“Two weeks ago,” I whispered, reaching up and gently touching my neck with my fingertips. “I didn’t know her very well. I mean, we kind of grew up together, but we weren’t friends beyond saying hello to one another.”
Mom’s forehead wrinkled as she leaned back, idly brushing at strands of my hair. “I heard on the news that the authorities believe she may have run away. So what does she have to do with what happened to Ella?”
“We do believe that she ran away,” Trooper Ritter answered evenly. “But in these situations, we have to look at every possible option. Her disappearance and this attack, while most likely not related, we still have to check it out.”
“Understandable,” Dad said, shaking his head. “My daughter is safe. Right?”
My body seemed to freeze up while the trooper answered the question. My thoughts whirled around Vee Bartol. Did the police suspect something else had happened to her, but weren’t being entirely truthful when it came to what they were telling the public? I didn’t know and I also couldn’t see how anything with Vee could be related to what had happened to me. I hadn’t lied. Vee and I weren’t friends.
“There’s still some people we need to talk to—those who were at the party and were leaving while you were,” Trooper Ritter continued.
A different kind of stillness settled over me as I remembered the voice—his voice. I’ve got you. My chest squeezed. I imagined they had already talked to him. I looked at the door, for some reason expecting to see him standing out in the hallway too, but he wasn’t.
“If you can think of anything else, please don’t hesitate to call us.” Trooper Ritter handed a small white card to my mom. He turned and then stopped at the door, looking back at me. “You are a very lucky young lady.”
My breath caught as I squeezed my eyes shut. I didn’t need him to tell me that. I already knew it. I was officially part of a small percentage of those who had luckily escaped their attacker.
“HAVE YOU SEEN the news?” Linds’ voice traveled from my bedroom. “You’re all over it. They even got ahold of last year’s school picture. The one where you thought it was a good idea to wear pigtails? You looked like you were twelve.”
My reflection winced and then I groaned. The skin along my right cheek looked like I’d unloaded a compact of blush on it. Worse yet, upon closer inspection, my cheek resembled a strawberry.
I pulled back, picking up a tube of mascara. Even without the giant red mark, my face couldn’t handle a lot of makeup. Anything more than some lip-gloss and mascara, and I looked like a clo—
I couldn’t finish the thought, so I concentrated on my reflection.
For the most part, everything about my face was too large. My eyes. My cheekbones. My mouth. By the grace of God or my father’s DNA, I had a small nose. Not up to doing anything special with my hair this morning, I let it fall in dark waves around my face.
Placing the lip gloss back, I frowned when my hand shook. I sternly told myself that I was ready to go to school, that I didn’t need any time off, and as I stared at my pale face, I told myself I was okay. I was fine.
I was alive.
A shudder rolled through me as the gaping, dark empty black holes where eyes had appeared ghosted through my thoughts. My throat ached as I swallowed hard. I glanced at the open bathroom door where Linds’ voice traveled toward me. She was still talking about the news. Last night, I barely slept. My body ached and throbbed in places I didn’t know it could. And there was a teeny, tiny part of me that didn’t want to go to school.
That didn’t want to leave the house.
Cold fear balled in the pit of my stomach. What haunted me the most was the fact I hadn’t been able to defend myself. I had fought the attacker like a cornered animal about to be slaughtered. If luck hadn’t been on my side Saturday night . . .
I needed to stop thinking about it.
Taking a deep breath, I pushed away from the sink and hurried out of the en-suite bathroom. Our house on Rosemont Avenue was old, like potentially standing during the Civil War old and maybe a little haunted kind of old. Before the divorce and before the housing market collapsed, and before . . . well, before everything changed, Mom and Dad had gutted the entire house, which turned the small useless bedroom next to mine into a bathroom.
Linds was sitting on my bed, her legs tucked under her while she held an old blue Care Bear I’d never had the heart to get rid of.
She smiled slightly. “Oh, Ella . . .”
“What? It looks bad, right? My face?” I sighed, tugging the hem of my shirt down. Linds was wearing a cute dress, but I was in jeans and a t-shirt. She made me feel like I needed to put more effort into my first day of school outfit.
“It’s not your face.” She bit down on her lower lip as her gaze dipped.
To my neck.
I had done everything to not look or think about it, because the first time I’d seen it in the hospital room it made my knees go weak. Bruises covered both sides of my neck, mottling into a deep purplish-red, a painful reminder of the hands clenching tight, cutting off my air.
Shaking my head, I let my hair fall forward. The edges reached past my chest. “How does this look? It’s too warm to wear a scarf.”
“Better.” Placing the Care Bear aside, she unfolded her legs and hopped to her feet. “It really doesn’t matter. You look great.”
“Plus the fact that everyone in the entire county knows that someone strangled me, right?” I forced a casual shrug. “There’s no reason to even worry about hiding it.”
Linds’ tight curls bounced as she bopped over to me, wrapping her arms around my shoulders, careful to avoid my ribs even though they really didn’t hurt anymore. “God, Ella, I’m so happy that you’re okay.” She squeezed me as her voice thickened. “I wouldn’t know what to do with myself. The whole thing is just so damn crazy and scary.”
I folded my arms around her. “It really is.” And that was the God’s honest truth. Trooper Ritter had stopped by Sunday evening, checking in. The young officer believed that whoever had been responsible for the attack had probably skipped town, that I didn’t have anything to worry about, but on the news last night, another officer—a deputy—had stressed that people, especially young women, needed to be on the lookout and stay aware of their surroundings.
Statistically, I should be safe. Who ended up being attacked twice by the same maniac? But the cold ball of fear still rested like a stone in my stomach.
“Are you doing okay?” she whispered, hanging on to me like cling wrap.
“Yeah.” I was doing okay by not thinking about what could’ve happened if those headlights hadn’t flicked on. Last night had been hard, though. As I laid awake staring at the ceiling, all I could think about was those too long moments where I couldn’t breathe, couldn’t do anything to defend myself.
A shiver coursed through me and I pulled back before Linds could feel it. I took a deep breath. “There is something I’ve been thinking about.”
“What?” She picked up her bag.
I grabbed mine off the floor. “I’ll tell you on the way to school. We’ll be late if we don’t leave now.”
Mom was in the kitchen, pouring her coffee into a mug. Dressed in black slacks and a white blouse, the frazzled woman from the night before was gone as she turned to me. Being the branch manager at a local bank meant Mom kept her own hours and was always home before I left for school. Wednesdays were rough, though. She had to be in Huntington on Thursday mornings for face to face meetings, so she always left after work Wednesday to make the drive and returned home late Thursday night.
Otherwise, the morning meet and greet was a tradition that started after Dad left.
She reached behind her and handed over a toasted Pop Tart wrapped in a napkin. One for me and one for Linds. “You ready for everything?” she asked.
“For anything,” I replied, taking the sugary goodness. “Thank you.”
Linds leaned over, kissing my mom’s cheek. “You’re the bomb. Toasted Pop Tarts. My mom hands me a cup of coffee.”
Mom laughed. “Ah, hold off on the coffee as long as you can.” She propped her hip against the counter as she turned to me. “You sure about today? I know the school would understand if you didn’t go, and I can call the bank. They’d understand, too.”