“Hello?” Red called, her voice hollow, her eyes alive, sorting through shadows.
This was the absolute worst way to die. Mid–squat-pissing behind a tree while Maddy’s axe-murderer charged at her from the front. Dignified till the end. No, the worst way to die must be suffocating, no, no, actually, the worst was on your knees, two shots to the back of the—all right, all right, let’s finish up here.
There wasn’t anyone in the trees. Red knew that. She did. The only people were the ones she knew of, behind her on the scrubland. It was just a rat, or a bat, or a raccoon, or maybe a vampire. But it didn’t matter because she was finished.
Her legs shook as she straightened, pulling her underwear and jeans back up, fastening the button and zipper in a hurry. She lurched for her phone and held it up, the flashlight her weapon against the night.
See, no one in the trees. Told you.
But even so, Red decided to run back to the others. Oliver would probably say she’d been too long already. Her ponytail flicked against the back of her neck and she could hear her heart in her ears; was that from the running or because of the axe-murderer? The light swung forward and back in her hand, flashing along the road. Red stumbled over a rock she hadn’t seen, swearing as her ankle buckled beneath her, trying to bring her down.
Red held the phone up. Arthur was just ten feet in front of her on the road, walking toward her, his glasses reflecting the light.
“You okay?” he called. “We thought we heard you yelling.”
“Oh, yeah I was,” she said, panicking and quickly double-checking that she’d done up her fly before Arthur could see. “Just shouting at the axe-murderer.”
“Well, I hope he’s having a good evening,” Arthur said as they finally met on the road, turning on his heels to walk back together.
“He’s having a great time, skulking through the trees, watching girls pee.”
Arthur snorted. He pushed his glasses up his nose, a sudden awkwardness in the movement of his arms. “I was going to cover my eyes and call out before I got close, by the way,” he said, like it was impor tant she knew that. “So I didn’t—”
“—see me peeing?” she asked.
“Exactly. I don’t think we’re quite there yet.”
And what did he mean by that? Where were they? As far as Red knew, they were just awkwardly flirting, neither of them very good at it, and in a few months he’d move on with his life, like everyone else. Probably get a nice college girlfriend he could take home for Thanksgiving.
Crap, she hadn’t been listening. Had he said anything else?
“You know, in all this time, I’ve never asked you,” he said. “Why did your parents call you Red?”
“Oh, well, that’s easy,” she said. “Because of my natural bright red hair color.” She reached back to tug at a strand of her dull blond hair.
Arthur smiled, shook his head. “And the real reason?” he asked.
“It’s not Red, it’s Redford,” she said, eyes on the RV as their steps brought it closer. Did Red imagine it, or was the RV steadily lowering on one side? They must have changed the tire. “I was named after my grandpa. Redford Foster.”
“That’s quite a name,” he laughed. “Isn’t it?”
“Well, he was,” Red said. “He was a police captain.” A pause.
“Like your mom?”
The word punched through Red’s chest, a hole left behind, air bleeding around it. She slowed to catch her breath. Yes, like her mom. Grace Kenny, captain of the Philadelphia Police Department, Third District. She didn’t know Arthur knew about all that.
Arthur drew to a stop, catching her arm, the RV twenty feet ahead of them.
“You know, early on, Maddy pulled me aside and told me to never ask you about your mom,” he said. “Or to even mention moms in general in front of you. And if that’s what you want, then that’s fine, but if you can’t talk to your best friend about her, I was wondering, maybe, whether you wanted someone else to talk to about her. And I could do that sometime. If you want.”
No. She didn’t want. She could not speak of her, would not think of her. Arthur hadn’t known Red in the before time, he was new, he wasn’t supposed to know about her mom. Maybe that was what Red liked most about him, that he was untainted by knowing. Except he did know, Maddy had told him. Did that change everything? Was that why he was always nice to her, why he softened his voice? She looked down. That was enough. Red refused to think about Arthur knowing, pitying her, or about Mom. Push it away, out of her head, skip to the next thought. Gone.
“What are you doing when we finish senior year?” she asked, a question she never asked because she hated when people asked her, and Arthur bristled at the brush-off, dropping his eyes. “You going to college?”
