his left hand, slowly rubbing her fingers over the back of his hand.

To Kelly's left was her ex-husband and Noah's father, Christian. Christian was red-eyed and grizzled, having given up shaving over the last few days. Angie sat beside him, her hands moving over her laptop. She'd pause every few seconds to sigh or to sniffle, but kept her hands moving, scrolling through various web pages. Christian let out another groan.

"Angie, what are you doing?" he asked.

"I'm just checking on his accounts," she said. "It's updating quite regularly, and believe it or not, not everyone listened to the video."

"Okay, but do you have to be so loud?" Christian asked. "It's grating."

"Sorry, I'll try to type quieter," Angie said, her eyes darting from her husband to the laptop screen.

"Please do," Christian said, rubbing his forehead.

Kelly was about to speak, but stopped. It was hard to believe she would be seeing so much of her ex. When they divorced, Kelly was content to keep Christian as far away from Noah as possible. His career as a poker player was unstable, and his drinking problems made him quite distrustful with whatever money they did have. Even the battle to let him get some parental rights to Noah was a pain to go through. However, she had to admit that Christian had changed enough that it was fine for Noah to see him, as long as Christian kept himself in check.

For the most part, this meant only seeing Christian when it came time to drop him off at Christian's home in Las Vegas or when Christian brought Noah home. She kept things amicable, as Noah probably deserved, and Christian had kept some decorum in all of this. But now she was forced to spend more time with Christian, and Kelly wished it wasn't like this.

When Noah first went missing, Christian took a leave from his job and came down to Kingman to see if he could help or to be there when Kelly heard anything. He left after two weeks when it looked like things weren't going to be resolved so quickly. After all, he still had his wife and daughter in Vegas. They had been understanding and supportive, but there was so little Christian could do.

That morning, when the reports of the resurgence of Survival of the Fittest arose, Kelly was shocked to see Christian had brought his entire family down to Kingman. Ella was done with school for the year, and since Angie didn't work, it was easy for them to quickly pack their things and come visit. Christian wanted to stay in a hotel, but Edie made sure there was room for the three of them. They did have a guest room for Christian and Angie, and Ella could sleep on the living room couch. No one was going to sleep in Noah's room. They didn't have to discuss it, but it was clear that option was never going to come up to any of the people in the house.

It had been Angie's idea to make the video for Noah's channel. Christian refused to be a part of it. He didn't want to put himself out on the internet. At the same time, he also didn't think he could hold himself together for the video, at least not in the way Angie requested. Arnold was also in no way prepared to appear on the video, so that left the women to film it. Angie had uploaded it shortly after it was complete. In just a few hours, it had already reached a few thousand views.

It was also throughout the day that the combined Whitley-MacIntyre clan had to deal with a continuous ringing over the phone, the repeated sound of the doorbell, and many offers of condolences and casseroles that came with these chimes. Kelly had tried to field all of these calls and appearances, but eventually got tired of it and left Edie to handle it. Edie, for the most part, was able to smile and try to speak in a hopeful tone to these people. She could thank them for their prayers, tell them they were all trying to help each other through this terrible time, and accept any offers for support in the mean time.

It had been an exhausting day. Mrs. Baker's lasagna had been half-consumed and was now chilling in the refrigerator along with Mrs. Simon's tuna casserole and Mrs. O'Leary's peach cobbler. The phone had been disconnected now that it was after 8 pm and the family wanted to be able to sleep through the night without hearing anything. All that remained in the household was the sounds from the cartoon Ella was watching, and the tapping at Angie's laptop.

Angie let out a sigh, then stopped typing.

"So, I know none of you are going to be happy to hear this," she began, "but I found it."

"Found what?" Edie asked.

"It," Angie clarified. "I found the stream that shows us what happens to Noah."

"What?" Christian said, his voice raising.

Angie lowered the laptop screen partially so no one could see what was on her computer screen.

"I did some research," she said. "I looked through various social media sites, found some forums, and I found the links to the feeds for Survival of the Fittest. People are posting where you can see various kids begin their, well, 'stories', for a lack of a better word. And I just found Noah's."

"Why the hell would you go looking for that?" Christian asked. "Do you want to see him die?"

"Of course not!" Angie said. "I don't ever want to see that. It's just..."

"It's just what?" Christian asked.

Angie sniffled. "How else are we going to know what happened to him?"

The room was silent. Edie's mouth fell slightly open, while Arnold merely kept his gaze to the table. Angie looked around at all of them. Even at Kelly, who hadn't reacted much at all since Angie began to speak.

"Look," Angie began, "I know this is terrible. I know I'm opening Pandora's Box here, and I know I'm probably going to regret it, but Noah's fate is here. It's on this video, and it's the only way we're going to know what happened to him on that godforsaken island. I remember reading that the feed from the last time this occurred with that girl from Seattle was delayed, so for all we know, Noah may have passed away weeks ago, or he could be the only one left. And I also know the FBI will probably start cracking down on links after it becomes public the end result of this event.

"As I see it, right now is the only time we can actually see what happened to Noah. Before it becomes difficult to find the footage, while the event is still fresh on the public's consciousness, and while we are all gathered. I'm not saying we all have to watch it, but that it might be best we decide if we're going to watch it or not."

"I think you're fucking crazy if you think I'll let you watch that," Christian said to Angie.

"Christian," Edie said, "Ella's in the next room."

"Exactly!" Christian said. "She's nine. Do you think I'll be okay with her wandering in right when someone dies horribly on screen? Think of what that could do to her."

"Think of what it could do to any of us," Edie said. "Noah's our special little boy, and we shouldn't subject ourselves to the same torture he's going through."

"I know," Angie said. "That's why I think we should set up a private space; a room in this house where someone watches it and reports anything to the others. Ella won't go in, I'll make sure of it. But would you rather learn of Noah's death from some secondhand source? Would it be fine if Mrs. Baker or Mrs. Simon came in to tell us Noah died before we knew he was dead? Would you rather some troll on Twitter post an image of Noah's corpse before we see it? Believe me, I would rather not watch what equates to a snuff film, but I sure as hell want to control how we handle this situation as much as we can. It's certainly not like we're allowed to be with him when he dies. If he died. Sorry."

Angie stopped talking and buried her face in her hands. Her face had turned red and tears had started to well up in her eyes. Christian moved over and put his arm around Angie.

"I'm sorry," he said. "I shouldn't have yelled. It's just... I don't want to see him die."

"Me neither," Angie said, "but we have to know. I mean, it's our right to know what happened to him."

"So, what then?" Edie asked. "Who watches it?"

The room fell silent. The five adults all started to look around. No one wanted to be the one to volunteer, but no one wanted to hear any of the others say they'd watch it. Arnold shook his head.

"I won't watch it," he insisted. "I want to remember Noah as the boy who once said I was so old that my social security card is a stone tablet. I don't want to remember him as someone crying and begging for help as one of his classmates takes his life."

Edie had smirked a bit at the joke, but then fell solemn. She patted Arnold on the back.

"It's okay, dear," she said. "I won't watch it either. I'll remember him as our amazing little grandson."

"I don't know if I can do it," Christian said. "I mean, he's my son..."

Christian bit his lip and held his head low. Angie looked at her husband, then spoke.

"I can do it," she offered.

"What?" Christian asked.

"Look," Angie said, "it's probably easiest if it's me."

"What are you talking about?" Christian asked.

Angie wiped her eyes.

"I've only known Noah for nine years," she said. "The rest of you knew him for eighteen. Christian, you may not have been there for part of his life, but he's still your flesh and blood. I've only seen him during the last few summers and Christmases. I didn't even meet him until after we got engaged. I love Noah, but out of everyone here, I have the fewest memories with him. And believe me, I'd love to remember the Noah of those memories more than the Noah on this feed, but I think out of everyone here, it will probably hurt me the least."

"Ang..." Christian began.

"Look, I'll try to keep quiet about what I see," Angie said. "I'll wear headphones, I'll lock myself in another room. No one has to know but me-"

"Give me the fucking laptop," Kelly blurted out.

Everyone turned to face Kelly. Angie looked the most surprised. This was the first thing Kelly had said since they all sat down.

"What?" Angie asked.

Kelly got up from her seat. She walked around the table and stood over Angie. Angie looked up at Kelly. Kelly was only about ten years older than her, but Angie felt like she was small child looking up at her own mother.

"Give it to me," Kelly said.

"Kel-" Christian began to say.

"He's my son," Kelly said. "I brought him into this world, and I've been with him nearly every day for his eighteen years of life. I've seen him grow. I've seen him learn. I've seen him make mistakes. I've seen him make accomplishments. And I've seen him become the man he his. I know this will probably kill me, but goddammit, I will not let my son's last moments be missed. And I won't let anyone prevent me from seeing this or taking this burden from me.

"Now. Give. Me. That. Laptop."

Angie quietly turned back and handed the computer to Kelly. Kelly began to walk out of the room and towards the stairs.

"I'll be in my room," Kelly said. "Angie, bring me the power cord."

"Okay," Angie said.

Kelly took one look into the living room before she headed up the stairs. Ella was still watching TV, but she had turned and was now staring at Kelly. Ella's eyes weren't the same color as Noah's, but in her large, brown eyes, Kelly could see the same look of worry that Noah showed whenever Kelly was sad. Kelly breathed in, then spoke.

"Goodnight, Ella."

"Goodnight," Ella replied.

Kelly walked up the stairs and into her room. A few minutes later, once she had Angie's power cord, she lay in her bed and opened the link to the stream Angie had found. She sighed, then pressed play.

"Lord, please help me. Please help us all," she muttered to herself.

And with that, she saw her son slowly wake up in an old dorm room. His story had begun.
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June 1, 2015, late evening

Ella stared up at the ceiling of the living room, the sound of the ceiling fan creating a soft hum. It had been a long day. That morning, they learned Noah had been abducted as part of a game created by some terrorists, then her parents were rushing to pack bags and drive nearly two hours to Noah's house in Arizona. Ella had never been to Noah's house before. They were planning to come visit for his high school graduation, but that seemed unlikely now.

Despite all of this, Ella should have been feeling drained. Instead, she didn't feel much of anything. From the moment she heard Noah was missing along with over a hundred of his classmates, Ella wasn't sure how to react. Any other nine year old girl would have been crying or praying, but Ella felt almost nothing. It wasn't that she wished Noah wouldn't come back; if anything, she wanted her older brother back more than anything. But Ella realized she wasn't sure if it was okay to feel sad. At any moment, Noah and the kids could be found, and life would return to normal.

When her dad left for a few days to see Noah's mom, Ella didn't bemoan the absence of her father. When her mom cried while talking on the phone about Noah's disappearance, Ella didn't walk over to comfort her. All Ella could do was stay out of their way and look busy. She finished her schoolwork without the need for their help, she cleaned up after herself, and she made sure to not bother them when they were talking. None of it made her happy, but Ella figured if she looked busy or calm, maybe it would make her parents feel better. Maybe they'd be able to worry about one kid instead of two.

What Ella did find herself doing, more than anything, was watch the videos Noah put online. Before, Ella only watched the videos he made in passing. If she was on YouTube and saw a subscription update, she'd watch if the title interested her. For the most part, she found herself watching the videos of Noah alone. She didn't hate Pina Bucket, but to her, Noah was always funnier when he was just being himself. At the same time, his videos were also a little more mature than a fourth grader should be watching, and he made a lot of jokes she didn't understand.

But if anything, it showed Noah living and breathing. If she ignored the footer for each video, she could pretend Noah had posted each video to show he was okay.

Ella turned on the couch. Noah's grandparents had a pullout couch for her to sleep on. It was fairly old and made a few noises when she tossed around. But Ella didn't feel like sleeping. She slowly got out of the bed, and began to walk through the house. Edie had left a lamp in the hallway on so Ella could find her way to the bathroom or the kitchen if needed, so she wasn't stumbling around blind. She walked slowly through the living room, up to the mantle over the fireplace. All along the mantle were pictures of Noah, his mom, and her parents. Ella slowly studied them. A portrait of the four taken in their Sunday clothes. Arnold and Edie wearing Christmas sweaters next to an illuminated tree. A picture of an elementary-aged Noah, covered in mud and missing teeth. It was odd, Ella realized. Noah was twice her age this year, but she had never seen him younger than she was. To her, Noah was always towering above her. Even though she knew he had to be a young boy at one point, she almost never was able to visualize him as such.

Ella turned away from the mantle and walked towards the stairs. Everyone went to sleep much earlier, shortly after they finished their talk in the kitchen. Ella had pretended to be watching cartoons in the other room during the talk. They probably wanted her to be distracted, so she let them think she was engrossed in the show. In actuality, Ella wasn't that into cartoons, and the volume was low enough that she could hear everything they said. It was why she had turned to look at Kelly when Kelly took the laptop to her room to watch the footage of Noah; to let them know that she was still around. Even though she spent the last few weeks out of their way, even she didn't want them to talk about her and act like she wouldn't hear.

Ella slowly made her way up the stairs, trying to be as quiet as possible. When she reached the top, she peered down the hall. She had explored the upstairs earlier, and she knew exactly where everyone was sleeping. The first room on the right was the guest room, where her parents were sleeping. The lights were off, so Ella was hoping they were actually sleeping. To the left was Arnold and Edie's room, also dark. Further down the hall, a small light could be seen peering out from under the door. That had to be Kelly's room, Ella decided. Kelly had taken the burden to watch the feed, and even though it was after midnight, she was still watching.

Ella slowly passed by the rooms, praying that each step wouldn't set off a creaky floorboard. As she moved pass Kelly's room, she found the room she was looking for. She slowly put her hands on the doorknob, turned it slowly, then pushed her way into Noah's room. Once inside, she slowly closed the door behind her. Noah had left the blinds up before he went on the science trip, so the room was filled with moonlight. She walked over to the bedside dresser and flicked the switch on the lamp. It wasn't much, but now Noah's room was filled with electric light.

Ella slowly poured over the objects in Noah's room. His room was quite a sty, but at least it was slightly organized. She walked over to his computer desk, where he filmed new videos nearly every week. She could see various papers scattered around. His UNLV acceptance letter was laying near a notepad with show ideas written and scribbled out. Scattered around those were some makeup sets and brushes, a jar filled with Hershey Kisses, and a few other small trinkets.

She continued to walk and saw his dresser. There were some more objects on it, a notable one being two busts with the blonde wigs Noah used to play Pina. One was flat with dark roots, while the other was curlier and longer. Like the mantle downstairs, he had placed some framed family photos. Unlike downstairs, these included Ella's family. Ella reached over and brought one picture into her hands. It was a picture of her and Noah taken at her fifth birthday party. Noah had hoisted Ella into the air and was resting her on one shoulder. He had a large, goofy grin on his face, while she had one of startled bemusement. Ella put the picture back on the dresser and quickly walked away.

She found herself facing Noah's closet. She slowly opened the closet. To her surprise, Noah had divided the closet into two sections: one for Noah, and one for Pina. Ella started to push the clothes down the bar. Noah's personal clothes were tasteful and simple. Mostly collared shirts and polos. Pina's were silly. Mostly tight looking dresses and jackets, some cut quite short. Ella looked down and realized that on the floor were several pairs of high heels. Noah once bragged that he only had three pairs of shoes, but he was clearly not counting these ones.

Ella reached down and pulled one pair out. They were a pair of red high heels, with a pointed tip and a sharp heel. Ella looked around and noticed a large mirror drilled into Noah's wall. Ella stared at her reflection in the mirror, then back at the shoes. After that, she began to move.

In a few moments, Ella had taken the curly wig off the dresser, pulled a rhinestone studded jacket out of Noah's closet, and put the red shoes on her feet. The wig was poorly placed on her head, while the jacket rested over her nightdress. The shoes were fairly big for her, so she felt she was sliding a bit trying to balance on them. She walked over to the mirror and stared at her reflection. A few times Noah had visited her, he asked if she wanted to play dress up. When she was younger, she was fine with that. She'd put makeup on Noah poorly or paint his nails garish colors. She got passed that phase pretty quickly, so she never let Noah dress her up.

