Tag: stalker Page 1 of 2

Google Street View

Yesterday, I looked up our house on Google Street View.

I wish I didn’t.

The picture showed our little blue A-frame perfectly. The flowerboxes leaning out of the kitchen window, filled with morning glories. The cedar rocking chair. The splotch of brown paint on the steps from when I painted the desk.

But there were two people standing on the porch. Two people I didn’t recognize. Even though their faces were blurred out, I knew they couldn’t be us – we’re Indian, and they were clearly white.

“Who are those people?” my brother, Arjun, asked.

“I have no idea.” I leaned in to the computer screen, squinting at the pixels. “Maybe some of my friends from school?” But I knew that couldn’t be true. They looked like adults: the man and woman were both wearing gray, tailored suits. I don’t know of any 15-year-old that dresses like they work on Wall Street.

“Maybe it’s an old picture,” I said. “Maybe they’re the previous owners.”

But that didn’t seem right, either. First of all, the text in the corner read “Street View – July 2017.” Second, they didn’t seem to just be hanging out and relaxing at their own home. The woman was standing at the corner of the porch, weight on one hip, arms crossed over her chest. The man stood unnaturally straight, as if he were posing for the photo, hands deep in his pockets.

“Maybe it’s photoshopped.”

I turned to him. “Really, Arjun?”

He shrugged. “I dunno. Maybe the photoshopped it purposely. To scare us. To make us move.”

“You really think Google would let someone mess with their photos?”

He shrugged. “All those big companies, and organizations, and celebrities are super corrupt. Like Hillary Clinton. She’s been doing Satanic rituals for years, and she’s the ringleader of –”

I cut him off. “I see. Another conspiracy theory.” Sometimes I think the hospital must’ve messed with his brain all those years ago. Don’t worry, we’ll heal you up, little baby. Let us just upload some crazy theories into your head first.

“It’s not a theory. It’s true.”

“You sound like an idiot.”

“Mom says you shouldn’t call me that, Diya.”

“Whatever. It’s not photoshopped.”

“Okay, then what do you think it is?”

I stared at the photo. Those two people… they looked familiar, almost. Something about them – their gray suits, their matching silver shoes – rung a bell. “I don’t know,” I said, finally.

Arjun eventually returned to his room – probably to tweet some more conspiracy theories to his 51 followers. How they let a 13-year-old own a Twitter account is beyond me. I went back to my homework. At least, I tried to. Every few minutes, my eyes tore away from the algebra textbook and back to the photo.

Where had I seen them before?

***

Friday went by at a snail’s pace. Between getting a C+ on a quiz and nearly falling asleep in History, I forgot all about the weird Street View image. After school, I grabbed a yogurt and headed straight for my room.

But I froze when my eyes fell on a picture, hanging next to the stairs.

It was a photo of Arjun and me. My mom had taken it when we visited Philadelphia a few years ago. Arjun was holding some sort of toy helicopter; I was wearing weird floral jeans and sparkly hair clips. But there, behind us, were two people.

Two people wearing gray suits and silver shoes.

I grabbed the framed picture off the wall, brought it up to my face. A blonde woman, arms crossed over her chest; a dark-haired man, hands in his pockets. Their faces weren’t blurred out in this one, but they were wearing dark sunglasses.

“Mom?” I called, heading back into the kitchen. “Do you remember taking this picture? In Philadelphia?”

“Oh yeah, sure,” she replied, through chops of broccoli. “Why?”

“Who are those people behind us?”

Mom took the photo and brought it close to her face. Her eyes were calm, searching… and then, suddenly, they widened. “Just random people,” she said, brusquely.

“But I saw them –”

“Shouldn’t you be doing your homework?” she snapped.

“It’s Friday, Mom.”

“But your grades aren’t good.” She didn’t give the photo back to me; instead, she set it down on the counter. “You should be studying, not inspecting old family photos.”

I turned around and ran up the stairs. That stung… a lot. Usually Mom treats me like I’m made of glass – always praising me, hugging me, telling me how wonderful I am. Yelling at Arjun, sure – but me? It was out of character, to say the least.

I plopped down in front of the computer, typed in maps.google.com. I should be planning my 16th birthday party. It’s only two weeks away. Or on Facebook, checking if Bria Pierce dumped Chad yet.

But I wasn’t. I was here, on Google Maps, staring at them. The gray suits, the silver shoes, the faces that were blurred into blobs of unidentifiable flesh.

Then, on a whim, I typed in a different address. __ Roxanne Ct. Our old address. The house we’d lived in before moving here.

The image loaded.

There, in the front yard, stood two figures.

Wearing gray suits.

What?! I zoomed in, staring at the screen. Wisps of blonde hair fell on the shoulders of the woman. The man held his hands in his pockets. They both stood there in the front lawn, in plain sight, as if nothing was amiss. The text read “Street View – May 2012.”

When we’d lived there.

My hands trembled against the keyboard. My heart pounded in my chest. But I forced myself to type a third address: __ 6th St. The tiny “starter house” we’d lived in several years ago.

The image loaded. A cute, white ranch with 2 windows in front, a carpet of fluorescent-green grass, and a cracked cobblestone walkway appeared.

The porch was empty.

I breathed a sigh of relief. They weren’t there. No one standing on the lawn, in the driveway, or anywhere around the house. If it those people were following us, they’d be here, too. I took slow, deep breaths, calming my racing heart.

I was about to click away, when something caught my eye.

Something in the window.

I zoomed in. The window was dark, cut by white lines separating the glass into panes. But in the lower right pane – there was something there. Pale, pressed up against the glass.

I zoomed in again.

It was a face.

Fear coursed through my veins. I slammed the laptop shut, leapt out of my chair. And then I did what any terrified teenager would do.

I ran downstairs to Mom. “Mom!” I called, fear trembling my voice. “Mom –”

I stopped.

The broccoli lay strewn over the kitchen island, half-chopped. The faucet dripped; the napkins lay on the floor. “Mom?”

“We’re in here.” My mom’s voice. Weak. Trembling.

We’re? Oh, no, no. The two gray suits – were they here? Holding my mom hostage? I ran into the family room, my heart pounding.

But it wasn’t them.

It was Dad.

“Dad? Aren’t you… supposed to be at work?” I said. I glanced from the grim expression on his face, to the tears staining Mom’s cheeks. “What happened? Oh my God, did Grandma –”

“Grandma’s fine,” Dad said.

I stared at them.

“We need to talk to you,” Mom said, her voice broken with sobs. “About something… something we did a long time ago.”

I sat down on the ottoman, a heavy weight settling in my chest.

“Do you remember when Arjun was very sick in the hospital? When you were about six?” Dad asked, folding his hands in his lap.

That’s random. But I nodded. The hospital… the red-haired nurse who gave me a lollipop… the vending machine that had the vanilla wafers… It was all fuzzy, distorted and blurred through the lens of time.

At the time, I was too young to understand exactly what was going on with Arjun. But I was old enough to know my brother was very sick, and that my parents were miserable.

“You remember how suddenly he recovered, right?” Dad said, his tone falling from explanatory to miserable. “The doctors couldn’t explain it. Said it was a miracle. Do you remember what we told you?”

