Peter first fell into fiction penning stories to amuse his grammar-school classmates, which helped him overcome his shyness, but resulted in very few completed homework assignments.
He is an avid fan of horror movies, especially those with a sense of humor, food served from carts and roadside shacks, and the music of The Ramones, The Replacements, and other bands of like-minded misfits who found a way to connect with the world through their music and their words. He was raised and currently resides in the Chicagoland suburbs with his wife and cats and his writing has appeared in various publications including: The Delinquent, Crack the Spine, Apiary, Cemetery Moon, Sanitarium, The Literary Hatchet, Graze, Ink Stains, Whatever Our Souls, Dodging The Rain, and the No Trace and Dark Laneanthologies.
You can visit him online at: http://ravenpen.wixsite.com/authorsite
MEETING BESIDE A CREEK
They’d played there as kids when they first met and it instantly became their place.
Cheryl and Maddie down by the creek that ran alongside the park behind Maddie’s house. Catching bugs, garter snakes, and even the occasional slow-moving fish near the bank, exploring the storm drains as far as they dared, and of course there was the train trestle that ran above it all. A construction materials business bordered the opposite side of the tracks and the trains that stopped there picking up or dropping off loads were always slow moving making them ideal for hitching. They never rode for long, having to jump from the boxcars before the crossing so no one saw them, but even those brief minutes felt incredible.
When Maddie thought about that time it always made her smile. Kids want to grow up and become adults so badly, but it’s only because they don’t realize what’s waiting for them. If they only knew how comforting it could be to have someone there to tell you what to wear, where to go, and what to do, they wouldn’t be so quick to want it all gone. Maddie’s parents had always been supportive and encouraging when she was young. They weren’t permissive pushovers that let her get away with anything, but they backed her up when it mattered, like when she tried and failed to play the saxophone, and when she tried and eventually succeeded at learning illustration.
Cheryl was the one with the cool parents, the kind who wanted to be your friend.
Maddie had been so jealous of them growing up. They’d sit with her and Cheryl and watch TV with them while they all scarfed Doritos together. Cheryl’s mom would talk to them about clothes and which boys they liked and Cheryl’s dad would go through his record collection with them pointing out bands he thought they’d dig or movies they should go see at the revival theater downtown. He had even given Cheryl a couple of cigarettes for her and Maddie to try when they were fifteen “just to see what all the fuss was about”.
Her parents had smelled the smoke on her clothes when she got home and didn’t believe her when she said it was from Cheryl’s parents smoking near them. They grounded her for a month and forbid her from seeing Cheryl again. Maddie had cried harder that night than when her grandmother passed away.
It didn’t work of course. They still saw each other at school and whenever Maddie could sneak away under the guise of soccer practice or tutoring sessions. After a few months the whole thing blew over and Maddie’s parents rescinded the restriction, but during those weeks their friendship had become this forbidden thing and had changed for both of them. After that they weren’t just best friends, they were a tribe, a clan that consisted of only the two of them. They began holding hands in the hall between classes and the rumors started up right away, but it didn’t bother them. There was never anything sexual between them; it was different than that, special. When Cheryl started dating a senior named Tim Davis their junior year Maddie didn’t think twice about it. They never discussed him when they were together and after a few weeks Cheryl broke it off mostly because she was spending all of her time with Maddie anyway.
A year later they attended Senior Prom together, Cheryl in a strapless black dress with a chiffon skirt and Maddie wearing the same design in emerald green. There were barely disguised whispers and snickers behind their backs and an endless stream of sidelong glances during the dance, but none of it touched them and they had a blast.
They applied to the same colleges, each getting into their collective second choice where they signed up to room together. It didn’t even seem like a specific plan to them so much as the natural progression of something that was supposed to happen the same way the sun rose in the east and set in the west. Most of that summer had slipped by in a post-graduation haze as they spent their days at the beach or going to the mall to see movies and grab posters for their dorm room.
It was only three weeks before school started that Cheryl said she needed Maddie’s help with something, but wouldn’t tell her what it was over the phone.
“So what’s the big mystery?” Maddie said, taking a swig from her coke as they walked through the scruffy yellowed grass that served as the football team’s practice field.
Cheryl put the pencil she’d been tapping on her hip between her teeth and massaged her forehead with the heel of her hand.
“You okay?” Maddie said.
“I need your help with something...something big.”
“Yeah, that’s what you said.”
“It isn’t just big, it’s something bad, like really, really, bad.”
“Cher, what’s going on?” Maddie said, taking hold of Cheryl’s hand.
“It’s my dad.” Cheryl said, looking up at the moon, which had just started to peek through the clouds.
“What did he do?” Maddie said, already knowing the answer.
Cheryl’s father was a big, gregarious guy with blue eyes that were so bright they almost seemed fake. He had insisted that Maddie call him Richard instead of Mr. Layne and was affectionate in a way that was the polar opposite of her own father. Maddie had always thought it was simply the way he was, the way Cheryl’s mother was as well, but a part of her had wondered. Those hugs that lasted a little too long, the squeeze of a shoulder or brushing of a hand across her arm. Maddie convinced herself it was just her imagination and would never have said anything that might cause Cheryl grief.
They sat there in the field for a time, neither saying anything. Maddie cupped Cheryl’s face in her hands as tears ran down Cheryl’s cheeks and over the tops of Maddie’s fingers. Cheryl curled up into Maddie’s arms and they stayed that way until it was time to head home.
Cheryl didn’t say anything about that night for the next few days, but Maddie knew that she hadn’t changed her mind. There was a look in her eyes that hadn’t been there before.
