I took a deep breath. “I don’t need them, Mom.”
But later that night, long after Mom had already gone to bed, I lay in mine, watching the shadows from the swaying branches outside dance across the ceiling. The TV flashed different colors every so often, the volume turned up just loud enough to drown out the creaks and groans the house made.
Perhaps the sleeping pills wouldn’t be such a bad idea.
It was past midnight, and my eyelids were heavy, but sleep was elusive. I tossed and turned. I was too hot, the pillow felt too hard. My brain cycled through the conversation with Gavin and then Jensen, to the bird and beyond, to what happened on Saturday.
I wasn’t sure what time it was when I tossed the covers off and climbed out of bed. The low blue light from the TV cast a glow across my bedroom. Weary to my very bones, I shuffled into my bathroom.
Flipping on the light, I crossed the room, my bare feet silent against the cool tile. I stopped in front of the sink, yawning as I turned the water on. Cupping my hands under the cool stream, I bent over, splashing the water over my face. It did very little, but I dipped my hands again and then scrubbed my eyes.
As I lifted my head, letting the water trickle between my fingers, cool air brushed along the back of my neck. I froze as my heart kicked against my ribs.
Water streamed into the sink, but there! I felt it again, across the base of my neck, a cool breath stirring the tendrils of hair. And then I heard it—a heavy footstep, like a boot connecting with the floor, followed by another.
Eyes shut and skin tingling, I slowly straightened. Nothing is behind me. It had to be the air kicking on and my ears playing tricks on me. Nothing is behind me.
Drawing a deep breath that didn’t reach my lungs, I opened my eyes. Oh God, I was wrong—so very wrong. A scream rose in my throat.
It stood behind me, face covered in the stark white clown mask, and its black, empty holes where the eyes should be. Slowly, it cocked its head to the side and made a guttural tsking sound.
I spun around, stumbling back into the hard sink. He lurched at me, those glove covered hands reaching out—
Jerking up in bed, I gasped for air as my heart thudded against my ribs. Nightmare—it was just a nightmare.
“Oh my God.” I pressed my hand against my chest.
No one was here. I was safe, but my poor heart hadn’t registered that. Pressing my other hand against my chest, I sucked in several deep breaths.
Something about the room wasn’t right, though. As my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I lowered my hands to the edge of the blanket, pulling it from where it rested around my knees. I tucked the comforter under my chin, glancing at the window. The curtains were still. That wasn’t it . . .
A knot formed under my ribs. The TV was turned off. I hadn’t done that before I fell asleep, and I hadn’t turned on a sleep timer. Hell, I wasn’t even sure how to turn one on. Mom did it, I told myself. She had to have come in and turned it off.
I lay back down, curling onto my side as the sweat dotting my skin turned cool. My heart gradually slowed down, but I didn’t close my eyes for any length of time.
I didn’t fall back asleep.
Running late the next morning, I grabbed my Pop-Tart, kissed Mom, then raced for the door. I stopped before I barreled out, turning back to where she stood, pouring black coffee into her mug.
“Did you come in my bedroom last night and turn off the TV?” I asked.
Light blonde hair fell back over her shoulder as she looked over, her brows pinching together. “No. Why?”
The knot under my ribs grew twice its size. “I guess I must’ve set the sleep timer or something.”
The only way I’d set the timer was by accident. I couldn’t even fathom the chance that it could be something else. My brain was unable to cope with anything weird or stressful today. Saying goodbye, I headed out under the overcast sky.
By some sick twist of fate, I ended up parking next to Wendy’s fancy, relatively new car, which looked to be a Lexus, but I refused to investigate the make of the car too closely, because it was likely that I’d fall on my face if she were seriously driving that kind of car. But I wasn’t thinking about her pretty car as I climbed out a few seconds before her.
Wendy looked like a hot mess.
Her blonde hair was slicked back in a low ponytail and short strands had slipped free, hanging limply against ruddy cheeks. It was like she’d forgotten her powder and concealer this morning. Dark shadows bloomed under her eyes. She was wearing a loose t-shirt and sweats, something that I’d wear, but never expected to see her out in public in—especially the pink sweatpants.
She looked as bad as I felt.
Actually, I couldn’t remember ever seeing her look so bad and I’d known the girl since elementary school.
She turned, and as she closed the door, her troubled gaze met mine. “Hey,” she said.
I stared at her. “Hi.” And I waited for some caustic, snotty remark, but when she simply walked toward the building, I was left standing there like an idiot.
Well, that was . . . unexpected. And just a little strange—kind of like a less-snarky alien or something invaded her.
School was uneventful other than Linds telling me that the “volunteer” meeting on Saturday was pushed back to the afternoon and would be at the old farmhouse that held the haunted tour every year.
There were no dead cardinals and Jensen didn’t visit me during lunch, and I tried not to be disappointed by that. I had no reason to expect that he would, and it was probably better that he hadn’t. Being friends with him was stupid enough. But I couldn’t help but notice that Wendy sat her little butt down right next to him. I also noticed that Monica was absent from the table.
On second thought, I hadn’t seen her all day.
“You should probably stop looking over at their table.”
“Huh?” I turned my attention to Heidi.
Hair separated into pigtails, she looked adorable. With her baby face and freckles, she could pull it off. When I wore my hair like that, it looked like I had escaped an asylum. Picking at a granola bar, she grinned. “You keep looking over there. If you want me to believe that you’re not interested in Jensen, you’re going to have to try harder than that.”
“I’m not looking at him.”
“You checking out Brock or Mason?”
Her grin turned impish. “So, like I said . . .”
I stuck my tongue out at her, and she giggled. For the rest of lunch I resisted the urge to check out his table. It was only when I was ditching my tray and half-eaten food that I glanced over there again. Instead of my searching gaze meeting Jensen’s, it was Brock who I ended up connecting with.
He wasn’t smiling, and the expression on his face was unfathomable. The knot below my ribs expanded, and I quickly looked away.
“You okay?” Heidi bumped her shoulder against mine.
“Yeah,” I said, forcing a smile that felt weird on my face. I needed to get some sleep tonight because my paranoia was at an all-time high. As we left the cafeteria, I glanced up the wide hall leading to the front entrance of the school. I squinted.
“Cops?” Heidi said, swinging her purple bookbag.
I nodded my head. Definitely cops, but not the school kind. They were deputies, and from this distance, I couldn’t tell who they were, but one of them looked like Gavin’s older cousin. “I wonder why they’re here.”
Heidi’s delicate brows furrowed together. “I don’t know, but I doubt it’s about rainbows and puppy dog tails.”
Wrinkling my nose, I pressed my lips together. “Yeah, I doubt it.”
Curious about their presence, I dwelled on it throughout trig class. Heidi was right in her own little weird way. Deputies at the school didn’t bode well, but there could be a million reasons as to why they were here. During art class, my last period of the day, I couldn’t sit still as we studied a bunch of paintings of vases with flowers in them and then started our own versions. Nervous energy built in my system, like I’d chugged three Red Bulls.
It had nothing to do with my impending self-defense lesson.
At least that’s what I kept telling myself.