Excerpt

TownhouseCover2Sara stared at her monitor, taking the last few bites of a bland ham-and-cheese omelette. It was 7:30 on Sunday night, and Max still hadn’t returned from his weekend excursion. She was exhausted and in need of a distraction. She put her computer to sleep and started making her way downstairs.

The living room area was so eerily quiet Sara found herself turning on the TV just to have some comforting background noise. When Max was gone, and she was downstairs alone, particularly with the sun disappearing in the distance, the small space of the apartment would sometimes make her feel like she was suffocating. Alana’s disappearance didn’t help matters, either, since the lack of closure to her case meant that the Creeper was still on the loose and most assuredly counting the days, or even the hours, until he jumped out of the shadows and judo-chopped Sara in the neck. Does he know Max isn’t here? Could he be hiding in the kitchen? Maybe he’s in my bathroom.

Sara grabbed her two laundry baskets, each filled to the brim with dirty clothes, and plopped them down in front of the couch. She wanted to wait to do her laundry after Max arrived home, so that she wouldn’t be prancing all around the complex by herself, but she didn’t feel like putting off her necessary chores any longer.

What’s taking so goddamn long, honey?

She separated her clothes into colors and whites, and as she did so, she couldn’t help but think about last night’s embarrassing shenanigans. Not only did the semi-flamboyant Ethan turn out to be straight, but Logan didn’t even show up to make the night more awkward than it already was. Sara found it rude that he hadn’t bothered to call or text her to tell her he wasn’t coming—still, nearly twenty-four hours later, the giant hadn’t contacted her to apologize. She’d thought about calling Rena to find out if she knew anything about Logan’s no-show, but she figured the girl might be busy—she did have her precious novel to work on, after all.

Don’t be cynical, Sara. Be happy for her.

After nearly half an hour, and after not being able to wait any longer on Max, Sara grabbed her baskets, jumped up to her feet, and decided to make her way downstairs to the washer and dryer. Sara didn’t like to think of herself as weak, as someone who was afraid to face her demons, and she figured if the Creeper wanted to strike while she was vulnerable, go ahead, I’ll be ready.

But just before making her way to the entrance hallway, Sara stopped in her tracks, dropping both baskets to the ground. You didn’t, she thought. You did, you stupid fucking idiot.

Sara entered the kitchen to see that she had left the burner on from when she made her omelette close to an hour ago. She switched it off, and then turned it back on and switched it off again just to be sure. She couldn’t believe she had suffered a brain fart like this—leaving the burner was something she hadn’t done in…

Eleven years.

As Sara exited her apartment and started making her way down the staircase toward the laundry room, she thought back to that horrible night when she was thirteen. She moved around a lot as a kid, living in six or seven homes until she settled down in Portland for her last three years of high school. Her dad Arthur worked in sales, and Sara couldn’t remember a time when she and her family of five had settled down long enough in a city for her to make any friends. She had one best friend Carolyn from elementary school who she still kept in touch with today—mostly through social networking, but still—and in her middle school years she found herself in Laughlin, Nevada, which was, to Sara, the worst city in the world. She, her eight-year-old brother Neil, and Sara’s parents, Arthur and Jean, lived in a 3,000 square foot, four-bedroom suburban home (Sara’s older brother Patrick, already on the east coast for college, never had to step foot in Laughlin). Their fourth month there, on a nauseatingly hot day in early July, Sara’s parents went to the movies for the evening, leaving her to look after young Neil, one of the first times she had been allowed to do so without a babysitter present. Most of the night was as boring as any other, with Sara watching an episode of Dawson’s Creek in her upstairs bedroom, and Neil reading a Roald Dahl book from the giant collection he had received for his birthday. During the middle of the episode, Neil entered Sara’s room, asking if she would make him a grilled cheese. Sara said she would, but after the episode was over. But Neil wanted one right now. She finally gave in, waited for one of the five-minute commercial breaks, and ran downstairs to make Neil his requested dinner. It was the fastest grilled cheese she had ever made in her life, as she turned up the burner full blast, doused the pan with butter, and dropped four slices of cheddar cheese on the sourdough bread. She threw the plate into Neil’s room and made it back just in time to catch Dawson and Pacey sparring off about Joey. With the Kevin Williamson dialogue blasting out of Sara’s TV, she didn’t notice anything unusual for a few minutes. But when she heard the fire alarm start screaming downstairs, and saw the smoke starting to drift in under her closed door, she knew there was a major problem. Sara remembered shouting, screaming for Neil, making her way downstairs to see not just a mountain of smoke, but a wave of fire turning the large, brand new kitchen into a hot inferno. She continued to shout for Neil, but he wasn’t responding, so she assumed he had already made his way outside. As the fire started leaping toward her in the living room, Sara rushed outside into the street, where an elderly woman from next door offered to call the fire department. She screamed for Neil three more times, until finally she heard him call for her from his upstairs bedroom. By now, the fire had engulfed most of the first floor of the house, and there was no way she could run back in. The old lady told Sara that the firemen would be arriving in a few minutes, so Sara stayed put. She watched, in horror, as the fire started creeping up toward the second floor, all the way to her little brother’s bedroom. She looked on as Neil screamed at the top of his lungs and pounded at his window from inside—terrified and crying, he didn’t appear to know how to open it. Sara stood there for a minute or two, considering her fate if she were to run inside, up the stairs, and try to save him, but she just kept repeating to herself, the firemen are coming, the firemen are coming. When they finally did show up seven minutes later, Sara alerted them that her brother was stuck in his bedroom on the second floor, but they were too late. Neil was pronounced dead later that night due to smoke inhalation. And Sara knew, then and today, that she could have at least tried to save him, that just the attempt would have left less of a bruise on her scarred psyche. Her relationship with her family had been estranged ever since—as much as everyone, especially her older brother, tried to forgive her, nobody ever could. Not only did she start the fire, but she also ran out of the house without saving little Neil. And it still hurt Sara, the family—everyone.