Now she was here, missing one brother and wearing his clothes, wigs, and shoes. With nothing else to do, Ella raised two peace signs up to the sides of her face and stuck her tongue out.

"Hey, y'all," she said, keeping her tongue out and her voice low, "I'm Pina Bucket. I'm dumb as a corn kernel and I get in bar fights with popular celebrities. How y'all doing?"

Ella remained in place, keeping her tongue out. She slowly lowered her hands and closed her mouth. She reached up and pulled the wig off her head, letting it fall to the floor. She slowly turned and walked over to Noah's bed. She pulled back the covers and climbed in, keeping the jacket and shoes on.

Ella lay in Noah's bed and looked up at the ceiling. It was still an unfamiliar ceiling, but this one was different than the last. This is what Noah saw every nigh when he went to sleep. This is what he stared at when he was probably thinking about how fun the science trip would be. When he thought about getting into UNLV. When he thought about a new video he'd make.

Ella felt her eyes start to weaken, so she turned away from the ceiling and buried her face into Noah's pillow. She inhaled, and realized just how familiar a scent was on the pillow. It was Noah. He was on some island somewhere, probably dead, and yet she could swear he was laying right there.

Ella closed her eyes. She suddenly felt tired, but it was also getting hard to keep her eyes open. Maybe it was because they were starting to well up with tears, but Ella was finally able to rest, and soon drifted off to sleep.
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June 2, 2015, morning

Angie scraped the frying pan with the spatula, scrambling the eggs in the pan. At the kitchen table sat Christian, his eyes slightly red and his hands clasped in front of his face. Ella sat across from her father, also sitting silently with an occasional sip of orange juice to mix things up. Arnold was outside on the back patio, having a smoke, while Edie began to pour a few cups of coffee.

"Angie, are you sure you don't want help?" Edie asked.

"No, it's fine," Angie said. "You're letting us stay here. The least I can do is help with the meals."

"Okay then," Edie said, carrying two of the mugs over to the table.

Edie set a mug in front of Christian. Christian nodded, and took a sip. Arnold walked into kitchen as Edie brought the rest of the coffee mugs to the table.

"Is Kelly here?" he asked.

"No," Edie said. "She hasn't come down yet."

Angie took a free plate and plopped some eggs on it. She handed the plate to Edie, who added some bacon from the nearby paper towel to the plate. Edie placed the plate on the table in front of Christian. The two women continued this until the five all had a plate.

"So, I guess we should say grace," Edie said.

"That would be a good idea," Angie said.

Edie, Arnold, Ella, and Angie all made the signs of the cross and clasped their hands. Christian remained frozen.

"Dear lord," Edie began. "Thank you for the meal. Please look after our Noah and ensure he and all those other kids are brought home safely. Amen."

"Amen," chimed Angie and Arnold.

"Amen," Christian mumbled.

Ella remained silent.

The five began to quietly eat, the sound of silverware scraping across the plates being the only sound in the kitchen. As they ate, Christian heard a creaking noise in the hall. He turned his head and saw Kelly walk in.

"Good morning, Kel," Christian said.

"Morning," Kelly said, walking to the coffee pot.

Edie stood up from the table and walked over to her daughter.

"Here, let me get you a plate," Edie said.

Kelly moved slightly away from her mother. "I'm not hungry. I just need some coffee."

"Dear, you should eat."

"I will," Kelly insisted, "but I'm not hungry right now."

Edie stepped away from Kelly and back to her seat at the table. The others in the room looked over Kelly. She was dressed in her morning robe, an old pink robe that had been worn for at least half a decade. Her hair was greasy and loose, spilling just past her shoulders. Her eyes were puffy and red, with dark circles forming under them. She slowly moved and added a few spoons of sugar to her coffee, stirring the coffee. Edie and Arnold both struggled to speak, each one prepared to ask the one question everyone in the room wanted to know, but were too afraid to ask. Ella kept her gaze away from Kelly.

"So...what's happened so far?" Angie asked, finally breaking the silence.

Kelly sighed.

"He's still alive. For the first day, at least," Kelly said.

Edie let out a sigh of relief and put her hand over her heart. "Oh thank god."

"But is he okay?" Angie said. "I mean, has anyone hurt him?"

"No, he's fine," Kelly said before taking a sip of coffee. "He's run into some girls and they're all working together. He also got some weird tool that throws saw blades that he gave a weird name to. I think he named it after someone from Drag Race. I don't get it, but that's what's going on."

"Well, it could be worse," Angie said.

"It is for others," Kelly said. "At least one girl killed herself."

"Oh god," Angie said. "Did he see it or-"

"One of the girls he met saw it. I'm not watching any other stream, so I don't know who exactly this girl is. But it looks like not everyone is coming home."

The room fell silent. Edie looked down at her food, while Arnold took her hand. Christian remained silent and fixed at Kelly.

"So, what now?" Christian asked.

"I'll keep watching," Kelly said. "I fell asleep after they met some other girl at a radio tower. So I guess I'll pick up from there."

"Let us know if you need anything," Edie said.

"I will, Mom," Kelly said.

Kelly walked out of the kitchen and back up the stairs. She paused at the bottom of the stairs and sighed. Once she was ready, she trudged up the stairs and into her bedroom. She took her place on her bed, Angie's laptop set up with Noah's stream ready to play. She put her headphones on, took another sip of coffee, and stared at the screen.

In a way, Kelly was proud of her son. When faced with a terrible situation, he had remained calm, tried to take charge, and was now in a group that seemed to believe in him. Kelly couldn't imagine what she'd do if she had been forced into such a game when she was 18, much less now at 42. Granted, she didn't know everything Noah was thinking, but as a viewer, she could see he was doing what needed to be done in this situation.

Of course, what Kelly didn't tell everyone downstairs was what Noah had said directly to the camera. Kelly had known from years of watching reality TV with her son and watching the videos he posted on YouTube that when placed in front of a camera, Noah was always truly himself. Sure, he'd have a wig on and a fake accent at times, but this was the person he wanted to present and the personality he wanted to display. This was when he felt the most candid. At times, this was how Kelly could learn about her son; learn about what he felt, what he was paying attention to, and what was on his mind.

Still, there was a line that kept playing in her mind. Last night, when Kelly was lying in her bed watching the stream, Noah showed that candid side of his. When Noah and the girls were in the tower, Noah looked directly at a camera and spoke.

Mom, Dad, Grandma, Grandpa, Angie, Ella, if you're watching this...please don't. Please find something else to watch. Please don't watch me die.

When that line played, Kelly paused the video and pushed the laptop away. She covered her mouth and began to breath heavily. That was when she decided to go to sleep. Or rather, when she attempted to go to sleep. All sorts of horrible images filled her mind that night. Noah being shot repeatedly, being stabbed with a spear, being betrayed by those girls, being killed by his saw blade weapon, or throwing himself off a bridge like that one girl. For most of the night, Kelly was plagued by these images of her boy dying horribly.

That's when she knew: Noah was acting. He was wearing the blonde wig and making jokes. He was acting calm, but he wasn't calm. He was acting brave, but he was scared. Her little boy was putting on a front for those around him, but in actuality, he was mortified for his life, and he was aware it was likely to end terribly.

And what's worse was that Kelly was already betraying him. He didn't want them to see his death, and yet here she was, watching the spectacle like it was the Superbowl. That's when Kelly realized she was being as fake as Noah was. She wanted the others to think she was brave to watch the footage. That she was making a huge sacrifice for all of them. That she was willingly hurting herself to spare them the pain. She could pretend it was fine, that she could handle this task and that they could all take some comfort knowing Noah had someone watching over him.

But honestly, it made her so sick she couldn't even stomach the idea of eating.

Now, Kelly sat at the laptop, the video still paused at the moment after Noah spoke to the camera. She stared at the image of her son, his blonde hair and blue eyes just like hers. She took a deep breath, then clicked the play button. The footage continued.

"I'm sorry, Noah," she said. "I'm so sorry."

Kelly blankly stared at the video. Even though Noah was cracking jokes with some new girl, she couldn't bring herself to crack a smile. She had failed to live up to her son's last request, and she had lied to her whole family. The only thing she could do now was force herself to keep going. Noah didn't want her to watch his death, but Kelly knew she had to. It was the only way she could atone for letting him down.

Kelly took a sip of coffee as Noah and the others left the tower. This was only the first day of the broadcast, Kelly had to remind herself, and it could all get worse at any moment.
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June 2, 2015, late afternoon

Arnold leaned back in the old metal chair at the table on his back patio. He lit another cigarette and exhaled the smoke. He dabbed the ash over the ashtray and looked off into the backyard. Their fenced-in yard had been let go in the last month. Arnold had meant to mow the lawn, pull the weeds, and clean the patio furniture during the last few weeks. But all he found himself doing was sitting quietly and contemplating things.

Arnold could look to one corner of the yard and see the place where a three-year-old Noah would make mud pies after a rainy day. In the other corner, he could see where seven-year-old Noah buried his goldfish, Baxter, one cloudy Fall day. Arnold let out another exhale of smoke and shook his head. Everything reminded him of his grandson, but he couldn't pull himself away from it.

For most of the day, Arnold had stayed out of everyone's way. He volunteered to run out for food and other errands. He didn't try to spend time with Ella, nor did he speak with Christian or Angie during lunch. Edie had taken to managing the chores around the house, so he could let her do that. Kelly was still locked in her room, watching the stream. Noah was still alive as of the second day, now spending his day locked in a cabin with two of those girls he met the first day. Arnold could take some relief, but it wasn't much. Noah was probably already dead, and there wasn't much point in denying it.

The door to the house opened, and Christian stepped out.

"Hey," was all Christian said as he stepped outside.

"Hey," replied Arnold.

Christian leaned against the wall of the house and sighed.

"The girls left for the movie," Christian said. "Kelly's still in her room, so it's just the three of us here now."

"Great," Arnold said. "What's for dinner?"

"They're gonna eat while out," Christian said. "Edie said there's leftovers for us."

"Okay then."

The men fell silent. Christian walked over and sat at one of the other chairs at the patio table.

"Can I have a smoke?" he asked.

"I thought you quit."

"I did," Christian said. "But I'd still like one."

Arnold grabbed the pack and passed them over to Christian. Christian stopped smoking when Kelly got pregnant with Noah. He relapsed after the divorce, but quit again when Angie got pregnant with Ella. Arnold lit his cigarette lighter, and Christian leaned in to light the smoke. Christian took a long drag, then exhaled.

"Oh fuck, that's good," he said to himself.

Arnold shook his head.

"Son, if you're gonna lose yourself to addiction because of this, you better think otherwise," Arnold said.

Christian paused and stared at his former father-in-law.

"Don't worry," Christian said. "I'm not thirsty."

Christian took another puff from his cigarette. He couldn't believe Arnold brought up his former drinking addiction. Christian had always struggled with drinking since he was seventeen. It could be blamed on parents who didn't give a shit about him and left him to fill the void with alcohol and tobacco. He was in and out of programs for most of his twenties, his career as a professional poker player keeping him in environments that encouraged him to drink.

When he was first dating Kelly, she had tried to keep his drinking under control. Christian had always promised her he'd keep it to a minimum, and made sure to order non-alcoholic beverages around her. But soon he was drinking vodka from water bottles and passing out outside their apartment. It wasn't until Noah was two and he passed out he was alone with Noah one evening that it finally went too far. Kelly came home from her job to find Christian passed out on the couch and Noah crying his head off in his crib. Kelly finally had enough, and that's when the divorce papers came in.

For the next few years, Christian had to struggle with alimony payments and custody agreements that weren't helped by his continual struggle with AA and the rocky stability of his career. But that's when Angie came in and helped him finally get clean. Now Christian's home in Las Vegas was dry, with not even a single can of beer around for the Fourth of July and all ashtrays in a box somewhere in the attic.

For the last sixteen years, Christian knew Arnold blamed him for Kelly and Noah's suffering in the fallout from the divorce. Arnold had never been the biggest fan of Christian. Arnold wasn't the least addictive person he knew, but Arnold had come from a serious Irish family that knew when to take it easy on liquor. Kelly only married Christian because she got pregnant, and Christian had failed to live up to the responsibilities being a husband and father had entailed. Arnold didn't believe in divorce, especially since he had made his own marriage to Edie last nearly fifty years despite numerous issues in that period of time, but even he had to agree it was right for Kelly to leave. Christian may have gotten his act together for his second marriage, but he still failed his first wife and his son, and that had consequences.

Arnold looked over Christian, with his slightly thinning hair and the bump on his nose. and felt slightly disgusted. Even though they were able to be calm right now, Arnold was still a bit peeved with Christian. The divorce had damaged Kelly. She never had a serious relationship after they fell out, despite Edie's attempts to get her to see other men or to try online dating. He knew Kelly was afraid to put herself out there. It was probably why she still lived with her parents after getting divorced. Her job would pay enough for her and Noah to live on their own, granted things would be a bit tight. But she wanted to stay close to her parents, wanted to help out around the house, and wanted Noah to have some stability in his family situation. Arnold could allow her to do this, knowing it was probably for Noah's best, but even so, he knew Kelly could do better, and Christian had ruined her for it.

Arnold lit another cigarette as he finished the first one. Christian was staring off into the yard.

"Do you think Kelly's going to be okay?" Christian asked. "I mean, it can't be good for her to stay cooped in that room watching that video."

"Of course not," Arnold said. "I don't think any of us will be."

"Yeah, but have you wondered if she'd...you know..."

Arnold glared at Christian.

"Don't. Don't you dare suggest that."

"Well, it's still possible."

"That doesn't mean we should talk about it."

"Arnold, we can't just ignore it."

"I can ignore a lot of things," Arnold told Christian. "I ignored how much of a shit you were when you were married to Kelly, all because I thought she would be strong enough to handle you."

Christian took another drag. "That's really uncalled for. I'm not the issue here."

Arnold turned slightly away from Christian. Christian shook his head.

"You know," Christian began, "Kelly mentioned how much of a cold asshole you were when we were first dating. She said you always liked to stow away your feelings on everything and that you were hard to approach for help. And I know she's not the only one who thinks that. She said Edie's found you hard to get along with at times."

Arnold turned back to Christian. "Don't bring my wife into this."

"Why not? Why not involve everyone?" Christian asked. "You've spent the last two days refusing to talk to anyone, pushing yourself towards closer and closer to lung cancer, and you can't even say anything to your wife and daughter."

Christian put the cigarette out in the ashtray.

"Now I know why Noah barely talked about you," Christian said.

Christian got up from the table and began to walk towards the door to the house. Arnold stood up in place.

"Now wait a minute," Arnold said. "What do you mean by that?"

Christian turned towards the older man.

"Whenever I called Noah or he came to visit, I'd ask him how his family was doing. He would talk about things he'd do with his mom and grandma, how they'd listen to some of his jokes, or plans they'd make for the future, such a shopping trips with Kelly or sewing projects with Edie. When it came to you, all he had to say was 'Same old, same old.' From what I can tell, you and Noah have barely done anything together in years. Maybe he found you weren't someone he could approach anymore."

Christian walked to the door and swung it open, stepping into the house and letting the door slam behind him. Arnold turned back from the door and looked out into the yard, putting the cigarette to his lips again.



"Hey, Grandpa," Noah said, "I got a joke for you."

"Okay, let me hear it."

Arnold was sitting on the patio, smoking, while a thirteen-year old Noah was standing before him with a big smile on his face.

"How do you know when someone is gay?" Noah asked.

"Uh, I dunno, how?" Arnold asked, chuckling.

"When he's got blonde hair, blue eyes, and is your grandson."

Arnold was silent.

"Really now?"

Noah smiled and nodded.

Arnold was silent for a second. The ash from the cigarette fell into the ashtray. Noah was staring expectantly at his grandfather, waiting for him to say something. Finally ready to break the silence, Arnold chortled.

"Well, you could have fooled me," Arnold said. "With those looks, I'd have thought you'd have your pick of any girl you'd want."

"Oh, Gramps" Noah said, chuckling, "I can still get any girl I want. I'm not just going to be every girl's gay bestie. I've gotta choose wisely."

Arnold nodded, trying to not show that he didn't know what "bestie" meant.

