Erin stared at me, wide-eyed, still holding my hair back.
“You know where Gretchen is?” she said. I nodded and wiped my lips with the back of my hand. My mouth was full of that acidic sour-sick taste.
“Yeah.” I turned the tap of the sink and ran cold water. Sipped delicately at it, rinsed, spit.
“Okay, I know you’re clearly going through a thing right now but you can’t leave me hanging like this,” Erin said, sounding panicked.
I rinsed and spit again before turning to her.
“She’s in my old house. The one on Turner Street. They’ve been filming in the bathroom.”
“Is that what you saw?” she asked.
“Yeah. I recognized the wallpaper.” Sure I did, I’d had my face pressed against it enough that I should’ve recognized it sooner. It was in that bathroom that Clay had raped me when I was 12, the first time after my school’s Christmas play. How could I have forgotten? Dressed up like Dorothy, hair curled in perfect pigtails, smearing my grown-up mascara on the flowers and vines.
I never wore my hair in pigtails again but that hadn’t stopped him.
“So let’s go get her!” Erin exclaimed. I didn’t respond right away; I chewed absently on one of my acrylic nails. “Amanda? Let’s go get her, right?”
“We need to finish the video,” I said, deciding not to tell her about Clay and the bathroom and why I recognized it.
“What?! Gretchen could be in serious trouble, we need to go get her and you know where she is so let’s GO!” She gestured violently towards the door.
“You said it yourself,” I said as I leaned away from the sink and headed back to the dining room where my MacBook waited on the table. “There’s something they want us to figure out. I’ve got a piece but not all of it. We need to finish the video.”
Erin stared at me like I was a crazy person then gave up, throwing her hands in the air.
“Okay, fine, but then we gotta go!”
Gretchen jerked back to life, still watching whoever was behind the camera through miserable tears. She shook her head once, weakly. Her bad eye sagged, her burn marks lit in ruthless clarity.
Her irises flicked back and forth like her captor was pacing. Then it cut to black again —
YOU’RE ALMOST THERE
A beat, then —
DON’T GIVE UP YET
And that was all.
“One more?” Erin said, puzzled.
“One more DVD.” I swallowed against my sickly lurching stomach. “We can’t do anything until that one shows up.”
“Amanda, this is crazy!” She rewound the footage, found Gretchen’s face again, then paused it and jabbed an accusing manicured finger at her. “Your friend is in serious trouble! If you really think we can’t go to the cops but you know where she is — I mean, this could be a trick! What if they’re just trying to stall you? By the time you finally show up after waiting for their last DVD — if there even is one — Gretchen could be dead!”
“That’s not the game they’re playing,” I said softly. Something about this felt undeniable; there was a method to their madness. I was meant to remember something. I was meant to learn something.
Erin wouldn’t understand. She hadn’t been there.
We let a long, tense pause pass between us before I finally said,
“24 hours. Okay? If I don’t have anything in 24 hours, I’ll just go to the house.”
“24 hours—” Erin covered her face with her hands, overcome, then looked back at me. “Amanda, this isn’t some Fox drama starring Kiefer Sutherland. It’s not going to be wrapped up nice and pretty by the time the credits roll. This is a real person, a person you knew and cared about, and she could die.”
“What the fuck am I supposed to do, Erin?” I demanded. “The video said to wait for one more! If I show up there before I see it, they might just kill her anyway! Or me! There’s something here, something I’m missing, I need to find it! And it’s on that last DVD!”
There was another moment of silence.
I didn’t answer. She nodded.
“Yeah. It is. And you can’t tell me?”
“I’m sorry,” I said, but I didn’t really mean it.
