"We heard you met Jake last night."
Lillian stopped short at Lauren's impish greeting, staring first at her and then at the others gathered around the coffee table in the living room. They were already dressed—Lauren in jeans and a sweater, her black hair combed down in a cute pixie cut—and eating from a shared box of doughnuts in the middle of the table. She self-consciously wrapped her arms around herself, still in her pajamas, and wished desperately for a robe to cover up with.
She looked over at the boy who had intruded last night. He was sitting on the couch, drinking a cup of coffee, his eyes steadfastly avoiding hers. She fidgeted uncomfortably. "I… Yeah…"
"Don't worry," Debra piped up. "We've been wanting to bash him with bottles for a long time. You just saved us the trouble. You'll be glad you did after you've known him for a while."
She thought back to their argument the night before. Now that she had calmed down, guilt plagued her. He'd been rude, but not rude enough to deserve having a bottle broken over his head.
"I thought he was a robber," she admitted, unable to meet their eyes.
Laughter echoed around the room. She looked up, startled, watching as Jake glowered at the others. "He kind of is, depending on your point of view," Brian teased, jabbing Jake good-naturedly in the ribs. Jake scowled at him and batted his hand away.
"Yeah, he's a master at stealing the hearts of poor, lonely, beautiful young women," Ray agreed melodramatically, scuffing Jake under the chin.
Lillian smiled weakly, clasping her hands behind her back. "I, um, just came down for a glass of water," she told them, even though they probably didn't care. She nervously raked a hand through her long dark brown hair and went to the cabinet, pulling out a glass and filling it with water.
"We have doughnuts," Lauren called back to her. "Are you hungry?"
"Oh… No. Thank you." She smiled, embarrassed, not wanting to admit she had never had a store-bought doughnut. She walked back around the kitchen to the living room, feeling indecent and conspicuous in her pajamas. "Actually… I was wondering… Is there a Laundromat around here?"
"A Laundromat?" Lauren repeated, looking surprised. Lillian shifted nervously at the stares and silence in the room.
"Ah, yeah. I need to do laundry." She tried to smile. "I've sort of been living out of my suitcase for a couple of weeks and I'm running out of clean clothes."
Lauren's features twisted ever-so-slightly into a frown. "There's one on the first floor. All the way at the right end of the hallway, past the front desk. It's by the vending machine and pay phone."
Lillian smiled, relieved she wouldn't have to venture out into the city and search for a Laundromat. "Thanks," she said, then turned and went up the stairs to get dressed. She pulled out a pair of jeans and a v-neck blue shirt her new stepmom had bought her while she and Lillian's father had been vacationing in Venice—and she had been stuck with her Uncle Harold. She stuffed her clothes into the dark blue laundry bag she kept in her suitcase, some dollar bills and quarters into her pockets, and then hoisted up the bag and went back down the stairs. The others were finishing up their breakfast, Ray and Vicki carrying the dishes while Derek and Debra wiped down the table.
"Do you have any you want me to do?" Lillian asked Lauren, trying to avoid the green eyes she could feel burning into her. She finally gave in, hesitantly darting a look up at the guy she had broken a bottle on the night before. His eyes were sharp and studious, staring her down.
"No, but thanks," Lauren said, drawing Lillian's attention back to her.
She nodded, once again finding her gaze on Jake's. "Do you want me to wash that towel?" she asked uncomfortably, hoping she wouldn't have to clarify which one she meant.
"I did it already."
She was startled. He'd already washed it? Had he washed it in the sink? "Okay. Well, I'll be back in a few minutes." She smiled weakly at Lauren, then nodded her head at the others before hurrying out of the apartment.
She clutched the laundry bag to herself as she pressed on the broken, plastic down arrow for the elevator. It creaked on un-oiled hinges as it slowly started up, chugging as if it wouldn't quite make it.
A door in the hallway opened. She tried to calm her frayed nerves as she slowly lifted her head to the sound, dreading what she would see. Her heart leapt into her chest as Jake emerged from Lauren's apartment, eyeing her warily as he shut the door behind him.