“Two angels came down straight from heaven, touched his chest, and healed his lungs.” I repeated mechanically. They must’ve told me that story hundreds of times.

“There was some truth in it. We were approached in the hospital by two people, claiming they could heal Arjun.” He averted my eyes. “For a price. We told them we were fine with whatever price they wanted. If we didn’t have the money, we’d take out loans. We’d pay them back for the rest of our lives if we had to.”

“Two people… wearing gray suits?”

He nodded. “After they healed him, they told us the price. They didn’t want money.” Dad’s voice shuddered, and he looked me in the eye. “They wanted you.”

My heart stopped. “Me?”

“They told us they’d come back for you,” Mom finally said, her eyes wet with tears. “That they’d take you on your sixteenth birthday.”

“But my birthday’s in two weeks.”

She nodded.

“What do you mean, ‘take me’? What are they going to do to me?”

Mom and Dad looked at each other, uncomfortably. “We have no idea,” Dad said, finally breaking the silence.

“We never would have done it if we knew,” Mom said, her voice muffled through a tissue. “I promise that. We love you, Diya, and never wanted to –”

“We thought we could escape them,” Dad broke in, cutting her off. “We’d just move into the middle of nowhere. Change our names, maybe. How could they find us after that? But they always did.”

They’d found us at every house we’ve ever lived in. Street View confirmed that.

Mom got up, and pulled an old photo album off the bookshelf. Wordlessly, she dropped it in my lap. “They follow us, wherever we go.”

I flipped it open.

Arjun and I eating ice cream at Cold Stone. At the next table, with their backs to us, two people sharing a milkshake.

Two people in gray suits.

Arjun and I at the lake, hitting each other with pool noodles. In the distance, near the woods, two gray figures. Watching.

Arjun and I at the carnival. In the background, lit by the red-and-white lights of the dragon rollercoaster, they stood. Wearing sunglasses, despite the darkness.

They were always following. Watching. Waiting.

There was nowhere I could hide.

“So that’s it? They’re just going to… take me… in two weeks?”

My parents looked at each other, tears in their eyes. And then they nodded.

We hugged and cried for a long time. Then I went up to my room, turned on the computer, and opened a new tab.

Not Google Maps.

Google.

I began to type, my fingers flying across the keyboard. Guns. Bombs. Mace. Tasers. Weapons of any and every kind. How to buy. Where to purchase. Expedited shipping? Yes. I’ve only got two weeks, after all.

They may be coming for me.

But I will not go gently into that good night.

The Warm Spot Under my Floor

Floors are supposed to be cold. That’s why socks and slippers exist, right?

But the first day in my new house, I found a warm spot on the kitchen floor. There was no mistaking it – while the rest of the floor was uncomfortably cold on my bare feet, this one square-foot near the island was warm. Pleasantly warm, like the car seats with the built-in heaters.

But you know what’s not pleasant? Fire hazards.

So I brought in my brother to look at it. He does a lot of home repairs, and I figured he would know what was going on.

“I’m worried it’s an electrical problem. Like a fire hazard.”

“It does feel warm,” Landon said. He lowered his ear to the tile, his face screwed up in a frown.

“So? What do you think it is?”

He rose and nodded solemnly. “Unfortunately, it’s…” He paused, staring at me intently. “It’s a steaming pile of shit, right under your floor.”

“Landon!”

He broke into guffaws.

“What is it, really?”

“I have no idea! What am I, the dude from Curb Appeal?” He threw up his hands. “Google it or something, I don’t know.”

“Can’t you figure it out?”

“Not without pulling it up.”

I sighed. There was no way I was burning cash on this. My kitchen budget was already set aside for tearing down the wallpaper. It was horrendous – yellow with black polka-dots. I’ve never even seen polka-dotted wallpaper before.

So I tried to ignore it. But the next night, after eating an elegant dinner of canned tuna, I heard it.

A soft, high-pitched whine.

It was extremely faint – I only noticed it at all because the house was so quiet. Since I had just moved in, there wasn’t even the hum of a refrigerator or television to drown out the noise. I walked around the room, trying to pinpoint the sound. After four rounds in the kitchen, and one misguided attempt in the dining room, I finally realized –

The sound was coming from the warm spot.

Of course, I called Landon back.

And of course, he wasn’t helpful.

“Maybe it’s bugs,” he said. “Maybe you got a big ol’ termite infestation under there, and they’re all chittering to each other, and –”

“Ew, no, Landon.”

“What if it’s a dead body?” he said, now thoroughly intrigued. “And the noise is the buzzing of all the flies eating it?”

“Stop it!”

“Or what if it’s… a live body? And he’s just waiting, down there, humming to himself, waiting for the right time to strike?”

I told Landon to leave after that.

And for almost a week, I survived without giving the warm spot much thought. Whenever I walked across the kitchen, I stepped over that area; I ate my dinners in the bedroom, and never let it get too quiet down there. Everything was going fine.

Until I got the email.

From the sender’s address, I would’ve guessed it was spam. It was a seemingly random string of letters and numbers.

But the subject line caught my eye.

UNDER THE FLOOR

The rest of the message was blank.

That’s when I picked up the phone and called the handyman.

As he was working, Landon and I grew nervous.

“Maybe it is a body,” I whispered to him.

“Nah, Rosie. It’s probably just an electrical thing like you said.” But I could tell he was nervous, too. No jokes, no smiles – just his eyes locked on the handyman.

As the tile fell away, we both gasped.

It wasn’t a body, or a termite infestation.

It was a computer.

And a rather old one at that. A bulky desktop, crammed into a hollowed-out space in the floor, its fan working overtime to cool the CPU. The black cord snaked around and disappeared under the intact tile, plugging in somewhere unknown.

Landon and I stared at each other, at a loss for words.

***

“Got this monitor from my buddy Tom,” Landon said, hauling a beaten-up BenQ through the front door. “It’s got dead pixels and stuff, but we’ll see what’s on there.”

I wasn’t sure I wanted to see.

Landon slipped his fingers into the space between the computer and the surrounding floor. With a grunt, he heaved it up, and set it on the counter, pulling the power cord taut. He fumbled with the monitor cable, and after several tries, clicked it into place.

The screen blinked on.

From the blue task bar, and the image of a rolling hill behind, it looked like a standard Windows XP screen. The icons on the desktop looked normal, too; they all linked to standard programs, like Microsoft Word, Internet Explorer, and Yahoo! Messenger. Nothing looked out of place.

Until I noticed the icon in the corner.

A little yellow file folder marked PUBLIC.

“Why is it called ‘public’?” I asked.

“Maybe other people can access it, somehow. Or maybe it’s just a list of all the files they’ve uploaded online,” he replied, shrugging.

“Well – click on it!”

“I can’t very well do that without a mouse, can I?!”

“Wait, I think I’ve got one.”

After riffling through a few of the boxes in the family room, I came back with a mouse. And then, with baited breath, we clicked on it.

It opened up to a myriad of folders. 102705… 010206… “They’re dates, I think,” Landon said, scrolling through them. He clicked on one at random – 073007 – and it opened to an array of images.

He clicked on the first one.

It looked like a still from a security camera or a webcam. Black-and-white, grainy, blurred. But I could make out a woman, walking down the sidewalk of a small town. She was looking over her shoulder, her dark hair whipping around to cover her face. A block or so behind her, there was a fuzzy, black speck.