“I’m your friend, Amanda. That’s why I’m here, getting involved in this insane mess. Because we’re friends. If you’re not telling me something—”
“I can’t.” I’d never told anyone. I couldn’t start with Erin. I couldn’t bear it. I’d already had so many of those side-eyed looks of pity just from people who even met my step-dad, heard how he talked to me — how could I tell a single person that he had a key to the bathroom, one of those slim little metal things you slid into the hole on the doorknob to disengage the lock? That I couldn’t avoid that room but I was never safe in it — in fact, that it was the least safe place for me in the whole world? That all he had to do was catch me there when Mom wasn’t home and for the next half hour I had to leave my body in order to stay sane?
That it was so horrible I’d somehow pushed it from my mind for the last 16 years?
I couldn’t. That was the simple answer.
Erin let out a long breath.
“Okay. Fine.” She pursed her lips, then locked eyes with me. “I need to go home, I have to work early. Take your 24 hours to figure shit out without me. But if I haven’t heard from you by—” Erin checked the screen of her phone. “—9pm tomorrow, I’m calling the cops. That’s that. Okay?”
“Okay,” I agreed. It was the best I could do; the DVDs had been coming pretty quick so I figured it would be enough time. I hoped it would be… for Gretchen’s sake.
“Okay,” Erin said again, grabbing her purse and her shoes. She headed for the front door, then stopped and turned to me. “Why did you and Gretchen stop being friends?”
I told her the truth:
“I can’t remember.”
Erin nodded slowly, mouth set in a grim line.
“That says a lot, Amanda,” she said, and left.
I didn’t sleep well that night. I spent most of it in broken, shuddery nightmares where I relived what happened in that bathroom over and over again. Sometimes I was a kid, sometimes I was older. In one particularly nasty one I was my 26-year-old self and god help me I actually liked it, the nightmare turned into some lurid guilty sex dream and I woke from that with a scream in my throat. I was drenched in sweat and had to run to the bathroom to vomit again.
I called in sick to work and sat backwards on my couch, staring out the window at the mailbox all morning.
No one came.
By noon I was really feeling the lack of sleep. My eyes were drifting closed; my head throbbed. Before I knew it I was jerking awake, startled and disoriented. I checked my phone: 2:32pm.
I only had until 9. I forced myself off the couch and went to check the mailbox and wouldn’t you know it, the mail hadn’t arrived yet but a slim clear plastic DVD case had. It read:
My stomach lurched. Accident? What accident?
I brought it inside. Stuck it in my MacBook. I thought about calling Erin first then decided ‘fuck it’ and clicked play.
The opening footage was of a car. Clay’s car, the beaten-up teal Camaro he took so much pride in. I didn’t recognize this video.
The camera zoomed in on the gas tank, which was open with the cap popped off. A hand was thrust in view, clutching a dirty rag. A small, pale, freckled hand.
“Gretchen?” I said, and at the same time the camera swung around to show 12-year-old Gretchen with her wire-frame glasses and a brightly-colored ski cap over her kinky red hair. She was grinning like she was proud of herself, pointing the camera at her own face.
“We’re gonna get him back, Amanda,” she said firmly. “We’re gonna fuck up his car, ka-blooey, blow it to bits. He can’t get away with what he did to you.”
“I’m doing this for you,” Gretchen said, and suddenly there were tears in her eyes made so small by her thick lenses. “Because you’re my best friend. That fucker deserves worse. I wish I could blow it up with him inside, but this will have to do.”
“I love you, Amanda,” she said, and suddenly the footage cut away to the same dark bathroom from the other DVDs and my nightmares, but this time it was—
It was Erin.
She was wearing the same ski cap from the video. Her mouth was covered with duct tape and she was thrashing violently in a way Gretchen hadn’t in the other DVDs.
I’d done this. I’d put her in danger, how could I have been so stupid? Of course whoever was behind this could see Erin coming and going, they’d been delivering the DVDs so why didn’t I think about whether they were watching my house?
I watched her struggle for almost a minute before the video cut to black, and then —
IF YOU’VE FIGURED IT OUT
I left my MacBook open, grabbed my keys, and ran to my car. The old house was 20 minutes away. I hoped I could get there in time.
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