Please note: this story was provided by the author and published as is.

Am I the asshole for not letting my preteen daughter go to a sleepover? She’s never been allowed to spend the night away from home, but she’s never really objected to the rule until recently, when she was invited to her best friend’s thirteenth birthday slumber party. Now she’s furious at me and calling me “overprotective.” I know it seems unfair and I hate being the “strict mom” — but sleepovers are where I draw the line.

I guess to really understand where I’m coming from, you’re going to need the whole story, and that means time traveling all the way back to 1999.

It was the summer before seventh grade and there was a new girl on the block. Her name was Amelia. She and her parents had just moved into the neighborhood a few houses down in a huge French-style cottage — the one I always called my dream house. Honestly, that home needed its own two-page spread in Better Homes and Gardens — a friendly pale green door and matching shutters, a cream-colored exterior perfectly decorated with spurts of ivy to show it all had stood the test of time. It was a masterpiece, and I was more than a bit jealous to learn this new girl got it first.

So, that summer, I made it my mission to befriend her.

The plan was I’d build a rapport with her, get close, and then boom, gain entry to the house of my dreams and make it my home away from home. As far as ways to spend a summer, this was one of my less chaotic quests, so it was greenlit by my mom. But the mission was moving much quicker than I’d expected. Amelia and I had only hung out a few times at the neighborhood pool when my wish came true — she invited me over to her house that evening. But not for any ole’ hangout — she asked if I wanted to have a sleepover. Of course, I giddily agreed.

I spent the rest of that afternoon packing everything I needed — my cutest pajamas, a deck of cards, all my mom’s nail polish, and just enough of her makeup that she wouldn’t know it was missing. When the clock struck 6, I grabbed my over-packed duffle bag, headed out the door, and walked the tenth of a mile to my dream house.

Just as I was reaching for the doorbell, the front door swung open. I was jovially greeted by Amelia. She was dressed in what looked to be one of her mom’s work pantsuits — I think Nineteenth Century butler was the look she was going for. She asked to take my hat and coat, but since it was the middle of summer, I didn’t have either and handed her my headband and sparkly vest instead.

As I walked inside, I got goosebumps. At first, I thought it was out of excitement, but looking back, I think some small part of me knew something wasn’t right — something felt off. But whatever uneasiness I felt was immediately drowned out by the five little words I’d been longing to hear: “Would you like a tour?” Amelia asked.

And that was the easiest “yes” I’ve ever given.

I felt like I was touring a museum, but if the museum were somewhat of a maze. The ceilings were at least 12-foot, maybe more, and the whole house was tied together with a blue shag carpet that made every step feel like I was a character in a 70s sit-com. My favorite feature, though, was that each room had its own chandelier. The kitchen, the living room, even the bathroom. Even Amelia’s bedroom. Just as I had always hoped, the house was the perfect balance of “cottage” and “castle.” Halfway through the tour, we took a pitstop in the study, which is where I met her parents for the first time — Mr. and Mrs. Anderson. We shared introductions, and then continued on our way.

The final stop on our tour was the basement. Initially, Amelia wasn’t even going to take me down there since it was unfinished and mostly used for storage. But I pushed her — the only thing that could’ve made my dream house any better was a creepy basement, and I wanted more than anything to see it. After a bit of healthy peer pressure, she agreed to show me — on one condition: I had to promise I wouldn’t tell her parents.

And that was the second easiest “yes” I’ve ever given.

The staircase was creaky, as any good spooky-basement stairs should be. But when we got down there, I was a bit disappointed. Everything was quiet. No mysterious dripping noises, no screams of tortured souls captured within the cellar’s walls. Nothing.

A single naked lightbulb did its best to illuminate the whole room, which was a bit of an organized mess. A mountain of unpacked boxes was meticulously stashed in one corner, while another corner was piled with tacky Christmas decorations just waiting for their time to shine. Meanwhile, the ceiling was home to a few dozen spiders, stringing a heavy wreath of cobwebs. But what really caught my eye, in the back of the basement, in the furthest corner, sat a big, creepy… locker, I guess.

It was the size of a large gun safe, but it really looked more like one of the lockers we had at school. That is, if our school lockers had been designed by the feds to hold top-secret war documents. This thing was sturdy. And it looked old, too — like it had a story to tell.