"Any bottles hidden in there I should know about?" he asked, his footsteps heavy on the badly worn carpet as he approached her.
She gaped at him, stunned. "I… No."
He nodded, looking a little more relaxed. He looked up at the glowing numbers above the elevator, which finally lit the number five. "Good. But just in case…" The elevator dinged its arrival and the doors painstakingly slid apart. He bowed mockingly. "Ladies first."
She frowned up at him. She couldn't blame him for being upset with her—she had broken a bottle on his head—but it wasn't like she had intentionally attacked him just to be vindictive. She had been fearing for her life. She adjusted her grip on her heavy bag and walked into the elevator, standing in the right corner.
The elevator lurched as he stepped on with her, standing in the opposite corner. She watched as a slender finger reached out to touch the button for the first floor. He leaned against the wall, looking unnervingly composed.
She reluctantly spoke, hoping to ease the tension between them. "It was nice of you to come over last night," she offered. "I'm sorry I hit you."
"The girls are right. Give it a few days, you'll be glad you did."
She smiled slightly at his tone. She tried again, encouraged. "So where do you work?" she asked.
His green eyes suddenly locked onto hers. "A bar."
He clearly didn't want her to try. "Oh." She fidgeted uneasily, staring at the blinking lights on the elevator. Why was it taking so long to go down five stories? "Are you a bartender?"
She nervously fingered her blue laundry bag, grateful enough to cry when the elevator chimed, signifying their arrival on the first floor. She hurried off as the doors parted, feeling him just a few steps behind her as they walked to the front desk by the main entrance. When they reached the desk she turned back, sensing he was leaving.
"Thanks again," she said, trying to smile at him.
"See you around, Lily," he said, then turned and walked out. She stared after him for a moment, stunned at his cavalier attitude, then shook herself and went to the laundry room.
When she was done loading her laundry, she went back up the elevator, frowning at the unnerving creaking sounds as the elevator went up. She shifted nervously, waiting impatiently for the doors to open. Even with Jake in the elevator, it hadn't seemed to take so long. Her heart began to pick up speed as she moved from foot to foot, silently urging the elevator to speed up. For the first time she noticed just how small the metal cage was, and how dull and artificial the yellow light seemed to be. She fingered the blue bag on her shoulder, watching as the number blinked off between the fourth and fifth floor… And nothing happened.
The light flashed the number five, and the elevator doors dinged as they parted.
Lillian all-but ran off the elevator, unable to shake the eerie feeling she was being watched. She rushed to Lauren's door, turning the doorknob to let herself back into the safety of the locked apartment.
It was locked.
"No," she pleaded softly, nervously looking back at the elevator and pounding on the door with her fist. "Lauren?" she called, trying the locked knob again. "Lauren?"
Lillian looked back over her shoulder again, terror gripping her heart as she saw someone's shadow in the hallway from the open elevator door. There was someone in there. But how? No doors had opened in the hallway since she had exited the elevator, and she had ridden up alone. Had someone somehow slipped inside without her hearing them?
The toe of a black boot peeked past the edge of the elevator.
She stood frozen in terror, staring at the boot. Someone was in the elevator. Someone was in the elevator, and facing the doorway.
In her mind's eye she saw someone rush out into the hallway, heading straight for her. Dark, ruthless eyes glared viciously at her, baring large, monstrous, pointed teeth.
She turned and threw herself at the door. "Lauren!" she cried desperately, pounding on the weak wood. "Lauren!"
The door suddenly flew open under her hands. She stumbled inside, crashing into her cousin in her haste to get on the other side of the door. She whirled around and slammed the door shut behind her, bolting the locks on the door.
"Lillian?" Lauren asked, sounding stunned. "What's wrong? What happened?"
"There was someone in the elevator," she gasped, backing away from the door. She ran into something hard—a body—and cried out, spinning around. Brian stared back at her, concern etching his features as he steadied her with calm, gentle hands.
