"You look freaked out."

Nicholas glanced over at Clara. She kept her eyes on the moonlit streets as they drove. The town was deserted.

"Should I not be?" Clara asked. "What we saw, and what we're going to do..."

"Your plan, not mine," Nicholas said. "Hey, guess what?" He pointed to a well-lit house on the corner of the nearest street. "That's my house."

"Really?" Clara asked, taking a closer look at the two-story home. "We're only a few blocks apart. I didn't realize you were so close."

"Yeah, I'd invite you in if it wasn't so late," Nicholas said. "Maybe after tomorrow."

Clara nodded. She had a hard time imagining an end to the current situation. The next day was a brick wall that she couldn't see past.

A few minutes later, Nicholas pulled into Aunt Maureen's driveway. The street and all the houses on it felt empty.

Nicholas turned off the car. He and Clara got out and walked up the path to the front door.

"I can come in if you want," Nicholas said. "Just for a while, since you're all alone."

Clara thought it over, but he looked too hopeful. Even though having Nicholas stay for a bit would be a welcome comfort, she didn't want anything to distract her.

"Thank you," she said, "but I'll be fine."

Nicholas nodded and took a step back toward his car. "Okay," he said. "I'll meet you at the dock after dinner tomorrow."

"Yes," Clara said, trying to sound enthusiastic. "See you there."

Nicholas got in his car and drove off. Clara pulled out her keys as she watched him go. She unlocked the door and stepped inside.

She couldn't identify the reason, but the house felt different. Aunt Maureen hadn't been home for a long time now, and Clara realized it had been almost two days since she'd last visited her in the hospital. She felt horrible about that.

Clara pulled the door shut, dropping her keys on the table. It was late, but she thought she could at least call Fithian Memorial and get an update on Aunt Maureen from one of the nurses on duty.

She picked up the phone to dial, but the stutter tone indicated that there were messages waiting. Clara remembered Aunt Maureen mentioning instructions for this. She dug in a small basket on the half wall to the kitchen and found a thin pad with some scribbled notes on the first page. In Aunt Maureen's handwriting, Clara read, "Answering Machine" with a phone number and "4321" written below it. She dialed the number and entered the passcode.

A mechanical voice said, "You have four messages waiting. Press 1 to listen to your messages." Clara pressed the one button and heard a beep.

"Hello Clara dear!" Aunt Maureen's voice sounded as lively as ever – more lively than when Clara had first arrived in Breach Point. "I was hoping to catch you before you went to bed, but it looks like I missed you. I guess the only way you'll hear this is if you remember those instructions I left." Clara laughed. "I just wanted to let you know," Aunt Maureen's message continued, "that Dr. Bihlmeier is only keeping me for one more day. I'll be home by the weekend. I don't know what to attribute it to, but I feel absolutely rejuvenated. I'll tell you all about it tomorrow. See you soon!"

The answering machine beeped. Clara felt a mix of emotions. She was happy that Aunt Maureen was finally leaving the hospital, and that her physical and mental state had turned around, but something still seemed off with her. And what about the plan with Nicholas? She could suddenly feel herself backing out of it – not wanting to get into any kind of trouble before Aunt Maureen's return.

As Clara walked into the dining room, the phone beeped again and the next message began playing. The voice was Theresa's, and it was nowhere near as light as Aunt Maureen's. "Clara, this is Theresa. I'm not sure what you thought you were doing at the storage facility, but Shane told me that you used Fogelsang's entry code and took our files. I want an explanation. Call me as soon as you get this."

Clara felt sick to her stomach. Before she was able to think about how to handle Theresa, she caught sight of something on the dining room table. Some kind of paper or card was leaning against a glass centerpiece. Clara had seen this bowl every day and never noticed the object. Something was wrong. She slowly walked over to the table.

The machine beeped and the next message played. "Clara, it's Mom. I hope you get this. I wanted to talk to you about Aunt Maureen. She called today and... well, it's wonderful news to hear about her condition, but I'm still concerned. She just sounds so... so unlike herself. I know you're busy but please call me soon. I want your take on all of this."

Clara barely heard her mother's message. She couldn't process the words or any thoughts, because as she faced the object, she recognized what it was – the same bumper sticker she'd seen at Greg and Darlene's house. "I Lost My Head at Breach Point Castle" – leaning against the centerpiece at a perfect angle for her to see. As far as she knew, no one else had keys to the house. Aunt Maureen would certainly have mentioned to her if someone else was able to let themselves in.

She felt the hairs on her arms stand at attention. A chill started at the center of her back, traveling up her neck. Clara realized it wasn't her imagination – the wind that blew the trees outside was coming into the house – somehow. She wanted to run out, but stopped herself when she noticed that the bumper sticker had been altered with a handwritten note underneath the Castle's slogan.

The answering machine beeped and another voice – a low, hoarse whisper – spoke. "Clara," the voice said, "Clara, you need to stop."

Clara could feel her breathing slow. The voice continued. "You need to leave, Clara. We all want you to get out of this town. Now."

Clara pulled the bumper sticker closer. Under "I Lost my Head", in angry letters, someone had scrawled, "LEAVE BREACH POINT OR YOU WILL TOO."

The phone went dead. Clara dropped it. She looked around the house and saw that one of the kitchen windows was open – enough for someone to have crawled through.

She spun toward the hallway that led to the back of the house. A creak sounded from one of the back rooms – possibly her bedroom. With the bumper sticker still in her hand, she crept toward the front door. Her heartbeat pulsed in her ears.

Clara swung the door open and ran into the front yard, never taking her eyes off the dark interior of the house. She ran out into the night, down the dark street.

------------------

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- Steve


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