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P r o l o g u e
The noises, faint, fleeting, whispered into her consciousness like wraiths in the night.
Twelve-year-old Erin Willit opened her eyes to darkness lit only by the green night-light near her closet door, and the faint glow of a streetlamp through her bedroom window. She felt her forehead wrinkle, the fingers of one hand curl, as she tried to discern what had awakened her.
Something was not right.
An oak tree lifted gnarled branches between the streetlamp and her window, its leaves casting eerie spider-shadows across the far wall. When she was younger, Erin had asked that a small lamp on the desk by that wall be left on at night. Anything to dispel the jerking dance of those leaves. Lately she'd watched the dark tremble across the posters of pop stars on her wall with no fear at all.
But not tonight. On this night the shadows writhed and twitched.
Vague sounds from her dad's office on the other side of her wall took form. A drawer slid open. Contents rustled.
Her heart tripped over itself, then scrambled for balance. There was nothing unusual about the sounds.Anyone working in the office could have made them. Someone paying bills, like she'd seen her dad do so many times, making no noise or movement until a pen was required or a piece of paper . . . until a drawer was opened to pull out a file. Erin knew how quiet her dad could be when he worked in his office. She was used to the creaks of his chair, the plunk of his briefcase on the desk.
The shadow-leaves on her wall skittered across the face of a male star, transforming his features into the thrust forehead and sunken cheeks of a half-human. Erin pulled her eyes away.
She raised her head from the pillow, listening more intensely. Her breath stalled midthroat, making a little click as her mouth sagged open. More noises. It couldn't be her dad. He'd flown his plane just that afternoon to visit his sister in San Diego, who was sick.
Maybe Mom was in the office. She had a second desk in there, which she used when she helped Dad. Erin glanced at her radio alarm clock. Nearly twelve-thirty. Mom never worked that late. Besides, the sounds were stealthy, secretive. Like someone sneaking around in a place they weren't supposed to be.
Erin's heart staccatoed once more, then ground into a steady, hard beat. Whoosh, whoosh, whoosh, echoed the blood in her head. All other sound ceased, drowned out in the adrenaline rush. Erin gripped the hem of her pajama top, straining to hear. She held her head off the pillow until her neck ached. Whoosh, whoosh, whoosh. She could hear nothing more.
She bit her lip, then laid her head down.
Erin inhaled deeply, willing her heart to settle.
She'd imagined the noises. Just like she'd imagined the ghosted death-dance on her wall. She forced her gaze to the trembling silhouettes, eyes boring into them until she could discern the pattern of individual leaves. See? Just shadows from an old tree.
A muffled thud emanated from the office.A drawer closing. Then a soft thump against hardwood floor.A footfall.
Primal instinct reared its head. Erin wanted her mom--- now. Her mother meant safety, security against all harm. Mom was sleeping upstairs in the master bedroom suite---so far away. But Erin had to go. She would turn on every light between here and there.
Trembling, Erin pushed back the covers and slid out of bed. Cool conditioned air slithered around her shoulders. She stood rock still.What if some predator in the next room had sensed her movement? She could almost visualize a massive beast's shining nose sniffing the air, smelling her fear.
Oh, she was thinking crazy stuff now.
She edged forward. The dark leaf images tremored on her wall, warning her: Don't go, don't go! The undefined shadow of her own form hulked across her desk and wall, obliterating the oak silhouettes. Erin crept across her bedroom carpet on soundless feet. Reaching the door, she placed her palm against the cool metal knob.
Another sound from the office.A light bump.
Erin's resolve crumbled. She couldn't do this! She should lock her door, jump back in bed, and jerk the covers over her head. Dive deep, deep down in those warm folds.
But then what? Hide panic-stricken and vulnerable until Whoever It Was came for her?
No way! She had to get to her mother. As she opened the door, she'd see the gleam of light from the office. She'd just peek into the room, see her mother there, working late. Maybe with a cup of tea resting on the coaster that never left her desk. 'Sorry to wake you,'Mom would be saying seconds from now. 'I couldn't sleep and I had some paperwork to do.'
Erin could almost hear the lilt of her mom's voice. Could almost see her face, bathed in the glow of the desk lamp. Please, Mom . . . please be there. Erin held her breath and twisted the knob. She pulled the door open a crack and peeked through.
No lamplight spilled from the office. The darkened hallway was lit only by a night-light like the one in Erin's bedroom.
Maybe the office door was closed. Sure, that was it. That was why the sounds had been so muffled. Erin eased her own door farther open, slipped her head out. A short hallway to the office angled off the main hall that ended at Erin's bedroom. She couldn't see the office entry without venturing farther from her room.
Don't be so stupid! Go on out there. If she could just step out, she'd see the office light illuminating the bottom of the door. Heralding her mother's presence on the other side.
A sudden glow spilled from the office and swept over the hallway, like the weakened edge of a flashlight's beam. A shuffle and a small thud followed, another drawer opened and closed. Erin froze. Mom wouldn't bump around in a darkened office with a flashlight.
Hideous images from Erin's childhood sprang into her head---from gruesome imaginings of a toddler's boogeyman to visions of the murderous Freddy Kruger. The latter images were the most terrifying. Freddy was not a surreal monster. He was real, a man with a killing machine for a heart. Erin suffered nightmares for a week after the back-to-back hor- ror movies illicitly watched at her friend's house. The lamp on her desk was on that whole week, just like when she was little.