"Lots of people ride the elevator," he offered gently. "We're not all rich enough to afford our own personal ones."
She frowned in frustration at the slight insult, her heart still pounding in her chest as she looked over at Lauren. "Someone was in there. But they weren't in there when I got off. And no one came out of the hallway."
"Someone probably just got on when your back was turned," Lauren soothed, giving her arm a soothing squeeze. "Don't worry. It's normal to be jumpy. I don't think I slept at all my first month here after I left the estate."
"Estate," Debra snickered, from the living room.
"Shut it, Deb," Lauren called back, then returned her attention to Lillian. "It's okay. Really. But just in case…" She looked up at Brian. "Would you mind staying with Lillian today, Bri?"
"Sure," he agreed.
Lillian looked up, stricken. "No, I… I couldn't possibly. I don't need a baby sitter, Lauren, really. You're probably right. I'm just overreacting."
Lauren patted her arm reassuringly. "Nonsense. Brian loves spending his time with pretty girls anyway, don't you, Bri?"
"Of course. I'm a guy, after all." Brian wrapped an arm around Lillian's shoulders. "You don't mind, do you, darling? I'll take you out for a movie, some lunch, take you shopping if you'd like, then we could go to dinner, catch a show under the stars—"
"Under age," Lauren reminded.
Brian flinched, then grinned. "It's okay. I'll wait," he promised.
"I'll baby sit Brian," Derek offered, rolling his eyes.
"Thanks, guys," Lauren said, then gently squeezed Lillian's arm comfortingly. "Don't worry about it, Lillian, okay? The guys are great and they'll watch out for you." She grabbed her keys and her purse from the table just inside the door. "And you don't need to lock the door when you go to the laundry room again, okay?"
Lillian paused, frowning as her cousin's words sank in. "I didn't lock the door," she told her, her heart skipping a beat.
Lauren stared at her for a moment, studying her. Then she smiled brightly. "Jake probably did," she said, but the words sounded forced. "Well, anyway, you can have this key." She tossed a key onto the table by the door. "The guys have keys, too, so you don't need to worry about getting locked out again. Call if you need anything. And girls, we're late."
Debra and Vicki called goodbyes as the three girls rushed out of the room. Lillian slowly looked back at the two boys who had been stuck with her, watching as they exchanged a look and then grinned.
"You guys don't work?" she asked finally, uncomfortable in the sudden silence.
"We do," Derek reassured her, grinning. "We just happen to have the worst possible working hours ever, so we work on nights and weekends." He stepped forward and wrapped an arm around her shoulders. "Let's go see the town."
"Well look at who we have here! Long time no see, Jake!"
Lillian watched as Jake smacked Brian's hand away from his hair. "It's been like three days," he reminded, sliding into the booth with them.
Lauren had decided they needed to go out and "enjoy the night," as she put it, and gathered everyone together to go see a movie at one of the older, historic theaters in the city. Lauren and her friends had been in hysterics almost the entire movie, but Lillian had only been able to look around helplessly, feeling horribly out-of-place as she struggled to find the humor in the film. Eventually the movie had ended and the group had made their way to a tiny little restaurant nearly lost in the oversized city, all seven of them cramming into a booth. That was when Brian had called Jake and ordered him to come out and join them.
"That's the longest three days we've ever been without seeing you," Vicki reminded, eyeing him over her mug of steaming coffee.
"And it looks like you guys have made it just fine." Jake sighed and signaled the waitress, ordering coffee and fries while she turned appraising, appreciative eyes on him. When she left, he turned to Brian and Derek. "You guys able to work Monday and Tuesday of next week?"
The two boys exchanged a look and shrugged, nodding at each other. "Hot date?" Brian teased.
"Some girl taking you on a vacation?" Derek added, his eyes twinkling impishly.
"Ooo! Jakey's got a girlfriend, Jakey's got a girlfriend!" Debra taunted.