"Well, that's all I gotta say," Noah said. "Mom said dinner will be ready soon."

"Okay. See you inside," Arnold said.

Noah smiled and quickly walked back to the door. Arnold waited until Noah disappeared into the house to turn back towards the yard. His smile disappeared as he raised his cigarette to his mouth. He let out a sigh with the smoke in his lungs.
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June 2, 2015, evening

"Okay," Edie said, taking the tray of sodas from the cashier. "Thank you very much."

Edie moved down the bar at the concession stand to where Angie was pouring melted butter over the tubs of popcorn they had.

"Ooh, I learned a trick," Edie said. "Let me show you."

Edie took a straw from the nearby bucket of straws and unwrapped it. She placed it in the tub of popcorn and positioned it under the butter dispenser.

"Watch this," she said.

Edie pressed the button, pouring the melted butter into the straw.

"Now, the butter will get on the popcorn at the bottom of the bucket," she said.

Edie removed the straw and repositioned it in the tub, repeating the process.

"That's really neat," Angie said. "How'd you learn that?"

"Noah showed it to me when we saw Fifty Shades of Grey earlier this year. He said he found the trick out on Tumblr," Edie said, shaking salt over the tub.

"Wait, you and Noah went to see Fifty Shades?"

"Well, I loved the books and wanted to see the adaptation. He wanted to see it so he could make a video for his show. I think it was something like 'Pina Bucket Attempts Fifty Shades BDSM'. Either way, it was a lousy film, but we had a good time."

Angie chuckled. "Oh man, I could never see a movie like that with my grandmother. She'd probably have a heart attack the moment she saw bare ass."

Edie let out a short laugh. "Oh please, I've seen worse than bare ass in my life."

"Really? Like what?"

Edie looked around, then leaned closer to Angie. "Let's just say that a teenage Arnold wasn't very good at locking doors."

Angie's eyes widened. "Oh my god. You mean-"

"Yep," Edie said. "To Bettie Page."

Angie let out a laugh. "Oh god, I can't believe that."

"Yeah, don't tell Arnold I said that," Edie said.

"I won't. Now, let's go."

Angie grabbed both tubs of popcorn, while Edie took the tray of sodas. Ella was sitting on a nearby bench, watching people walk around the lobby of the movie theater. In an effort to get out of the house and take a break from waiting, Angie suggested they go see a movie. She and Ella had wanted to see Pitch Perfect 2 for a while, but Noah's disappearance had put that on the back burner. Fortunately, it was still showing at a nearby cinema, so they could go. Ella agreed, although Angie had some suspicions that she didn't really care to see it. Of the others, Edie seemed like the only one eager to go. Christian and Arnold weren't in the mood to see a movie, and there was no way Angie would get Kelly out of her room. Thus, it was just the three of them heading to the theater.

"Okay, are we ready to go?" Edie asked.

Ella stood up, brushing the edges of her dress over her knees. "Yeah."

"Great," Angie said. "It's Theater 4, so let's go."

The three of them began to walk to their theater. Ella looked around at the posters on the wall, advertising the hot films of the Summer. Edie tried to keep talking with Angie.

"So, I never saw the first Pitch Perfect, but Noah said it was good. What can I expect from it?" Edie asked.

"Well, a lot of singing, for one," Angie said. "There's also gonna be some comedy, and probably some romance in-"

Just then, there was a beeping sound from Angie's purse. Angie stopped walking and glanced at her purse.

"What is it?" Edie asked.

"Oh, probably just a text from work," Angie said. "Even while I'm on leave I still get emails. I'll check when we're inside."

The three of them soon arrived at their theater and took their seats, with Ella between her mom and Noah's grandma. She had one tub of popcorn in her lap, while Edie helped herself to a few. Angie quickly looked in her purse at her phone.

"Is it home?" Edie asked.

"No, it's nothing," Angie said. "I logged Noah's social media accounts to my phone, I get alerts from his channels if anything is posted."

"Is it anything important?" Edie asked.

"No, not really," Angie said. "Just someone on Twitter mentioned his name and wished him the best. Same old, same old,"

"Oh, okay," Edie said, turning back to the screen, which was displaying some trivia questions.

Angie quickly looked back at her phone. She then looked back at Ella and Edie, both of whom were trying to figure out the trivia question. Angie put her phone back in her purse, then stood up.

"I'm going to use the bathroom real quick," she said. "I'll be back in a few."

"Oh, but the movie will start soon," Edie said.

"Don't worry," Angie said. "I don't really care for the previews."

Angie slung her purse over her shoulder and walked down the aisle and out the theater. She quickly walked to the nearest ladies room and hurried in. She walked into a stall and locked the door before sitting down. She pulled the phone and a pair of earbuds out of her purse. She brushed some of her curly, brown hair back before she put the earbuds on.

Angie was primarily a housewife, but she still did some freelance web design from home. She used to work for a web company, but after Ella was born, she decided to step back a bit and focus on being a mother. Because of this, she was able to stay up to date on social media trends and platforms. She had offered some advice to Noah for managing his social media profile on various sites and some strategies to help keep his videos relevant even after their initial posting.

Since Noah went missing, Angie offered to keep his accounts managed. It was easy for her to figure out how to log onto his computer (the password was "PinaBucket") and he kept his accounts logged in at all times on his browser. Angie assumed that Noah thought no one else in his family would use his accounts, so he felt comfortable leaving them logged on. Either way, Angie was able to get all the log-ins and passwords for his social media accounts and put them into her phone so she'd get alerts too.

This had made it easy for her to block and delete unwanted posts and responses. For the most part, the responses had been overwhelmingly positive and supportive. However, there were some lowlifes who thought it'd be funny to post horrible shit about Noah. They clearly watched the video she, Kelly, and Edie made and decided to ignore it. Angie could see these types were the ones who would do the same for profiles of other kidnapped Cochise students, primarily the ones who were dead or were killing.

Angie looked at the video that was just tagged to Noah's Twitter. She covered her mouth, trying to hide the smile. It was Odessa Arlington, a popular internet celebrity drag queen Noah had followed religiously. Odessa was a drag queen from Texas who had competed in numerous drag pageants and appeared in guest spots on several TV shows in the last ten years. She had started a web show a few years ago, and Noah had followed her frequently, adopting some of her catchphrases and gestures, such as saying "Bitch, fo' real?" and tongue popping, to his lexicon.

Noah had met Odessa a few months back when he was visiting her family in Las Vegas. Noah had discovered that Odessa would be doing a show at a local club and had convinced Angie to go with him. The show was fun, with Odessa doing comedic lip syncs to songs like "Mama's Broken Heart" and "Cold Hearted" and doing some stand up in between. Noah also got to meet Odessa at a meet-and-greet afterwards and nearly started crying when he met her. He regained his composure long enough to take a picture with her. He posted it to his accounts later that night and tagged Odessa to the posts in hopes she'd see it and maybe his channel.

Now, Odessa had finally seen everything he had done. Angie watched the short video Odessa posted. She looked at the queen, with her big, brown wig, her giant hair bow, and her dark colored eye shadow.

"Hey, it's your girl, Odessa, with a serious message. So months ago, I met little gay boy named Noah at a meet-and-greet in Vegas."

Odessa held up the picture of Noah from the meet-and-greet.

"He was a cute kid, kind enough to cry at the sight of me, and was really flattering during our short time together. I recently discovered that he was one of the kids abducted and put into Survival of the Fittest. Now, normally, I'd make a joke, but this is where I can't. Noah is just one of many kids who have been forced into this game, so I'd like all of my followers to take time to pray for these kids, maybe donate to their families if they've set up a GoFundMe or something like that, and to avoid any of the footage that is posted on the interwebs. Cause if you dare to look up footage of kids being murdered, then all I can say is 'Bitch, fo' real?" and this time I'd really mean it. That's all."

Angie shook her head and stirred as she sat on the toilet. If Noah was here, he'd be floored that one of his drag idols would have messaged him directly. Angie would have to send Odessa a direct message over Twitter thanking her for the kind words and the shout out. However, there was one part of the video that got Angie, one that made her slightly guilty.

Angie opened the bookmark tab on her web browser and scrolled down. She clicked the newest link there, a link whose name was merely a garbling of letters and numbers. She clicked it, and the video appeared. In it, she saw Noah sitting on a couch in some abandoned cabin, one of his traveling companions nearby. It had to be the night on the second day. From what she heard from Kelly, he and some girls were now residing in a cabin waiting for a friend to show up.

Angie closed her eyes and sighed. She had lied. She lied to everyone. She promised everyone that Kelly would be the only one to watch the footage. However, after Kelly took the laptop into her room, Angie retraced her digital steps on her phone and once again found the link to Noah's stram. She saved the link to Noah's, editing the bookmark name so no one who got past her phone password (the password was 3552, or "Ella" in numeric code) would notice she had the stream saved.

Yes, Angie knew it was wrong to do this. Yes, she was lying to everyone. Yes, she was subjecting herself to horrors. But she had seen more than anyone else, so as she understood it, out of everyone, she had understood the situation more than any of them. While Kelly resigned herself to watching Noah's stream and Noah's alone, Angie was looking at other websites regarding SOTF, following the #SOTF tag on Twitter and Tumblr. She had seen .gifs and images from the game. She saw a .gif of the girl who fell off the bridge, saw some kid get struck with an ax, and had seen another boy get pushed off a tower. It was horrible, but Angie knew she couldn't ignore it. Sure, she could distract herself with movies and small talk, but her stepson was still on some island somewhere, and the horrors of the game could only avoid him for so long. It helped her understand the gravity of the situation more, even if it meant subjecting herself to vicious images and reactions from faceless Internet people.

Angie closed her eyes and sighed.

"Bitch, fo' real?" she quietly asked herself.

Angie closed the browser app when she saw that Noah was still alive and wasn't doing much right now. She took the earbuds out of her phone and stashed them both into her purse. The last thing she needed was someone like Edie asking why she had earbuds in her phone. She had to get back to the theater anyways before Edie and Ella wondered why she was gone so long. Noah was alive as far as she knew, so she could at least let that stay in her mind while she watched Pitch Perfect 2.

After all, she could just check again when she got home. There were plenty of hidden corners in the Whitley house to check it in.
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June 3, 2015, early morning

Christian slowly crept down the stairs. It had to be close to three in the morning, but he wasn't feeling tired. It had been a quiet evening for the most part. Kelly remained in her room, only coming to the door when Christian brought her a plate of reheated lasagna. He hadn't talked to Arnold much, mostly sticking to spending the day watching the news in case there were any updates on SOTF. Sure, Kelly was watching the footage to see what happened to Noah, but that was in the past. The news could cut the need to watch the stream short by announcing that 80-some kids had been rescued and were coming home in the next few days. Sadly, there wasn't much on that in the news; just pundits arguing about who was to blame for the abductions.

Christian rubbed his hand through his hair as he reached the bottom of the stairs. Ella was sleeping in the living room, so he quietly walked through the room. He looked over his daughter as she rolled over on the pullout couch. He could just make her out from the dim light of the lamp in the nearby hall. Ella looked a lot more like Angie than him, having curly brown hair that fell past her shoulders and a small nose like her mom. Christian wondered what Noah looked like when he slept as a kid. There were a whole seven years of Noah's life he missed due to his personal issues, and every day he found himself kicking himself for all the moments he missed. It made Noah's abduction all the more painful, as now he knew he could lose out on so much more of his life.

Christian crept by and soon found himself in the kitchen. There was already a lamp on the corner table on, so he quietly moved to the cabinets to fetch a glass.

"Good evening," said a low voice.

Christian jumped in place a bit, nearly dropping the glass. He turned and saw Kelly sitting at the kitchen table. He couldn't see her when he first walked in, so he had no idea she was nearby. Kelly was seated at the table wearing her bathrobe, with an open bottle of wine nearby and a glass in her hand.

"Kel, jesus you nearly scared the shit out of me," Christian said.

"Not so loud," she said. "Ella's still sleeping."

"Sorry," he said, lowering his voice.

Christian looked at the wine. Kelly wasn't much of a drinker. She may have spent her adult life working in bars and restaurants, but she rarely touched the stuff unless it was a social occasion. That was something she probably picked up from her father.

"Are you okay?" he asked.

"I'm fine," Kelly said, taking a sip. "Noah's still alive as far as I can tell, but he's just sleeping in the cabin, so there's not much going on. Just thought I'd take a break."

Christian filled his glass up with water from the tap and walked over.

"Good," he said. "You could use one."

Christian took a seat in the chair across from Kelly. He wasn't sure what to say, so he tried to find something to say.

"What kind of wine is that?" he asked.

"Merlot. It was supposed to be for Noah."

"Noah?"

"Yeah."

"Why?"

Kelly sighed. "I made a dumb little promise with him. I told him that the night he graduated high school, I'd let him have a glass of red wine. He and I were talking a few months back, and I decided to promise him he could have his first drink when he graduated."

"You're encouraging our son to drink underage?"

"I wasn't trying to encourage him to break the law," Kelly said, "I just figured it would be good to have one glass with his mom so we could sit and talk about his future and his plans. I mean, he got into college. I didn't, and neither did my parents. He could have a drink if he did."

"I understand," Christian said.

Christian knew Kelly's lack of education was a sore spot for her. It wasn't that she didn't try to get into college, but her family couldn't afford to send her. She did well in school, even tried for scholarships, but nothing ever panned out. She tried to escape the shame of failing to do anything by moving to Las Vegas and trying to make something there. If she couldn't further her education, maybe she could start a new life of her own. In a way, she succeeded, but she was still back in Kingman, working a minimum wage job and living with her parents.

Christian took a sip from his glass.

"Kel, I'm really sorry," Christian said.

"For what?"

"For everything. I mean, we never really talked since we agreed to let me back into Noah's life, and I feel we should put all our cards out on the table."

"Don't," Kelly said.

"No, I want to-"

"If you do, you're making it sound like Noah's dead," she told Christian, her voice slightly raised.

"That's not what I'm trying to do," Christian said. "I just...I feel like we never really got on good terms with one another after our marriage failed. This is a time we should all be coming together, not drifting apart, and if there's anything I can do for you, I want to be able to do so."

"Duly noted," Kelly said, taking a sip of wine.

She began to refill her glass. "So what do you want to talk about so badly?"

Kelly took another sip. Christian let out a small sigh.

"Why haven't you found someone else since we split?"

Kelly raised an eyebrow.

"What?"

"I'm curious. It's been sixteen years since we split. Was there really no one else for you?"

Kelly shook her head. Christian rubbed the back of his neck.

"Really? I mean, I find that hard to believe."

"You sound like my mom," Kelly said.

"You know Edie's just worried about you."

"Yeah, and I'm not interested. At least not now."

Christian stared Kelly in the eyes. "But really, have you never thought about trying?"

"Of course. Every so often, someone would come along, and I'd think 'maybe he's the one' or 'maybe I should have dinner with him.' But I get over that quickly."

"Why? It's not because of me, is it?"

Kelly gave a disapproving look to Christian. "Why the hell would it be because of you?"

"Well, I mean, our marriage failed-"

"And you were the first shitty man I was ever with? Please, Chris. I've been with worse. My middle school boyfriend told his friends I once went to school without panties on just because he asked me to. My high school boyfriend's wanted us to have our first time during a house party. Oh, and the first guy I dated in Kingman tried to get me to blow him in a parking lot. You may have been a drunk asshole, but you were very much in line with the kind of guys I had the misfortune of crossing paths with."

Christian looked slightly down.

"Wow. So your dad is wrong."

"What did he say?"

"He said I'm the reason you haven't dated."

"What?" Kelly replied with an incredulous look. "Seriously, Dad...Look, it's not because of you."

"They why not?"

Kelly took a sip.

"I haven't dated because of Noah."

"Noah? Why?"

Kelly looked directly at Christian. "Because I worry about what it could mean for him. I mean, he's already in a broken home, and I was worried what a sudden stepdad could mean for him. Besides, most of the men in Kingman aren't the kind who take to single moms or kids with out children."

"Yeah, that's a bit unfortunate," Christian said, taking another sip.

