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“No, please don’t--!” Grace Sherman found herself screaming as she shot up in bed, her face hot and flushed as she panted for breath. Her wide, anxious eyes darted around her dim bedroom as the scenes from her nightmare, which she had just awoken from, played before her vision. It was the same one she had nearly every night—the man that was stalking her finally ending his twisted little game.
Sighing in disgust, she found it hard to believe she’d ever loved the man—her ex-boyfriend, Thomas Hart. She had no idea why the break up had been so hard on him. His actions towards the end of their six-month-long relationship had whispered fears of his emotional and mental instability into her mind, but to commit to legitimately stalking her? How could he have transformed into such a creep so quickly? She had tried to get him thrown in jail for it countless times, but she soon found the man much too ingenious to leave any evidence to scrounge up. Somehow, NO ONE believed her about him—not even her closest friends. They all told her it was just in her mind—some going as far to say she should get treatment for her paranoia.
It was obvious to her that he was there just by the shadows that moved, by the sounds at her windows at night and the footsteps behind her on her way home from work. She had heard him in her house, and seen glimpses of his figure by her window. That was all the evidence she personally required. However, there were also the untraceable phone calls to reckon with, and the pictures of her going through her daily routine that would somehow disappear from her cell phone’s screen as soon as she’d seen them.
Sighing shakily, Grace rolled out of bed, immediately snapping on the light switch as she stood. The way the light whisked away the darkened shadows gave her a sense of safety—one that she craved. Shaking a head that felt too heavy to be on her neck, the young woman glanced cautiously out of her room’s window. As per usual, nothing was outside the foggy glass, but she knew she couldn’t be too careful.
Scurrying over to her closet, Grace began to rummage through her clothes, running through her mind that day’s agenda. It was Saturday the 28th of March, which meant that she would be walking a half mile to her local coffee shop to chat with Claire Mills, her best friend. This event called for casual, although nice, attire. Tucking her ratty, brown hair behind her ear, Grace carefully selected a ruffled purple shirt and a pair of dark jeans. She gave the outfit a little smile as she removed it from its hanger. It would do perfectly.
Glancing at her clock, she saw there was no time to lose. She had to be ready in two hours. As she was rushing to the bathroom, it suddenly occurred to her that Thomas had yet to get serious in this game he had thrown into her life. For the time it had been going on, she couldn’t deny that it felt as if he was merely teasing her, biding his time until he chose to strike. However, she shrugged it off immediately, knowing she was being ridiculous.
The coffee shop door swung open without much effort on Grace’s part, and she warily stepped inside, paranoid as always that the stalker was lurking behind every corner. A melancholy smirk crossed her lips as she thought of how all of her friends thought she was insane. Why didn’t they all just believe her?
Allowing herself to be calmed by the homely familiarity of the shop, Grace stepped lightly to the register, which was unoccupied. She didn’t have to glance at the menu to know which drink she desired, and informed the waiting attendant of her wish while fishing around in her purse for the designated amount she owed. The bottom of it was littered with enough spare change to feed an army.
As Grace was paying, she saw her best friend, Claire, enter the shop out of the corner of her eye. Smiling to herself, she saw that Claire was wearing one of her own original designs—an upbeat outfit in bright hues that matched the woman’s friendly grin. “Hey!” Claire’s clear voice rang out, her eyes shining as she came to stand behind Grace at the register.
Grace smiled at her friend over her shoulder as she reached for her coffee. “Hey there! Here, you go ahead and order, and I’ll go get us a table, okay?” she asked as she swerved around her friend, not waiting for a response. Habitually, she directed her steps to the table by the window.
In but a few minutes, Claire found her way to their usual table, coffee cup in hand. Grace pulled herself away from the window, through which she had been looking intensely, to grin at her friend—but knew at once by the look on Claire’s face her watching had not gone unnoticed.