Jake shot her a withering glare before turning his attention back to the two boys. "I've got stuff to do," he told them. "Can you?"
Brian nodded. "Sure, Jake. We'll tell Mike tomorrow."
"Thanks." Jake looked up as the waitress brought his coffee. She had barely set it down before he picked it up. Over the steaming liquid his eyes suddenly locked onto Lillian's. She froze, stunned at the intensity in his gaze. She flushed as they stared at each other, looking away uncomfortably.
Flustered, she straightened, turning her attention to the girl on Brian's left. "Yes?" she asked, hoping her voice didn't sound strained. She nervously toyed with her cup of tea, trying to calm her burning cheeks as she waited for Debra to go on.
"When do you go back home?"
A sudden pang hit her heart. She forced herself to smile. "The end of August." At their faces, she quickly turned to Lauren, who looked horrified. "I won't be staying here," she reassured her. "I'm staying with Aunt Barbara until the end of June, and then Aunt April until the end of August. Then I'll go home for a week before school starts again."
"That sounds miserable," Brian told her, frowning. "How do you live like that?"
She shifted uneasily. "It's always been like this," she explained uncomfortably.
"Who is this?"
The occupants of the table shifted. Lillian could feel their silent groans as she looked up at the girl who stood at the head of their table. She had waist-length black hair that hung in large curls, big, dark eyes, and olive skin. She wore a short black skirt and a skin-tight off-shoulder red shirt that exposed most of her midriff and left little to the imagination. Her pretty features were twisted into a hard scowl as she glared down at Lillian, as if trying to see through her.
"Rane, this is my cousin Lillian. Lillian, this is Rane."
The girl all-but shoved Jake further into the booth, pressing them all shoulder-to-shoulder in an uncomfortable squeeze. From across the table, the girl stared at her. Lillian tried to smile at her, her heart picking up speed at the hostility in the girl's eyes. "Isn't it past your bedtime?" the girl asked flatly.
Lillian flushed, mortified. "No," she objected.
"Rane, leave her alone," Lauren sighed, sounding tired.
Rane's eyes shot to Lauren, then leveled back down at Lillian. "How old are you?" she asked.
Lillian fidgeted with her tea cup, trying to keep the color from her cheeks. "Seventeen."
Rane arched a perfectly-sculpted eyebrow. "Pretty young to be out so late."
"Rane—" Lauren tried again.
"Where are you from?" the girl asked, narrowing her eyes at Lillian.
It was like being in front of a firing squad. Lillian tried desperately to stay calm. "California."
Rane suddenly cocked her head at Lillian, her eyes trailing over her. "What brand is that?" she asked, nodding at her.
Lillian looked down at the dark blue sweater, then back up at the girl. "I-I don't know. I think it's Lolo?"
Rane leaned back, an impressed smirk on her face. "Lolo, huh? So you're a rich girl."
"Rane, leave her alone," Brian ordered, sounding irritated.
"I'm not doing anything," Rane objected, her voice sharp. She looked back at Lillian. "So what brings you to our drizzly state?"
"She's visiting me," Lauren answered, her voice thinly disguising her irritation.
"Oh, that's so sweet," Rane mocked. She smiled darkly at Lillian, who was taken-aback by the anger in the pretty girl's dark eyes. "Decide to study how us regular people get by? Or are you slumming for a school project?"
"Rane, get lost," Lauren ordered, leaning across the table. Her voice was low and dark, full of anger. "Just because Jake realized what a bitch you are doesn't mean you have to make everyone else as miserable as you are."
Lillian looked from her cousin to Rane, gaping in astonishment as she stared at the girl glaring daggers at Lauren. She looked up at Jake, who had turned away, his jaw set in anger. He had dated this girl? What could he have possibly seen in her? What could anyone possibly see in her?
"Hey, Princess." Lillian gasped as fingers snapped in front of Jake's face, her attention snapping back to the girl to Jake's right. Rane's expression was full of fury as she glared at Lillian. "Don't even think about it. I can see that adoring, lust-filled look a mile away. And I'll tell you now—you're not his type."