Sara realized, as she unlocked the laundry room door, switched on the overhead light, and made her way over to the washer, that she hadn’t thought about that night in a while, a week or longer, not so much because she liked to forget it happened, but because it marked an example of her cowardice that she would never be able to live down as long as she lived.

But what it formally presented in Sara’s mind was the notion that courage didn’t come naturally, but that it had to be earned—if the time came for the Creeper to burst from a cabinet to try to clobber her or Max to death, she would be ready to finally put that night behind her and summon up a whole shitload of courage once and for all.

However, then, in an instant, fear overtook her. Sara heard a small tap of some kind coming from the other side of the room. She turned around, only halfway through dumping her whites into the washer, not having yet actually turned the water on. The sound could’ve been anything—creaky pipes, a mouse, a tripod from next door smashing against the wall for cinematic effect.

There was no way Sara could ignore it, though, and she decided to investigate further. She inspected every inch of the room, making sure no strange, oddly dressed man was hiding anywhere, particularly not in the large cabinet in the back that was big enough to store not one but two serial killers. She didn’t find anything unusual.

Sara returned to the washer and finished unloading her clothes. She couldn’t believe how many whites she had—between her t-shirts, socks, underwear, and university sweatshirts, she had enough for nearly two loads. She turned the water to HOT and waited a moment for the archaic washer to start up and emit the loud, grating noise to signal it was working.

She picked up the basket and headed over toward the door, stopping briefly to inspect the room’s only lightbulb, which started flickering.

“Oh, great.”

She unscrewed it, and then screwed it back in. That did the trick.

Sara moved her hand up to turn the light off, when she heard it again. A light tapping sound. This time, there were three taps back to back, as if an animal beneath the floorboards was trying to kick its way out. Sara turned to the back corner of the room, just to the right of the large cabinet.

“What the hell…”

She scanned the gray carpet, which covered every inch of the laundry room floor. She didn’t hear any more taps, but she knew there was something toying with her underneath the floorboards. It took her close to a minute to break the seal, but Sara managed to rip the carpet up off the floor, starting with the piece in the back right corner, quickly working her way a few feet toward the cupboard. Nothing looked unusual at first, but as Sara started pulling the carpet upward toward her mid-section, she saw it.

“Oh my God.”

Sara pushed the ripped carpet against the cupboard and looked at the wood floorboards beneath her. They appeared flimsy and dangerous, but they weren’t the issue here. Beneath where the carpet used to be was a secret trap door. She got down on her knees and pulled up on a silver ringed door handle, assuming that it would be sealed shut.

But it wasn’t.

Sara pulled up, up, up, with all her might, until the door rested against the wall.

She looked down to see a cobwebbed staircase, lit only by the overhead light. What was at the bottom of that staircase, she didn’t know. Everything past the first five steps was pitch black.

What’s down there? Sara thought. What in the world is down there?

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