“Go forward,” I said.

Landon didn’t respond.

“Forward!”

“Okay, geez!”

Click, click. Now the woman was out of frame, although the top of her elongated shadow could still be seen at the bottom. The black speck had grown – it looked like a figure.

I grabbed the mouse from Landon.

Click, click. The figure was closer to the camera, now. It looked like a woman, though it was hard to tell from the fuzziness of the image. Something seemed off about her face, though; it was much paler than the rest of her. Except for the eyes, which were darker than I’d expect.

“Who… is that?” I said to Landon.

He shrugged.

Click, click, click. The woman was close in this one. I could see now what was going on – she was wearing a white mask. It reminded me of one of those fancy masquerade masks, from the upslanting eye-holes. But it covered her whole face, not just half.

“What’s that in the background?” Landon said.

I squinted. It looked like there were more black dots – on the sidewalk, in the street. “I don’t know,” I said. “Maybe if I scroll forward…”

Click, click, click, click!

I stopped.

The black dots had coalesced into a crowd of people.

All wearing the same white masks.

“What – what are they doing?!” I asked, my throat suddenly dry. Click, click, click.

But no more photos appeared.

“That’s the end of this folder. Dammit.”

“Aw, man! I hate cliffhangers!” Landon said, forcing a laugh. “Seriously, though, it’s probably just a Halloween party or something. Or one of those, uh, what are they called – flash mobs?”

“…Right. Yeah, of course.” I went back and clicked on the next folder.

The point of view wasn’t the street anymore. Instead, it was a bedroom. With flowered wallpaper, gray carpet, closet doors on the far wall…

It wasn’t just a bedroom.

It was my bedroom.

The wallpaper hadn’t yet faded; the carpet wasn’t yet threadbare. But it was, without a doubt, the same bedroom.

“That’s my bedroom, Landon.”

Click, click, click. There was someone sleeping in the bed. It was a blonde woman, on her back, arms splayed out and limp. Is she dead? I thought. But after making it through twenty photos or so, she rolled to her side.

Not dead.

I clicked through another several photos before I stopped.

“Landon.”

I pointed to the closet doors. A sliver of darkness had appeared between them.

Click, click, click.

The sliver grew wider. And in the shadows of the closet was a pale, grainy object. It hung as if suspended in thin air, surrounded by the sea of gray.

Click, click, click.

The door swung open.

It was one of the masks, faced at the sleeping woman. Click, click. My hand shot to my mouth, and I watched the scene unfold with wide eyes. Over the next few photos, it crept out of the closet, and pulled a pillowcase over the woman’s head. She started to thrash, but was dragged back into the closet by the masked person.

The next hundred photos were of the empty bedroom.

I looked at Landon. He just stared at the computer, mouth agape.

I clicked out of the folder. “How long do these go on for?” I asked, scrolling through the folders. 092807… 031211 … 050715 …

And the very last folder:

061018.

“That’s – that’s today’s date,” I stuttered.

“Click it.”

I scrolled through the photos.

The strength drained from my legs. I gripped the counter as I swayed violently.

No, no, no.

Me, sitting at the kitchen table, eating a bowl of cereal. Click. The handyman, crouched over the floor, cutting up the tile. Click. Landon, hooking the computer up to the monitor.

And the last few –

Photos of us, looking at the computer, our faces contorted with worry.

“Wait – that’s impossible – I don’t even see a camera,” I stuttered, trying to convince myself. It has to be fake. If there isn’t a camera in here… it must be a hoax.

Landon was already scouring the room – opening cabinets, crouching over the stove. “I don’t see one,” he replied.

I stared at the far wall. That horrendous wallpaper, covering every inch – yellow with black polka dots…

No.

One of the dots, near the upper right corner, wasn’t a dot at all.

It was a hole.

And in the darkness, I could just make out a tiny, blinking red light.

Mushrooms

I wasn’t allowed to walk anywhere alone.

Not with Frank Lonegan on the loose. Suspected of brutally murdering his wife and their unborn son with a dozen stab wounds to the stomach. “You have to walk with Jeremy, okay?” my mom said, as she pulled on her work blazer. “Don’t talk to any strangers. Come straight home.”

I nodded.

But we didn’t come straight home that day. Because, as Jeremy and I walked the short, wooded path between my house and the school, we found mushrooms.

A cluster of three beautiful, white mushrooms. One large, two small, lined up in a perfect row, poking through the moist, black dirt. “Mom said not to stop,” Jeremy groaned, yanking me back onto the path. “Come on. We’re late, anyway.”

But all day, I thought about those mushrooms. I mean, I had only ever seen mushrooms in a grocery store – never in the wild. I told Mrs. Eberhart all about it, and she gave me a nature book from the library. I spent most of lunch reading about different varieties of mushroom.

During recess, I told my friend Mabel. “That’s so cool,” she said, drawing a unicorn on the sidewalk. “Do you think they’re poisonous?”

“I don’t know,” I replied, reaching for the purple chalk. “We shouldn’t eat them, just in case.”

“Maybe I’ll dare you to eat one,” she giggled.

As soon as the school bell rang, Mabel and I took off into the woods, kicking up dirt in our wake. Jeremy followed, muttering something under his breath about “annoying little girls.”

“There! There!” I shouted, pointing to the mushrooms. They poked through the dirt, pale and smooth and perfect.

“I thought they’d have more of a cap,” Mabel said, kneeling in the dirt. “They’re kind of just… round.”

“Some mushrooms don’t,” I said. “Like shaggy ink caps.” I reached for the book and opened it to the mushroom section. “See? Like that.”

She shook her head. “Those don’t look like these.”

I looked at the photo, and then at the mushrooms. She was right; the shaggy ink caps were taller. And they weren’t smooth, like these were. I thumbed through the pages, scanning the different photos; but the other mushrooms looked even more different. Brown portabellas, red wine caps…

None of them matched. These were smooth, stubby, white things with rounded tops that were slightly larger than the stems.

“Guys, we should get home,” Jeremy said, fiddling with his earbuds. “Come on. Mom will ground me forever if she finds out.”

“Let’s pull them up and eat them!” Mabel shouted, ignoring him.

She grabbed the large one. I grabbed one of the smaller ones.

We tugged.

Nothing happened.

“Why – aren’t – they – coming – out?” Mabel huffed, tugging over and over.

“I don’t know,” I said. “But we can always dig them up.” I pushed my fingers into the soil and pawed away. “See, we can –”

I stopped.

Two more mushrooms were buried underneath the soil. Smaller than the others, caked with dirt.

And all five of them were connected.

“I don’t think… mushrooms are supposed to do this.”

We clawed away at the dirt. Digging faster, deeper, like dogs digging for a bone. More smooth, white material lay under the soil. I dug faster, my heart pounding with excitement. These weren’t mushrooms at all! They were something cool, neat, and –

I stopped.

The mushrooms – they were moving.

And then the dirt shifted and roiled, as something large underneath it began to move. Mabel and I backed away. Jeremy grabbed our hands, his eyes wide with fear. “What the hell?!”

The mushrooms shot up.

And that’s when I realized –

They weren’t mushrooms at all.

They were toes.

And that’s when something grabbed my ankle.