Lillian gaped at her, mortified. Her lips parted in disbelief as she stared into the dark eyes burning into hers. She couldn't even bring herself to look at Jake, too afraid she would burst into tears.
Rane's lips twisted into a dark, crimson smile. "Don't cry, sweetie. There are other men out there who would be more than happy to take care of an innocent little thing like you."
"That's enough, Rane." Jake's voice was hard. "Get out of here."
Rane looked over at him, her expression barely hiding her anger. She stood from the table, leaning over it to face Jake. "Going to use her as your ticket out of here?" she asked him, her voice low. "You'll be bored of her in a week."
"Leave," Jake ordered coldly.
Lillian had never been as humiliated as she was in that moment as Rane pushed off of the table, giving Lillian once last pointed stare before turning and walking away. She tried not to cry as she stared miserably at her tea.
"That girl has issues," Vicki announced, breaking the heavy silence around the table.
There were murmured agreements. "How did you date her for so long?" Derek asked, shuddering.
"How could anyone date her at all?" Lauren returned, shaking her head. She patted Lillian on the arm. "Just ignore her. She's just angry that Jake dumped her a few weeks ago."
Lillian tried to smile, but it felt weak. She reached for her tea, burrowing her face in her mug as the others changed the subject, discussing the movie they had just seen.
When their food finally arrived she could barely bring herself to look at it. She poked half-heartedly at her salad, pushing it around the plate with her fork. The others seemed to have forgotten all about Rane, talking excitedly with one another about their upcoming plans for the weekend. She tried to smile and laugh when they did, but she felt so young and out-of-place listening to them discuss things she had never heard of or never done.
It was while she was trying to pay attention to Ray, sitting on Lauren's other side and in front of the window, that something in the darkness over his shoulder caught her eye. She frowned, staring through their bright reflections on the glass and to the street beyond. Her heart picked up speed as she focused intently on the window, trying to make out the shape she could almost make out on the other side of the glass. She blinked, trying to clear her vision, frowning in concentration as she saw something flicker in the darkness. Her heart leapt into her throat, her mouth dry as she leaned forward, staring hard into the night.
A face gleamed at her through the glass, a twisted, demonic white face in the darkness.
She screamed and fell back against Derek, trying to scramble away from the menacing face. It disappeared into the night, their reflections in the glass staring back at her as the restaurant stilled. The occupants of the table were all frozen in shock, staring at her as if she had suddenly gone crazy.
"Lillian?" Lauren asked, her voice high with concern. "What's wrong?"
"Did you see a spider?" Brian asked, his face sympathetic.
Lillian gaped at him, then looked over at her cousin. She trembled as her heart raced against her ribs, the image of the twisted face burned into her mind. "There was someone there," she told her cousin, shaking. "Someone was watching us."
Lauren smiled over a troubled expression. "People look in all the time," she explained, her voice gentle. "They walk by outside and just look in—"
"It was a white face," Lillian insisted. "Like a… a Halloween mask. It was white and misshapen."
Lauren frowned. "A Halloween mask?" she repeated. A forced smile appeared on her face. "Probably just some silly kids playing tricks. It's the city. You never know what people are going to do."
Lillian hesitated. It was a logical explanation, and it certainly made more sense than someone deliberately targeting them. She smiled weakly, forcing herself to nod. "Yeah," she agreed softly. "Sorry for causing a scene."
Lauren gently squeezed her arm. "Why don't we go home?" she suggested. "I'm kind of tired, and I don't know about you, but the more tired I get the more my mind plays tricks on me." She turned to Ray, who Lillian discovered was Lauren's boyfriend of a year, and smiled at him. "How would you like to play hero and walk us lovely ladies home?"
Ray flashed a charming grin. "That's my favorite part to play," he agreed.
They paid their bill and headed out. Lillian was surprised to discover Jake at Ray's side as they headed down the street to Lauren's apartment.
