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 nightlight near her closet door and the faint glow of a street lamp through her front 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 street lamp 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 dances 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 mid-throat, 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 of her body. Erin gripped the edge 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 upon 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 of the 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 upon 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. Her mother would not bump around in a darkened office with a flashlight.
Hideous images from Erin’s childhood sprang into her head—from a toddler’s gruesome imaginings of the boogeyman to 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 days after the back-to-back movies illicitly watched at her friend’s house. The lamp on her desk was on that whole that week, just like when she was little.
Her mom tut-tutted, “That’s why I don’t want you watching those movies.”
Moms were right about some things.
Mom. How could Erin get to her? If she ran down the hall, Freddy would hear her, maybe see her. He’d come after her. Freddy loved coming after his victims.
Erin hunched, half in and half out of her doorway, stilled by indecision. And fear.
At the other end of the house, the entryway chandelier flicked on. Erin flinched, every nerve tingling. Freddy had to see the light! Had Mom come to investigate the noises? Surely she couldn’t have heard them from her bedroom. Maybe she’d come downstairs for a glass of ice water. Maybe sheer maternal instinct had pulled her from bed and toward her panicked daughter.
Down the hall, Erin’s mom glided into view, a pink summer robe tied about her waist. She stopped to turn on the hall light, rubbing one of her eyes. No fear on her face, no tension racking her limbs. Erin’s shoulders eased. If her mom wasn’t scared, then there was nothing to be frightened of. The mere sight of Mom’s calm features whisked Erin back to when she was three years old, huddling in her mother’s lap.
“Hush, hush now, there’s no one there; you just saw a shadow.”
See? Nothing to be afraid of.
Reality rushed back, chilling Erin to the bone. This time, she had seen something. She had heard noises. Noises that could not be explained away by any amount of soothing.
Go back, Mom, go back! Erin wanted to shout. Freddy’s in the office! Run!
She opened her mouth, emitting only a gurgle. At that moment her mother saw her in the doorway.
“Erin, what are you—”
Her mother’s eyes shifted toward the office. Her expression pinched; then her features shifted into a frozen mask.
Help, God, she saw Freddy. Help!
“N-no!” Mom’s voice quavered. “Erin, get back!”
Instinct flooded Erin, pushing her toward her mother. No matter the distance between them, no matter what lay between, her mom’s arms still meant safety. She flung her door wider, drawn forward by a force she couldn’t resist. Her mom threw out both hands. “No! No!”
Time leapt into a nightmare dance, whirling before Erin’s eyes. A dark figure—Freddy!—sprang from the office hallway. A man dressed in black shirt, black jeans. Not too tall, but muscular, built like a truck. He lunged toward Erin’s mom and shoved her hard. She bounced off the wall, then lashed out, pummeling him with her fists. Move! The word screamed through Erin, telling her to creak her knees into action, help save her mom . . .
But her muscles turned to stone.
The sights and sounds pounded Erin, wrapped squeezing fingers around her head. The man warded off her mom’s flailing arms with one hand and hit her in the face with the other. Mom reeled into the wall. She came back with a scream, kicking.
Erin stared as her mother became a creature she didn’t know, violent and keening. Arms and legs lashed out, intertwined, as man and woman struggled to the death. Then Erin’s mom sagged, unable to keep up her battle. The man wrapped gloved fingers around her throat and squeezed. Her hands flew to those fingers, clawing, clawing. Her eyes bugged, mouth dropped open. Strangled sounds spilled from her bluing lips. The man flung her then, across the hall and into the kitchen, out of Erin’s sight. Erin heard a sickening crack, then the thud of her mom hitting the tile floor.
Nauseating heat gushed through Erin’s veins. Her mouth opened to scream, but only a desperate whimper escaped. The man turned and, for the longest second she’d ever experienced, locked bright blue eyes with hers.
It isn’t Freddy, it isn’t Freddy, it isn’t Freddy.
That one distinct thought ran in her head. Even as Erin’s brain shut down, she knew she stood at the brink of death. The hallway dimmed and the world spun around her; black spots ate away at the perimeter of her vision. The spots grew and gobbled and crawled. Like cockroaches.
Erin’s mind slipped away down a long dark tunnel, peering back at her granite and soon-to-die earthly form.
Run, run! Lock the door! But her brain’s final plea came too late. Far, far too late.
The man drew himself up, breathing hard. The sound was muffled. Erin slid farther into the tunnel. Still he stared at her.
The cockroaches ate up the walls and ceiling and floor. Ate right to the man, then fed on his arms, his toes, his head. Erin’s knees gave way.
As she fell, her elbow hit the doorframe hard, sending shock waves up her arm. Cockroaches scurried and swarmed. Then covered her world in blackness.