I screamed. I yanked and thrashed and shrieked, but the grip was incredibly tight. Jeremy rushed towards me; I glanced down –

It was a hand. Pale and white, caked with black dirt.

Jeremy grabbed me by the arms and tugged. I felt the fingers loosen, then finally slip.

And then we were flying across the path, towards the safety of home.

The police told our parents the whole story, in hushed whispers that Jeremy and I weren’t supposed to hear. Apparently, to evade capture, Frank Lonegan had buried himself in the soil. He was breathing through a small drinking straw.

My parents and I moved shortly after that. We slowly recovered from the incident, though I was still never allowed to walk to school alone.

But to this day –

I still don’t eat mushrooms.

I Met Him on Craigslist

“He really bought you that diamond bracelet?”

I get why Rachel was skeptical. The nicest thing Mike ever got her was a pizza slice with everything on it.

“How did you meet him?” Theresa asked, without a smile.

“At Starbucks. He randomly sat down next to me, and we just started talking.”

Okay, that was a lie.

The truth was – I met him online. Specifically, Craigslist. Yeah, I know what you’re all thinking. What, you can’t get a guy to like you at school?

And, well, no. I can’t.

I even asked out some guys. It didn’t end well. Kevin apparently had a girlfriend, though I never saw him with her. Jackson wasn’t into “my type,” whatever that means. And Alexander just gave a flat-out no, and never talked to me again.

So, soon enough, I found myself browsing the personal ads of Craigslist. And after scrolling through some weird ads, I came across something real.

Teenage guy seeking nice girlfriend – m4w – 16

Hi there. my name is Matt and I’m a sophomore in high school 🙂 I’m looking for a girlfriend. I’m pretty shy in real life, so I haven’t even been on a date yet! lol. I do track&field at my school and like to play video games (Fallout yeah!!!).

btw personality is much more important than what you look like. I want to laugh and have fun with my girl, not watch her apply makeup all day lol.

We hit it off. He was funny, smart, and just got me. After a week, he mailed me the bracelet. After two weeks, we were basically in love.

And, tonight, I was going to meet him for the very first time.

At 10pm, I slipped into the lacy underwear I stole from my sister. At 10:30pm, I snuck out the window and walked the two-and-a-half miles to his house. His parents were out of town, he said, and we’d have the place all to ourselves.

When I finally got there, I had to double-check I got the address right. It wasn’t a sprawling brick mansion, like I had pictured, from the bracelet and talk of his parents’ wealth. Instead, it was a grimy little house, with an overgrown yard and tacky garden statues.

Clank. Clank. Clank.

I hit the knocker three times. One of the lights flicked on. “Come in,” a voice called, from deep within the house.

My heart racing with excitement, I turned the knob, and walked inside.

The living room was a mess. The couch was covered in papers. And on the kitchen counter sat a tub of bleach and some dirty rags. The whole house reeked, too, of something foul. A putrid mix of chemicals and rotten food.

Maybe I should leave, I thought. But that was quickly stomped out by the excitement of meeting Matt. “Hello?”

A figure walked out from the back room.

But it wasn’t a teenage boy. Instead, it was a towering, gray, bearded man. Despite the condition of the house, he was well-dressed – in a neat button-down and khakis.

He broke into a smile. Yellow, crooked teeth. “You must be Sami. I’m Mr. Johnson, Matt’s father.”

But Matt said his parents would be out of town. My heart pounded in my chest. “Uh, where’s Matt?”

“He’s at the diner, waiting for you!”

“But he told me –”

“Oh, no, you must’ve gotten mixed up. He wanted to meet you at the diner, so you two would have some privacy from me. But I can give you a ride over!”

“I think maybe –”

“Come on, he’s so excited to meet you!”

“No. I’ll come back tomorrow.” I turned my heel, and started towards the door – quickly, in fast, racing steps –

Thump.

Strong arms yanked me back by the waist. His wild eyes and yellow teeth flashed in my face.

“Get off me!” I screamed. “Help! Someone –”

But I felt the cold sting of metal against my neck.

“Make any more noise, and I’ll kill you,” he growled.

He took one of the rags from the sink. Pulled it around my mouth, gagged me. Then he bound my wrists and threw me over his shoulder. I kicked and screamed, but the noise came out as nothing more than muffled squeals.

“Another girl, just like you, has a date with Matt tonight,” he whispered, as he walked towards the door with me. “I’m going to bring you and Britney to the abandoned farmhouse out on Alston Rd., and then we’re going to have some fun.”

Thud.

I was thrown into the trunk.

Slam.

The lid came down.

The car rumbled beneath me. The tears fell hot and fast; cold sweat soaked my shirt. How was I so stupid?! I thought. I actually thought some guy on the internet was the real thing? That he liked me?!

Now I’m going to die. Oh, Mom… Dad… Theresa, Rachel…

I fell against the side of the trunk, as the car swung in a turn.

And that other girl. Britney. If only I could warn her… My sobs were muted against the gag. She’s going to die, too, with me. She just wanted a guy to notice her… like me…

The car halted to a stop.

I tried to scream. I tried to thump against the sides. I tried everything I could, to make as much noise as possible. Maybe someone would notice.

Slam. I felt the front door close as he got out. No, don’t do it. Run, run, run… I thought, as if I could somehow warn her through my mind.

But then I heard something else.

Shouting. Muffled through the metal, but I could still make out the words:

“Hands in the air!”

And then – crack! – the trunk popped open.

There stood a police officer.

“He’s got one in here!” he yelled.


By some miracle, “Britney” had been a sting, set up by the police. After searching Johnson’s house, they found three bodies in the basement. Of girls my age. Probably desperate, outcast, and feeling like they finally found true love in Matt.

As for me?

I’m grounded basically forever. The bracelet turned out to be a five-dollar fake, and my sister is still looking for her missing underwear. I’m going through counseling, but things are looking up.

There’s even a guy in my class who seems to like me.

But don’t worry –

I’m never going to meet him at his house.

Maple Syrup

When I was 11, my dad and I tried to make our own maple syrup. (I don’t know how he convinced a rebellious girl on the verge of tweenhood to embark on such a project, but somehow, he did.)

So one chilly, February morning, we woke up early and went out to the large maple tree in the backyard. Setting up the tap was easy – Dad drilled the hole, and we hammered the spile in together. Within minutes, clear sap was dripping into the soda bottle we attached underneath.

“Check the bottle each morning,” Dad said, with a smile, “and write down how much we collected.”

“It’s the coolest project ever,” I told my friend, Shelby, on the bus to school. It felt good to put her in her place – she was always bragging about how she lives on a farm. “Dad lets me feed the pigs and milk the cows,” she would say, flipping her hair. “And he pays me for it. I basically have a job, and I’m only twelve.”

But her dad was a total weirdo. Mine was cool, and gave me cool projects to work on.

Anyway.

On the morning of February 27th, I approached the tree as usual – skipping in the snow, humming Walkin’ on Sunshinethrough the heavy scarf around my face. I walked around to the tap, and peered in.

I gasped.

The bottle was halfway filled with dark, reddish liquid.

Not clear sap.

I ran back to the house. “Mom! Dad!” I yelled. “There’s something wrong!”