"Are you going to pretend to be a hero and walk me home?" Ray teased him.
Lillian looked back over her shoulder in time to catch Jake giving him a withering glare. "I parked in front of Lauren's."
"Aw, don't be mad I stole your role," Ray chided, elbowing him lightly in the ribs.
Jake batted him away, rolling his eyes. Lillian faced forward, clinging to Lauren's arm as they walked along the sidewalk. The buildings seemed unusually large and intimidating at night, the alleyways between them impossibly dark and foreboding. She shuddered, drawing into herself, and tried not to speed up her pace and drag her cousin down the street.
She had never been so relieved to see the run-down brick building as she was when they turned to go inside. "Come up for a beer?" Lauren asked Jake.
Jake hesitated, looking back at the street. Then he shrugged slightly, pausing as his eyes met Lillian's. "Are you going to hit me with the bottle if I do?"
She flushed. "No."
Jake shrugged, turning back to Lauren. "Sure. I'll come up."
The silence was uncomfortable as they entered the building, Lauren curling up against Ray as they headed up the creaking elevator. Lillian clung to the arm rail, trying to avoid eye contact with everyone as she stared at the glowing numbers, nervously urging them to light up the fifth floor.
The hallway was eerily silent as they stepped off. Lauren led the way to the apartment, where Ray produced a set of keys and unlocked the door for them. Lillian smiled up at him as she stepped through the door he held open, following Lauren inside.
She bid them all goodnight, hearing their echoed response trail up after her as she headed up the stairs to the bedroom. She traded her clothes for a pair of black pajama bottoms and a white long-sleeved top, heading to the bathroom to wash her face. She sighed as she looked up at herself in the mirror—
And then screamed.
She didn't feel Lauren's arms holding her up, or Ray picking her up and carrying her swiftly down the stairs. She could only see the writing on the mirror burned into her mind.
Look out, little Lily.
Her hands shook as she took the steaming cup of coffee from Jake, who slowly sank down beside her on the couch. She trembled in Lauren's arms, despite the blanket around her shoulders, trying to make sense of what she had seen. Someone had written on the mirror in Lauren's bathroom. In red lipstick. Telling her to look out. But it didn't make any sense. She didn't know anyone in the city except Lauren's friends. Who could have done that? Who would want to?
Ray slowly looked up from his phone, his face grim. "The others said they had nothing to do with it," he said, his voice quiet. "They insisted they weren't playing a joke."
Lillian felt Lauren's hand lightly stroke her hair. "Maybe someone broke in," she suggested softly.
"We looked around," Jake said. "There weren't any signs of someone breaking in. The doors were all locked and the windows are all bolted."
"But who would do this?" Lauren returned, a hint of anger in her voice. "The only ones with keys to my apartment are our group of friends. You think one of them did it in a sick joke?"
"I don't know," Jake returned evenly. "But who else besides us knows she's here?"
Lauren frowned at him. "Stop it," she ordered. "Our friends wouldn't do this. Someone must have broken in." She gave Lillian a tight hug. "It'll be okay, Lillian. We'll figure out who did this."
"Maybe someone was playing a joke, and they didn't know it would upset her so much," Jake offered.
Lauren stiffened in anger. "Do you think this is a joke?" she demanded.
"No. But I didn't do it, either."
Numbly, Lillian stared into her steaming coffee. "Do you think it was the person in the mask?" she asked softly.
There was a moment of silence. "Lillian, I told you, it was probably just a random person looking in the window and being weird," Lauren started. "I'm sure the two things aren't even related."
Lillian felt her shoulders slump, not wanting to argue but not able to shake the feeling. "Maybe," she agreed softly.
Lauren gave her a quick squeeze. "Let's sleep in the living room tonight," she suggested. "Like a girlie sleep over."
Lillian tried to smile up at her. She forced herself to nod, wrapping her hands around the hot mug to try and warm them. She knew her cousin was just trying to make her feel better, but she knew the truth. Someone was after her. Someone was watching her; threatening her.