"I was going to wait until Noah was in college, or done with college. Besides, being in a relationship doesn't matter to me. I'm not interested in getting married again, I don't want any more kids, so most guys are probably going to see me as a dead end."

"You can date someone without marrying them or having kids," Christian said.

"I know, but I think a lot of men want that. I'd just like someone who'd be comfortable to be with on a quiet night, or who could make me laugh. I didn't really want for that in the last sixteen years. I mean, Noah was fun to be around, and he always made me laugh. So I didn't feel lonely."

Kelly turned slightly away from Christian. Christian looked closely at Kelly.

"Kel?"

"Sorry, it's nothing. God, if Noah was here he'd make a Norman Bates joke or something."

Christian chuckled. "Yeah, he would, wouldn't he? I mean, he's already got a wig and dress, so he could totally pull it off."

Kelly let out a laugh. Christian smiled a bit. This was probably the first time Kelly had smiled in a while.

"Not gonna lie," she said, "but Noah's first drag show was when he was six and got into my mom's clothes. He came running down the stairs in one of her floral dresses with a sunhat on and lipstick smeared on his face. We were all just sitting around, and when he came in, the first thing he said was 'Grandma, it's me, Anastasia!'"

"Anastasia?" Christian asked.

"It was from a movie he watched as a kid. Oh man, my dad looked prepared to have a heart attack. Mom played along with it and asked who Anastasia was and where she came from."

"What did he say?"

"He looked my mom dead in the eyes, hands on the hip, and declared 'Mother Russia'."

Christian let out a laugh, then covered his mouth. Kelly also similarly covered her mouth.

"Oh my god," Christian muttered.

"Yeah. I wonder why he didn't use Anastasia as his drag name," Kelly said, taking another sip of wine. "It's a fabulous name."

"It sure is. Oh man, I wish I could have seen that," Christian said.

"Yeah," Kelly said.

Her smile slowly faded away and she lowered her head. She put her mouth to her hand as her face started to turn red.

"Kel?"

Kelly waved at Christian with her free hand, trying to say "It's nothing." Of course, when Christian saw her head dip lower and a whimper escape, he got up from his seat and moved closer.

"Kel, it's going to be fine," he said.

"No it's not," Kelly said. "He's probably never coming home. I want nothing more than to see him come out from around the corner in a crazy dress and spouting some weird nonsense. But he's not. I just know it."

"Hey, hey," Christian said, sitting beside Kelly on the bench and pulling her close. Kelly embraced Christian and began to cry into his chest. Christian rubbed Kelly's back.

"Look, it's late, you're tired and probably a bit tipsy. Maybe you should get some sleep, and tomorrow, you'll start to believe he can come home. Okay?"

Kelly quietly nodded, then looked up at Christian. Christian could see her red face, her puffy eyes, and her cheeks stained with tears. He soon saw something else much closer. Kelly moved forward, pressing her lips to Christian's. Christian's eyes widened, and he pulled Kelly away.

"Kel!" he protested.

"Sorry," she said. "I just...sorry..."

Christian looked at his ex-wife as she turned away from him. He could feel her shaking a bit, and saw another tear fall down her cheek. He closed his eyes and sighed.

"If it helps you feel better, then go ahead," he said. "Angie can't know."

Kelly looked back at Christian. Looking at him, she could see the same cool poker player she passed by in a casino all those years ago. She leaned forward and kissed Christian again. Christian put his arms around Kelly and pulled her close. The two remained on the bench, kissing one another in the silent kitchen. Tears continued to fall down Kelly's cheeks, and a few started to fall down Christian's.

As they kissed, a figure moved quietly from the entrance of the kitchen and back into the living room. Kelly and Christian couldn't hear her as she quietly climbed back into the pullout sofa. She positioned herself in the bed and stared at the ceiling. She clasped her hands around the blanket and let out a long exhale. Ella rolled herself away from the kitchen entrance, not wanting to acknowledge what she had witnessed, and praying she'd be able to chalk it up as a dream in the morning.
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June 3, 2015, late morning

Ella sat at Noah's computer table, staring at his laptop. She was logged in (even at nine years of age, Ella knew his computer password should have been more complicated than "PinaBucket") and looking at his YouTube channel. She was replaying old videos from his channel. She had gone through videos like "10 Uses for Eyeliner In The Kitchen" and "Okay, Maybe It Did Come Off That Way: A Pina Bucket Apology," and was now rewatching his video called "Noah and Pina Have Opinions: Disney Princesses." This was one of the few videos where Ella understood pretty much every joke and reference, or at least 80% of them.

Ella stared at the screen. Noah didn't have a green screen yet, so he and Pina were alternating shots in different parts of Noah's room.

"All I'm saying," Pina said, "is that if Ursula was really smart, she'd have traded legs for something that had actual weight and value. When has a red head's voice ever been considered valuable?"

"Well, it got ladies to think of Ed Sheeran as hot guitar playing sex maching instead of some pasty ginger troll," Noah said.

"True," Pina said. "Although if anything, if I was Ariel, I'd at least made sure those legs came with a nice vajayjay. I mean..."

Pina lifted one of her leg's up into the frame, putting her ankle close to her chin. She quickly looked down before looking back up into the camera.

"...I would certainly be up for wishing for a new one."

Ella laughed. She forgot how flexible Noah was from his dance classes. He had basically shown off at one of her birthday parties by doing a jump split in front of her classmates. She could touch her toes, so she was at least getting close to matching his level. It had gotten her a certificate in her P.E. class for Most Improved. Ella knew it was a silly award, but her mom and dad were quite proud of her.

Ella suddenly felt slightly down. She bit her lip and turned her head slightly away from the laptop screen. As a discussion about Belle from Beauty and the Beast came into her ears, the image of her dad kissing Noah's mom also entered her mind. She shook her head. She had tried to get that image out of her head all day, but it was as permanent as one of those cold sores on Pina's lip (that was another joke she didn't get, and for some reason, her mom wasn't willing to explain that one to her). She didn't know what to think about it. It didn't look like they were acting any differently. Noah's mom was back in her room watching the feed, while her dad was going to spend the day helping Noah's grandmother in the yard. Her mom was doing some work in the living room, giving Ella free domain to play in Noah's room.

Ella heard the door to the room start to open. She knew the rest of the family wasn't going near Noah's room, so she was still afraid of what would happen if she was seen inside the room. She quickly moved out of his chair, planning to hide under his bed. However, as she moved out of the chair, the earbuds she was wearing got caught under the corner of the laptop. This caused her to pull the laptop slightly, throwing her off balance. The earbuds were yanked out of the headphone jack as Ella fell to the floor with a loud thud.

"Ow..." she muttered.

"Ella? Are you okay?"

Ella looked up. It was Noah's grandfather. Ella looked up at Arnold, her face starting to turn red. Arnold merely closed the door behind him and stared at her.

"I...uh..."

"Ella-"

"Oh man, I just thought of something!" Pina shouted

Ella quickly turned back to the laptop. The video was still playing, and with the earbuds removed, both she and Arnold could hear exactly what was playing

"Beauty and the Beast would be a good name for our show," Pina said.

"True," Noah replied. "People do often call me a Beauty."

"Right. So who would that make me?" Pina asked with a dumb grin on her face.

Noah appeared on screen, raising a finger, about to respond to Pina's query. But he stopped and shook his head.

"Never mind. Now, let's move on to Merida," he said.

Ella got up and paused the video. She turned to look at Arnold, a nervous smile on her face.

"I was bored..." she said, turning away from Arnold.

Arnold closed his eyes and shook his head. "I understand."

Arnold looked around the room, then walked over to Noah's closet. He opened it up, and stared at the clothes hanging.

"Have you been in here long?" he asked without looking at Ella.

"Just for part of today," Ella said. "And some time her the day before."

Ella watched as Arnold began to rifle through the closet. He stopped, then pulled out a red-sequined dress. He rubbed his fingers over the sequins, looking at how low cut the dress was.

"Did Noah really wear something like this?" Arnold asked Ella.

"He did in one of his videos," Ella said. "It was about something like Pina Bucket's weird family history or something."

"Was it weird?"

"Yeah. A lot of cousins marrying cousins and war being declared against random animal species," Ella said. "Didn't you watch it?"

Arnold shook his head. He put the dress back in the closet.

"I never did."

"Oh..." Ella said.

Arnold continued to push clothes on the Pina side down the bar. He then paused and pulled something else out. It was a gorilla costume.

"This was my old costume," Arnold said. "I wore this for Halloween when Noah was six."

"He wore that on top of a Poison Ivy costume," Ella said. "My mom took him to perform at a club."

"Oh. So that's why he took it..."

Arnold looked over the costume. He let out a sigh.

"He was a banana that year."

"What?"

"For Halloween. I was a gorilla, his mom was Jane from Tarzan, and he was a banana. We wanted to have a theme when we went trick-or-treating. So we found a costume where he was dressed like a little banana with arms and legs sticking out of it. He was really excited to be a banana."

"Really?"

"Yeah. I remember saying it was because he was 'ap-peal-ing.' He then went to every house and told everyone he was 'ap-peal-ing' the whole night. He wasn't just a banana, he was the most appealing banana in Kingman."

Ella laughed a bit. Arnold smiled a bit, but his smile then disappeared. He put the gorilla costume back in the closet.

"I never got why he loved being a banana so much," Arnold said. "Then again, I guess he does love 'bananas' because he's such a fruit..."

"What?" Ella asked.

Arnold looked at the girl. She looked completely confused by that last statement.

"Ah, never mind. You're too young to get it," Arnold said.

"I know what 'fruit' means," Ella said. "He explains it in one of his videos."

"Oh. He does?"

"Don't you watch his videos?" Ella asked.

Arnold paused. "Of course. All the time."

"Then why didn't you know that?"

Arnold was silent. Ella looked at the older gentleman as he slowly turned away from her.

"Okay, fine. I haven't watched any of his videos," Arnold said. "I've seen bits from when Kelly or Edie is watching them, but I don't go out of my way to watch them."

"Why not?" Ella asked.

Arnold sighed. "I just haven't wanted to. I mean, it's kind of weird. He puts on women's clothing, a weird voice, and makes videos about makeup and celebrities, filled with dirty jokes and stuff. I don't get it."

"But a lot of shows do that," Ella said. "Like, on TV. Noah's not the first to do those sort of things."

"I know. I just can't watch it if it's Noah."

"Why not?"

Arnold struggled to respond.

"I just can't. That's all."

Arnold turned away from Ella. Ella put her hand to her chin and thought about it. Arnold had been away from everyone the last few days. Her dad said Arnold was always a bit of an emotionless jerk, but Ella wasn't so sure if that was true.

"Sir," Ella began, "do you dislike Noah for doing these videos?"

Arnold turned to Ella.

"What? How could I dislike my only grandson?"

"But you don't like the videos."

Arnold paused, then spoke. "Well...look, Kingman's not really the town that would accept this sort of thing. I mean, if it's for Saturday Night Live, they like it. No one's really supposed to be flashy and crazy here. When Noah was younger, it was fine, but now...I just don't want him to get treated poorly. There are some terrible people in town who would love nothing more than to pull him into their truck, beat him up and throw him in a ditch somewhere to die."

"There are people who would kidnap him for no reason to watch him die on an island somewhere," Ella responded.

"Yes, my worst fear is being realized," Arnold said. "I just...I worry about him. I've lived through wars, economic recessions, and all kinds of pandemonium, and I always thought it was best to be calm and carry on without drawing so much attention to myself. And yet Noah puts himself out there for such scrutiny, and in a town that can't do him any good. He may be happy, but I know his happiness could end with him hospitalized or crippled or worse. I don't know why he'd put on the wig and makeup when it could all be snatched from him so easily and..."

Arnold felt his eyes start to water, so he quickly turned away from Ella to rub them. Ella slowly walked over to Arnold, who was now covering his mouth. She put herself by Arnold's side and wrapped her arms around him. Arnold was startled, but looked down at the girl.

"He does it because he loves it," Ella said. "He loves his life, and it's all worth it to him."

Arnold could feel the girl tightening her hug. He couldn't see it, but he was sure she was starting to tear up too. Arnold put his hand on Ella's head, patting it.

"Well, with a sister like you, I'm sure it's all worth it," Arnold said.

Arnold's eyes looked back from Ella to the computer.

"Hey, could you maybe find one of Noah's funniest videos and show it to me?" he asked.

Ella looked up.

"Really?" she asked.

Arnold nodded. "Sure. What's your favorite one?"

Ella let go of Arnold. "Um, I like one of his lip sync videos. He also does a funny one about high school and-"

Before Ella could continue, she was interrupted by a sound. A scream erupted through the Whitley house. Both Arnold and Ella turned towards the door of Noah's room. The scream sounded close, possibly from a room nearby.

"Kelly?" Arnold said in response to the cry.
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June 3, 2015, late morning

While Arnold and Ella were discussing the merits of Noah's body of work, Edie was in the kitchen preparing a lunch tray. There was a turkey sandwich, some potato chips, and a glass of lemonade laid out on the tray. Edie normally loved to cook, but she wasn't putting as much effort into it as she normally would. They still had several casseroles and other dishes from friends and neighbors in case anyone in the house got hungry, but for the most part, Edie was content to reheat in a microwave instead of preparing anything grand. They needed to eat whenever they were ready, and as she saw it, most of them probably weren't in the mood to eat right now.

Edie sighed as she picked the tray up and began to walk towards the stairs. Since Kelly had locked herself in her room to watch Noah's stream, Edie had made it her duty to bring meals and anything else her daughter needed to her room. Kelly had been very low maintenance during this time. For the most part, she remained in her room and only left if she needed to go to the bathroom or needed a break. Even then, she tried to force herself to take care of herself. Edie spent some of her time waiting for a text from Kelly asking for more coffee or anything, but nothing came. Most of the time, Edie would only see Kelly when she came up to bring the next meal. Kelly would meet her at the door, hand her the old tray, then take the new one. Kelly would give a minor update on Noah, then go back into her room.

Edie slowly walked up the stairs, listening to the ice cubes in the lemonade clink against the glass. As she did, she looked at the photos along the wall of the stairs. There was her wedding photo with Arnold from almost fifty years ago, Kelly's high school graduation picture, a photo of Noah as a toddler, and the most recent one of the four residents in their Sunday clothes. What Edie also noticed was a much older photo, with Edie as a young girl, surrounded by her parents and two older brothers.

It was hard to believe Edie and her family had lived in this house for so long. The house originally belonged to Edie's parents, which they bought after they got married following World War II. Edie grew up in the house along with her brothers, enjoying a simple and quiet life together. Unfortunately, things didn't remain stable forever. Both of Edie's brothers were drafted during the Vietnam War. Her eldest brother was killed in action, while her other brother passed away from dysentery in a military hospital. Then, a year before Edie and Arnold got married, Edie's parents were killed in a car accident. To lose her entire family in such a short span of time nearly destroyed Edie. She remained at home, grieving their loss. It took a lot of love from Arnold and a lot of hope for their future for her to leave the home again.

Her parents left her the house, so Edie and Arnold were determined to make it a good home. Edie did her best to make it a good home, redecorating the home to make it feel alive again, learning new recipes to please Arnold, and inviting friends over several times during the week for Bridge and other occasions. When Kelly was born, Edie thought she'd fill the house with children so she could have a large family and make the home feel as lively as it did when her parents and brothers were alive.

But that would never come to be. When Kelly was three, she was admitted to the hospital for pneumonia. All at once, Edie felt a wave of anxiety and fear pour into her system. She tried to distract herself with chores and other tasks, but instead found herself retreating into empty rooms to sob quietly. Fortunately for her, Kelly recovered and was able to leave the hospital. It was then Edie decided to not have any more children. More children meant more possibilities of an early death. She could watch over Kelly, make sure she was safe, and then relax once Kelly had moved out of the house and started her own life. Because of that, she took care to ensure she wouldn't get pregnant again, and told Arnold she didn't feel like they needed to have more children.