Dad followed me out into the backyard, not looking very concerned. I don’t blame him. Last time I pulled him out here, it was because I found “monster footprints” in the snow.

Also known as raccoon footprints.

“The syrup is dark now,” I said, pointing rapidly at the bottle. “What happened? Did we ruin it?”

To this day, I don’t think I’ve seen my dad so shocked. His face went white, matching the surrounding snow, and his mouth hung open. “It’s – it’s fine,” he stuttered, pulling the bottle from the tree. “But I’ll bring it in and take a look at it.”

He detached the bottle, and brought it inside. I followed. “Go get ready for school. I’ll take care of this.”

“I am ready.”

He sighed. “Go, uh, get me the encyclopedia from my study, will you?”

As I walked down the hall, Mom’s whispers to him echoed towards me.

“What is it?”

“I don’t know.” A sharp inhale. “It smells metallicy. What do you think?”

“I’m not sniffing that!”

“Okay. Fine.”

“I knew this whole maple syrup thing was dumb. The tree is probably diseased or something. Don’t let her near it!”

“Okay, but –”

“And get the rest of it out of the basement! I don’t even have enough space for laundry anymore.”

I walked back into the kitchen with the encyclopedia, and they fell silent.

“I’ll drive you to school,” Mom said, grabbing her keys and shooting a glare at Dad.


When I got home, they seemed even more stressed.

“Michaela,” Dad said, sitting me down, “don’t go near the tree, okay?”

“Why?”

“We – uh – just don’t, okay?”

Apparently, my dad didn’t understand the concept of forbidden fruit. Now that he said it, I had to go back to the tree.

So after my parents went to bed that night, I snuck out of my room, grabbed a flashlight, and ran into the backyard. It was bitterly cold, and the icy wind blew through my pajamas as if they were made of tissue paper. But I soldiered forward, until I was standing underneath the maple.

As the beam of light fell over it, I saw a long red streak staining the bark, emanating from the spile.

As if it were bleeding.

I touched my fingers to it. They came away wet and red, and a chill coursed through my body.

Blood?

Is that what that dark stuff was, earlier?

I walked around the tree, my flashlight bouncing off the bark. As I did, I realized – there was a deep crack that ran horizontally across it.

But it was too long, too perfect, to be a natural crack.

I poked and prodded the groove with my fingers. The bark shifted and jiggled. I jabbed my fingernails in it, and pulled, until a large panel of bark fell away.

It hit the snow with a dull thump.

And I screamed.

Stuffed into a cavity of the trunk, still and lifeless, was the carcass of a pig. And in its belly was a small hole –

Where the spile had been attached.

I leapt back from the tree, screaming. The beam of my flashlight caught on the snow. And in it, there was a fresh set of footprints, leading up to the tree…

But none leading away.

I sprinted across the snow. I locked the door behind me.

And then I glanced out the window.

In the darkness, I could make out a shadow, climbing down from the branches of the maple tree.

The Escape Room

Last weekend, I went to an escape room.

Our company wanted to send the three of us interns for “team-building” and “camaraderie.” But because they’re cheap as fuck, they booked some dingy one in the middle of nowhere.

“Your cellphones, please,” the lone employee – a woman named Meredith – said, extending a plastic bin. “This is an immersive, team-building experience. No texting allowed.”

With a few grumbles, we plopped our cell phones in the bin.

“Here you are,” she said, swinging the door open. “The Medieval room.”

While Kate and I filed in, Derek stood on the threshold, staring at the blinking red light in the corner. “Is that a camera?

“Here he goes again,” Kate whispered to me, snickering. Derek was crazy like that – always thinking his phone was tapped or the government was spying on his emails. Because, you know, the life of has-been frat bro is just the most fascinating thing ever.

“That’s just for surveillance. Or in case of emergency,” Meredith explained with her unwavering smile.

Derek shot her a glare, then slowly stepped into the room. The door swung the door shut; the lock clicked behind us.

The room was small and windowless, as most escape rooms are. Stone wallpaper covered half the wall; the other half was covered in sky, complete with a crudely-painted dragon. Banners hung from the ceiling, and a suit of armor stood in the corner.

“I’m fucking starving. Let’s get this over with as fast as we can,” Kate said, running over to the bookshelf. “Each of you take one. Flip through it, see if anything falls out.”

Derek got lucky. After a few minutes of wildly shaking a Bible, a slip of paper fell out. He picked it up and read: “Take the painting off the wall, and God may save you all.”

We removed the painting. Behind it was a coded message, and Kate found its cipher taped to the underside of the table. It all went smoothly, clue after clue, until we got to the suit of armor.

Put on the suit of armor, and you’ll become a charmer.

I looked at it – a beautiful thing, made of engraved pieces of metal. It looked surprisingly realistic for escape-room décor. “They… really want one of us to wear it?” I said.

Derek shrugged. “I’ll do it.” He stepped forward and yanked the helmet off the stand. Kate and I helped him get the plates over his shoulders, the bands over his arms. Finally, I placed the helmet on his head.

“You look great in that, Derek,” Kate said, with a hint of flirtation in her voice.

“I can’t see anything, and it’s hot,” he complained, ignoring her. “How long am I supposed to wear this thing?”

“No idea,” I said, shrugging. Kate was already on her hands and knees, combing the floor for clues that might have fallen out.

Five minutes went by. Then ten. We didn’t find anything, and Derek’s complaining grew louder, more hurried.

“Can you guys take it off?” he said, his voice muffled through the metal. “It’s tight, and itchy, and something is poking into my stomach –”

“Fine, if it’ll quit your whining,” Kate said. “Marisa, can you help him?”

I walked over and grabbed his helmet.

I pulled.

And pulled.

“It’s, uh… it’s not coming off,” I said.

Kate ran over and started tugging on one of the leg plates. But it was no use; it was like the suit of armor had somehow locked itself shut.

I could hear Derek’s panting breaths echo inside the metal, feel heat coming off the armor. “Get it off! Get it off!” he yelled, the armor clattering as he writhed and thrashed.

“Stay still!” Kate shrieked, as he accidentally kicked her in the head. “We can’t get it off if you’re moving like that!”

I ran over to the door. “Hey, we need help in here!” I yelled.

No reply.

“We need help! Open the door!” I pounded on the door with all my strength.

“Get it off, get it off!”

Pop.

Kate finally pulled the helmet off. It rolled to the ground with a hideous, echoing clank.

“Derek? Derek, are you okay?”

His face was red; his black hair was wet, sticking to his forehead. “Just get the rest of it off!” he yelled.

Now that the helmet was off, it was like the armor had somehow unlocked itself. The pieces quickly popped off, and when it was done, he collapsed onto the floor. “My stomach… it burns,” he muttered, wiping the sweat of his face on his sleeve.

“Okay, okay, sssssshhh. Let’s see.” Kate gently lifted his shirt.

We gasped.

Across his stomach were red imprints, as if something had been pressed hard his skin. Forming letters, forming words.

CHECK THE CLOSET

I bent over, grabbed the chest plate, turned it over.

“Oh, my God.”

There were the fourteen metal letters, sticking out from the surface. Backwards, so when pressed against skin, they’d leave the message.

“That’s sick.”

“We’re leaving. Now.” I walked over to the door and pounded on it again. “Hey! We don’t want to play anymore! Let us out!”