On Thursday Cheryl called Maddie and asked to meet at their usual spot at four that afternoon. When Maddie arrived Cheryl was sitting on one of the concrete slabs that supported the train trestle, her legs dangling over the side as she pitched track stones into the creek.
“...I can’t ask you to help me...it isn’t fair.” Cheryl said, not looking up.
“You aren’t forcing me into anything.”
“We’re not just talking about juvy. This could end in jail time or worse if we get caught.”
“Have you thought about going to the police?”
“I can’t. It would destroy my mom.” Cheryl said, tossing another rock into the creek. “I wish I could just get through this month, go off to college, and pretend it never happened. But every time I close my eyes I see him standing over me.”
Maddie sat down next to Cheryl.
“The truth is that I don’t know if I can go through with it, and I don’t think I can live with it, so where does that leave me?” Cheryl said.
“Let me take care of the planning; I’ll figure it out and tell you what you need to do.”
Cheryl gave a single nod as she watched the ripples from her last throw slowly radiate outward until they disappeared back into the water.
Maddie stayed off the internet for her research. There was no private browsing or incognito mode back then and she didn’t want to run the risk of someone finding something on her computer. The library had everything she needed and she made sure to commit it all to memory, leaving no checked-out books or scribbled notes in her wake. She knew she had to keep the setup simple enough that things could be quickly hidden or easily explained away if the attempt didn’t work. The crucial part was making sure nothing could be traced back to her or Cheryl. It was mostly just a matter of sorting out the details.
The planning didn’t faze her the way she thought it would. She knew that it should, that she should feel the same uncertainty Cheryl did, but there was no empathy in her for the man who had sat cheerily beside her eating popcorn while they watched movies together, all the while pretending that he wasn’t a monster.
When Maddie thought about what he had done it made her vision go gray and her temples pound.
‘How could she not have realized this was happening to her best friend?!’
That she had somehow missed all the signs made her sick inside.
An idea finally came to her after she remembered Cheryl talking about her mom and how angry she was with her dad for constantly forgetting about bottles and cans that never made it into the recycling. There was a shed in the backyard that was there when they bought the house, but Cheryl’s family used a landscaping service so Richard turned it into a man cave with a stereo, a small television, and a mini-fridge stocked with beer. Cheryl had mentioned him spending hours out there after work strumming on an acoustic guitar while three sheets to the wind.
Maddie assumed the little structure was weather proof, but doubted that it was hermetically sealed. She figured it wouldn’t be difficult to find a place to slip in a small hose with the other end attached to an exhaust pipe. Do it on a night when he’d been drinking and she was sure he wouldn’t notice anything before the drowsiness kicked in. It would be quick and painless, which is more than she thought he deserved, but it was something they could pull off.
She made a mental note of the supplies they would need and the next day drove to a hardware store two towns over where she paid in cash. She put all the items into a small canvas bag she’d purchased and when she walked through the front door at half-past eight and her mother asked her where she’d been, she automatically said the movies without any hesitation before heading up to her bedroom. Ever since her grounding Maddie had become a master at keeping her parents at ease.
It was difficult to resist the urge to call or at least email Cheryl, but she knew it wasn’t a good idea. Maddie lie in bed half asleep until rays of pale light came slanting in through the window.
Maddie waited until they were underneath the trestle to tell Cheryl the plan.
“He won’t feel anything. He’ll just fall asleep and won’t wake up.”
“What about the police?” Cheryl said. “Won’t they do an autopsy to see how he died?”
“They might, but even if they do there won’t be anything to lead back to us. We’ll wear gloves and the only thing we need to get rid of is the hose and possibly some tape; I got painter’s tape so it shouldn’t leave much of a residue. We just have to find a spot in the shed to slip it in and we have to make sure that your dad’s been drinking a while so he won’t notice the lightheadedness from the carbon monoxide.”
“We won’t have to worry about that part; drinking is pretty much all he does out there. Mom doesn’t like him doing it in the house because she thinks it sets a bad example.”
“She really has no idea about him, does she?”
“No...and I need to make sure it stays that way.”
“...I’m so sorry Cher....”
“I should’ve sensed that something was wrong.”
“You’re my best friend Mads, and I love you, but you aren’t psychic. I did a really good job at hiding it.”
“Can I ask why?”
“Because I didn’t want it to be true, and I knew that telling you would make it real.”
Cheryl put her arm around Maddie and they stared down at the muddy water of the creek, their reflections distorted by the current still flowing strong from yesterday’s storm.
“My mom has a conference coming up. She’ll be out of town all weekend.” Cheryl said. “You could tell your parents you’re sleeping over.”
“You’re sure about this?”
“Then I am too.”
Maddie didn’t see Cheryl much during the next two weeks. It wasn’t that they were consciously avoiding each other, but it felt like there was some sort of force between them that might collapse if they met before it was time.
She began checking the canvas bag under her bed obsessively, making sure the tape and rubber tubing were still there along with the latex gloves and the awl she’d picked up in case the shed was more secure than they’d anticipated. That afternoon Cheryl had sent her an email about going to a movie that night. She hadn’t mentioned a particular time or theater, or the specific name of a movie, which would make it easier to fill in the blanks about their whereabouts if it ever came to that. The plan was to head to Cheryl’s house a couple hours after it got dark, enough time for her dad to be well into his weekend unwinding. She checked everything over again, zipped the bag shut, and held it in her lap as she sat on the edge of her bed. Outside her window the trees were swaying gently in the breeze, silhouetted by the aluminum pole-lights that bathed her street in their yellow glow. It was the kind of perfect summer night that makes you feel like you’re living in a dream. Something felt wrong about that. It seemed to her that it should have been storming outside; that the clouds and the wind should’ve known what they were up to and reacted accordingly.