After Kelly's marriage fell apart and she moved home, Edie was pleased to have another child in the home. In a way, Noah living in their home made it feel like what it could have been like had she and Arnold had any other children. Suddenly, the home was vibrant again. Edie didn't worry about Noah getting sick or leaving prematurely. She could just be his grandma and dote on him like any other grandma would have. Sure, Noah wasn't entirely what she expected from a grandson, but he was still her family, and she loved all the joy he brought to the home.

Edie slowly passed by the photos and reached the top of the stairs. She had worried about what could have happened to Noah for all these years, but she could have never predicted that something like this would have happened. Much like the stray Vietcong bullet that pierced through her brother's neck or the drunk driver who ran a stop sign and collided with her parents, it was something completely out of her control. Now gloom was back in the house, and Edie wasn't sure how much longer she could distract herself.

She slowly breathed in and out, then walked down the hall to Kelly's room. She could hear some sounds coming down the hall, but didn't bother with them. It was probably Ella or Arnold messing around. She had other things to do right now.

Edie walked up to Kelly's room and knocked on the door.

"Kelly?" she asked.

There was no response. Edie knocked again.

"Kelly, it's your mother. Lunch is ready."

Still no response. Edie felt her heart start to race. There had to be a reason Kelly wasn't responding. Edie's mind jumped to the worst option, so she quickly moved to open the door.

She pushed the door open and moved in, nearly tipping the glass of lemonade over. She held her breath for a moment, then exhaled when she saw Kelly sitting on her bed, looking at her laptop. Kelly removed one of her earbuds and looked at her mother, turning the laptop screen away from where Edie could see.

"What?" Kelly hissed.

"Sorry, I brought your lunch," Edie said.

"And you just barged in? Jesus Christ, mom, think of what you could have seen."

"I'm sorry. I knocked twice and you didn't respond."

"Headphones, mom," Kelly said, pointing to the earbud still in her ear. "That's why."

"Okay. I'll knock louder next time," Edie said, smiling at her daughter.

"Fine," Kelly said, turning back to the laptop.

Edie set the lunch tray on the nearby dresser. The tray with Kelly's breakfast was still there, so Edie went over to pick it up. The eggs were half eaten, and the toast had gone cold. Only the coffee and orange juice were completely gone from the breakfast tray. Edie looked over at her daughter, who was watching the computer intensely.

"So, how's Noah?" Edie asked.

Kelly quickly glanced up, then back to the screen.

"Fine. His group went back to the beach. Apparently, one of the girls he's with has cystic fibrosis."

"Oh dear."

"Yeah," Kelly said. "Some other girl just showed up and they're still talking. Just the same crap they've been talking about for the last day or so."

Edie nodded. She collected the breakfast tray, then began to walk towards the door. She stopped before she left the room, then turned back to Kelly.

"Kelly, can I see him?"

Kelly looked up at her mother, some loose hair falling in front of her face. "What?"

"Noah," Edie said. "I just want to see him for a moment."

"Mom, we agreed. I'm the only one watching this," Kelly said, brushing her hair back.

"I know, I know," Edie said, walking towards the bed. "But if they're just talking, it should be no harm in seeing him."

"No, that's not what we agreed," Kelly said, pulling the laptop closer to her lap.

"Kelly-"

"Mom, please don't. This is my burden. Don't force yourself to see him in this game."

"Kelly, I just want to see him while he's alive. Please, I don't think that's too much to ask."

"No," Kelly insisted.

"Just a few seconds, then I'll leave," Edie bargained.

"Mom, would you please just-"

Just then Kelly jumped up in her seat, the laptop sliding off her lap and onto the bed. The remaining earbud fell out of her ear. Kelly let out a scream.

"Kelly?" Edie asked.

"That was a gunshot," Kelly said. "Fuck, I just heard a gunshot."

Kelly looked at the laptop, putting one earbud back in. Her eyes widened.

"Oh god..." she muttered.

"Kelly? Is he alright?" Edie asked, setting the tray down and walking around the bed to Kelly's side. Kelly held a hand out towards her mom.

"Stay away," she insisted.

"What happened?"

"Mom, please go!"

Kelly turned back to the screen. As she did, another figure appeared at the doorway. Arnold pushed open the door and walked in.

"Kel? I heard a scream. What happened?"

"Dad, go away," Kelly said.

"Is he okay?" Arnold asked.

"Maybe!" Kelly said. "Some bitch just showed up with a gun."

"Kelly, I-" Edie said, moving towards her daughter.

"Mom, I swear to God, get the fuck away from me."

"Kelly!" Arnold shouted.

"It's fine," Edie shouted to Arnold. "Kelly, what's going on?"

"They're now running," she said. "They're all running from that girl and-AAAAAHH!"

Kelly covered her mouth. Edie rushed over to her daughter, putting an arm around her. Kelly was starting to shake, her eyes starting to tear up.

"Kelly, is he-"

Edie turned and saw Noah on the screen. He was lying on the sand, his leg bleeding. The girl with the girl had come back out.

"What's going on?" Arnold asked, moving into the room.

"Noah's been shot," Edie said.

"What?" Arnold said.

"Oh god," Kelly said. Her eyes drifted towards her mother, then her father. Then she noticed something else standing in the doorway.

"Get out of here!" she shouted at the door.

Arnold and Edie looked at the doorway. Ella was standing there, peering in.

"I just-" Ella said.

"GET OUT OF HERE!" Kelly shouted.

Arnold turned around and walked to the door.

"Come on," he said to Ella, putting a hand on her shoulder. "Let's go."

"But-"

"Let's go," Arnold insisted, pushing Ella out of the room. Ella turned back and looked at Kelly and Edie, wearing a concerned expression on her face.

Arnold closed the door behind him. Edie pulled the earbuds out of the computer. She could now hear what Noah and the blue haired girl were saying.

After all, that's what you get for drinking the SOTF Kool-Aid. You really thought playing their way will help you survive. But it won't, Nance. My life might end right here on this beach, but your life ended the minute you decided to kill.

Noah was facing down the girl with the gun, pointing that weird weapon Kelly mentioned yesterday at her. Edie held her breath, while Kelly was beginning to mutter to herself.

"Oh god. Please no. Please no," Kelly muttered.

So, do you feel like gunning down another peer in cold blood, or would you rather just walk away?

Survive? I think... I think you're misunderstanding the situation here.

Edie stared at the image of the girl. The girl was now talking about why she was killing people. The girl had apparently killed before, and she was choosing to keep killing in hopes of being remembered after all of this. Edie had never met anyone like this in real life. Someone who could rationalize and justify cruel actions and not even care about them. This is what Noah was dealing with on that island, and this is what was happening to some of the kids in their town. Edie would never have imagined an average student at Cochise High could be transformed into such a monster.

But Noah continued to speak to the killer. Edie just wanted to scream at him to run, but that wouldn't have done any good.

Okay, afterlife or no afterlife, is that really the best way to be remembered? I mean, I don't care about how I'll be remembered. I've got a family who will remember me. I've got a whole fucking YouTube channel that will last as long as the website does and as long as anyone cares to copy the videos to their channels. I mean, it's not the best thing to remember me by- certainly some of the earlier videos are shit- but I'd rather be remembered for that than for brutally slicing the heads off my high school classmates with some saw blade throwing garage project.

"Oh god, Noah," Kelly muttered, tears starting to fall down her cheek.

And what do you mean 'what are the chances you'd get out alive?' How the hell are you immediately counted out of this thing? Wasn't the last winner some beauty queen or something? Anyone can survive this game; hell, thirty-some kids in 2008 survived by just doing nothing. Okay, you might not be as physically strong as other people, but literally anyone can survive this game. 'Survival of the Fittest' is practically a misnomer at this point. For fuck's sakes, I don't even think anyone would believe I can win at the outset. I don't even believe I can win this! But I'm gonna try to survive, and I'm going to do it right. Besides, the ones people remember from this shit are almost never remembered positively.

Edie could take comfort in the fact that Noah wasn't going to compromise his morals for this game. But it was hard for her to hear that he didn't believe he could win. She wanted him to believe he could be the survivor, that he could return to his normal life. But even he was doubting that he could go home. Was he really losing hope?

So yeah, you'll be remembered and scorned for all of this, Nancy. Hell, that's how I'll remember you from now on. Congratu-fucking-lations! I hope you're proud for winning a Lifetime Achievement Award for Poor Decision Making. And I hope you're okay having your actions forgotten the next time this game is played and some coward like you decides to butcher their friends. Cause guess what: they will be!

"Noah, please just get out of there," Kelly muttered.

Edie looked back at her daughter, then to the screen. Edie was aware this could be Noah's last moments on Earth. He was staring down a killer, and his choice of words weren't necessarily the best. Maybe he was scared, or maybe his injury was messing with his head. Either way, Edie didn't pull herself away from the screen.

To her surprise, the girl was letting him go.

You say this is the only way, but believe me: you're soon going to realize just how wrong you were. Goodbye.

Noah turned, and began to hobble away.

"He's going to be okay," Edie said.

"If the girl doesn't shoot him in the back," Kelly replied.

Edie gasped and watched the screen. With every step Noah took, she was worried it would be the last. That the horrid sound of gunfire could suddenly strike him down. But nothing happened. Noah continued to run, and was soon far from the killer girl. Edie stepped away and leaned against the wall, putting her hand to her heart.

"Thank you, god," she said to herself. "Thank you."

Kelly stopped the video and covered her eyes with her hands. Edie looked at her daughter. Edie slowly stepped over.

"Kelly. Are you-"

"Please go," Kelly said.

"Kel-"

"GO!" Kelly shouted. "Just leave me alone!"

Edie quickly moved away from her daughter, around the bed, and out the room. She didn't even bother to take the breakfast tray with her. She moved out into the hall, letting the door close behind her. She put her hand over her heart and continued to pant. As she did, Arnold emerged from Noah's room and walked over to her.

"Edie, what happened?" he asked. "Is he-"

"He's alive," she said. "He got away."

"Oh thank god," Arnold said, pulling his wife close and embracing her.

With that motion, Edie burst into tears, burying her face into Arnold's chest.

"That was the worst thing I've ever seen," she told Arnold.

"I bet," Arnold said. "It's okay. You don't ever have to see it again."

Arnold and Edie remained in the hall, with Edie continuing to sob into her husband's chest. Any sense of stability she hoped to keep in this house was gone, and Edie knew now that this home could never be what it used to be.
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June 3, 2015, late morning

'32. And yet you still believe in leprechauns?' Thank you, thank you. Shout out to my dad for telling me that joke.

Angie raised her eyebrows and pursed her lips. Christian had never told her that joke before. She had never imagined him telling a joke like that.

I hope that's how you remember me. If not...you'll find something better.

Angie nodded. She had plenty more to remember Noah by, and she was glad for that. She could remember the day she first met him after she married Christian, when he was still in elementary school and wasn't as willing to talk to her as much as he did now. She could remember when he got into high school and sent her a hilarious email about it. She could remember when he first performed at a club using the fake ID she helped get him. Any of those would be better than watching him get shot on a beach.

Angie had been reading in the living room when she heard Kelly scream a few hours ago. She wanted to run up and see what happened, but part of her didn't want to see the others. She could imagine what she'd see: a crying Kelly, Arnold and Edie panicking, and maybe the sight of her stepson dying. It was slightly terrifying, and more importantly, Angie wasn't even sure what she'd see. Kelly was being very secretive about the stream and what was happening to Noah. Vague updates weren't enough for Angie.

So, once she heard the sounds of people running around upstairs, she grabbed her phone and earbuds, and locked herself in the downstairs bathroom. She knew Christian was outside getting ready to help Edie with the yard, and she had no clue where Ella had run off to. Fortunately, the bathroom was unoccupied, so she hurried in there and made sure no one could hear her as she sat on the toilet pulled up the stream.

For the few minutes Noah had with Nancy, Angie kept her mouth covered with her free hand as the other held the phone. She could feel her breathing start to increase. A quick glance over to the bathroom mirror showed her that the color was drained from her face, and that tears were starting to well up in her eyes. She remained frozen in anticipation for what would happen next, worried that it would all end right then and there. To her relief, Noah was able to hurry away from Nancy, and Angie could breathe easily again.

She remained in the bathroom for a few more minutes, wanting to see what happened next. She watched Noah treat the injury on his leg. Angie felt close to puking. She wasn't very good with blood in real life, usually feeling a bit woozy whenever she saw or smelled blood. Nosebleeds often left her panicking, she tensed up whenever she donated blood, and even her labor with Ella was something out of a nightmare. She could watch violence in films and TV shows, since those at least disconnected her from the reality of bloodshed. But now she felt worse than normal. Maybe it was because it was someone she knew- even worse, a member of her family- that made it even harder to accept.

Fortunately, Noah could tell a joke and look past the situation. Angie had to wonder how brave a front he was putting on. He was now injured, alone, and had a horrifying near-death experience that was still not over. Angie sighed and rubbed her forehead. Noah was now off to parts unknown, and she had to wonder if this was merely a sample of what was to come. She prayed it wouldn't be. She didn't want to believe it would.

Just then, there was a knock on the door. Angie jumped in her seat a bit, pulling the earbuds out of her ears.

"Yes?" she asked.

"Ang, it's me," replied a voice from the other side, which she identified as from her husband. "You okay?"

"Oh, yeah," Angie said, quickly pulling the earbuds out of the jack on her phone and pocketing them. "Is something wrong?"

"Everyone's freaking out," he said. "Noah was shot by some girl."

"Oh, was he?" she asked, closing the browser app that had the stream playing. "Sorry, I've, uh, been in here a while."

"Oh, sorry," Christian said.

"It's fine. Is he okay?" Angie said, standing up.

Angie quickly flushed the toilet, then walked over and turned the faucet on. She didn't bother to wash her hands, using that time to put her phone in her pocket.

"He is, but Kelly and Edie got a real scare, so neither of them are doing well."

Angie turned the faucet off. "I can imagine."

Angie walked over to the door and unlocked it. She swung the door open and saw her husband there. Like she did moments ago, Christian looked a bit pale and shaken.

"What's happening now?" she asked.

"Kelly's locked in her room as usual. Arnold's comforting Edie in their room. Ella's somewhere about the home. It's a mess."

Angie nodded. "Okay. Is there something we can do?"

Christian rubbed the back of his head. "I don't know. I think we just need to give them all space."

"That sounds right," Angie said. "But maybe we can handle lunch or something."

"I doubt they're in the mood. You can check if you want."

"I might. Let me see if Ella's hungry first."

"Fine with me. I'm gonna step outside for a bit," Christian said.

Christian walked away, making his way towards the back door. Angie watched him leave through the door, then leaned against the door jamb. She sighed and tapped the back of her head against the jamb. She quickly fished her phone out of her pocket and pulled up the web browser. She clicked open the bookmark for Noah's stream, muting the phone so she could see the footage. Noah was still walking through a forest.

"Come on, Noah," she said to the image on her phone. "You can do this. Please come home."

Just then, Angie hear the back door open. She quickly locked the phone and turned to the door. Christian was walking in.

"Sorry, could you help me for a sec?" he asked. "I want you to come look at something."

"Oh, sure," Angie said.

Angie walked towards the door through the kitchen, setting her phone down on the kitchen table. She walked outside with Christian. Christian was standing by the patio table.

"What is it?" she asked.

"Sorry, I just wanted to get outside the house to talk," he said.

"About what?"

Christian slowly inhaled, swallowing a lump in his throat.

"I think we should leave."

Angie raised an eyebrow.

"Leave? Now?"

"I know it's not a good time, but I'm worried what staying here will do for Kelly and the others," Christian explained. "I mean, we're just here taking up space, waiting for something bad to happen to Noah, and I don't think us being around is good for the MacIntyres."

"It's your son," Angie said, crossing her arms. "You have a right to be here."

"Yeah, and we can stick around. I just think, maybe, the three of us- you, me, and Ella- should consider staying at a hotel while we're still in town."

"How long would we stay at a hotel? Until we knew for a fact Noah was dead or alive?"

"I don't know," Christian said. "But look, we're taking up space, and the environment here is starting to feel a bit suffocating."

"How so?" Angie asked.

Christian was about to speak, gesturing his hands in front of him, but then shook his head.