Kate turned to the camera, its red light blinking in the corner. “Hey! Can you hear us?! Let us the fuck out!”

Five, ten, twenty minutes went by.

No one came.

Derek stared blankly at the red light. “What if – they want to keep us in here? To watch us, to record us –”

“Stop it with the fucking conspiracy theories, Derek!”

“But he’s right – if the camera’s for surveillance, why haven’t they come and saved us by now?”

She stared at me, nostrils flaring, but didn’t say a word.

“This isn’t an escape room. It’s some sadistic game.” Derek was standing up, now. His young face looked at least a decade older, the lines of panic cutting deep. “We have to get out of here. Kick the door down, if we have to.”

“Or we could check the closet,” I said.

“No! We are not giving into their fucking game!”

But I was already pulling the door open.

They ran over. The closet was about six feet deep, twelve feet across. It was pitch black, save for the light that spilled in from the main room. And as my eyes adjusted to the dark, I saw the message painted on the walls, in bright red paint:

‘How can I escape this room?’, you wonder

Here’s the answer: six feet under

I looked down. The floor… it wasn’t carpet, or wood, or anything else. It was dirt. And there, glinting in the light, leaning against the wall –

Were three shovels.

Kate began to sob; Derek awkwardly put his arm around her.

“The only way out… is death?” Kate said. “Is that what that’s supposed to mean?”

I stared at the message. A shrill ringing filled my ears; my vision swam and shimmered. Six feet under… six feet under…

I grabbed a shovel.

Kate scoffed. “So what, Marisa, you’re just going to give up, and dig your fucking grave now?”

I didn’t dignify her comment with a response. I just started digging.

I hit the first body after only two feet.

Kate began screaming. Derek hid his face, forcing down vomit.

Shreds of plaid cloth caked with dirt and dust. The waves of decomposing stench hit me like a truck; but I pushed everything away and kept digging.

A foot later, I unearthed a clump of long, dark hair.

“Stop digging,” Kate sobbed. “Please, stop.”

But Derek grabbed the next shovel and started to help.

It took us three hours to finish. By the end, we were starving, exhausted, and weak. Kate was lying on the floor, in a half-faint, half-asleep way; Derek looked like he was about to pass out.

But we found it.

At about six feet under, the shovel clanged against metal.

And on that metal was a doorknob.

It took several tries, but I was able to lower myself into the hole and kick it open. And when I did, I dropped through the opening – and into a damp, cold tunnel.

“Come on!”

The rest of them followed. After walking through muck and sewage for an hour, the tunnel opened to the outside. We found ourselves standing on the street, a few miles down the road from the escape room.

We flagged down a car and made it to the police station.

But by the time they made it over there, no one was there, save for the decayed remains we found in the closet.

And the “surveillance footage” was gone.

Daddy, There’s a Man Behind You

Right now, I’m sitting in a hotel in NYC. And let me be straight with you guys: I hate it here. There’s a siren every five minutes, a dog barking next door, and some guy on the sidewalk ranting about bedbugs.

That’s why I decided to Skype with my family tonight. After mistyping the WiFi password a hundred times and making the bed again after checking for bedbugs (yeah, that guy got to me,) I finally gave them a call.

Immediately, I felt better. I heard all the sounds of home: our terrier barking, Samantha squealing with delight, and Baby Theo babbling up a storm. Their noise drowned out the cold, crazy sounds of the city, and I smiled.

“Here, let me put Samantha on,” my wife, Ginny, said. “She misses you so much.”

She walked out of frame, and Samantha’s head poked up over the table. “Daddy! Daddy!”

“Hi Sweetheart!” I made a frowny face. “Poor Daddy has to stay alone in a hotel tonight for work.”

“Silly Daddy, you’re not alone,” Samantha said, giving me one of her big, toothy grins. “There’s a man standing right behind you!”

I froze. “What did you say?”

“There’s a man behind you!”

I whipped around. But the hotel room was empty – all I saw was the bright lamp, the empty armchair, the comforter in a tangled lump.

“He’s hiding now,” she giggled.

“Samantha, what are you talking about?”

But she just laughed and smiled. “You’re being silly, Daddy!”

“Put Mom back on.”

Ginny ran back into view, a large glob of spit-up on her T-shirt. “Danny, I’m trying to feed Theo,” she said. “What was so important that –”

“Samantha said she saw someone standing behind me.”

“Oh, dear.” Samantha shook her head, as she bounced Theo on her lap. “Sorry, I forgot to tell you. She’s been going on and on about some imaginary friend recently. I already asked Dr. Marks about it; she says it’s totally normal, just a phase…”

My heart began to slow. “She had me scared there for a second!” I said, starting to laugh.

“Oh, I know. She scares me all the time with it. Talks to herself in the playroom, tells Theo about him… it’s crazy.” She snorted. “Did you ever think kids would be this… weird?”

“No. No, I didn’t.”

“Alright, well, I should get back to it. Talk to you tomorrow?”

“Of course.”

I closed the laptop with a click. Out the window, cars whizzed by, streaks of red and white against the blue of dusk. I looked around the empty room, at the beige carpet and the pulled curtains; it finally looked inviting, now that my heart was full.

I got up and walked towards the bed. The comforter was crumpled in a heap, pushed to the corner of the bed, and the sheets were wrinkled and pushed. What a mess, I thought, reaching for the comforter.

I froze.

Wait.

After I checked for bedbugs…

I re-made the bed.

I took a step back.

And that’s when I noticed – sticking out from the edge of the comforter –

The shiny, black tip of a shoe.

The Lights in the Woods

Our trip to Vermont was not going as planned.

Instead of spending the night in a quaint little bed-and-breakfast, like I’d hoped, we were sleeping in the car. On a desolate road in the middle of East Jabib. On one of the coldest nights of the year.

“I just didn’t think—”

“That hotels would be booked solid on the Saturday after Christmas?” I snapped.

“Nicole, come on. This was supposed to be fun.”

No, you idiot. This was supposed to be a last-ditch attempt to save our marriage.

“Look, we’ll sleep here in the car, and in the morning we’ll get one of those mushroom omelets you like at the diner in town.” He leaned the seat back, hitting me squarely in the elbow. “Goodnight, Nicole. I love you.”

I mumbled a response. Then I lay across the backseat, pulled the covers over me, and stared out the window.

If I wasn’t so mad at him, I might’ve enjoyed it. We were parked on a narrow road, smack-dab in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by forest and the stars. In the distance, five amber lights glowed, all in a line—probably streetlights from the town.

No, wait—

There weren’t five.

There were six.

Huh, that’s odd. I could’ve sworn there were only five.

I shrugged, lay my head on the armrest, and closed my eyes.

***

I jolted awake.

The crick in my neck ached. The car was freezing cold. All was quiet, save for the sporadic hoots of an owl and Brandon’s snores.

Oh, sure, he was sleeping peacefully.

I glanced out the window. It was totally dark outside; the amber lights had been turned off. That’s weird. Usually streetlights stay on—don’t they? I thought. Or maybe sometimes they go off… oh, I don’t know. I reached for my water bottle, in the cup holder up front.

Huh?

Through the windshield, there they were—the seven amber lights, shining even more brightly than before.

