Noah exhaled slowly. He didn’t answer, but he took my hand and lifted me up.
Our footsteps echoed in the silent halls and I gripped his fingers tightly, wishing we could become one thing. Holding on to him, I noticed, my wrists didn’t even hurt.
The early morning sky was still very dark, the black brightening only to a deep purple. Lightning flickered through the windows that wouldn’t release us and made monsters of our shadows against the wall.
We were corralled by it. Drawn to it. That was the point.
We walked into my nightmare together.
Jude stood in the Zen garden, broad and imposing in the sand. He stood between harmoniously arranged stalks of bamboo and sculptured bonsai trees. Jamie and Stella Adam and Megan were kneeling, arranged in the sand. Heads bowed. Hands bound. Positioned among the rocks.
Another girl—I couldn’t see her face—was lying on her side, unmoving. Her white shirt was soaked in blood, coloring it red.
There was a storm outside. It raged through the skylight. But the garden was quiet. No one struggled. No one said a word. Not even Jamie. The tableau was surreal. Deranged. Utterly terrifying.
Then Jude’s voice polluted the air. “Did you try the doors first?” he asked us, and smiled. “The windows?”
No one spoke.
Jude clucked his tongue. “You did. I can tell.” His gaze wandered over each of the bodies in the sand. When he looked up, it was at Noah. “While I’m glad we’re able to finally meet,” he said, “I did want to avoid this.”
Nothing in Noah’s posture or expression showed that he’d even heard him. He was as still and smooth as one of the stones in the sand. The sight of bound and kneeling teenagers didn’t appear to unsettle him at all.
Which appeared to unsettle Jude. He blinked and swallowed, then met my eyes. “I tried to find you, Mara, but you were hiding. So I had no choice. You made me take them.”
“Why?” My voice shattered the quiet. “What do you want?”
“I want Claire back,” he said simply.
“She’s dead,” I said, my voice quivering. “I killed her and I wish I hadn’t but I did and she’s dead. I’m sorry.”
“He thinks you can bring her back,” Stella said, her husky voice barely above a whisper.
Seven pairs of eyes focused on her with eerie precision.
“What?” I asked her.
Jude crouched down in front of Stella, a coiled snake.
She ignored him, didn’t look. She looked, instead, at me. “He thinks you can bring her back.”
Jude smacked Stella across the face.
Megan started to cry.
Adam watched Jude with keen interest—not fear.
Noah took a step forward, brimming with quiet violence.
But when I saw Jude hit Stella, something inside of me rose up from the dark. I held on to Noah still, but I stopped shaking.
“Bring Claire back,” I said slowly.
Stella nodded. “That’s what he thinks.”
“How do you—” I began to ask. Then stopped, because I knew.
Stella was like us. Different. I looked at her, at the expression on her face, and realized how.
She knew what Jude was thinking. She could hear his thoughts.
If Jude believed that I could bring Claire back from the dead, Claire who was mangled and crushed to pieces, who was buried in a closed casket in Rhode Island under six feet of earth, he was absolutely detached from reality. Completely delusional.
The only way out of this would be to act like his delusion was real.
“Jude,” I said, my voice pleading. Practiced. “I want to bring Claire back. Tell me how to bring her back.”
The muscles in his face twitched. “You have to be motivated,” he said mechanically. Then smacked Stella again. Hard.
The muscles in Noah’s arms went rigid, tense beneath my grip.
Jude’s eyes raked over Noah and a smile formed on his lips. “Yes, join us,” he said to him. “You can help.”
Something changed in Noah, then. He relaxed. “And how, precisely, would I do that?” His voice had become more than just blank. It was bored.
Stella coughed. Bowed to the ground, spat blood on the sand. Then looked up at me, her stare direct. “You have to be scared,” she said to me. “If you’re afraid enough, he thinks, you’ll do it.”
So Jude did want me afraid. Everything he did was designed to terrify me. Showing up at the police station so I would know he was alive. Stealing Daniel’s key so he could come and go whenever he wanted, so he could take pictures of me while I slept, so he could move my things around, like the doll, and I would know he had been there, violating the place I should have felt safe.
He killed the cat and told me why with a message in blood.
But that wasn’t enough. He didn’t want me to feel safe anywhere, with anyone. Not with my father—so he nearly ran us off the road. And not at Horizons—so he used Phoebe to scare me. He gave her the picture and had her scratch out my eyes, he wrote that note and had her deliver it. He played me like an instrument and used Phoebe like a tool, to unsettle me, to push me, to make me afraid when he couldn’t be around to do it himself.
I thought it was all for revenge. For Claire. To punish me for what I’d done to her and to him. And no doubt that was part of it. But in his mind, it was also a means to an end.
An end I couldn’t possibly deliver.
I had to be motivated, he said. If I was afraid enough I’d do it, he thought.
But I was afraid. I was terrified. And Claire was still never going to come back.
I didn’t know how to pretend otherwise anymore. “Jude,” I said. “I swear, I would do it if I could. I’m sorry.”
He cocked his head at me. Studied me. “You’re not sorry,” he said plainly. “But you will be.”
Then, in a movement so sudden I almost couldn’t make sense of it, he grabbed a fistful of Stella’s thick curls, lifting her up and bending her back at once.
Megan screamed. Jamie looked away. Adam made a surprised noise.
Noah was on edge again, I could feel it. But he didn’t move from my side.
I was seething. “You think if you torture her, I’ll bring Claire back?” I asked, my voice rising in fury. “If I could do it I’d have done it already—”
Jude let Stella fall back to her knees. He looked down at her.
“Oh, God,” she whispered.
A smile crept across Jude’s mouth.