"Well, Kelly has been locked in her room for three days and had a screaming fit a few minutes ago. How do you think that'll make Ella feel?"

"Ella's nine years old," Angie said. "I think she can understand."

"She can understand, but that doesn't mean she can handle it."

Christian looked down and dug his foot into the brick pavement.

"Look, I can start calling some local hotels. Somewhere nearby and affordable," he said to Angie. "All I'm saying is that we're all acting weird and stressed, and maybe taking a break from each other will, you know, calm things down a bit."

"Okay, so we spend the night at a hotel. Then what?" Angie asked, walking closer to her husband. "We just putter around Kingman until Arnold calls to let us know Noah's dead? We come back here during the day and continue to expose ourselves to Kelly's breakdown?"

"Something like that," Christian said. "I don't think it's perfect, but I think we might have jumped the gun with coming down here too soon. Especially bringing Ella around. I can't imagine how she's handling this. Nine or not, she's still a child and her brother was nearly murdered, as far as we know."

Christian sighed. "Ang, I don't like this at all, but we do need to think about more than Noah's safety right now. We can't just ignore Ella right now, and we certainly can't continue to put pressure on the MacIntyres. Let's at least consider it and maybe talk it over with Arnold and Edie when they're ready."

Angie looked over her husband. He wasn't making eye contact with her, nor was he staying still. His foot was tapping on the floor, and he was rubbing his left forearm with his right hand. Angie couldn't be sure if he was being completely truthful right now, but even if he was spinning a yarn, he did have a point.

"Okay, start looking around," Angie said. "I'm gonna go make Ella some lunch."

"Got it."

"You hungry?"

"Not really. I could go for some lemonade."

Angie and Christian walked back to the kitchen door. They stepped inside, with Christian making his way to a cabinet to fetch a glass, while Angie moved over to a shelf nearby, scanning for a book.

"Here's the phone book," she said, pulling the large tome off the shelf. "You can probably find some hotels here."

"Great. Thanks," Christian said, pulling a pitcher of lemonade out of the fridge.

As Christian began to pour himself a glass, Angie moved over to the kitchen table to set the phone book down. As she did, she tilted her head out of surprise.

"Hey, Chris."

"Yeah?"

"Did you take my phone?" she asked.

"No. Why?"

"I could have sworn I left it on the table," Angie said, placing her hands on her pants pockets to feel for the phone.

"You sure it's not in another room?"

"No, I'm sure I set it down. I'll look for it," she said.

Angie began to look around the kitchen for the phone. Christian tried to help her look for it. What they didn't know was that the phone had been picked up while they were outside and had made its way to Noah's bedroom.

After the scare, Ella had made her way downstairs and sat quietly in the living room, trying to understand what was happening. Was Noah dead? Was he hurt? Would he be okay? She sat there waiting for something to happen. When she heard her parents talking by the bathroom, she quietly made her way over. What she didn't understand was, after her dad went outside, why her mom suddenly turned to her phone and started to talk to Noah.

In Noah's room, behind his locked bedroom door, Ella had unlocked her mom's phone. Angie once told Ella the code to her phone was 3552, "ELLA," when she needed Ella to unlock the phone to look at a recipe she found on Pinterest. Once she did, Ella saw footage of Noah walking through a forest, a bandage wrapped around his leg.

Ella sat on the floor, her back resting against the bedroom door. This was her brother as part of some terrible game. This was what his mom had been watching for the last three days. This is what her own mother was watching. Her mom, who came up with the idea to put a video on Noah's channel begging people to not watch the streams, then came up with the idea that locked Noah's mom in her room for days so only one person would have to report on Noah's status. Her mother was breaking her own promise and was watching the footage.

Ella continued to watch as Noah trudged through the woods. They were all liars, weren't they? Kelly, Angie, and Edie watched the footage even though they begged the world not to. Arnold lied to Noah for years about his feelings about his sexuality and passions. Her dad couldn't keep his marital vows and kissed Kelly. Ella's hands tightened around the phone as she continued to watch the footage, tears starting to form in her eyes.

If they were all going to be bad, why shouldn't she as well?
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June 3, 2015, early evening

"Bless us, o Lord, for these thy gifts, for which we are about to receive, from thy bounty, through Christ, our Lord. Amen."

"Amen," replied the others at the table.

Once Edie was finished saying grace, the others raised their heads and began to move to eat the food on their plates. Dinner was simple: a kitchen sink meat loaf, boiled red potatoes, some green beans, and a packaged gravy. Edie had scrounged everything she could after pushing aside all the casseroles and dishes friends and neighbors brought over. She wanted to put her hands to something after spending most of the afternoon crying. She didn't feel like gardening after the incident, despite how appealing pulling weeds sounded after what she saw, so cooking would have to do.

Instead, she took to squishing ground beef with her hands and cutting vegetables with a knife. With each squish and chop, she felt a sense of stability return to her mind. Here, she was creating, unlike people like those terrorists who merely destroyed. If it meant the people at the table could enjoy her food and feel some distraction, then she was glad for it.

Unfortunately, it didn't look like there was much of that at the table. Everyone was eating quietly, and from what she could see, some of them were hardly eating at all. Arnold, who normally loved her meat loaf and could eat a whole loaf if given the chance, seemed more interested in scraping the gravy on the ceramic plate. Ella had pierced a potato and merely pushed it around, soaking it in some melted butter and gravy. Christian and Angie looked like they were eating, even though they kept glancing at one another. As for Kelly...well, Edie just hoped she was eating. She was still in her room, the tray with dinner placed outside her door. If it wasn't for Kelly speaking from beyond the door, Edie was sure she'd have to get Arnold and Christian to break it down.

Angie let out a sigh.

"Edie, thank you. This is so delicious," she said.

"Oh," Edie said, surprised by the sudden speech. "Thank you."

"Is there a secret?" Angie asked.

Edie let out a short chuckle. "Oh, not really. I had a recipe from my mother, but I like to add and subtract when I make it. A little more garlic, a little less Worcestershire, that sort of thing."

"Well, it's definitely one of the best meat loaves I've ever had. Right, Christian?"

"Hm?" Christian said, looking up from his plate. "Oh, yeah. It's great. Thanks."

The room fell silent again. The five at the table continued to eat, occasionally passing glances at one another. Arnold let out a cough in order to break the silence, but no one responded. After a few minutes, Christian decided to speak.

"So, listen," he said, facing Arnold and Edie, "Ang and I were talking. It's really nice that you've let us stay here so far, but we might consider staying at a nearby hotel from now on."

"Really?" Edie asked. "Is there something wrong?"

"No, not at all," Angie said.

"It's just that, you know, we're guests here. And the more we laze around here, it feels like we're intruding," Christian said.

"It's certainly not like that," Edie said. "Besides, we offered to let you stay."

"Yes, and we appreciate that," Christian said. He glanced over at Angie and Ella before turning back to Edie.

"I just think it'd help if we took some space from one another," Christian said. "At least for a day or so. We'll stay in town; I've already found a good hotel for us. We can be available if you need us for anything."

"Edie, you've been really kind," Angie said, "but you and Arnold probably could use the break as well. You're already doing a lot to look after Kelly, and you don't have to go out of your way to help us."

"But I want to," Edie said. "Please, it's no trouble."

"Maybe," Christian said, "but I doubt we can be as much help to you or Kelly while we're here. Right now, I just don't see how I can help Kelly right now."

Ella let out a scoff. Angie looked over at her, but Ella quickly covered her mouth with her fist and coughed a little. She then reached for her glass and took a sip. She gave a small glare to her father as he continued to speak.

"So, that's just our thought. We do appreciate everything you've done so far, but some space is probably all we need right now."

"But-"

"Just let them go, Edie," Arnold said.

"What?"

Arnold took a sip of water.

"If they want to go, then fine. Christian is right. We could use the space."

"Arnold, I don't know if that's what we need."

"It's fine. Ella shouldn't have to be here when all this craziness is going on, and Angie could probably use the time to do things around Kingman."

"Arnold-"

"Besides, we should know Christian's all about running away, so let him."

Angie's eyes widened as she chewed on a green bean. Christian furrowed his brow.

"Excuse you, but Kelly left me," Christian said, "so don't get things confused."

"Excuse you," Arnold emphasized, "but I think there were about six to eight years where you were places unknown."

"Hey, let's not do this here," Edie said.

"Yeah, let's just keep things calm," Angie said. "We're all eating, and Ella is here."

"That's fine," Christian said, stabbing his meat loaf with his fork. "I'll calmly start gathering our things so we can spend a night away from Arnold and his foul tobacco smell."

"You didn't mind yesterday," Arnold scoffed.

"Well I mind now," Christian said.

"Wait, what happened yesterday?" Angie asked.

"It doesn't matter," Christian said, "but we do have a child here, and second hand smoke kills."

"Oh please, if that were true, Noah would be dying in a hospital from cancer instead of on some godforsaken island!"

"Arnold!" Edie shouted.

The room fell silent. Arnold's face turned flush when he realized what he said.

"I..." Arnold said.

"Forget it," Christian said. "Let's just eat. We'll pack and be out once we're done here."

Arnold slowly nodded and kept eating. The others started eating as well. The only one who wasn't eating was Ella. She sat in place, looking at the four adults. She finally spoke.

"I don't want to go."

Angie and Christian looked at her.

"Honey?" Christian asked.

"I don't want to go," she said. "I want to stay here."

"Ella, what do you mean?"

"I mean: 'I want to stay here.' It's that simple," Ella said, biting into a potato.

"El, you're not staying here without us," Christian said.

"Why not?" she asked. "I'm nine, Dad. Mr. and Mrs. MacIntyre can look after me. It's not that big a deal."

"Ella, why do you want to stay here?" Angie asked. "Is something wrong?"

"Nothing's wrong," Ella insisted. "I'd much rather stay here than go to some stupid hotel."

"Angie, it's no big deal," Edie said. "We'd love to have her here."

"I know you would," Angie said, "but I just-"

"I'm finished," Ella interrupted, pushing her plate forward on the table.

"Ella-" Christian began.

"I'll be upstairs," she said, pushing her chair back and stepping out.

Ella began to walk out of the dining room and towards the stairs. Christian stood up to go after her, but Ella quickly turned around.

"Oh, by the way, Mom," Ella said.

Ella fished into her pocket and pulled out Angie's cell phone. Angie's eyes widened in shock, while Arnold, Edie, and Christian merely looked on in confusion.

"I borrowed your phone earlier. I meant to tell you," Ella said curtly.

Ella set the phone on the floor and walked up the stairs. Angie got up and walked over to the phone, picking it up off the floor.

"Ang?" Christian asked.

Angie looked over the phone, quickly entering the code. The phone showed her main screen. She double clicked the home button to see what apps were open. To her relief, nothing was still open. She sighed.

"Oh, sorry," she said, turning back. "I was just worried where this went."

Angie pocketed the phone and sat back down.

"You know, maybe Ella needs the space too," Angie said to her husband. "It couldn't hurt for her to get away from us."

"Angie-"

"Let's just eat," Angie said, picking up her utensils again. "We can check with her once we're done."

Angie continued to eat her plate of food. After a few seconds, Christian did as well, with Arnold and Edie joining in. The four continued to eat in silence.

Upstairs, Ella reached the top of the stairs and began to walk down the hall. As she walked past Kelly's room, she saw the dinner tray was still there. Kelly was probably watching Noah's stream, watching him suffer and die on that island. Ella wanted to feel sorry for Kelly since she was Noah's mom, but all Ella could think about was Kelly kissing her dad last night. All the adults were bothering her right now, and if Arnold was even willing to make a crass remark about Noah dying, she wanted to retreat from them while she could.

She looked at Kelly's dish and spat at it, watching her saliva hit the meat loaf and potatoes. It wouldn't be noticed by Kelly when she finally brought the tray in, and maybe it was rude, but she didn't care. She was going to go to the one place she knew she'd not have to deal with them.

With that, she stepped into Noah's room, making sure to prop the chair under the door knob. Now she felt at home.
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June 3, 2015, late evening

"I really think we should try to get her out," Angie said.

"Look, this situation has got to be hard and confusing for her," Christian said to his wife. "If Ella wants to stay in Noah's room, then let her."

"Chris, I don't like that she's locked in there though."

"It's fine. She'll have to come out eventually. Let's just go to bed."

Christian put his arm around Angie and walked her to the guest room. After Ella's display at dinner, they had given up the idea of going to a hotel for the night. They had tried to get Ella out of Noah's room, but to no avail. She had blocked the door and wouldn't respond to any commands or bribes. Edie also tried to help, but that didn't make much of a difference either. Ella was not coming out of the room, and that was final.

Angie and Christian got into their bed and turned off the lights. Angie stared straight up at the ceiling, while Christian closed his eyes and tried to sleep.

"Are we being terrible to Ella?" Angie asked.

"What?" Christian asked, keeping his eyes closed.

"I mean, I know we took her to that movie yesterday, but are we not respecting her enough right now?"

"Ang, it's a tough time for everyone. She's nine and she's never even had to go through something like this before. I mean, your parents are still alive, so it's not like she's really faced death before."

"We still don't even know if it's death or not," Angie said. "It's a fucked up scenario, and we don't really have a reference for what to do. It's not like Kimberly Nguyen wrote a piece about what parents should do for their other children during SOTF."

"Yes, and we will figure that out on our own," Christian said. "Look, tomorrow, we'll try to talk to Ella, and maybe see what we can do for her. We shouldn't spoil her, but we should at least try to understand her and help her understand what we're all going through right now. Communication is key for this time, and we shouldn't be hiding our thoughts and feelings from each other."

Christian and Angie were both glad that neither one was looking at each other. For Angie, Christian keeping his eyes closed meant he didn't see her eyes widen, nor did he see her bite her lip. For Christian, he could keep his face the same, even though he realized how hypocritical that last statement actually was.

Angie rolled on her side, placing an arm across Christian's chest.

"You're right. Maybe we can make her something special. Or maybe the three of us can get out of the house and go somewhere."

"Good idea," Christian said, turning his head over to look at his wife. "Let's talk more in the morning."

Christian moved forward and gave Angie a quick peck on the lips. She smiled, and they both settled into their sleeping positions. As they tried to fall asleep, both Christian and Angie tried to think about what they could do for Ella. Angie thought about the lemon blueberry pancakes Ella loved to have for breakfast on her birthday, and Christian thought about the trails she liked to go hiking in. Of course, these thoughts were interrupted by the link saved on Angie's phone and the sensation of Kelly's lips on Christian's. After a while, they stopped cuddling and fell asleep.



"She's still in there?" Arnold said, taking his reading glasses off.

"Yes. The poor thing won't come out," Edie said, climbing into bed.

Arnold grabbed a bookmark and placed it inside the Tom Clancy novel in his hands. He set the book and his glasses on the nightstand.

"I can't believe it," Arnold said.

"Arnold, the girl is upset. We all are."

"But locking herself up isn't right."

"Well, she's following a precedent in this house, now isn't she?"

Arnold fell silent as Edie settled into bed.

"Edie-"

"Arnold, we can't let either of them stay locked up. Ella's a child and she'll be able to move on much more easily than any of us. But Kelly's got me concerned."

Edie sighed and looked at her husband.

"Noah nearly died today, and if Kelly's freak-out was any indication, his actual death might be worse. We may need to closely monitor her now."

"What's your idea?" Arnold asked.

Edie shrugged.

"I don't have one yet," she said. "But look, I think we need to get Kelly away from watching the stream. At least for a day or two."

"Are you suggesting someone else watch it?" he asked.

"Maybe," Edie said. "Kelly may have taken this burden on entirely for herself, but it's becoming clear it's not a good idea. Maybe we start doing it in shifts."

"Like we draw straws or something?" Arnold asked. "Edie, this is absurd."

"I know, but I want something other than what's happening. Maybe we should just lock up all electronics in the coat closet and wait for a call. I don't know. I know we're trying to protect our memories of Noah, but it's clear to me that none of us are going to be okay. Believe me, I'm starting to think that next time I go into Kelly's room, I should take that laptop and smash it. But it's Angie's computer so I'm not going to do that."