Maddie thought about turning back.
She saw herself convincing Cheryl to call the whole thing off, but deep down she knew it was because she was scared, not because she’d changed her mind. The vision of Richard came to her unbidden and she could feel her head beginning to ache.
She had failed Cheryl before.
She wouldn’t make that same mistake again.
“He’s been out there for about an hour.” Cheryl said as she ushered Maddie inside.
“How long does he usually stay?”
“Depends on how bad work was or if he gets caught up trying to figure out the chords to Black Dog or Stairway To Heaven.”
“Do you have the keys to his car?”
Cheryl patted her front pocket.
“Alright.” Maddie said and took Cheryl’s hand as they headed out the back of the house.
The backyard was relatively small compared to the house itself and the shed took up nearly a quarter of it. Maddie always thought it looked more like a little cottage than a shed; the structure was made of wood instead of aluminum like she always saw at the hardware store and it had a rectangular door with hinges rather than the kind that slid open on tracks and always seemed to warp after a few months.
Through the walls they could hear Santana playing Oye Como Va and the volume was so loud the walls were vibrating.
“I can’t believe your neighbors don’t complain.” Maddie said.
“It’s a corner lot so we only have the one neighbor that’s really close and dad has always been generous with his beer.” Cheryl said as she unlocked the side door of the garage.
Maddie closed the door behind them and Cheryl turned on the light. There were windows on either side of the garage, but the shed was windowless and Cheryl said that her dad liked it that way since he sometimes did more than just drink beer out there, something her mother also disapproved of.
The car was an old Volkswagen that ran on diesel and Maddie worried the exhaust smell might be more noticeable, but hoped that Richard would be too inebriated to notice. She opened the bag and grabbed the tubing and roll of tape. She had tested it out on her parent’s car and it had fit nearly perfectly, but the Volkswagen’s exhaust pipe was a little larger and she started to tear off pieces of tape to help hold it in place.
“Madd.” Cheryl said, but Maddie seemed not to notice.
“Maddie.” Cheryl said, touching her shoulder. “Stop.”
“I know this is hard, but it’s almost over.”
“It is over.”
“Killing him won’t erase what he did.”
“...he can’t get away with it....” Maddie said and began sobbing.
Cheryl took Maddie in her arms. “I love you for wanting to make things right, but this isn’t the way. I just need time and to be away from here for a while.”
Maddie let out another choked sob and Cheryl stroked the back of her head. They took a few minutes to collect themselves and then put the things they’d brought back into the canvas satchel and started towards the house. As they were passing the shed Maddie tripped over an uneven corner of the patio and the contents of the bag came spilling out as she landed hard on the concrete skinning the tops of both knees.
“Hey girls, what are you two up to tonight?” Richard said, ambling out onto the lawn. His speech was slightly slurred and his eyes appeared glassy.
“Not much, probably just going to see a movie.” Cheryl said, turning and stepping in front of Maddie.
“There’s supposed to be some new French horror film out; I know how you girls love those scary ones.”
“Sounds good Dad, we’ll check it out.”
“You okay there Maddie?” Richard said.
“I’m fine.” Maddie said, picking herself up with her back to them. The palms of her hands were hot and she could feel tiny pieces of gravel embedded in them.
“You girls....” Richard said, staggering forward slightly. “You should always stay friends. I lost touch with my best friend from when I was a kid and I’ve always regretted it.”
“That’s why we’re going to college together Dad.” Cheryl said.
“That’s good sweetie.” Richard slurred, putting his arm around Cheryl. “That’s real good.”
Maddie didn’t remember grabbing the awl from the ground, but it was there in her hand. She looked at Cheryl, just for a moment, and then lunged at Richard. The tip of the awl sunk into his right shoulder just below the collarbone. Richard let out a startled bark and stumbled backwards landing on his butt.
There was someone shouting, but it sounded distant and muffled to Maddie, like trying to talk underwater. Richard stared at the black plastic handle protruding from him, a blossom of red quickly spreading over the front of his shirt. Maddie knew that she should be doing something, but didn’t seem to be able to move. Cheryl was suddenly there at her father’s side pressing a towel against his shoulder -when had she gone into the house? Some time after that Maddie heard sirens and with them came a flurry of movement flitting in front of her eyes and then they were taking Richard away on a stretcher.
People were asking Maddie questions, but she couldn’t answer them; she was still frozen in place and felt like she might stay that way forever. Cheryl was looking at Maddie with wide eyes and her hands visibly trembling.
Maddie tried again to speak, but the muscles in her mouth refused to obey.
She wanted to say, “I’m sorry.”
She wanted to say, “I love you.”
At the police department Maddie was eventually able to talk and she told them what happened, though by then they already knew.
Her parents came to the station red-faced and yelling telling anyone who would listen that they had it wrong, that it was all some terrible mistake. When Maddie told her parents that it wasn’t, her mother broke down and wept and her father looked at Maddie as though he’d never seen her before.
She wasn’t allowed to go home, which was something of a relief, since she couldn’t imagine being there right then. Before her parents left they said they would handle things and that everything would be all right in the same tone they had always used when trying to persuade her not to cry as a child while getting a shot at the doctor’s office. They hired a lawyer, but since Maddie had confessed there wasn’t much to defend. What made matters worse was her refusal to tell them why she’d done it. The lawyer implored her, her mother pleaded with her, and her father tried to make her see reason, but she remained silent.
After several rounds of closed-chambers bargaining, her lawyer managed to keep her out of both prison and juvenile detention, instead having her remanded to a mental health facility for a year. Maddie assumed the only reason the deal had gone through is because Richard had lived. He’d have a nasty scar the rest of his life, but Maddie had missed both the carotid artery and jugular vein, not that she’d been aiming for them...at least she didn’t think she had....
