Home > Menace (Scarlet Scars #1)

Menace (Scarlet Scars #1)
Author: J.M. Darhower

Chapter One

“Wake up, sunshine,” a voice called out in a frantic whisper as the little girl was shaken, roused from a deep, dreamless sleep. “Please, wake up for me.”

The little girl peeked her bleary eyes open, blinking a few times as she gazed up at the face hovering above her. “Mommy?”

Her mother smiled—a big, wide kind of smile—but it wasn’t the kind of smile that meant happiness. Rain fell outside, a steady, heavy downpour, battering the windows as the trees blew all around. Their shadows danced along the wooden floor, visible thanks to the glow of the soft nightlight in the room. Banging echoed through the house, so loud it reached the second-story back bedroom, coming from somewhere downstairs. It sounded like something ramming the front door, merging with the sound of thunder rumbling in the distance.

The wind screeched. No, wait… that wasn’t the wind. The little girl’s heart pounded hard. Someone was screaming. Her mother’s smile was frozen in place as she gently, pushed the hair back from her face, caressing the little girl’s warm cheek.

“It’s time to play a game,” her mother said, voice shaky as tears fell from her deep brown eyes. “We talked about this. Remember? Hide & Seek. You and me.”

The little girl sat straight up in her bed. She didn’t like this. She didn’t want to play. She shook her head, her small hands grabbing her mother’s face, squishing her cheeks as silent tears coated them. “No, Mommy. No! I don’t wanna!”

“We talked about this,” she said again, her voice firmer as the banging downstairs seemed harder. “Trust me, okay? You trust me, don’t you, sunshine?”

The little girl nodded.

“Then hide,” her mother said. “Just like we talked about. Hide really good, and do just like Woody and Buzz do, remember? Don’t make a sound, don’t move at all, no matter what, if someone comes near you, okay?”

The little girl knew ‘okay’ was what her mother wanted to hear, but she couldn’t get that word to come out. Her voice didn’t like it. Her mouth wouldn’t say it. “Mommy, I’m scared.”

“I know, baby,” she said, “and it’s okay to be scared, but remember what we talked about? Remember what Mommy said about what to do when something scares you?”

“Name it,” she whispered.

“Exactly.” Her mother’s smile softened. “If you give the monster a name, it takes away its power, because we’re really just afraid of what we don’t know. If you name it, if you know what it is, you can be stronger than it. So face your fears and wipe your tears, remember? Face your fears and wipe your tears.”

The commotion downstairs grew louder, a bang rocking through the house, this one different. Her mother’s smile fell as her gaze darted to the doorway of the bedroom, the screaming closer.

Her mother turned back around, unable to hide the fear in her eyes. “Hide. I’ll find you. I promise.”

Soft lips pressed against the little girl’s forehead, lingering there for just a moment, not nearly long enough, before her mother pulled away. In a blink, she was gone, running from the bedroom, leaving the little girl alone.

Hide, she thought, so only Mommy can find you.

Snatching up her teddy bear, the little girl jumped out of the bed, her bare feet quiet against the wooden floor as she hurried out of the bedroom in her favorite pink nightgown. They’d played this game so many times, but never in the middle of the night, never when it was storming, and never when someone was downstairs screaming. It had just been practice then, like the fire drill they did in preschool, but this was for real.

She ran from room to room, the noise downstairs making it hard for her to think. Things were breaking. Her mother was begging. “Please don’t do this... please!”

Think, think, think.

The little girl came to a stop in front of the linen closet, making the split second decision to hide in it. She climbed the shelves, not for the first time, going way up to the top and shoving things aside to crawl onto it. She pressed way against the back, wedging behind a stack of towels, too big to completely disappear. But it had taken her mother almost an hour to find her in that spot one time when they’d practiced, and it had been daytime then, so maybe the darkness would hide her.

No sooner she settled into her hiding place, a crack of thunder rocked the neighborhood, light blasting through the windows. The rumble shook the whole house as her mother let out a piercing shriek, the noise silenced in a blink.

It grew quiet.

So quiet.

The electricity even went out, all of the light disappearing.

All the little girl could hear was her own panicked breathing.

“Face your fears and wipe your tears,” she whispered to herself, repeating those words again and again and again, as she clung to her stuffed bear. Face your fears and wipe your tears. Face your fears and wipe your tears.

Footsteps started through the house, but they didn’t belong to her mother—too heavy, too measured. It sounded kind of like a robot.

Made sense, since she called him the Tin Man.

The little girl didn’t know if he was missing his heart, too, like the real Tin Man from the story, but her mother called him heartless once, so she thought it might be possible. She wondered if he rusted in the rain, since it was storming. Maybe that’ll keep him from finding me.

“Come out, come out, wherever you are,” he called out, searching the house. “I know you are up here, kitten. You cannot hide forever.”

That’s what you think, Tin Man.

She was good at this.

Her mother had made sure of it.

He walked down the hallway, right past the closet, dripping water onto the floor. He was soaked from the storm, his dark hair lying flat, and his white button down clinging to his chest, only halfway tucked and mostly ripped open.

An hour passed as he searched the house. It felt like forever to the little girl. How much longer would he look for her? When would he go away? Ever?

“Fine, I give up,” he said eventually. “You win, kitten. Game over.”

His steady footsteps went back downstairs. Everything remained silent until the electricity flashed on, the house coming back to life as the storm outside faded. Game over.

The little girl waited another few minutes, cramped in the closet, before her muscles ached and she grew even more tired. Quietly, she climbed out and crept downstairs, wondering why her mother hadn’t tried to find her.

Still carrying her bear, she held onto the creaky wooden banister, finding the front door wide open. The locks were torn apart, the red-painted wood splintered, the hinges broken. She wandered past it, her stomach all queasy, and stalled in the doorway of the kitchen. “Mommy?”

Her mother lay on the floor, eyes closed, not moving. The little girl sat down beside her, pushing the hair from her mother’s tear-streaked face. Her cheeks were all puffy and her head was bleeding, a mark on her neck, like someone had finger-painted on her pale skin.

“Mommy,” she whispered, shaking her. “You can wake up now. We don’t have to play no more.”

“Let her sleep, kitten.”

The little girl tensed, her heart racing as she looked to the doorway, seeing the Tin Man lurking there. She froze and held her breath.

Be like in Toy Story.

She didn’t move, not at all, but it wasn’t working.

The Tin Man strolled closer and knelt down, caressing her mother’s swollen face before pressing his fingertips to a spot on her discolored neck. Sighing, he pulled his hand away and leaned over her, pressing the softest of kisses to her silent, parted lips. It looked sweet, like love, the little girl thought as she watched, not at all like the anger that had broken down the door.

Maybe he did have a heart.

She couldn’t tell.

“Come on,” he said, standing up, not giving the little girl a chance to argue as he yanked her up in his arms and hauled her over his shoulder. “We have to go.”

Sirens wailed in the distance.

Scared, the little girl struggled, trying to get away from him, losing her grip on her teddy bear. It clattered to the floor, right there in the kitchen where her mother slept. The little girl shrieked, panicking, as he carried her through the broken front door without it.

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