26 Years Earlier
I wake up at six the next morning. Everyone in the house is still asleep.
Not that I slept much last night. Mostly, I was tossing and turning. Also, I had to go pee after drinking all that water. But that was not the only reason I couldn’t sleep.
When I get downstairs, the first thing I do is try the door to the basement. But it’s locked. As usual.
I stare at the locked door. Maybe I dreamed it all. Wandering down to the basement. That cage in the corner of the room. The muffled screams from inside the cage. The rotting smell that permeated every crevice of the room.
I press my ear against the door. I don’t hear anything. Even the rotting smell seems to have gone away, and now it’s just lavender again.
I go into the living room and plop down on the sofa. I grab the remote and flick on the television. Usually, when I get up early in the morning, I watch cartoons. But this time I tune in to the news.
After about twenty minutes, the news story comes on. Twenty-five-year-old Mandy Johansson of Seattle has been missing for the last week and a half. Her boyfriend reported she never returned home after going jogging in the evening. Nobody has heard from her since, but the search is ongoing.
Then the picture of Mandy Johansson flashes on the screen. She’s really beautiful. She has milky white skin with big blue eyes and long dark hair. In the photograph, she’s in the middle of laughing. She looks like a nice person.
I close my eyes. I can still see the blue eye peeking out when I lifted the sheet off that cage in the basement.
It wasn’t a dream, was it?
Mandy Johansson is in our basement. “Good morning, Nora.”
My father’s voice. I fumble for the remote control with my right hand and quickly jam my thumb against the power button just before he comes into the living room, dressed in the blue scrubs that he always wears to work. “Hi, Dad.”
He ruffles a hand over my hair, which is still messy from sleep. “You’re up early.”
“Yeah,” I mumble.
I crane my neck to watch as he starts the coffee brewing in the kitchen.
While he’s waiting, he comes over and sits next to me on the sofa.
“It was nice having you down in the basement last night,” he says.
People always praise my father for having such an even tone in his voice. My mother says it helps calm patients down when they’re about to get their blood drawn. Someone told him once that he could make sleep tapes. He never raises his voice, even when he’s upset.
People say the same thing about me. “Yes,” I say.
“Maybe tonight you’d like to come down there again,” he says. “Maybe.”
He claps me on the shoulder then gets up to fetch his coffee. I watch him pour the coffee into a mug. He looks so normal doing that. Like he could be the dad in a commercial or something.
But my father isn’t normal. Sort of like me.
I sit on the couch, staring at the dark television screen until my father leaves for work. It isn’t until he’s gone that I flick the news station back on. I want to hear more about Mandy Johansson.
I have to flip around to a few different news stations, but I finally find another reporter talking about Mandy. This station is interviewing Mandy’s family. Her mother, with the same blue eyes as she has, is staring at the television screen, begging for her daughter’s safe return home. We love Mandy so much. We just want to see her again.
“What are you watching, Nora?”
My mother has wandered into the living room in her housecoat, her brown hair sticking up in every direction. I hadn’t even heard her come in. She’s looking at the screen, her eyes narrowed.
It’s too late to turn off the TV and pretend I was watching cartoons. “It’s the news,” I say. “There’s this girl who went missing in Seattle. Her name is Mandy Johansson.”
Mom watches the program for a minute. I look up at her face, which is slowly turning green. “Oh God,” she murmurs under her breath. She clasps a hand over her mouth and rushes to the kitchen sink.
I can hear her retching.
After class is over, Marjorie and I meet up behind the school.
She looks the happiest I’ve ever seen her. It makes me realize I don’t think I’ve ever seen Marjorie look happy. I guess I can’t blame her. The other kids never let up picking on her. Nobody ever stands up for her and tells them to stop. Not even one person has ever stuck up for her.
She even looks prettier today. Her hair is shinier, which makes me wonder if she doesn’t usually brush it. And she has a little pink circle of excitement on each of her cheeks. Her whole face lights up when she sees me.
“Hi, Nora!” she says. “You came!”
“Of course I came,” I say. “Why wouldn’t I?” She has no answer for that.
“Did you tell anyone that you’d be meeting me?” I ask sternly.
She shakes her head so hard, her chin wobbles. “I just told my mom I was staying late at school.”
We decide to go to Marjorie’s house. By the time we get started walking, most of the kids have left the school grounds. I doubt anyone is paying attention to us. And pretty soon, we’ve turned down a quiet street.
As we walk, Marjorie will not shut up about how much fun we’re going to have at her house. I know she’s excited, but it’s super annoying. I wish there were a mute button I could press on Marjorie.
“I can’t wait for you to see my room,” she says. “I’ve got like eight Barbie dolls.”
I look down at my sneakers. “I don’t like Barbie dolls. They’re for babies.”
“Oh.” Her face falls. “What do you like?”
Before I can come up with an answer to her question, we walk by that hiking trail off the main road. I nudge Marjorie with my elbow as I slow to a halt. “Do you ever go down there?”
She shakes her head. “My mom won’t let me.”
“Oh. Because I was thinking it might be fun to explore. Like a game.” She looks down at the wooded path, then back at me. “I better not.”
I let out an irritated sigh. “So I come up with one fun thing that I want to do, and you won’t do it.”
Marjorie’s eyebrows bunch together. “It’s just that… I’m not supposed
“You’re not supposed to alone. But you won’t be alone. You’ll be with “I… I still don’t think I should.”
I fold my arms across my chest. “Well, I’m going down the trail. If you
don’t want to, that’s your choice. And it’s too bad, because I thought of a really fun game we could play.”
I can almost hear the little wheels turning in Marjorie’s head. This is the first time she’s hung out with a friend in, like, her whole life. She doesn’t want to blow it.
“Fine.” She lets out a breath. “We can go down the path. Just for a little while.”
“That’s great.” I smile at her. “And you’re going to find this game so fun.”
She returns my smile. “What’s it called?”
I glance into the wooded area, which is completely deserted, as far as I can see. “It’s called Hunter and Prey. You’re going to love it.”