“Um, no, actually,” he said, recovering. “No, for me it’s straight to joining the family business.” He grimaced. What was the family business—kicking puppies?
“Which is?” she asked.
“Flipping houses, essentially. But I’ll be in the office.”
“That’s not so bad.”
“No,” he agreed. “Except it means I’ll spend all day every day inside.”
“Ah, the ol’ claustrophobia,” she said. He raised a finger.
Red sniffed. “What, did you get locked inside a closet as a kid, or something?”
It was a joke, but Arthur didn’t smile. His eyes hardened on the road, shoulders hitched up to his ears.
“Yeah,” he said, flatly. “Just a prank but . . . my brother sometimes takes things too far.”
Well, shit. Now it was clearly Red’s turn to put her foot in it. Arthur’s eyes were still clouded, an awkward twist in his mouth. Maybe he didn’t want to talk about his brother, just as much as Red didn’t want to talk about her mom. She made a silent deal with him; he agreed, even if he didn’t know about it. There were more important things to think about tonight, anyway. Now she just had to change the subject, quick, distract them both.
“Need to get yourself an outside job, then,” she said. “Dog-walker?”
Arthur shook the expression out of his face, recovering as he turned to her.
“Farmer?” he countered.
“Nature conservationist?” she said. “Ooh, nice.”
Red had another one: “Axe-murderer?” she said. “I hear that’s taken.”
Red had almost forgotten what it was they were listing, and why, but before she could say her next one, a sound erupted across the wide clearing. Clapping. Cheering. Another loud whoop from Simon. “They must be done. Come on,” Arthur said, leading Red up to the RV and along the side. And she might have been wrong, but there was a moment where it looked like he had reached for her hand.
They approached the others at the front, the torn-open wheel lying discarded on the road, the RV lowered back down on its new tire. Simon was cradling the jack like it was an old friend. Smiles on everyone’s faces as the flashlight landed on them.
“There you are,” Maddy said to Red. “I was getting worried.”
“Thanks for all your help there, Red,” Oliver added, his arm tucked through Reyna’s. Red was pretty sure Reyna had done most of the work anyway.
“You’re very welcome,” she replied.
“Oh and, by the way, I checked,” Oliver continued, speaking to both Red and Arthur now. “This is a dead-end road. Well, it goes through some trees over there, but it’s so tight we’d never get the RV through.”
“Okay, sorry,” Arthur said, and what was he apologizing for? They had all gotten lost. And Red was the one who told them to keep going, who brought them down here.
“That’s fine,” Red said. “We can turn around.”
“Right, let’s get this show on the road.” Oliver clapped again. “Red, can you take the old tire, shove it in the storage compartments? Maddy, grab the blocks and the wrench.”
Red picked it up, the tire limp and awkward in her arms. She looked down at the tear, eyes tracing along its frayed edges. Completely destroyed.
“This way,” Simon said to her, gesturing with the jack.
Arthur, Reyna and Oliver headed off into the high beams, glowing as they made their way back around to the door.
“So,” Maddy said, the blocks and wrench gathered precariously in her arms. “Arthur came looking for you. Worried you were lost in the dark.”
“And he found me,” Red said. “End of story.”
“Oh, what’s this?” Simon asked, opening the closest storage compartment and pushing the jack inside. “Girl gossip?”
“Nothing,” Red said, brushing past him to chuck the tire in too. It made a loud thwack as it landed.
“Oh, come on, include me.” He stuck out his bottom lip, tugging on Red’s sleeve.
“There’s nothing to be included in.”
“Arthur went looking for Red,” Maddy said, the blocks and wrench falling from her arms into the compartment with a loud clatter. She pushed the door shut and locked it in place with the handle.
“Ooh, saucy,” Simon said with a click of his tongue and an exaggerated wink.
“We were gone for like three minutes,” Red said, walking toward the back side of the RV, the others on her heels.
“That’s enough,” Simon said, and Maddy laughed. “Will you two—”
“—fuck off?” was Simon’s suggestion. “—shut up?” was Maddy’s.
“Ew, Simon.” Maddy’s face crumpled in disgust.