Arnold raised his eyebrows. He had never heard his wife get so annoyed. Sure, they had fights-any couple together for over forty years would have a few- but she never threw her arms in the air and got flippant.

"We'll figure something out," Arnold said. "Just go to sleep. It's been a hard day for everyone."

"Fine," Edie said, laying under the sheets and turning on her side away from Arnold. Arnold tried to put an arm around her, but she seemed to recoil from it. Arnold rolled on his side away from Edie. Even when she lost her parents and her brothers, Edie had remained calm through it all. Noah wasn't even officially dead yet, but already cracks were forming. Arnold had to wonder if this was something hereditary passed through Edie's family. He wasn't going to think of it. He didn't want to think of it.




Kelly sighed and closed the laptop. Noah had trapped himself in a room in the cabin and was climbing into bed. He had made it through the third day, and that was enough for her right now. It was frightening to see her son nearly get gunned down, but at least he was relatively safe. She was surprised by the joke he told on the beach, but also not really. When she and Christian were first going out, Christian had asked Kelly to tell him the dirtiest joke she could think of. She thought a bit, but couldn't think of one. Christian told her about leprechauns in truck stop bathrooms, and that had radically altered the evening, one where Kelly couldn't stop thinking of the leprechaun. It was still a nice date though.

Kelly placed the laptop to the side and laid down in bed. She stared up at the ceiling and tapped her fingers on her blanket. Noah had survived, yet again. He wasn't anywhere closer to safety, but he had at least made it through the day. Kelly wanted to be happy, but she couldn't find herself happy. Nothing was making her happy. Not the meatloaf her mom made for dinner, not the knowledge that Noah was in a place where he could at least sleep, nor even knowing that there were family in the house.

Kelly rolled around in her bed. She had spent the last three days in bed, but it was starting to get uncomfortable. Her back was sore, her legs felt like they were going to snap off, and her eyes were starting to feel strained. She finally lay face down on the pillow and let out a groan. What was she going to do now?

She could keep watching, but that ran the risk of seeing more horror and atrocities. That also ran the risk of being a pain to everyone. Kelly still had some self awareness. She knew how she was acting. She had never been such a brat as a child. Even when she was sick, she tried to not be too much of a burden to her parents. The longer she stayed around, and the longer she was going to bother everyone. She had to do something for them all.

Kelly got up and turned the laptop back on. She began to open the computer, but she resisted playing the stream. She began to look up hotels and resorts outside of Kingman. She didn't want to go too far in case of an emergency, but she wanted to get away at least.

"Just for a little while" she told herself. "Not too expensive, and not too far."

She continued to look around at the options available to her. By morning, she had a plan.




Ella sat in Noah's computer chair and stared at the screen on Noah's computer. She had pulled up the video the older women posted a few days ago. It had broken 1 million views and had been shared. Some other drag queen had a response video to it. Ella looked over the comments. Most of them were supportive. Some were from people who had been affected by SOTF in the past. Some were from people who had no connection but wanted to share their sympathies.

Then there were those people. Apparently, her mom hadn't done as good a job cleaning up comments like she said she would. There were some inflammatory comments from some people who wanted to mock the situation or mock Noah. Some made fun of his sexuality or criticized his web show. Every negative comment was followed by dozens of positive comments and comments that called out the terrible people for their rude behavior. That made it somewhat better, but not entirely.

Ella then went into Noah's channel. The videos on his channel had also gotten a significant increase in views. Her brother had finally gotten the attention he always wanted in life, and he was probably unable to celebrate it. Ella shook her head.

She wanted to be glad her brother's videos were being well received. But she couldn't. People didn't really know Noah. Her mom and the others tried to make Noah sound like a real person, but that didn't work. Noah presented a fake version of himself on his show, and not just the version with the wig and unidentifiable accent. That's why Ella decided to do something.

Noah was still logged into his YouTube account. He had some guides for his video editing software programs around the desk. She had all night and nothing to do tomorrow. In about an hour or so, Ella had the recording program open and ready to go. Ella pressed play, and then spoke.

"Hi. My name is Ella Whitley, and I want to talk about my brother."
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June 4, 2015, late afternoon

"Hey, Edie," Christian said, looking into the fridge. "I think you're running low on milk. I was going to run out, would you like me to get some?"

"Oh, you shouldn't have to get that," Edie said.

"No, it's no problem. It looks like we could use more butter too and maybe some-"

"What the hell is this?!?"

Christian and Edie froze. They had been in the kitchen minding their own business, with Edie at the table reading a magazine and Christian looking in the fridge for a drink. It had been a quiet day in the house, but that cry from the other room had been the moment the levee broke. Angie stormed into the kitchen, her phone clutched in her hand. Christian closed the fridge and approached her.

"Ang? What's the matter?"

"Look at this!" she shouted. "We left Ella alone in Noah's room, and this is what she did while she was in there."

Christian took the phone from Angie's hand. Edie got up from the table and walked over to Christian's other side, peering over his shoulder to see the phone. There was a video on the screen, and Christan pressed the screen to start the video.

The image was of Ella sitting in Noah's chair. From how dark the room was, it had to be late last night. There was only a single lamp illuminating the room, showing Ella's round face and big, brown eyes in the darkness.

Hi. My name is Ella Whitley, and I want to talk about my brother.

"How did she even-" Edie began to ask before being silenced by Angie.

So, I know a bunch of people probably only know him for the videos he makes and for how my mom and his family talked about him in that other video. But none of you really know him. I see a bunch of people writing terrible things about him in the comments, and I just want to know who you are to say any of that. Like...let me see...

Ella had moved forward and grabbed the mouse on the desk. After a few clicks, she began to speak.

Okay, here's one. NicoleLuvsPizza42 said 'If anything good can come from this incident, it's that fags like this guy can be wiped out. I bet if you shot him, he'd bleed glitter.' Well, NicoleLuvsPizza42, I bet if someone shot you, no one would even care because you're such a heartless piece of crap.

Then there's this guy. Kaaarkat Kiiiiiler- 'real' great name there- said 'Noah Whitley is such a pussy. Nancy should have killed his ass so we wouldn't have to deal with him.' Well, your mother shouldn't have dropped you on your head as an infant, but here you are.

You all think you can watch these videos and act like you know my brother and can pass judgement on him based off makeup tutorials and stupid accents. And yet, you don't know what he's really like.

Let me tell you some things about Noah. He doesn't like mayonnaise because he says the texture reminds him of melted Play-doh. He once ran into a glass door because he was chasing me and slipped on the floor. He keeps a lot of bottles of lotion in his night stand. His favorite color is blue, his favorite movie is Blazing Saddles, his favorite dessert is chocolate peanut butter pie, and his favorite time period is the 1960s. He wants to open a bar someday if he can't be a comedian, and he said he'd probably call it "The Ark," which he also said is a working title.


"Wait, what's wrong with this?" Christian asked Angie.

"Just wait."

In fact, none of you know anyone in our house. You all saw that video where my mom, Noah's mom, and Noah's grandma cried and pleaded everyone to not watch the video. Well guess what? It's all a lie. Noah's mom has been locked in a room for three days watching the footage. Noah's grandma saw the part where he was nearly shot. Even my mom has secretly been watching the video. They don't want anyone to watch my brother or any of those other kids die, and yet they're happy to watch it themselves and act like it's their right to.

Heck, even my dad and Noah's grandpa aren't better. They're liars too. They've been lying to their wives since the video appeared. It's all a mess here, and they want to act like everything's okay or that they can keep things going the way they are. But it's not going to be normal. It's never going to be normal. I don't know if I can ever trust my mom and dad again. I don't know what's going to happen to Noah's grandparents or his mom. I don't even think Noah is going to come home.

So yeah, keep calling Noah a 'fag' or a 'pussy.' Keep acting like you're clever for dumping on his channel or his character. Keep acting like it's amusing to watch the stream or you're so much better than everyone else because you're not watching the video. But it's awful here. Everyone in this house is going mad. All anyone can do here is argue or lie to one another or cheat or lie. So yeah, I hope you're enjoying this all, because our lives are awful, and if you want to make things worse, then you're no better than those terrorists.

Goodnight.


Ella reached forward, and the video stopped. The video held on an image of her face, turning red from her rant, a few tears falling down her cheeks.

In the kitchen, the trio remained silent. Edie had a hand over her mouth. Angie was turning red, while Christian turned slightly pale.

"What did she mean you were watching it?" Christian asked Angie.

"That's not important!" Angie said. "I found out about this when a bunch of messages starting appearing on Noah's Twitter. She posted this late last night and it picked up some traction."

"Oh my," Edie muttered.

Christian handed the phone back to Angie. "Can't we take it down?"

"I want to, but the video's already been copied," Angie said. "I can't believe this shit."

"Angie, calm down," Christian said, putting his hands on her shoulders. "Let's talk to Ella and maybe-"

"Oh, I'm talking to her alright!" Angie said, breaking free of Christian's grip.

She turned and stomped out of the kitchen. Christian and Edie were close behind.

"Angie! Please wait," Christian said as they reached the stairs.

"Angie, let's think for a second," Edie said.

"No. I need to talk to Ella," Angie said as she marched up the stairs.

She soon reached the top and made her way to Noah's door. She grabbed the doorknob and began to shake it. When it didn't budge, Angie banged on the door.

"Ella!" she shouted. "Open this door now!"

"Go away!" Ella shouted from inside the room.

Angie banged on the door again. "Open this door!"

"Ang, she's not going to if you're that loud and furious," Christian said.

"He's right," Edie said. "Please, let's calm down for a moment."

Angie continued to try and force the door to budge. As she did, Arnold emerged from his bedroom. He had gone in there to take a nap a little while ago.

"What's going on?" he asked.

"Oh, Arnold, I'm sorry, did we wake you?" Edie said.

"No, I was just getting up. What's going on?"

Angie banged on the door again. Christian moved over to her to grab her.

"Oh, Ella posted a video to Noah's channel condemning negative posters and all of us," Edie explained.

"Us?"

"Yes. She called us out for watching the stream and for lying," Edie said. "She even said you were a liar for some reason."

Arnold didn't respond. His attention was drawn back to Christian pulling Angie away.

"Angie, that's not going to work," Christian said. "Let me try."

Christian walked up to the door and knocked.

"Ella. It's Daddy," Christian said. "Look, I just want to talk about the video. Can I come in?"

"No!"

Christian sighed.

"Ella, we understand your upset about Noah's abduction, but the internet is not the place you put your frustrations. You find better ways to deal with it."

"Like how you dealt with it by making out with Noah's mom?" Ella shouted.

Christian froze. Angie's eyes widened and her mouth fell open.

"What?!?" she shouted at Christian.

Christian slowly turned to Angie. She was getting redder and redder. He had no idea what he could say about this.

"I...I can explain..."

Angie raised her hand and slapped Christian. Edie and Arnold both gasped, with Arnold quickly moving to restrain Angie.

"Angie!" Arnold shouted. "Cool it!"

"You fucker!" Angie shouted. "You made out with Kelly?"

"It was just one time," Christian said.

"And that makes it okay?!? I can't believe you! I thought you were better than to do something so shady."

"Oh?" Christian asked, raising an eyebrow. "And just how did Ella find out you were watching the streams?"

"Everyone please calm down!" Edie said, getting between Angie and Christian.

"How much have you seen, Angela?" Christian asked. "Was it also just 'one time' or was it more?"

"Fuck you!" Angie shouted, struggling in Arnold's grasp. "I can't believe you'd do this again."

"Okay, this is over now," Arnold said. "Angie, settle down or I'm taking you into my room."

"No! Let me go!"

As they continued to bicker, no one in the hall noticed the door slowly creeping open. They didn't hear the sound of the woman quietly moving out of the room, a large bag on her shoulder. They didn't hear the sound of her slowly moving down the stairs. One of them, however, heard the sound of the front door slam.

"Wait, what was that?" Edie said, turning towards the stairs.

Edie then noticed Kelly's door was ajar. She walked over to the room.

"Kelly?" she said, peering in.

The room was empty. The laptop was still sitting on Kelly's bed. The stream was frozen of an image of Noah approaching a helipad. Edie moved out of the room.

"Kelly?!?" she shouted.

The others had fallen silent. Just then, Edie heard the sound of a car starting.

"Kelly!" she shouted.

Edie hurried down the stairs and towards the front door. She threw the door open just in time to see Kelly's Acura pulling out of the driveway. The car pulled into the street, the sped away. Edie ran into the front yard and watched as the car disappeared down the street.

"Kelly, wait!" she shouted.

But Kelly didn't return. Edie remained there in place, watching as the car got farther and farther away. Arnold, Christian, and Angie emerged from the house as well. Arnold walked over to his wife, putting a hand on her shoulder.

"Where is she going?" Edie asked her husband. "Where could she be going? Oh god, please don't tell me-"

"We'll find her," Arnold said. "We'll figure out where she's going."

Edie raised her hand to her mouth and started to cry. Arnold pulled his wife closer to him and let her cry into his chest. Angie and Christian silently watched the older couple, then went back inside. They didn't talk to one another at all. There was no way they could right now.
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June 4, 2015 late evening

"Okay, they found her car," Arnold said, hanging up the phone.

"They did?" Edie asked. "Where?"

"It's in the lot near the Ross on Stockton," Arnold said. "They said they'll check to see if Kelly went into the store or if she went somewhere else. They should let us know more soon."

"Oh god, I hope she's okay."

"Hey, hey, hey," Arnold said, puling Edie close to his chest. "It's going to be fine. I'm sure she needed to get out for a bit."

"But what if she doesn't come back? I mean, what if she-"

"Edie, she wouldn't have taken so much clothing with her if she was going to do that," Arnold explained.

Edie pulled herself into Arnold's chest more. It had been a few hours since the blow up. Ella still wouldn't come out of Noah's room, but no one had tried to force her out. Edie left her a sandwich and some chips for dinner, which Ella did pull in at some point. With Kelly's sudden disappearance, no one found it important to force Ella out. At the very least, they knew where she was.

Christian and Angie, meanwhile, weren't doing as well. After Kelly left, Angie went inside and threw all of Christian's items into a suitcase. She told him to spend the night at a hotel like they planned yesterday. Christian tried to fight with Angie, but Angie's cold response made it clear she wouldn't argue with him on it. Christian merely got into his car and drove away, promising he'd be back the next morning. After he left, Angie told Edie she'd be going to be early, and locked herself in the guest room.

This left Edie and Arnold to eat dinner quietly. Arnold had called the police about Kelly running off, but their cooperation had been minimal. It was too early to file a missing person's report, but they could try to locate her car. If Kelly had used a credit card, they could probably trace her as well. As it was, there wasn't much to report other than that she had abandoned her car.

"Look, let's go get her car before it gets impounded," Arnold said.

"Should we really leave?" Edie said. "Angie and Ella-"

"Angie and Ella are asleep," Arnold said. "Well, the ought to be. I don't think they're coming out. If they do, it'll be a miracle. Look, Kelly left a spare key downstairs. We'll drive over to Ross, and you can drive her car back to the house."

"Okay," Edie said. "I guess it's better sooner than later. Let's go."

Arnold and Edie walked out to Arnold's truck and drove away from the house. They drove through the neighborhood, which was slowly giving itself to the darkness of the summer night. Edie yawned a bit as they drove past the dark houses and the flickering streetlights. Edie put a hand under her chin and leaned against the door.

"Do you think Christian cheated on Angie?" she asked Arnold.

"Of course he did," Arnold said. "He practically admitted to kissing Kelly."

"Not that," she said. "I mean before. Angie said something like 'I can't believe you'd do this again'."

"I wouldn't be surprised," Arnold said. "That son of a bitch has a ton of vices. He probably cheated on Kelly when they were together."

"Kelly never said he cheated on her."

"Maybe she never found out. You know he bummed a cigarette from me the other day even though he said he quit."

"And yet you gave him one?"

Arnold paused. Edie slowly looked to her husband.

"Well...I..."

"Arnold, I'm not mad," Edie said. "I just think it's clear we're all hiding things from one another, and even something like giving smokes to a former smoker can be dangerous down the line."

"I don't know how that could be bad," Arnold said.

