BETH SHANNON blinked and studied the wide arc of pale blue painting her ceiling. The tiny seashell lamp provided just enough light to make out familiar objects—her desk, bookshelf, dresser. Nothing out of place, but something had jolted her from sleep. The threads of a dream clung to her. She shivered, left with a lingering sense of uneasiness.
Shifting shadows played along her wall as her eyes grew heavy. All at once she was wide awake. Her hands gripped the sheet when she noticed the opened closet—she never left it open. A childhood fear of the boogeyman refused to let her sleep if there was even the slightest crack. Had she been so upset she’d forgotten to check it last night? No—no way she’d ever forget!
At seventeen, Beth had long outgrown her juvenile phobias but not the need to secure the door. Finding it opened caused an unnatural fear to inch up her spine. The darkness that oozed out mocked her, daring her to get up and shut it, lest some evil escaped.
Sheesh, Beth! Get a grip. You’re not a two-year-old.
Thankfully, she no longer suffered from the night terrors that had sent her running through the house as a toddler. Once, the result had been a trip to the ER and stitches from colliding into a wall. She still sported a small scar over her right eyebrow. Not that she remembered any of it or the sleepwalking that started again in her early teens. But this wasn’t a dream. She was wide-awake now.
She rolled to her side and looked at the clock: 3:43 a.m. It had taken forever to fall asleep after the argument with Mom. Was it any wonder she felt out of sorts? Last night Beth had stormed to her room and shoved in her earbuds—anything to block out the hateful fight with Mom. Forget falling back to sleep now. The stupid alarm would go off any minute, and it would be time to get ready for school.
Beth punched the pillow, her earlier fear forgotten. What was Mom’s problem? Why was she acting so weird lately, and when had hanging with her friends become such a big deal? The thing was, they’d always been close. Mom’s sudden paranoia made no sense.
Beth eyed the clock again. She’d be a zombie by Mr. Gilbert’s algebra class, and the last thing she needed was to get caught sleeping again.
Suddenly, she heard movement. She lifted her head, listening to a faint but steady scratching from somewhere inside the house. Her mind thumbed through possible explanations. Maybe Mom was on her way to the kitchen or Mindy had to use the bathroom? It couldn’t be Dad. He worked a twelve-hour shift and wouldn’t be home for hours.
No. It wasn’t the sound of feet shuffling, or water running, or a commode flushing—rather a rustling, like a drawer easing open and shut, cabinets opening and closing. A prickling sensation raced down her back. She strained to catch the noise until the muscles in her neck ached. It was quiet. A deliberate quiet—if there was such a thing. What should she do?
The furnace kicked in, and their clunker heater drowned out the sound of anything else. For goodness sake, Beth! There’s no boogeyman. More likely it was her little sister. Remembering how excited Mindy had been for her birthday, Beth pictured her nosing around, trying to find her presents. The tightness in her shoulders eased as she comforted herself with the explanation. Nothing to fear, right?
She hoped Mom had remembered to pick up the cake, but given how preoccupied she’d been, she doubted it. Birthday cakes . . . gifts. Such ordinary things brought a measure of reassurance. Maybe she should let Mom deal with Mindy prowling around the house in the middle of the night. It would serve her right, but Beth had a soft spot for the little stinkbug. Better see where she was and get her back to her room. Flipping back the edge of the comforter, she swung her feet off the bed. The icy chill grabbed her when her bare toes hit the hardwood floor. She laughed and saw herself relating the whole spooky odyssey to Jeni at school later that morning. They’d have a good chuckle over it.
To prove she wasn’t a coward, she marched to the offending closet and closed it. There! She made it as far as the hallway when she heard more scuffling. It sounded like it came from downstairs.
She took several steps toward Mindy’s room. Her sister’s Hello Kitty nightlight reflected on the hardwood floor. Beth checked the bed to confirm her suspicions and was surprised to see her sister’s blonde curls spilling across the pillowcase. If Mindy was here—
There it was again, the movement, except this time it wasn’t coming from one direction. There were two sounds, one from her mother’s room and the other from beneath her. Fear staked her to the floor as she listened to the unmistakable footsteps below. Lord, please let it be Dad! She couldn’t imagine why he’d be home, but there had to be a reasonable explanation. Break-ins happen to people on TV, not to ordinary families like hers. All anger from her fight earlier vanished. She just wanted her mama.
With blood whooshing inside her ears, she eased farther down the hall. She had to pass the stairwell before reaching her parents’ bedroom. She stopped and leaned over the railing, listening. Without a doubt, someone was down there. Mom would know what to do. She hurried on and slipped into her mother’s room.
“Mom?” Her voice came out in a desperate whisper. “Mom, someone’s in the house.”
Beth recognized the fast-pulsed tone of her mom’s outdated telephone. Why was it off the hook? “Mom?”
The light from the master bath spilled crosswise revealing her mother lying on the floor. She lay on her side, almost face down, with her hand stretched toward the phone. The handset rested out of reach sending out an urgent alarm that matched the beat of Beth’s heart.
“Mom!” Beth scrambled to her mother’s slumped figure thinking she’d fallen. The dark wetness didn’t register in Beth’s panicked mind as she checked her. “Mom! Mom!” She shook the lifeless shoulder as hysteria bubbled inside her throat. Why wouldn’t she wake up?
She pulled her hands back to find them wet, sticky. She stared down at her palms in disbelief and stumbled backward, shaking her head. “No—no!”
Then she saw the hideous gash in her mother’s throat. A glittering, thick substance covered the front of her gown. It couldn’t be—couldn’t be blood. People didn’t live with . . . Oh, Lord, please help me! Her knees wobbled. Bile rose from deep in her stomach.
“Mama! Mama, please don’t leave me!” Her own strangled cry resounded through her head, a desperate, guttural plea Mama would never hear.
“For man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart.”
1 Samuel 16:7