I tugged my shirt off as I turned toward my bedroom window. In an instant, everything but my heart slowed down, like someone had pushed the giant remote control on life and hit slow-mo.
The thin white curtains billowed out from my window, rippling in gentle waves as they fell back down.
My toes sunk into the carpet as I walked toward the window. Reaching out, I curled my fingers around the soft curtains, slowly pulling them back. The window was open.
Nothing but the night air filling the void.
My heart stopped as I straightened and turned toward my bed. My gaze made a slow crawl across my room, skipping erratically when something—the bathroom door—creaked. I wheeled toward the bathroom, but stopped when my gaze landed on the bed.
I stumbled back a step, the shirt falling from my limp fingers to the carpet. “Oh my God . . .”
On my bed, nestled between the two king-size pillows and placed on top of my blue Care Bear, was a mask—the same mask I saw every time I closed my eyes. And there it was, staring back at me with those empty eyes and the overly wide, disturbing smile.
The clown mask was on my bed with a post-it note attached to it, just above the holes were eyes should’ve been. The crudely written message screamed at me.
It’s your fault.
It was here—he was here.
I backpedaled, stumbling into the computer chair as a scream burst from my mouth. Ice drenched my veins as I wheeled around and took off. Throwing open my bedroom door, I raced down the hall.
“Mom!” I screamed. “Mom!”
Oh my God, what if something had happened to her? My stomach lurched as I reached for the closed door at the end of the hall, but it sprang open before I could get there.
Mom rushed out, her face pale as she took me in. “Ella, what is going on? Why don’t you—”
“He’s here!” I grabbed her arm, pulling at her. “The window is open and a mask on my bed! With a note! He’s in my bathroom!”
Confusion flickered across her face and then she spun around, darting back into the bedroom.
“Mom!” I shouted, looking over my shoulder as my heart pounded so fast that I was afraid I was going to have a heart attack. Was she grabbing her ice cream? “We need to get out of here. What are you doing?”
She returned, her cellphone in one hand, and she tossed me a shirt. Only then did I realize I was standing in the hall in my jeans and a bra.
Horror sunk my stomach to a new low when I realized I’d been in my room half naked and so had that—that thing.
Mom grabbed my arm, pulling me toward the stairs as she spoke into the phone. Breathless, she gave the dispatcher her name and address. “Yes, we’re leaving the house right now.”
We rushed outside and across the front yard, the grass warm and wet under my feet. I stopped at the thick hedges and turned back, raising my gaze. My bedroom was in the back of the house, overlooking the backyard, and there was nothing I could see from here.
My chest hurt as I shuddered. “He had to have gotten in through the window. The front door was locked. He had to have climbed the tree and opened the window.”
Mom said nothing as she wrapped her arms around me. Within seconds, I could hear the blaring of sirens and the steady approach calmed my nerves a little bit, but all I could think about was that thing being in the house with Mom and for God knows how long.
Three city police cruisers arrived, one after another. One of the cops hustled us out to the sidewalk as two of them went inside, guns drawn.
I sat down on the curb, watching the red and blue lights whirl over the road as Mom repeated to the officer what I had said. He immediately asked if it was the same kind of mask the attacker had worn Saturday night.
I nodded. “Yes. It was the same mask. I’m a hundred percent positive on that. And there was a note on it. You’ll see. It said it was my fault.” I looked at my mom. “I don’t understand what that meant.”
She folded her arm around my shoulders. “I don’t know, honey.”
Mom stayed with me until one of the deputies called her over to where he was standing near the porch.
Shoving the hair back from my face, I rested my forehead on my knees. What was the monster doing back? Trooper Ritter had insisted that the attacker most likely fled not only the county, but also the state. So why would he be here?
For some horrible reason I thought of how the trooper had asked about Vee and the worst kind of idea popped into my head. What if she hadn’t run away? What if she was grabbed just like I was, but she hadn’t gotten away? And now the guy was coming back . . .
It didn’t matter. The cops were here and they had to have found him. This would be all over and my life would be normal again.
“Ella?” Mom’s soft voice called.
I sat up, spying the other two officers, and I jumped to my feet. I searched behind them, looking for some creep in handcuffs, but there was no one with them. Unease blossomed in my belly. “Did you find him?”
One of the officers, older with hair graying at the temples, glanced at the other cop. He cleared his throat. “We checked the entire house, top to bottom, and there was no one in your home.”
“No.” I balled my hands into fists, wanting to hit something. “He must’ve climbed back out the window.” I looked over at Mom and the pinch to her expression confused me. “Did you at least get the mask off the bed? The note?”
Because I was so not going back into that bedroom with that thing in there. On second thought, I never wanted to go back in there and touch anything he’d had his hands on.
The cop shifted his weight. “There was no mask on the bed, nothing, and the bedroom window was closed. There’s no evidence that anyone was in the house.”
It took a few moments for what he said to sink in, and then I understood the look on Mom’s face and the reason why the officers looked so uncomfortable. “No.” And then I said it again. “No.”
“These things are common after traumatic events.” The officer who’d remained outside turned to my mom, speaking quietly. “Stress can do some strange things, make people believe they’ve seen something not there.”
I zoned them out as I turned back to the house. There was no way I was so stressed out that I had imagined all of that. I wasn’t crazy.
Red-hot anger bubbled up inside me, and I was walking toward my house before I even knew what I was doing.
“Ella!” Mom called out.
I ignored her and took the porch steps two at a time. I threw open the storm door and rushed up the stairs. I didn’t stop until I reached my bedroom. I stood in the doorway, breathing heavily.
The window was closed.
The bathroom door was open as were the closet doors. My gaze shifted to the bed and another wave of anger burst like a firecracker, a mixture of humiliation and frustration.
My Care Bear sat on the pillows, minus the creepy clown mask and note.
The cops probably thought I was crazy. So did my mom. But there was no way I could’ve imagined all of that.
I crossed the bedroom, tugging the curtains back. The window was down. There was no lock on it, so it was entirely possibly that he’d bolted once I ran screaming from the room, taking the mask with him and closing the window behind him. Getting up or down wasn’t hard. The tree was right up against the roof, and I knew it was possible. It had been done over and over before.
Did he plan on grabbing me or . . . or just scaring me? And if he wanted to scare me, what was the point? I was already scared.
I was terrified.
Turning at the sound of her voice, I drew in a shallow breath. She came into the room and sat on the edge of the bed. “How could I have imagined that? I saw the mask on my bed. And I read the note. I felt the breeze from the open window. I heard my bathroom door move. How can you hallucinate all of that?”
“I don’t think you hallucinated anything.”
I folded my arms across my chest. “Then you believe me.”
She lowered her gaze as she patted the spot next to her. Reluctantly I made my way over to sit beside her. “I believe you think you saw something. I heard the fear in your voice, but . . .”