"What if he picks up the habit again? What if that leads to drinking again? Second hand smoke around a child could be dangerous, and Ella's still growing-"

"I smoked around Noah and he was fine."

"But there could be effects later down the line for him."

"I doubt lung cancer is one of his concerns right now."

Edie fell silent. Arnold continued to stare forward as they turned onto a busier road. Even though it was after 9 pm on a Thursday, the road was still busy.

"Arnold, Ella knows something about you," Edie said. "She said you've been lying to me."

"Edie-"

"Arnold, please," Edie said, her voice starting to waver. "Christian cheated on Angie with Kelly, Angie was secretly watching the streams, and yeah, we were hypocrites for watching the footage after telling people not to. But what have you done since this has started? What does Ella know?"

Arnold quickly glanced at his wife, then back onto the road. He and Edie had been together a long time. There had been secrets between them in the past. There had been times where they've been worried about the other person not talking to them. Arnold had to come clean about possibly losing his job about twenty-two years earlier. Edie had to admit there was a chance she would have breast cancer when Kelly was sixteen. Although Arnold didn't lose his job and the cancer screening was negative, they were still times when they were terrified of telling the truth to one another and it almost had disastrous consequences.

Arnold sighed.

"So, the other day, when Noah was shot."

"Yes?"

Arnold stopped talking, then started tapping his fingers on the steering wheel.

"Ella and I were talking in Noah's room. I was talking to her about his show and his other ventures."

"What about them?" Edie asked.

"Just...about them," Arnold said.

"What specifically?"

Arnold pursed his lips a bit.

"I admitted that I've never watched his show."

Edie raised an eyebrow. "What?"

"I've never watched his stupid show," Arnold said. "I don't get it, I don't see the appeal, and it doesn't interest me."

"How could it not interest you?" Edie asked. "Your grandson puts so much effort into that show and all his projects, and you can't even support him."

"I can support him," Arnold said. "I support him when he runs jokes by me. I support him when he performs locally. I just don't see the need to support that."

"Does Noah know about this?"

"I don't know. He's never asked."

"Okay, that can't be all to this," Edie said.

"Excuse me?"

"Ella's mad because you've never watched Noah's YouTube show? She's putting that on the same level as hypocrisy and infidelity? What else does she know?"

"Edie-"

"Tell me, Arnold!"

"Okay, fine!" Arnold said.

Arnold clutched the steering wheel tighter.

"I told her I didn't want Noah to do that sort of thing. That I wish he did something else here. That he wasn't like the person he portrays on that show-"

"-that he was different?" Edie asked.

"Edie-"

"You don't like that he does the things on that series," Edie said. "You don't like that he would dress like a lady and dance around for laughs."

"I mean, Kingman's not a good place for him to do that sort of thing-"

"When was the last time there was a gay bashing in this town?" Edie asked.

"I don't know," Arnold said, "but it takes one messed up person to target him, and that person could be on that damned island right now."

"So, what? If he was living in Las Vegas with his dad it'd be fine? Is that what you're saying?"

"No, it's not always about that. I just wish he wasn't acting like that Pina person."

"Arnold, this isn't about Ella or Pina Bucket or Kingman, is it?" Edie asked. "What do you wish was different about Noah?"

"I wish he wasn't gay!"

Edie's mouth fell open. Arnold slowed the car down once he got to an intersection.

"Okay, we're here," Arnold said, pulling into the parking lot. He drove down the line until he spotted the Acura and parked near it.

"There's the car. The key is in the tray, so just follow me home-"

"I'm not getting out," Edie said. "Not until we're done."

"Edie, it's late."

"You wish he wasn't gay?" Edie asked. "Is that it? That's what the issue has been?"

Arnold rubbed his forehead with his free hand.

"Arnold, he's our only grandson," Edie explained, her eyes starting to water. "How could you wish he was different?"

"Because it doesn't make sense to me," Arnold said. "I mean, how can he like men and be okay doing such flamboyant stuff?"

"A lot of people do, Arnold," Edie continued. "It's been done since the beginning of time. For god's sake, it's 2015. It's perfectly acceptable to be that way."

"But why? Why does he have to be that way?" Arnold asked. "Was it because he didn't have a dad in his life as a kid? Was I not a good enough role model for him?"

"You were perfectly fine," Edie said, "but how could you assume he just became gay? Arnold, when he was four, he asked me to buy him some earrings at a yard sale. When he was six, he played in my clothes and said his name was Anastasia. When he was nine, he said he wanted to be an undead Disney Princess for Halloween. He was always gay, no matter how often you tried to take him fishing or teach him to work on cars."

Arnold didn't respond. Edie sighed and threw her hands up.

"My god, were you always just going to be quiet about this?" she asked. "Were you going to grin and smile as Noah brought home a boyfriend or got on RuPaul's Drag Race Season Whatever? Were you always planning on lying to him about this?"

"I was hoping I'd die before I had to," Arnold said.

Edie scoffed.

"I can't believe this. Noah could be hurt or dying right now, and he's probably under the assumption we all love him and wish he came home."

"I do love him," Arnold said.

"No you don't!" Edie said, tears starting to fall down her face. "You made it clear your love for him had limits and restrictions. You told him you cared about him for eighteen years, when in actuality you've had conditions to it. 'I love you, Noah! But I wish you weren't gay.' 'I'll always be there for you, Noah. But I'd rather not support your craft.' 'I only wish you happiness! Unless it involves marrying someone named Chad.'"

"Edith! Don't put words in my mouth," Arnold said.

Arnold never called her "Edith." If he did, he was really upset. Edie looked over her husband. His eyes were starting to water, and his face was getting redder.

"You may not have said it, but it was always there," Edie said, her voice getting low. "Noah might be dead, and he'll never know you had such disdain for a large part of who he was. Yes, everyone in our house may be lying to one another, but none of us hurt him specifically."

Edie grabbed the Acura key from the tray and opened the door. She stepped outside the car and turned back in.

"I'll see you at home," she said.

Edie closed the door and walked over to Kelly's Acura. She entered the car and started it, pulling out of the parking space and out of the lot. Arnold remained parked in his truck. He clenched his teeth and his eyes as hard as he could, then let out a scream. He repeatedly bashed his hands against the steering wheel before resting his forehead against the wheel.

Tears began to fall down Arnold's face. For the first time in weeks, he allowed himself to cry.



"Can I help you?"

"Oh, yes. I had a reservation."

"Okay, great. And your name?"

"MacIntyre. It should be under Pina MacIntyre."

The clerk at the desk typed away at her computer.

"Oh, there we go. Pina MacIntyre. You'll be in Room #8. Here's your key."

The clerk handed the key to the woman before her. The woman looked slightly disheveled and passive. She had seen people like her come to the hotel before. Maybe she was meeting a boyfriend or a lover here. It didn't matter to the clerk.

"Thank you," the woman said, taking the key.

"Enjoy your stay at the Hualapai Mountain Resort. Your room is just that way on your left."

"I will. Thank you."

Ms. Pina MacIntyre took the key and walked to where the clerk directed her to. As she did, she sighed. She could only afford three days here. Three days to forget where her son was, and what her family was doing in her home. With that, she slipped into her room and lost herself in the sheets of her queen sized bed. It had been a long day, and she was ready for it to end.
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June 4, 2015, late evening

Around the time Edie and Arnold left to get the car, Angie stood in the kitchen, looking out the window into the MacIntyre's backyard. It reminded Angie a lot of the backyard from her childhood home. Her family had grown up modestly in a Las Vegas suburb, her parents having meager jobs to support their four children. As the oldest, Angie was tasked to be responsible for her brother and sisters while her mom was working late at the nursing home and while her dad was working in construction.

She had learned to make a home in the process. She knew how to wrangle three younger kids, how to prepare simple dinners, and how to keep the laundry going. But it was all so tiring. She hid it from everyone, but Angie wanted nothing more than to get away from all of it. She wanted to be the girl who could have sleepovers with her friends in the nicer parts of town instead of spending her weekends making sure Charles got to his soccer practice or that Emily and Avery made it to junior cheerleading. She wanted to spend her afternoons shopping with the friends or seeing movies instead of making sure Emily wasn't falling behind in math or that Charles had clean clothes for tomorrow.

That's why she bailed when she could. She got into UCLA and left to become the next big web developer. When she started college, the internet was just taking off, and she had to get on it as soon as possible. She had to create a website that would change everything, that would affect how we share information and how we communicated. She was going to create something memorable.

But then she met Christian. She had just started working at a software development firm in Las Vegas, and she had run into him at a coffee shop one day. It was fine at first; he was a handsome older man, he had charmed her with some card tricks, and soon they were seeing each other every weekend and calling one another every night. She knew he was damaged, who wasn't in this world? She knew he had struggles with alcoholism, had been through a divorce, and had a son he wasn't allowed to see. She thought she could handle it. She could recommend he find ways to stay sober, or find ways to work out a new agreement with his ex. It was all possible.

After all, this is what she was capable of doing. Being there for her younger siblings had worked out immensely. Charles was at MIT for grad school, Emily was coaching championship winning teams, and Avery was already making an impression at the advertising firm she worked at. Surely Christian would be like the rest of them. She could manage him and pursue an amazing career in virgin technology. She knew exactly what she needed to do, and thankfully, it had resulted in a nice house, a hardworking husband, an adorable stepson, and a baby on the way.

And yet she still found Christian in bed with another woman.

The year was 2006. Angie and Christian had been married over a year, and Ella was due in a few months. Christian was now seeing his son regularly, and they were building a home for themselves. Angie was at work, trying to finish most of her projects before starting her maternity leave. On that day, Angie had been feeling unwell, but tried to power through it. However, a seriously bad case of morning sickness had made her unable to do her work as well. Her boss, recognizing that Angie wasn't going to work well, suggested she head home and work from home. She could assign tasks to her coworkers, and they'd all understand.

After declining an offer to be given a lift home, Angie arrived back to her home. To her surprise, Christian's car was in the driveway. She wondered why he was home so early, since he had been fine so far. Unfortunately, when Angie made her way upstairs to the bedroom, she found him on top of some other woman. After some awkward attempts at explaining, Angie hurried into the bathroom to throw up again. By the time she was back, the woman was gone, and Christian was there looking embarrassed at his indecency.

Angie wanted to be mad. She wanted to scream at him, bash him over the head with a lamp, and push him out the window. She wanted him to touch the child growing in her stomach and ask him to tell their daughter he was a liar and a cheater. She wanted him to get on his knees and beg to never do that again.

But she didn't do any of that. Christian rattled off his excuses. She was a client from work, she came over to talk about a project at the bank, and things just happened. Angie let him say his words, then spoke.

"That was your one."

That was all she needed to say. She didn't speak to Christian about it for the rest of the day. After all, this was just who Christian was. He was a man of vices, who had suffered for them and tried to overcome them. This was probably just stress from work and the baby that that bitch could solve with her loose pussy. Angie could accept that. After all, she was the one to nip it in the bud. She could make him suffer for his indiscretions by making him imagine how he'd suffer. She could take the baby and all his money. She could damage his custody standing with his son. She could cost him his job. She could destroy him and make him think twice of ever doing that to another woman again.

But she couldn't be that person. She couldn't harm the father of her child. As much as she hated it, she needed Christian. Angie couldn't have the additional stress while pregnant. So she had to be crafty. She had to use her mind to punish Christian, to make him afraid of her. Sure enough, it worked. He was never more kind and generous to her than he was for the months after that. He even took a notable leave from his job to take care of Ella so she could go back to work early.

Part of why it worked was that, as she was sure, Christian knew he needed her. He failed Noah and Kelly. He failed so many people with his addiction. He needed her to feel better. He needed to know he could be a good husband and father. That meant her daughter was going to get the best Christian possible. It was bad for Noah, but it was best for Ella. Christian was going to give her all the favor in the world because he felt he owed it to her.

But now he had gone and kissed Kelly. Kelly, the blonde bitch who finally was okay taking alimony, had used her tears to make Christian weak for her again. Granted, Angie should have realized that. Of course he'd feel tension with his ex-wife while their son was dying in some far corner of the world. Of course he may be tempted and that Kelly would turn to him considering he was the only man in the house she could turn to for affection. Angie couldn't blame her, but that didn't mean she had to like her. Kelly had taken her laptop and shut herself off from the world, acting like watching the streams was her duty and hers alone. Yes, Angie shouldn't have suggested it, and maybe Angie was a hypocrite for watching the streams on her phone, but she was entitled to know what was happening to Noah was much as the others were. She made a point that someone should watch, but she believed the others should watch if they wanted.

She certainly didn't want Ella watching. Ella shouldn't have to see that. But Ella was smart. Ella had seen Christian and Kelly kissing, and she had figured out that Angie was watching the stream. Maybe Angie was ignoring her too much. She had to do a better job looking after her daughter in this time.

Angie walked up the stairs and headed over to Noah's room. After everything that happened, Ella had remained in Noah's bedroom. Angie couldn't blame her. People were fighting and cursing in the hall after Ella made that video, so she must have been frightened. Angie approached the door and knocked.

"Ella?"

No response.

"Ella, can we talk? Please, let me in."

There was a muffled response from behind the door.

"What was that?" Angie asked, leaning closer to the door.

"Go away."

Angie froze. She put her hand on the doorknob. She rattled it, but it was still locked.

"Ella, please let me in. What's wrong?"

"Mom, just go away."

Angie gritted her teeth. No. She was done with this. Everyone in this house was falling apart. Kelly had run away, Christian was in exile, and Edie and Arnold were useless to get anything done. Angie had enough of this.

"Ella, I'm coming in, whether you like it or not."

Angie stormed down the hall and down the stairs. She quickly moved through the house, searching every closet and cabinet she could. She didn't know where Arnold kept the tools, but she had time to look. After a few minutes, she found what she was looking for in the garage. She picked up a hammer and a flathead screwdriver, then made her way back to Noah's room.

"Ella, open the door on the count of three, or I'm coming in!" Angie shouted.

"Go away!" Ella shouted.

Angie shook her head.

"Fine. Forget counting. I'm coming in!"

Angie held the screwdriver up to one of the door hinges. She then started hammering the end of the screwdriver, causing the pin to move upward. When Angie was sixteen, her dad made her take a bathroom door off the hinges when the hinges had to be replaced. It was a skill she had almost entirely forgotten about, but thankfully, it came back at the right time.

The first pin was out, and Angie let it drop to the floor.

"One down, two to go!" she shouted at the door.

Angie began hammering on the next one. As she did, she missed the sound of the front door opening and a voice calling out. By the time the second pin was out, Edie had appeared at the top of the stairs.

"Angie, what are you doing?" Edie asked.

Angie quickly looked at Edie.

"Hi, Edie. Did you find the car?"

"Yes, but what are you doing?"

Angie looked back at the door, then at Edie.

"Talking to my daughter," Angie said.

Angie began to hammer on the last hinge. The door was close to falling over, but Angie kept hammering. Edie rushed over and grabbed the door.

"Angie, don't wreck my house," Edie said.

"Why not? Your daughter wrecked mine," Angie said.

Angie popped the last pin out, then moved forward, pushing the door. Edie let out a cry as Noah's door fell down on the ground. Angie looked in. Ella was sitting at the computer, facing away from the door. Angie walked in.

"Ella, we need to talk right now," Angie said.

"Go away," Ella muttered.

Angie picked up her pace and grabbed the back of the chair. She spun it around, but stopped. Ella was sitting on the chair with her knees pulled up to her chest. Her eyes were red and watery.

"Ella..."

"Something's wrong," Ella said.

Angie looked over at the computer. The stream was still playing, but now Noah was lying on a bed in some room. He was curled up and panting.

"He collapsed earlier. He doesn't look so good," Ella said. "I think he might be dying."

Ella lowered her head, disappearing inwards. She let out a whimper. Angie let go of the chair and stood straight up. Edie remained at the door, keeping her hands close to her heart. Angie lowered her head and shook it.

"I'm sorry," she said. "I should have known."

Angie walked away from Ella and sat on Noah's bed. She buried her face in her palms. No matter what she did, she couldn't manage this.
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