“Did Greg forget her birthday?”
“I hope not. If he did, Junior’s going to kick his ass, and I don’t feel like bailing anyone out of jail.”
“She deserves so much more…”
Brandy heard their whispered voices and unlocked her phone, again, to see if she’d missed any messages. Anger replaced the sadness and frustration she felt when she only found a notification for coupons.
It was her twenty-first birthday, and her boyfriend, Greg, hadn’t shown up to her party. Sure, a few of her brothers couldn’t make it tonight, but they had good excuses. Ethan and Edward were out of town on business, and Carter had left early after receiving an emergency call about one of his patients.
“Hey, you okay?” Andrea, her best friend and sister-in-law, asked.
Brandy shrugged and tipped back the latest shot placed in front of her. There wasn’t much left to say. Her boyfriend of three years, whom she lived with, had forgotten her birthday and the traditional family dinner. Now, everyone kept looking down the table at her with either pity, anger, or both.
“Thanks,” she told the waiter when he refilled her water.
Brandy raised her fingers to her temple as her eyes fluttered closed. Her head swam with emotions, and the skin on her hands tingled. She felt… odd. She’d drunk alcohol before, albeit illegally, but the strange sensations in her head and belly were unlike anything she’d experienced before.
“Toast!” her brother Max yelled. Brandy followed his voice and spotted Junior, their older brother, standing to Max’s left.
“Brat… um, I mean Brandy. We’re proud to call you our baby sister.” Junior cleared his throat and her eyes watered, guessing what would come next. “Mom and Dad would be proud of the young woman you’ve become.”
Glancing around, Brandy noticed the damp eyes of the people she loved. It’d been a few months since they lost their dad and twenty-one years since their mom. Her mom died giving birth to Brandy—her seventh child and only girl. It seemed finally getting her daughter had been both a blessing and a curse.
“I know being the only girl in our family hasn’t always been easy. Your dating life has suffered. Although, it seems we’ve been slacking with keeping Greg in line.”
“Junior!” his wife, Debbie, called out as she slapped him in the gut.
“Ow!” he said and narrowed his eyes. “I’m speaking the truth!”
“Where is that douche anyway? It’s her birthday!” Max said, and Brandy flushed with embarrassment.
Brandy bit her tongue. She was tired of defending Greg, and she didn’t know where he was. Lifting the ice-cold water, she brought it to her lips and chugged, hoping it would calm her and neutralize the effects of the alcohol.
Junior pushed his chair back and walked over to her. He cupped her shoulder. “Dad always said twenty-one was a magical beginning. Bran, we love you and can’t wait to see what this next year has in store for you. May you grow and find a little magic in your life.”
She stood and hugged him as her family cheered in the background. “Thanks, Junior.”
Junior’s warm embrace soothed her. “If you need us to take care of Greg, you only have to say the word,” he whispered before pulling back and meeting her eyes.
Brandy smiled. “Love you too,” she whispered. They all meant well, even if they drove her crazy at times.
Determined to enjoy the time with her family, Brandy pushed Greg to the far recesses of her mind. As they’d all gotten older, it’d become harder and harder to get together. They usually tried to make time for one family dinner a week, if not every two weeks. These moments were special to them, and she refused to let Greg and their problems ruin it.
Brandy had switched to water after her last shot, but even now, as she walked the last couple blocks home, her body was abuzz. Alcohol had never affected her this way.
An electric current ran along her skin, each cell in her body awake and eager. For what, she hadn’t the foggiest idea. It was the strangest thing she had ever experienced, and it was beginning to freak her out.
Reaching the last block home, she jumped when a loud noise rumbled from the darkened alley-like road. A low, menacing growl sounded, spiking her heart rate, but she was too chickenshit to look in the direction it had come from. Her heart pounded fervently against her breastbone, and her breaths came in short pants.
Picking up her pace, she dug inside her purse. Helmond, Connecticut, wasn’t known for its high crime, but crimes did occasionally happen. Grabbing her keys, her fingers wrapped firmly into place around the small mace canister hanging off one ring. The mace was a gift from Junior when she’d moved out of the house, something to keep her safe when she was alone. She also had brass knuckles and a small club in her dresser. With her heart pounding against her ribs, she wished she would have tossed them into her purse. If she made it home safely, it would be one of the first things she did after changing her underwear.
Hurrying toward her apartment, every sound rang out like a cannon. She sucked in a breath, hoping to calm the tremors, and was relieved at the sight of the building. Inhaling deeply, Brandy snuck a peek over her shoulder and was relieved to find herself alone, the growling from a moment ago only a memory. She scanned the area ahead and spotted a shadow lurking across the street. Her gut clenched as fear clawed its way up her throat.
Her gaze swept over the area again, but she didn’t see another soul or the strange shadow. The hairs on the back of her neck refused to lie down, and her stomach clenched with alarm. The door to the building silently screamed “safety.” Fear and an indescribable stench made her speed up to a light jog. She cursed her decision to wear high heels and prayed she didn’t twist her ankle in the process of fleeing whatever the hell was watching her from afar and shrouded in darkness.
Reaching the door, she shot out her hand and attempted to swipe her access card. She missed twice, the tremors in her hands making it difficult to fit the card in the slot. She peered over her shoulder and sucked in a breath before trying again. The moment the green light lit up, she twisted the handle.
“Ouch!” she cried when a spark of electricity shocked her at the contact. Ignoring the sting, she hurried inside and pulled the door closed for added measure.
Brandy searched the dimly lit road from the safety of the building. Unease crawled over her skin at the warning of nearby danger. She could feel someone watching her, but they weren’t anywhere she could see them. In her gut, she knew they were there, hiding in the shadows.
Once she was thoroughly creeped out, she hurried down the hall. Every little noise made her jump and twirl around, but she only found herself alone. Short, shaky breaths slipped from her lips as her feet protested each step.
Following the curve of the hall, she exhaled loudly at the sight of the metal elevator doors. Brandy stabbed her thumb against the up arrow. “Come on, come on,” she chanted. When the doors slid open, she was relieved to find it empty and slipped inside. She turned on her heels, shot out her index finger, and repeatedly pressed the seven on the panel until the doors shut.
“What the hell?” she muttered and paced the small box as it groaned on the ascent. Whatever had happened outside rattled her to the core. In the almost three years she’d lived in the apartment complex, she had never experienced anything to make her fear for her safety.
The elevator chimed a second before the doors opened to let her out onto her floor. She stared down the corridor, thankful to find it empty. Rushing to her apartment, she looked up and down the hall before letting herself inside.
“Greg?” she called out. “You home?” When silence greeted her, she wanted to scream.
After kicking off her heels, she walked across the plush carpet to her room. The soft fabric fit the curves of her tired and aching feet. Her reflection in the large window of her master bedroom made her pause—a sight she’d seen numerous times and yet tonight, the woman reflecting back looked… different.
“Get it together, Brandy,” she told herself and padded to the curtains.
Searching the street below, she noticed everything looked like any other night. A howling in the distance caused the neighborhood dogs to respond. The eerie sound reminded her of the growling in the alley.
A shiver ran down her spine, and she snapped her curtains together. She turned her back to the floor-to-ceiling fabric, then undressed and slipped on her robe. Stressed and cold, she turned the shower’s faucet to hot before searching the kitchen for a water bottle. Her fingers still tingled from the spark earlier, and her head pulsed with pain all around. Brandy hoped the water, a hot shower, and a good night’s sleep would alleviate whatever ailed her body. Once she was rested, she would find a logical explanation for it all.