When Amelia saw me eyeing the mysterious vault, she stopped and let out a nervous laugh. She told me the giant locker was there when they moved in and that they’d tried with all their might to open it, but the door was sealed shut with a lock like you’d find on a safe.

An unopened, spooky locker in the back of a spooky basement. Are you kidding me? That’s every 12-year-old’s dream. I begged Amelia to let me try to open it — I reminded her that I subscribed to none other than the Safecracker Magazine and had picked up a few tricks that could maybe crack it. But I could tell she was getting antsy — we weren’t even supposed to be down there in the first place, and her parents were sure to come looking for us at any moment. So, instead, we booked it upstairs.

We made a beeline for the living room couch, and just in time, too. Right as we sat down, Amelia’s mom walked in. She said she’d been looking for us and asked to speak with me… just me. Immediately, I was nervous. I thought for sure I was going to get chewed out by some woman I barely knew for sneaking through her house. But when Mrs. Anderson pulled me into the kitchen, she was smiling. She thanked me for befriending Amelia. She said their family moved around a lot because of Mr. Anderson’s job, and that Amelia had always struggled with making new friends. I guess this had been the fastest she’d ever made one before.

And if it hadn’t been for that heart-to-heart with Mrs. Anderson, I probably would have bailed mid-sleepover, because things started to get weird with Amelia pretty quickly.

After the kitchen-talk, I returned to the living room. But as I did, I noticed Amelia was gone. I thought maybe I had gone into the wrong room at first — the house was a maze, after all. But then I saw my duffle bag sitting on the couch, and I knew it was the right room. And that’s when I saw it — on the couch next to my bag was something red. It was on the back of the couch, too, and looked almost like a trail of blood. I followed it through the living room into the foyer and then into the bathroom… where I found Amelia. She was lying face-down on the floor, blood pooled around her. My heart was racing. I yelled her name, then rushed to her side and frantically turned her over. I placed her head in my lap — her eyes were shut, and her face was covered in red. I burst into tears and tried shouting for her parents.

But then… she smiled.

All at once, Amelia opened her eyes, sat up, and started… laughing. Cackling, even. She giggled and told me I was so gullible, that the “blood” wasn’t even real. It was just a concoction of corn syrup, chocolate syrup, and red food coloring.

For a first sleepover, I thought it was over-the-top. But when the immediate shock of a fake dead person laughing wore off, I started laughing, too — I think it was an anxious laugh. After that debacle, I wanted so badly to leave… and even more so when Mrs. Anderson made us scrub the carpet clean of fake blood. But I thought I’d give Amelia another chance.

Once we finished cleaning the floors orphan Annie-style, I showed Amelia what I brought in my duffle bag — makeup, nail polish, cards, everything a 12-year-old could ever want. But Amelia said she wasn’t interested in any of that. She just wanted to watch horror movies — which, as mean as it sounds, was fine with me, because it meant I didn’t have to have a conversation with her. So, we watched one. And then another. Then another. And then, halfway through Scream 2, she fell asleep. Like, who falls asleep to a horror movie?

I tried nudging her awake so she didn’t miss the ending, but she was out cold. That’s when I had my lightbulb moment: Amelia was asleep, which meant the basement — and the creepy basement locker — was unguarded.

So, quiet as a mouse, I crept across the house and down the creaking stairs. Once at the bottom, I whipped out my keychain flashlight, shining a light on the steel locker. I took a deep breath, then shuffled over to the vault to assess the situation. To my delight, the safe had a simple group-2 mechanical lock. Childs play. Or, so I thought. Turns out, reading about safe cracking is much easier than actually doing it. But after 20 long minutes, and just as I was about to throw in the towel, I heard a “click.” The “click.” The noise every amateur safecracker longs to hear. Now all I had to do was open the door.

My heart was racing, faster than it ever had, and for a moment I froze as all the possibilities flung through my mind — what could be inside? Bats? Guns? A ghost?! Or maybe this was the Davy Jones’ Locker everyone was always talking about. The possibilities were endless. But as imaginative as I was, I was only 12 years old, and so nothing could have prepared me for what I was about to see.

I took a deep breath, readied my flashlight… and opened the door.

Inside, there were no medieval weapons nor top-secret FBI files, just… giant plastic bags. But when I looked a little bit closer, all the blood drained from my face. Vacuum-sealed, inside the plastic bags were the motionless bodies of three girls. At first, I only saw their hair, red and brown and blonde, highlighted against pale skin. They had to be younger than I was… and they looked so cold.