“Oh as if you wouldn’t,” Simon said, overtaking Red and turning around. “I’m very good-looking. Check out these cheekbones. Camera loves these cheekbones.”
“That’s not what Camera says behind your back,” Red said, pushing him on.
They rounded the other side of the RV.
“Well, anyway,” Simon whispered to Red. “I approve of the pairing.” “You approve of all pairings,” Maddy added.
“Not true.” Simon paused again by the door, his foot on the lowest step. “I think it’s weird that Jess T’s new boyfriend is twenty-two, and that they’ve only been together two months and she’s bringing him on spring break. And that he’s called Marco. Red flags everywhere.”
With another push, Red finally got him into the RV, stepping up behind him and shuffling in. Everyone was at the front, Reyna settling back into the driver’s seat.
“Really, I can take over,” Oliver was saying. “I only had one beer earlier.”
“It’s fine, I got it,” Reyna said. “Can you make the turn?”
“Yes I can make the turn.”
“Right, okay,” Maddy said, pulling the door closed behind her. “All in. Let’s get out of here.”
“Finally.” Oliver looked back at them all, a wide smile cracking his face. “Well done, everyone. Overcoming adversity.”
Probably the most adversity Oliver Lavoy had ever encountered. “It makes for a good story, at least,” Maddy said. “Much more exciting than everyone else’s journey tomorrow.”
“Yeah.” Simon nodded. “Unless Marco murders them all on the plane.”
Reyna turned the keys in the ignition, and the RV roared into life, ready to go.
Simon whooped again, Arthur clapped and Maddy cheered.
“Oh wait,” she said, fumbling for her phone. “Let’s get a victory selfie. Come on, everyone in.”
Maddy outstretched her arm, trying to fit them all in the screen. “Red, in closer. Reyna, turn around.”
Red shuffled in closer to Arthur and Simon. She’d already been smiling too long, her cheeks aching. Maddy held up two fingers on her spare hand.
“Okay, everyone say: Team RV!”
“Team RV!” they called, voices out of time and out of tune.
Maddy pressed the button on the V, and Red could see everyone’s teeth in the photo.
“Perfect,” Maddy said, lowering her arm to study the picture. “Team RV,” Simon called again, turning it into a chant. “Team RV!
Team RV!” He stopped when no one else joined in. There was such a thing as too much celebration.
Reyna released the parking brake and the RV rolled steadily forward. She pulled to the left, slowly coming off the road and into the surrounding dirt and grass, headlights scaring away the shadows. But there were always more behind. Expectant, waiting. Reyna turned the steering wheel as far as it would go, bringing the RV almost parallel to the road.
“Okay, back up now. Back up,” Oliver said.
“I know.” Reyna put the RV in reverse, and the screen in the center console lit up. A grainy black-and-white image from the rearview parking camera mounted at the back. Red watched the screen as the RV reversed over the road, Reyna pulling the wheel all the way to the right. The rough gravel and dirt gave way to a high patch of grass, beckoning to them in the wind. Or waving them goodbye. But there was something else in the image now, hidden behind the grass. Something crouching, dark and still.
“There’s a rock,” Oliver said, leaning closer to the screen. “Careful, there’s a huge rock right behind us.”
“I can see it,” Reyna said coolly, backing up a couple more feet before stopping and shifting into drive. She inched forward, straightening up the wheel as the RV staggered back onto the road, facing the way they’d come in.
“Let’s go.” She pressed down on the gas.
Red thought they’d never leave. She cradled her hands, fingernails biting into the skin of her wrist.
“Team RV!” Simon shrieked again, more frantic this time, and Maddy gave a light round of applause for Reyna and her three-point-turning skills.
Maybe that was why they didn’t hear the first one, but Red did. A crack that split the night again, and the RV sank behind her, scraping on the gravel.
Another crack and hiss, and the front right of the RV buckled, tipping them off balance.
“What the f—” Simon began, falling into Red. Another.
The back left burst, the RV collapsing with it. Another. The last one.
The RV grated against the road, screeching as it rolled to a stop. All four tires. Gone.
Excerpted from Five Survive by Holly Jackson. Copyright © 2022 by Holly Jackson. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.