Maddie wondered about Cheryl.
‘Did she think about her stuck up in the looney bin the way Maddie thought about Cheryl walking around in the regular world?’
The not knowing was the hardest part for Maddie. She hadn’t seen or spoken to Cheryl since that night and it tore her up to imagine that Cheryl might hate her or think that she was a monster. Sometimes she wasn’t sure what to think herself. It had all happened so fast; seeing Richard with his arm around Cheryl, that slack grin on his face as he stood there talking to them like he hadn’t done anything. That moment lived with her, constantly lingering at the periphery of her mind and popping up without warning, especially during those first weeks in the institution.
It didn’t take her as long to adjust as she thought it would. The truth was that the Sycamore Grove Wellness Facility wasn’t all that bad. When she first got there she had half expected something out of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, but it was more like being at summer camp. She spent her days doing crafts, keeping a journal of her thoughts and feelings, and sitting in a circle each afternoon for group therapy with a councilor and the other patients in her ward, one of whom did bear a striking resemblance to Cheswick.
They had her on medication that made her head feel fuzzy, which she assumed was some kind of antianxiety drug or other mood stabilizer, possibly even an antipsychotic. She was just grateful that whatever it was didn’t make her nauseous or give her explosive diarrhea. It wouldn’t do any good to try and explain to them that she didn’t actually have psychotic thoughts, because then she would have to explain why she had stabbed a man in the neck completely unprovoked. Her one-on-one sessions always fluttered around this topic, though Dr. Morris had never actually come out and asked Maddie why she did it. She was sure that Morris was simply biding her time assuming that Maddie would tell her when she was ready, and Maddie was happy to let her keep believing that, occasionally letting slip little intimations and allusions that she hoped made her seem receptive and open to treatment.
Being “open to treatment” was the only way she was getting out of there at the end of the year. That wasn’t explicitly stated in the deal her lawyer got her, but Maddie knew she had to show progress if she had any chance of seeing the outside world again. She spent most of her nighttime hours lying awake in bed trying to think of some possible reason to explain her actions that wouldn’t get her recommitted or betray Cheryl.
As she drifted off to sleep Maddie thought about the movie Richard had mentioned and wondered if Cheryl ever found out what it was....
“How are you feeling this morning?”
“Okay.” Cheryl said.
“Are you still having difficulty with the diazepam?”
“The occasional dizzy spell, but it’s better than it was before.”
“Your body will fully adjust over time, it just takes a little while.” the man in the gray sweater and khakis said and gave Cheryl a sympathetic smile. “How are you doing otherwise?”
“Still struggling with some of my classes. It’s been kind of hard to concentrate without letting my mind drift.”
“To the events of that night?”
“Do you want to talk about that today?”
“I’ve already told you everything that happened.”
“You’ve described the incident, but we’ve never discussed the reason you think Maddie attacked your father.”
“You’d have to ask her.”
“I’m asking you. Surely you have an opinion on her motivation for engaging in such a violent and seemingly random act?”
“Alright then, how about the fact that your parents petitioned the judge for leniency? Why do you think they did that?”
“Because I asked them to.”
“And that doesn’t strike you as odd behavior?”
“Maddie’s my best friend.”
“The best friend that tried to murder one of your parents.”
“You don’t understand.”
“I understand that she’s very important to you.”
“I think you know exactly why Maddie attacked your father, but you’re afraid to tell anyone.”
Cheryl looked down at her shoes.
“Everything you say to me is confidential Cheryl. I’m legally bound to keep our conversations just between the two of us.”
“...my dad...he isn’t the guy everyone thinks he is....”
Three months into her stay at Sycamore Maddie received her first piece of mail. She was fairly sure that it hadn’t come from either of her parents; her mother had stopped visiting a few weeks after she got there and her father had never come to see her. There was only one other person who could possibly be writing to her and her hands trembled as she opened the envelope.
Large portions of the letter were obscured by thick, black lines from a felt-tip pen, but Maddie was grateful even for the words she couldn’t read.
I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to write. Things have been kinda hectic here.
The campus at Concordia is really beautiful and I think you’d like it a lot. Classes have been interesting, but they aren’t as different from high school as I thought they’d be. I’m hoping that it’s just because they’re gen-eds. I think my favorite thing so far is the cafeteria in the dorm. I know, I know, big surprise coming from me. It’s really cool though having so many different foods to choose from every day, not to mention not having to wash the dishes afterwards. J
I wish that you could be here with me right now and that things hadn’t turned out the way they di. I understand why you did what you did and why you felt you had to do it. I know that you were just trying to protect me and I’ll never be able to express how much your friendship means to me.
More than anything though, I just miss hanging out with you and can’t wait to see you again.
Thinking of you,
Maddie read the letter again, what little of it hadn’t been censored, and smiled at the signature. Nancy was the name of the protagonist from one of their favorite movies, A Nightmare On Elm Street. Maddie didn’t know how much the staff who monitored the mail had been told about her, but it was smart of Cheryl not to sign with her real name. She was glad that Cheryl had made it to college and that her parents hadn’t delayed her or made her commute to school because of what happened. At least one of them had gotten to go. Maddie figured that higher education was no longer in the cards for her. Her criminal conviction and stay in the facility might be sealed by the court because she was still a minor at the time, but even if that turned out to be true, all the scholarships and grant money she’d lined up was long gone. Besides, it wouldn’t be the same without Cheryl, and by the time she got out who knows what things would be like between them.