Sitting down carefully, Claire raised her eyebrows at Grace, looking skeptical. “Um… Is everything alright?” she asked cautiously, her voice laced with concern.
Adjusting her seating so as to be more comfortable, Grace found that it was impossible for her to not be watching out the window, even with just the corner of her eye. No matter what, it felt as if Thomas was watching her. “W-well… Honestly, I’m never really,” she admitted, feeling a burden lift from her shoulders. Seeing Claire’s raised eyebrow as she sipped her coffee, Grace continued. “It’s…it’s just—Thomas.”
Claire’s eyes bugged out at the words, and she nearly spit up her coffee. “THOMAS?” she choked out, glancing around for a napkin. “You’re STILL on that?” Obviously seeing Grace’s expression, her forehead crinkled deeper. “…Do you…have you considered…seeing someone?” she asked, lowering her voice as if speaking of an embarrassing subject. “You know, like we talked about a month ago?”
Grace shook her head slightly, not believing her ears. “…You really do think I’m CRAZY, don’t you!” she accused, standing to throw her coffee cup away. She saw her friend’s face whiten a shade as she opened her mouth to say something else—perhaps make amends—but Grace cut her off before she had a chance. “Well, you know what? I KNOW he’s really there! And as my best friend, I thought maybe you’d believe me before it’s too late!” When the words were out of her mouth, she began stomping firmly towards the door, suddenly desiring nothing more than to be away from that place.
“Grace, please, you’re overreacting—“ Claire’s shrill cry was cut off as Grace slammed the door to the shop shut. Feeling a mix between fury and wanting to break down and cry, she began stomping down the street back to her home. Attempting to shrug off her disgust at Claire, she focused her mind on planning what she would do for the rest of the day—reading, an exercise video, and maybe a nap.
Suddenly, a few light footsteps sounded behind Grace. Absently, she glanced over her shoulder, expecting to see a random citizen there. However, the street was completely barren and empty, except for herself.
An uneasy, nauseous feeling crept into Grace’s stomach, and she began walking at a faster pace, fear and paranoia causing her throat to close up. She had only gotten a few feet when she heard the footsteps again, this time followed by an eerie laugh that was far too familiar. The way that it drifted into her ears--close to her, yet far away--made something inside of Grace snap. She began to run, her feet pounding on the asphalt and the wind burning her eyes and covering her ears, not stopping until she had reached her house.
Slamming the door shut behind her and leaning against it weakly, the woman did the only thing she had the strength to do—she slid down to the cool, wooden floor and began to weep.
As the clock on the nightstand blinked to 10:34, Grace climbed into bed, exhaustion sweeping over her. Lying back comfortably on her pillow, she began to run the day’s events through her mind, as she did every night. She decided she did not like how she had treated Claire, and tucked away in her mind a plan to make amends as soon as she awoke. Claire had not been in the wrong, anyway—it was Grace who always overreacted about Thomas. Just because he was legitimately stalking her, did not mean he would follow through on his threats to kill her. It had been eight months—he would have done it by then, she reasoned. He probably wouldn’t even hurt her.
Suddenly, it felt as if her mind was too tired to contemplate the matter any further. Grace flipped off her light, settling in for a good night’s rest. The last thought to cross her mind was a hope that she would not have any more nightmares.
Chink, chink. Grace shot up in bed a few moments later at what sounded like someone fumbling with locks. A cold sweat instantly broke out on her forehead, and she huddled further under her covers, her mind washing over in senseless panic. Inhaling deeply, she tried to calm herself, reasoning it had probably only been her imagination. After all these months, why would Thomas choose to break in her house that night, anyway? Settling back against her pillow, she tried to put the bad thoughts out of her mind.
Creak. There was no mistaking the sound of her front door slowly opening. In a flash, Grace grabbed her cell phone from the nightstand, her finger hovering shakily over its lit keys as she tried to decide who to call. Downstairs, she heard a faint rustling of a body moving, and—no. Shuddering, Grace suppressed the urge to throw up, suddenly overcome by a wave of nausea. It could not have been the sound of twisted laughter she’d just heard—that had to be her imagination.