I glanced back to my window. Pitch black. To the windshield. Lights on. Back and forth, over and over, but it was clear. The lights were on.

But then—

Why couldn’t I see them through my window?

I leaned in close. No—there was some light coming in, through the top and upper corners of the window. But the middle was still black—a dark silhouette, that looked kind of like…

A person?

No, there was no way.

But then I blinked—

And it moved.

I jumped back. “Brandon!”

He snorted, and mumbled “what?”

“There’s someone out there!”

“Probably just a raccoon…”

“No, Brandon, this is serious! Turn on the car!”

“Okay, okay, easy!” I heard the click of the keys, the rumble of the engine. The headlights blinked on, flashing the forest with white light. I pointed to the window. “Brandon, look, someone is—”

“I don’t see anything.”

I turned to the window, ready to shout him down—

Nobody was there.

I began to laugh—a nervous laugh of relief. “Oh, I can’t believe that. I actually thought someone was standing at the window, staring in. I must have been dreaming! Oh, what a…”

The car lurched forward.

“Uh, Brandon? What are you doing?”

“We’ve got to get out of here,” he said, his voice shaking.

“What are you talking about?”

“Look at the window, Nicole!” he yelled.

There, in the middle of the window, was a patch of fog.

Not on the rest of the glass. Just in one, small, circular area.

Almost as if —

Someone had fogged it up with their breath.

“No, no, no…” Shaking, I climbed into the passenger seat.

We shot down the dark road. The shadows rolled across the trees, across the deep footprints in the snow. And the amber lights seemed brighter, closer—were we driving towards them? There were more of them, too… at least a dozen.

“Don’t worry,” Brandon said. “Whoever’s out there—I’ll protect you.”

The anger bubbled up. And suddenly, the reason I couldn’t stand him anymore—the reason our marriage was failing, that I had buried deep inside myself—shot out. “You’ll protect me? Like you protected me on 4th Avenue?”

“Are you still mad about that?”

“Of course I’m still mad about it. You ran, Brandon. There was a gun against my ribs—I thought I was going to die—and you. Ran. Away.”

“I was getting help.”

“And what if he shot me, huh? You would’ve just let me bleed out on the sidewalk, alone?” There were at least twenty of the lights now—some so bright, they looked as if they’d cross the forest’s threshold any second.

But if they were streetlamps…

How come I didn’t see any roads?

“But he didn’t shoot. And he wasn’t going to.” Brandon took a deep breath in through his nostrils. “You know, it was your fault for wearing one of those expensive Kate-whatever purses! That’s the whole reason he targeted us!”

“Really, Brandon? You’re going to blame me for being mugged?! You were a coward, and you know it!”

“I wasn’t a coward, I was just being logical—”

The car screeched to a stop.

A branch lay straight across the road. Or—it was more like a small tree, that someone had ripped straight out of the ground.

My heart stopped. “They blocked us in?!”

Brandon jerked the steering wheel, and started to turn the car around—

No.

Two people had come out of the forest, and were standing behind the car. Each one was holding a pole, and at the top there was something orange, light, flickering —

“Are those… jack o’lanterns?” Brandon said.

To call them jack o’lanterns was an understatement. Atop the poles were fleshy orange things, carved with faces, but they were far scarier than any jack o’lanterns I had ever seen. One had the face of a man, contorted in pain, mouth wide open in a scream. The other was even worse: a grinning woman, with pointed teeth and flickering yellow eyes.

They weren’t streetlamps at all.

The two figures marched forward, towards the car. As I glanced at the forest, I saw more of the amber lights coming towards us, shining through the tangled trees. Several… dozens… no, many more than that. Some far away, just orange dots among the murky shadows; others right upon us, floating over the asphalt. And some dark figures, slithering through the underbrush, not holding a lantern of any sort.

“Just drive over it!”

“No. We’ll get a flat. Then we’ll really be stuck.” He unclicked his seatbelt. “I’m going out there.”

“Are you insane?!” I screamed. The low hum of a chant came through the windows, muffled and low. “There are dozens—maybe hundreds—”

“I got to prove to you I’m not a coward, though,” he said, with a sad smile.

“Brandon, no—”

Slam.

He stepped out into the darkness. As soon as he did, the figures froze. They seemed to stare at him, heads tilting towards him, though I couldn’t make out their faces in the dim light.

He grabbed the base of the branch, and tugged on it with all his might. It slid towards him, opening up a small spot of road.

That’s when something like a shiver rippled through the crowd. And then, all at once, they started racing towards him.

“No,” I screamed, pounding the glass.

“Go!” Brandon yelled. They were closing in—just a few feet from him, now. “Drive!”

I shook my head.

“Nicole, please!” One of the men grabbed him by the shoulders, and pulled him towards the darkness. A few more paced towards the car, their jack o’lanterns floating inches from the window.

No—not jack o’lanterns.

Or, at least—

Not the kind made out of pumpkins.

“Drive!” Brandon screamed, as they pulled him into the forest.

I jumped into the driver’s seat, and put my foot to the floor.

***

We buried an empty casket.

They never found the body. And sometimes I think it’s better that way. Something tells me that the body wouldn’t have been… recognizable. And seeing the man I love, broken up like that, would break my heart all over again.

And if he’s still alive…

Well, that means he became one of them.

And that’s even worse.

So, please, take it from me. If you’re driving on a desolate, wooded road, and you see some orange lights through the trees—

Say a prayer for Brandon Wright.

Then get the hell out of there.

Don’t Stop on Route 33

There’s a stretch of Route 33 that goes over Shenandoah Mountain. It’s one of the most beautiful roads in the country—some parts cling to the side of the mountain, with gorgeous view of the valley below. Others snake through deep, lush forest, scattered with deer and all kinds of wildlife.

But, if you ever see a car broken down on the side of it—

Don’t you dare stop.

Connor and I first saw it on the way to his parents’ house one evening. A silver Accord, parked askew in the grass. The flashers were on, blinking in the blue dusk. And stuck in the back window was a piece of paper, scrawled with the words HELP! BROKE DOWN.

But Connor didn’t slow down.

“Police patrol the area all the time,” he said, swerving around it. “They’ll be just fine.”

I scoffed. “Oh, no, I know what this is about.” I crossed my arms over my chest and glared at him. “Getting to your parents on time is more important than helping out someone who’s stranded on the side of the road. That’s it, isn’t it?!”

“No. As I just said, Vee—if they actually need help, they’ll flag down an officer.”

“Why are you being so terrible?! They broke down! They need our help!”

“If they really broke down, Vee,” he said, yanking the steering wheel, “why did they just pull out behind us?”

I turned to the mirror.

No—Two white lights, swinging onto the road.

Thud.

I was thrown back in my seat, as Connor put the pedal to the floor. We flew through the darkness; branches scraped at the car, and the wind howled.

“I knew we should’ve waited ‘til morning,” he muttered under his breath.

“Connor, what—”

“Bad people hang ‘round here at night.” His voice was barely audible over the roar of the car. “Dad’s always talking about ‘em, but I never believed him. Thought they were tall tales, you know, to scare me into not taking this road. It’s a dangerous road, with the curves and all.”