The idea terrified her, but she couldn’t keep it out of her head. She clutched the folded piece of paper to her chest like a talisman, hoping that it could somehow ward off a future she feared was inevitable.
Sleep eluded her again that night and while she lie there staring up at the ceiling she thought about Cheryl up at school and wondered if her discussions with the other coeds ever delved into the lack of tapioca pudding in the commissary, dealing with persistent skin rashes from sheets laundered in institutional-grade detergent, or coping with intrusive/deviant thoughts, which were all popular topics among her peers during their group therapy sessions.
When she finally managed to get to sleep she dreamed about attacking Richard again, only this time she didn’t stop. She stabbed him over and over until blood completely covered his body and obscured the features of his face.
She woke coated in a sheen of sweat that made her shiver and caused the skin on her arms and legs to break out in goose flesh. Her heart was pounding in her chest and she could feel its pulse in her ears like some distant drumbeat only she could hear.
Between the insomnia and the endless nightmares that came whenever she slept, she was really starting to identify with the kids on Elm Street.
A thin ledge of snow had begun to accumulate outside the barred window in Maddie’s room.
It was strange spending the holidays in a place like Sycamore. They decorated the arts and crafts area and the group therapy room with colored tinsel and cardboard cutouts of Rudolph and Frosty and had even set up a small, plastic Christmas tree in the visitors lobby, but it all felt forced and fake, like a car salesman dressing up in a Santa suit to sell you a used Ford Fiesta. In group that morning Dr. Morris had tried to get everyone to sing carols together, but two verses into Little Drummer Boy, Desmond, a paranoid schizophrenic and one of the funniest people Maddie had ever met, started singing his own lyrics which were deemed extremely inappropriate and everyone was instructed to return to their rooms.
Maddie had always hated singing, or more specifically had always hated the sound of her voice whenever she tried. Cheryl could sing, like really sing. She had one of those willowy, ethereal voices that made her great at covering stuff from Kate Bush and Tori Amos. One of Maddie’s favorite things was when Cheryl would put on the stereo and sing Happy Phantom to her. She understood why people at school had assumed they were a couple. In many ways they behaved as such and regarded each other as soul mates, just of the platonic variety. Maddie had always considered this a strength especially given how many romantic relationships broke up over seemingly minor misunderstandings or petty jealousies, hearts and hormones turning mundane situations into scenes of Shakespearean grandeur that never ended well.
Not that she and Cheryl didn’t fight or have disagreements, but their arguments were never histrionic or nasty; that sort of drama was something they simply didn’t have to deal with, or hadn’t until she decided to blow everything all to hell....
She watched the falling flakes as they slowly drifted down from the sky. They were large and fluffy and if she looked hard enough she swore she could almost see the intricate latticework of each flake as it tumbled to the ground.
There was a soft knock from behind her.
“Excuse me Maddie, it’s time for our session.”
Maddie turned around and sat on the edge of her bed while Dr. Morris took a seat in the chair opposite the small desk situated in the corner of the room.
“What were you thinking about just now?” Dr. Morris said.
“Nothing; just watching the snow.”
“Do you like this time of year?”
“Yeah, it’s pretty with everything covered in white and I always enjoy sledding and ice skating, even though I’m no good at it. Last year Cheryl and I got in this snowball fight and I knocked her hat off the top of her head and it got stuck on a tree branch. We spent the whole afternoon trying to get it down.”
“You think about her a lot.”
Maddie nodded, though it hadn’t been a question.
“What happened with you and Cheryl that day?”
“We finally managed to snag the damn hat with a stick and then went inside and made hot cocoa.”
“That’s not the day I’m referring to.”
“I’m not sure I follow you.”
“The day that you attacked Mr. Layne.”
“You know all that stuff already.”
“I know about the event from the police report and your statement. I want to know what happened before that.”
“Nothing really. We had plans to see a movie that night.”
“What were you going to see?”
“We hadn’t decided.”
“I spoke to your mother shortly after you were admitted and she said that you and Cheryl frequently watched films that were gory and contained disturbing subject matter.”
“They’re horror movies; that’s kinda the point.”
“There is evidence to suggest that repeated viewing of violent imagery heightens the aggression response and can contribute to acting on violent impulses.”
“Don’t tell me you’re one of those?”
“One of what?”
“Those people who attribute everything a person does to some random outside influence. I didn’t do what I did because of movies, or books, or videogames, or because I ate too many Twinkies.”
“Then why did you do it?”
And there it was...the question Maddie had been dreading finally come to the surface.
“It doesn’t matter.”
“I know you don’t really believe that. Right now your actions seem completely motiveless, and I don’t think that’s the case at all.”
Maddie sat there in silence for several minutes before finally answering.
“This is all bullshit, isn’t it?”
“I don’t understand what you mean.”
“Ever since it happened, the only thing that you, the lawyers, the police, and everyone else wanted to know is why I did what I did. And you all act like telling you is somehow to my benefit.”
“Letting people understand your version of the events and the thoughts behind them is often beneficial to the therapeutic process.”
“But that doesn’t help me. No matter what I say it won’t actually change anything. It’s not like I can suddenly claim self defense.”
“That’s true, but it would give you the opportunity to explain your actions.”
“You mean it would give me the opportunity to explain them to you. That’s what all of you want, for me to remove that burden so you can file this whole thing away and forget about it.”
“The authorities have already made their case, that’s why you’re here. I can assure you they no longer care about your reasons. I care because it’s my job and I’m trying to help you.”
“I’m sorry, but I don’t really see how you can.”
“Be that as it may, I’d still like to try.”
“Well you’re going to have to do it without an answer to your question.”