As I stood there in the dark, staring at the stiffly packed corpses, sheer terror was coursing through my veins.

Then… snap. The lights turned on. A soft, breathy voice spoke right behind: “Oh, you’ve found my friends.”

It took every bit of strength I had in me to turn around and face her. Amelia’s toothy grin stretched from ear to ear.

I didn’t know what to do — whether to run or scream. But my vocal cords had been scared to silence and my feet cemented to the ground. Some small part of me clung to the hope that this was all just a sick joke, another one of her insensitive pranks. But that hope was short-lived.

Smiling like a mannequin, Amelia tilted her head. “I told Mommy and Daddy I didn’t need anymore,” she said, “I was done collecting. I was a big girl now. But then I met you…”

My hands were trembling and my legs shaking. I knew I had to get out of that house right then and there, or I wasn’t making it out at all. So, pretending like I hadn’t just heard Miss Crazy-Talk, I smiled at Amelia and told her I just remembered I needed to get home. Her smile dropped to a blank stare.

“You can’t go!” she yelled, “If you try, I’ll tell my parents!”

In that moment, I don’t know what came over me. It was super-human courage like I’ve never felt. I stared death square in the face and pushed her to the ground. And before she could stand up, I made my escape. I zipped past her and up the stairs. My heart was beating out of my chest, but I ran. I ran like mad.

I knew I’d be pressed to find a door in that maze of a house, and I could hear Amelia stumbling right behind me. So, I pried open the first window I found and squeezed through the tiny opening. As I dropped from the window, I landed in a massive shrub, where one of the branches caught my necklace. I was stuck. I heard Amelia shouting my name, her voice getting closer and closer as I struggled with the bush. Just when it sounded like she was right on top of me — maybe even close enough to be peering out the window — my necklace snapped. Thank God for cheap mall jewelry. Finally, like a bolt of lightning, I was gone.

I sprinted all the way home and didn’t look back. I’d just survived a real-life horror movie. When I reached my house, I burst through the back door and ran to my parents’ room. I woke them both up, and through my tears and hyperventilating, I tried to recount to them what I’d just experienced.

But at the end of my ramblings, as my blurry vision cleared of tears, I looked at my parents. Instead of exhibiting shock or confusion, they looked… annoyed. I couldn’t believe their reactions, so I blurted out that we had to call police right now. And to that, my mom let out a sigh and said we couldn’t phone the police over a “nightmare.”

My stomach dropped. My own parents didn’t believe me. They probably thought I was just homesick or freaked out over a spooky movie. But honestly, I didn’t argue, because after hearing myself recount it all out loud, even I had trouble believing me. I mean, it was true, we had watched so many scary movies just before going to bed. Was it possible I was just dreaming?

I retreated to my room and tried to get some sleep. But I laid awake, eyes peeled for anyone coming to add me to their collection of friends…

By the noon the next day, I had driven myself mad thinking about Amelia and her locker. I had to know the truth. In a brief moment of confidence, and maybe utter stupidity, I marched down the street, towards the nightmare house. But when I arrived, I noticed there were no cars in the driveway.

Carefully, I tiptoed to a window and peered inside, and to my complete surprise, the house looked totally empty — like, no furniture, no paintings, nothing. My stomach sunk even deeper. Was it all a dream? The sleepover, Amelia, her entire family?

Just then, I saw something twinkle in the bushes. So many emotions rushed through my body — fear, panic, maybe even a bit of relief knowing I wasn’t totally mad. It was my necklace.

I never saw or heard from Amelia again. Over the years, I’ve run through several theories on what could have happened — how an entire family could’ve just disappeared overnight. And the only theory that even sort of makes sense is that they fled — like bats out of hell, they picked up everything and left.

Every day since that terrible summer, I’ve watched the news like a hawk. And every time I hear about a missing girl, I wonder if it’s possible – if maybe Amelia just added one more friend to her collection…

So, call me crazy, but I don’t want my daughter having a similar experience. I’ve even told her this story before to try to explain my side of things, but just like my parents, she doesn’t believe me. But I don’t care. I don’t need her to believe me. I just need her to be safe.

So, to all the readers that made it this far: am I the asshole for not letting my preteen daughter go to a sleepover?