“Bad people? What do you mean?” The headlights disappeared behind a bend. “Like cults? Or serial killers? Or—”

“Maybe both,” he said. “Just know all the victims are found the same way: in the middle of the woods, completely naked, with slashes across their throats.”

I shuddered, and my mind began to race. What if they catch up with us? What if they get us? What if—

But then I saw it.

A narrow road, splitting off from the right side of the highway, climbing up into the forest.

I glanced in the mirror. The headlights hadn’t reappeared yet.

“Turn, there!” I said. “And then cut the lights. They’ll pass us right up.”

Connor hesitated. “I don’t even know where that goes,” he said. “Didn’t even think there was an exit for another twenty miles, at least.”

“Just turn!”

He jerked the steering wheel. The seatbelt cut into my chest, as we veered off, braked to a stop.

And then waited for the Accord to pass. Two, five, then ten minutes.

But they never came.

“Did we lose them?”

“Must have,” he said. “Let’s go.” The car rumbled to life. He turned sharply towards the trees, then backed up—

A shadow caught in the headlights.

Silver metal and glass.

The Accord.

Lights off, still and silent, parked right behind us.

I screamed. Connor cursed under his breath. We swerved back onto the road, heading deeper into the forest. “If this is a dead end, then—”

Thunk!

We went flying. Dirt and trees and sky all whirled together. I shut my eyes, screaming, clinging to the door.

We hit the tree with a loud crunch.

“Veronica!”

“I’m fine,” I groaned. “Just hit my head, but—”

Crunch!

I whipped around.

Crunch!

The Accord was ramming into us, over and over.

“Get out!” Connor yelled.

I swung the door open, and tumbled out of the car. We stumbled through the forest, back in the direction of 33. Branches clawed at my arms; rocks bit into my feet. Tears were running down my face, and it took everything in me to silence my sobs. “I can’t do this,” I heaved. “I can’t—”

Slam.

I whipped around. Someone was stepping out of the Accord—a tall, pale figure with wild hair, illuminated in the flickering light of our dying headlights.

“Where is it?!” Connor huffed. “Where’s 33?! We didn’t drive that far away. Where the hell is it?!”

But he was right.

There were only branches, dirt, darkness.

Route 33 was gone.

It was as if the forest had swallowed us up, and severed us completely from the outside world. Behind us, the figure advanced, the sharp crunch of footsteps echoing off the trees.

“I’m so sorry,” Connor said, his voice faltering.

But then I saw it. A light—smeared and blurry through my tears, shining through the trees like a beacon of hope.

We stumbled towards it. The trees got sparser; the underbrush grew thicker. Patches of blue sky peeked through the branches.

“Oh, thank God!” I gasped.

It was a flashlight.

And beyond it—

The uniform of a police officer.

Unfortunately, by the time we led the officer back to our car, the silver Accord was gone.

But, fortunately, Route 33 didn’t actually disappear. We must’ve just gotten disoriented in the darkness. She told us it’s very common for people to get lost in these woods, even during the daytime.

After filing various paperwork, she safely drove us to my in-laws’ house. The four of us had a great dinner, too much dessert, and lots of laughs. “Want to take a walk?” I asked Connor, after things had settled down. “I think I need to walk off all that ice cream.”

“Sure,” he said, taking my hand.

We took a short walk around the block. It was fully dark, now, and the stars twinkled high above. A cool breeze came in from the west, fluttering through my hair.

And in the moonlight, something glinted across the street.

“Connor! Look!” I grabbed his arm.

“No—”

Parked on the street was a dented, silver Accord.

“I Hear Santa’s Reindeer!”

“Mommy, what are you doing?”

“I’m brining the turkey.”

“What’s brining?”

“I soak the turkey in salt water, and –”

“Why?”

“Hey,” I said, tightening the strings on my apron, “Why don’t you go play with the Starman toy I got you?”

“I don’t wanna play with it anymore.”

Kids these days. Lose interest in a new toy in an hour.

“Want to watch Mommy take out the Christmas cookies?” I pulled the tray out of the oven; heat nipped at my fingers. The cookie Jackson made was burned at the edges, and terribly misshapen. “Your cookie turned out great, see?”

“Can I eat it now?” he asked, his grimy little hands shooting for it.

“I thought it was for Santa.”

“It was, but I’m hungry. And if everyone else if feeding Santa cookies, he doesn’t really need mine, right?”

Smart kid.

I led him into the dining room, with the cookie and a tall glass of milk. “Here you go, honey.”

He sat down. I glanced out the window; Christmas lights from the house across the street twinkled back, in the falling dusk. I patted him on the shoulder, and began walking away.

“Mommy!”

Ugh. What now?! “Yes, Jackson?”

“I hear jingling! Of Santa’s reindeer!”

“That’s nice,” I said. Probably just that old man next door, walking his corgi. But whatever – I’m not going to rain on his parade.

“I’m going to listen to the reindeer!”

Thank God! Finally, something to keep him busy.

I returned to the kitchen, and frowned at the turkey; it looked so pale and slimy. My mother would be here tomorrow, and she was so particular about it. “Don’t overcook it – it’ll be too dry. And don’t put too much salt – nobody likes a salty turkey! And don’t burn it, oh my goodness don’t burn it.” Her voice echoed in my head. “Dave made such a perfect, wonderful turkey last year. The way he seasoned it, ah, it was exquisite.”

Yeah, well, then I caught Dave seasoning someone else’s turkey.

(So to speak.)

“Mommy! I hear them!” he shouted.

“That’s great,” I call back.

Dave’s attempts to reconcile were, to say the least, lacking. Sometimes he’d leave me a voicemail – just saying ‘I love you,’ then hanging up. Other times, he’d text me a photo of his hand, wearing the wedding ring. No caption, nothing else in the picture – just his hand. And the ring was so stupid-looking, anyway – silver encrusted with a ton of tiny garnets, because ‘red is the color of love.’

Red is also the color I saw, when I found them fuc–

“Mommy! I hear them! The jingling! And footsteps!”

“That’s great, honey.”

“Listen! Listen!”

I sighed, and rinsed the slime off of my hands. “Okay, okay Jackson. I’m coming,” I said, stepping into the dining room.

I listened.

Jingle, jingle.

I froze. My heart began to pound.

“Santa’s here! See?” he squealed.

Jingle, jingle.

It wasn’t the jingling of bells, or a leash.

It was the jingling of keys –

As someone tried the lock.

I grabbed Jackson’s arm, and dragged him out of the dining room.

“Mommy? What are you doing?”

“We’re going to sit here, and wait for Santa to come down the chimney, see?” I said, my voice quavering. I eyed the back door – could we make a run for it?

Thump, thump.

“He’s on the roof!” Jackson squealed, grinning.

Thump, thump.

I hugged Jackson, holding him as close as I could –

Thump!

I screamed.

Jackson broke free from my arms, and ran towards the chimney.

Then I saw it.

A small box, wrapped in black paper, had fallen in through the fireplace.

“Jackson! No!”

It was too late. He picked it up, grinning.

Then he frowned.

“It’s not mine.” He shoved it into my lap. “It’s for you, Mommy.”

Hands shaking, I picked it up.

The note read:

YOU CHANGED THE LOCKS

My heart pounding, I lifted the lid of the box –

A ring.

Encrusted with a thousand tiny garnets.

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