Maddie never gave an answer; not during that long winter or the spring that followed.
Dr. Morris kept trying and Maddie kept demurring, though by the end of May she’d told her just about everything else, including the fact that she thought she may be asexual. Dr. Morris told her that there was plenty of time to figure out the intricacies of her sexuality and whom she was attracted to and Maddie could tell that Morris didn’t think she was being sincere, but that didn’t particularly bother her. She wasn’t looking for validation of the things she confided during her sessions, but having a sounding board to hear those thoughts out loud did help to get her head around them.
Halfway through June Dr. Morris revealed that Maddie’s treatment hadn’t progressed as far as they’d hoped. Implicit in this statement was the knowledge that she would likely be staying at Sycamore for however long they deemed necessary. Maddie could see herself ten years on still making the same popsicle-stick birdhouses during craft time and having the same conversations in group while she shambled around the place in a tatty bathrobe as the rest of the world went on without her. In those moments she often wondered whether she would do it all again and always came to the same conclusion, though if given another chance she’d have aimed better.
July was unbearably hot and the humidity was stifling, but it was still better than being cooped up inside, so she spent as much time as she could outdoors working on the communal garden weeding and planting with a plastic hand spade that was so dull and flimsy it was virtually worthless.
“Suppose they don’t want to give us anything we might use to do ourselves in.” Maddie grumbled, though she reckoned she could probably get through her wrists with the little, yellow shovel if she snapped it in half in just the right way.
Suicidal thoughts had become a common occurrence for her. In high school she’d sometimes mused at the possibility with the kind of existential ennui that only a fourteen-year-old can conjure, but it never went beyond the realm of idle fantasy even during her angstiest days when the soundtrack of her life had consisted largely of The Cure, Mazzy Star, and The Smiths. Now these notions didn’t seem so melodramatic to her, if anything she thought of them as being sensibly pragmatic. There were certainly worse fates, life-in-prison for one, but living a stagnant existence at Sycamore didn’t seem much better to her. The possibility that she might eventually be released lingered in the back of her head, but she knew not to get her hopes up. The truth was that if they extended her committal, which seemed inevitable at this point, they would likely go right on extending it. After all, she hadn’t exactly given them a compelling reason not to.
‘Snap out of it Maddie!’ she admonished herself.
She couldn’t do that to Cheryl or to her parents, even if her mom and dad seemed to have forgotten about her.
She’d have to figure out some way to manage and in the meantime try to keep the confines of her head from looking like a Harold Chasen montage sequence.
The sessions with her therapist had been intense since Cheryl revealed what her father had done.
It was easier telling a stranger about what happened. There were parts of it she’d never have been able to say to anyone she knew, even Maddie, but talking to Dr. Brewer was almost like confessing to an empty room. Occasionally he would ask a question, but mostly he just sat and listened.
“So can you....” Cheryl said, tapping her foot nervously on the carpet. “Do that thing I asked about?”
“As long as I have your consent.”
“And my mom won’t find out?”
“You’re legally an adult, so I don’t need her permission. And because I’m revealing this information to another licensed medical professional the chain of confidentiality is preserved. You don’t have anything to worry about.”
“Do you think it will help Maddie?”
“If she hasn’t told them herself, then it will certainly add a missing piece to the puzzle, but that doesn’t guarantee it will change the outcome for her. Either way I think it’s an important step in your recovery process.”
“Maddie hasn’t told them.”
“How do you know?”
“I just do.”
It happened completely unexpectedly.
There was no final session with Dr. Morris or a meeting with any of the other staff at Sycamore. They didn’t even ask her to sign anything, though she supposed her parents would have to do that since she was still a minor when they admitted her.
Early on the morning of August twenty-eighth an orderly ushered her from her own room into another room and then left, closing the door behind her. Inside there was a wooden bench affixed to the wall and a small table that had two clear plastic bags on it: one contained the clothing she’d worn the day she arrived at Sycamore and the other held her gym shoes. She changed out of her institutional garb, which were basically just hospital scrubs with a large sycamore tree stenciled on the back, and put on her jeans and t-shirt, both now considerably looser than they had been a year ago. According to her most recent physical she’d lost seventeen pounds since arriving, though considering how lousy the food was she was surprised it wasn’t forty.
After she finished changing she peeked her head out the door and the same orderly was there waiting for her. She led Maddie to the lobby where her mother was sitting in a chair staring down at her lap like she was lost in thought.
“...hi Mom....” Maddie said.
“It’s been a while.”
“I know it has....” her mother trailed off.
“So why are you here? Am I on summer vacation or something?”
“I’m here to take you home.”
Maddie knew this was the likely answer. It was the only thing that explained her mother being there, but hearing the words still didn’t make it register with her.
“Why? Why are they letting me out?”
“You’ve served the length of the court sentence.” her mother said, as if Maddie was somehow unaware of how long she’d been there.
“But I didn’t give them what they wanted.”
“I know this is all probably a lot to take in, but I promise it’s true. C’mon now, let’s get you out of this place. Are you hungry?”
Her mother took Maddie by the hand and she let herself be led out the door and across the parking lot to their old, gray Subaru station wagon. The sight of it seemed unreal to her and she touched the passenger window with the tips of her fingers to prove that it was actually there.
They stopped at a diner a few miles down the road that Maddie had first noticed on the day she came to Sycamore. She remembered wondering if they had good French toast. It turned out they did. They also had good pancakes, good waffles, and excellent bacon and eggs. She didn’t know yet about the sausage or hash browns, but planned to find out before she left.
She kept alternating dishes, taking forkfuls from different plates trying to taste as much of it as she could. Her mother hadn’t said anything when she’d ordered and had only gotten coffee for herself.