Finally, it dawned on her whom she should contact. Grace expertly maneuvered the phone’s screen to her Contacts, scrolling down until she could press the button that called Claire. Panic pricking her heart as the phone began ringing, she just hoped Claire had gotten over her exasperation, and was willing to listen to Grace for once. Just for a minute.
“…Grace?” Claire’s voice inquired, making Grace’s heart skip a beat with worry. She did not sound overly happy to hear from Grace, but she didn’t sound annoyed, either.
Leaning on that newfound hope, Grace suppressed a sigh of relief. “Claire,” she croaked out, wiping beads of sweat off her forehead and thinking of how hot her room had suddenly become. “Claire, Thomas’ here. He’s in my house.”
“You can’t hide…” the unexpected, sadistic words knifed Grace’s heart with panic as soon as they reached her ears. It was Thomas’ voice—she knew it well. It sounded as if he was at the bottom of the stairs. Shaking, Grace pulled her covers over her head despite how hot she was.
Claire sighed on the other end of the phone, and Grace felt her heart drop to her stomach as she heard it. “Oh, Grace, not this AGAIN!” she exclaimed, the volume of her voice rising with each syllable. “Look, it’s almost eleven o’clock…” she trailed off in exasperation.
Creak, creak. Sucking in a shaky breath, Grace tried to keep herself from falling over the edge of panic. She tried to think of something else she could do, but nothing came. “Tonight’s the night, love.” Suppressing a scream, Grace glanced desperately around her, searching now for a weapon to use, since there was no method of escape to be found.
“PLEASE, Claire!” she rasped into the phone, shaking it with unbridled panic and fury. Tears began to roll down her cheeks, and she brushed them away absently. “You have to believe me!!”
Creak… Grace held her breath as she draped her covers over her head. She heard the door to her room slowly scrape against the wooden floor, opening wide to let in the intruder, and felt her heart fall to her stomach in defeat. There was nothing she could do now. It was all over. But, perhaps, as she had thought before, he would not kill her.
“I can’t believe you, Grace! Look, I understand the breakup was hard for you, all right? But this is just—it’s so insane! I honestly think we should sign you up for therapy,” Claire informed Grace, her voice sounding insistent on the other end of the phone. However, Grace couldn’t answer her. He was IN her room.
Screwing her eyes shut as the floorboards in her room squeaked closer and closer, Grace held her breath, her mind falling to the childhood fantasy that if you could not see someone, they could not see you.
All at once, she felt, rather than saw, a presence over her. Unscrewing one eye, she saw with terror that a shadow had inched its way across her bed until it was directly above her shaking form. “Hello, my dear…” the soft voice whispered sadistically, its sound undoing every thread that held Grace in place. The fear, panic and anxiety that she had been dealing with for eight months was, at this point, too much for her to bear. “Do you remember what I said? If I can’t have you, no one else can…”
Maybe, in another time, at another place, Grace would have found the strength to reply. Perhaps, she would have thought to ask the questions that had constantly been on her mind for months—such as, why didn’t you just move on? Why are you STALKING me? What are you planning? Why ME?
But, as it was, seeing as she couldn’t even see his face and was much to distressed to think of ripping off the covers to do so, she decided to simply begin to scream as loudly as she could. It was the loudest, most ear-shattering, unearthly scream she had ever cast out of her being—but it was, unfortunately, cut short.
“Grace? Are you still there? What was that scream all about?!” Claire asked through the phone, her tone laced with actual concern. However, no matter how many times she called, she would never receive an answer from Grace again.
Instead, a masculine voice calmly spoke into the phone, and gave her all the answers she would ever need in just eight words—words that would haunt her for the rest of her life. “Hello, Claire. Grace’s best friend. You’re next.”