“I’ll be back in a minute.” Maddie said as she got up and headed towards the restroom.
Maddie looked at herself in the bathroom mirror; streaks of egg yolk and maple syrup were smeared along the sides of her mouth and there was a big dollop of whip cream resting on her chin.
She burst out laughing and then gripped the sides of the sink for support as she dissolved into sobs. The whole year seemed to flow out of her as tears streamed down her face and she vomited into the sink.
The room was blessedly empty at the time and after she’d finished rinsing the contents of her stomach down the drain and cleaned herself up, Maddie walked to the far end by the toilet stalls and leaned back against the wall. The tile felt cool against her neck and she let her legs go limp as she slid down to a sitting position. She hugged her knees to her chest and closed her eyes. She could hear people entering and exiting, but no one spoke to her and Maddie was happy to be ignored.
She wasn’t sure how much time passed before she heard her mother’s voice.
“C’mon honey, let’s get you up.”
“Why did you stop?” Maddie said without opening her eyes.
“Stop what, sweetie?”
Her mother remained quiet for several moments.
“...it was awful...seeing you in that place. You have no idea what it’s like having your child taken from you and realizing there’s nothing you can do about it. My heart broke every time I had to leave you there and facing it, knowing that it was coming, became too much for me.”
“So your solution was to abandon me?! Dad never even came once!”
“Your father has had a difficult time processing all this. It’s put a strain on his work, on our marriage, on everything.... We separated two months ago. He’s living in an apartment across town.”
Maddie opened her eyes at this. Her mother was facing away from her.
“I know that I screwed everything up.” Maddie said, trying to keep her voice from cracking. “I didn’t mean for it to happen...I’m sorry Mom....”
Carol Evenson turned and sat down beside her daughter, kissing the top of her head.
“I’m sorry too baby....”
It was strange for Maddie being back home. Everything looked familiar, but it all felt artificial, like she was standing inside a movie set of her house. The posters on her bedroom walls and the stuffed animals on her bedspread seemed like they belonged to some other girl.
“Can I get you anything?”
Maddie turned around and saw her mother standing in the doorway, her eyes still red and puffy from crying during the car ride home.
“I’m okay. Think I’m just going to rest for a while.”
“Alright...just let me know if you need anything.”
“I will, thanks Mom.”
Carol gave a ghost of a smile and closed the door.
Maddie glanced over at the phone on the bedside table and her first thought was to call Cheryl, but she didn’t know her number at college or if she was even up there yet and not still home for the summer. She wasn’t comfortable calling her house and risking her mother answering or even worse Richard. There had been five more letters from “Nancy”, but none of them had given her new contact information. If any of them had she almost certainly never would’ve received it and the correspondence might’ve ceased altogether. The letters had mostly been filled with the everyday minutiae of life, but Maddie cherished them along with all the censored words that changed into something new each time she read them. It had kept her tethered to reality on those days when she wanted to float up inside her head and stay there. Spending too much time daydreaming was seen as regression and was strongly discouraged by Dr. Morris. Lying there in her bed gazing sleepily at a stuffed unicorn on the opposite pillow, it felt like this might all be a dream and that when she woke she’d be back in her real room staring out the barred window.
She pulled the blankets up over her head and closed her eyes. It was warm and the sheets smelled like spring flowers the way she remembered. If this really was a dream, she hoped she could stay in it awhile longer.
Cheryl’s parents told her about the restraining order the day she was set to head back to school.
She hadn’t even wanted to come home for the summer, but couldn’t manage to land a job on campus before the semester ended. There was also the slim chance that she might get to see Maddie before she went back. Her therapist hadn’t told her the outcome of what he’d shared, but now she knew.
“How could you do this without telling me?!” Cheryl shouted.
“We did this to protect you.” her mother said. “That girl is clearly unstable. I can’t believe they let her out after what she did. I knew we never should have spoken up on her behalf.”
“C’mon now Beth.” Richard said. “It was the right thing to do. Maddie’s a good kid deep down. She’s just going through a rough patch.”
“Then why did you take out a restraining order?” Cheryl said.
“What did you expect, for us to do nothing? To just pretend like none of this ever happened and wait for that psychopath to come back and try it again? I honestly don’t understand how both of you can be so blasé about this. They should have kept her in that place. People like that shouldn’t be allowed out on the street.” Beth said.
Cheryl looked over at her father, but said nothing. She went upstairs to her room to finish packing and didn’t come out until it was time to go. The two-hour car ride up to Lakeland University passed in silence expect for the droning of the radio. When they got to her dorm Cheryl let her parents help her unpack and settle back in. They all went out to dinner together and Cheryl apologized to her mother for earlier.
When it came time to say goodbye she hugged her mother tightly and let her father embrace her, though her arms stayed limply at her sides. She told them both she loved them and waved to them as they pulled away.
It was the last summer she ever spent at home.
Maddie figured it out after the third letter came back with Return To Sender stamped in red across the front of the envelope.
She’d found out from a mutual friend what Cheryl’s school address was. She thought maybe she’d gotten the name of the residence hall wrong, but after the most recent letter came back she’d done some digging and discovered that the post office had likely put a block on them. In retrospect it had been stupid for her to use her real name, even after she’d been released, but it simply hadn’t occurred to her that Cheryl’s parents would’ve gone to those lengths.
‘Of course they did. How else are they going to keep their daughter safe from the monster?’
Maddie was sure they were monitoring Cheryl’s outgoing mail as well. When she’d first gotten Cheryl’s address Maddie had wanted to go up there; it was only the lack of access to a car or money for a train ticket that had stopped her. If she had gone she probably would’ve gotten tackled by SWAT strolling through the quad or apprehended by FBI agents walking up the dormitory steps. At least that’s how the movie version in her head always played out. She could see herself being gunned down in a fiery blaze screaming, “You’ll never take me alive Coppers!” in her best James Cagney.
She pressed her palms over her eyes to try and stop the tears from coming, but it didn’t help.
The drops trickled out from beneath the heels of her hands and landed on the drawing she was working on. She blotted at it with a tissue, but the forms of the two characters sitting on a bench had begun to bleed together.
Maddie took the tip of her finger and smeared the ink around until the figures were indistinguishable from one another.
She smiled at it for a moment before crumpling up the piece paper and getting a fresh sheet to start again.
It was a beautiful brisk Fall day and Maddie could smell burning leaves off in the distance as she walked along the tracks picking up ballast stones in her gloved hand and pitching them against the steel rails so they sparked.
The trail leading down to the underside of the trestle was steeper than she remembered, and she almost lost her balance as she half-jogged, half-stumbled down the slope.
“Easy there girl. You’re gonna break your ankle and then I’m gonna have to carry your crippled ass outta here.”
“Hey, that was downright graceful for me.” Maddie said, stepping from the dirt and leaves onto the concrete abutment.
“Sad but true my dear. You never were the nimblest of creatures.”
“Right, and you were Anna-fucking-Pavlova.”
“Touché your Fumbliness.” Cheryl said and took a swig from the large metal thermos she was holding.
“Whatcha got there?”
“That’s what I thought. Hand it over sister.”
“Alright, alright, keep your shorts on. First things first though.”
Cheryl put down the thermos and pulled Maddie into a bear hug and they stayed that way for a long while listening to the sounds of chirring insects and birds calling back and forth to each other from the braches.
When they finally let go Maddie gave Cheryl a crooked smile. “I think you cracked a rib.”
“It’s okay, totally worth it.”
“So...what’s new with you?” Cheryl said with a nervous chuckle.
“Same old. Still working on the storyboards for that movie I told you about.”
“How are your folks?”
“Mom’s good. She’s gotten really into knitting since retiring from the bank.”
“And your dad?”
“He’s still working at the insurance company, though I think he’s some kind of regional manager now.”
“What about the two of you?”
“It’s still complicated, but we’ve talked through most of it; we’ve even seen a therapist together a couple of times. I’m not sure it’ll ever be like it was, but it’s getting better.”
“...you never told him....”
“I never told anyone. Did you?”
“Only my shrink because he said it might help get you out of that place.”
“Well that explains it.”
“I could never figure out why they let me go. I thought maybe my mom had petitioned the judge or appealed to some higher-up at Sycamore, but she wouldn’t talk to me about it. You never mentioned that you’d helped get me released.”
“I wasn’t sure if it had even done anything, and we weren’t communicating much back then.”
“Yeah, your folks kinda put the kibosh on that. Thank the tech gods for disposable cell phones and anonymous email.”
“You really think the cops didn’t know who Nancy Thompson and Laurie Strode were?”
“I think they probably had better things to do than play Sherlock on a restraining order that stayed mostly off their radar for five years.”
“Feels like longer than that.”
“So what about you? Anything new and exciting?” Maddie said.
“I stopped working for the high school last month. Subbing for a different subject every few weeks was exhausting and I got tired of waiting for a permanent teaching position to open up. I actually just started at a shipping company. Technically I’m in I.T., but that’s only because I’m one of three people under the age of sixty in the office, so they assume I’m some sort of computer guru. Mostly I track delivery routes and make sure the drivers end up where they’re supposed to and arrive on time.”
“How’s the old personal life?”
“You’re assuming I have one.”
“There’s a guy I’ve seen a few times. He’s nice and funny, but I don’t know if it’s anything serious.”
“Sounds all right to me.”
“Yeah, I guess. What about you?”
“There are zero signs of love-life on Planet Maddie.”
“It’s my own fault. I’ve been keeping my head pretty low. It’s taken me this long to get back to some semblance of a normal life.”
“...because of me....”
“That’s not true.”
“Of course it is. And this whole time I never even said....”
“How sorry I am for everything that happened.”
“You didn’t do anything Cher; I’m the one who did it. You tried to stop me.”
“But I was the reason you were in that position to begin with. I’m the one who asked for your help. I should’ve just kept my mouth shut.”
“I’m glad that you told me. I just wish I could’ve protected you from him.”
“...you did...” Cheryl said, sitting down on the cement ledge so that her legs dangled out over the creek. “...he never went near me again after that night....”
“Do you still see him?”
“When I have to...to keep up appearances for Mom.”
“Do you think she ever suspected?”
“No. And I hope she never does.”
“Jesus, I really know how to bring down a room.” Cheryl said.
“You always were the showstopper of the duo.”
“One of my many talents.”
“Do you remember Freshman year when Bobby Schenck kept calling me a priss and pulling the back of my bra strap in math class?”
“Kinda, I guess; that was a really long time ago.”
“So you don’t remember cornering him during passing period, pushing him up against a locker, and telling him that if he ever so much as looked at me again you’d turn him into a castrati?”
“I may have some vague recollection of the event.”
“You looked out for me too. I never needed to ask, you were always just there.” Maddie said and sat down next to Cheryl.
“Hey, what are friends for?” Cheryl said and intertwined her fingers with Maddie’s as they gazed at their reflections in the murky water.
A thought flitted through Maddie’s head and was gone. She wasn’t sure if she could trust it, but let the trace of it linger as they sat together on the cold concrete listening to the leaves rustle.
All she knew for certain was that for the first time in a long time it felt like she was home.