My mind grew panicked and my chest tightened. What if he was still out there? What if he was waiting for me? What if he was waiting to hurt me? Or was hurting someone else, or…?
“Maggie,” Mama said, staring my way. She raised an eyebrow. “Come on, honey.”
I tried my best to step out of the house. I tried my best to move forward, but the panic was overwhelming. Each time my mind told me to move forward, I somehow stepped backward.
“What are you doing?” Calvin asked, looking at me as if I’d lost my mind.
Everyone was staring at me like that.
Had I lost my mind?
I can hear him shushing me, I thought to myself. He can see me. He can hurt me.
I stepped backward farther and farther, and I ran into a wall, which made me jump with fright. I couldn’t go outside. It wasn’t safe out there. I knew it wasn’t, and all I ever wanted to feel was safe.
The world was scary, and I had more fear than strength lately.
“Come on, Maggie,” Cheryl groaned. “You’re ruining it for all of us.”
Mama pinched Cheryl’s arm. “Knock it off, Cheryl Rae!”
She was right, though. I was ruining it for everyone. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I backed up another step and before I knew it, my feet took off, running back to my parents’ bedroom. It was the safest place I knew, and I wasn’t sure how to leave. Crawling under their blankets, my body shook violently. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t shut out all the noises in my head. I couldn’t shut off my brain.
When the blankets moved, I gripped the edges, fighting to keep him out. He found me, he found me.
Relief rushed through me as I met Daddy’s eyes. My stare was wide and panicked, and I could almost feel the worry dancing off his skin. He climbed under the blankets and sat beside me. I couldn’t stop trembling.
The devil’s sounds poisoned my memories. Every thought I had was followed by the memory of his shushing noises attached to them. I couldn’t leave the house. If I did, he’d see me. I couldn’t speak. If I did, he’d hear me.
“We’ll figure this out, Maggie,” Daddy said, wrapping me into his arms. “No matter what, we’re gonna fix this.”
It was the first time Daddy had ever lied to me.
When he stood up to go speak to Mama in the hallway, I pulled the covers tighter around me. I couldn’t stop my trembles from taking over as I listened to Mama speak her deepest fears. “What if she never comes back from this? What if she’ll never be herself again? What will people think? What will people say?”
“Since when do we care what people say?”
“Always, Eric. We always care what people think of us.”
It was the first time I’d ever felt a crack in the foundation of my parents’ love.
And it was all because of me.
“Stupid mud tie. Stupid purple tie. Stupid, stupid, stupid!” I muttered, tossing all the ties into my top dresser drawer. I hated ties, because they had made me late. I hated myself for being the reason Maggie had been alone in the woods.
As I pushed to close my dresser drawer, I grew angrier and angrier again when it wouldn’t shut due to being too full. “UGH!” I hollered, slamming my fist against it. “I hate you! I hate you!” I kicked the dresser hard, which only led to me limping and rubbing my toe.
“Everything okay, Brooks?” Mom asked, walking in with concerned eyes. She was already dressed in her scrubs to go to work at the hospital, where she was a nurse, and the way she glanced down at her watch told me she was running behind.
“I’m fine,” I huffed, hobbling over to my bed and sitting before rubbing my toes some more.
She walked over to me and placed the back of her hand to my forehead. “What’s wrong, babe?”
“Nothin’,” I muttered. “You’re gonna be late.”
She took off her watch and placed it behind her back. Then she gave me a smile. “No worries. Let’s talk before I go. I know you’ve been going through a lot of stuff after what happened to Maggie.”
“No. That’s not it. I just couldn’t get my drawer to shut.” My face was heating up and my hands were gripped into tight fists. “It’s the stupid ties’ fault,” I whispered through my gritted teeth.
“Yeah! I took all the stupid ties out of that drawer, and now I can’t get them to fit back in, so I kicked it and hurt my foot.”
“Why were your ties out to begin with?”
“Because…” I hesitated and raised an eyebrow at Mom. “You’re gonna be super late.”
“Don’t worry.” She smiled and ran her fingers through my hair. “I’ll be okay. Tell me what’s really bothering you.”
“Well…I was supposed to meet Maggie out in the woods for our rehearsal.”
“For our wedding.”
“You two were getting married?”
My face heated up even more, and I looked down at the ground. How had I not told my mom I was getting married? Maggie had told everyone, and me? Nobody. “Yeah, well, I don’t know. It was Maggie’s stupid idea. I was just going along with it because Jamie made me. Anyway, Maggie told me to pick out a tie and meet her in the woods, which was supposed to be easy, but I spent too much time picking out a tie. So, she was in the woods by herself, and whatever happened to her out there was because of me. I was the reason she got freaked out, because I was late to the twisted trees.”
“Oh, honey.” Mom sighed and started rubbing my back. “It wasn’t your fault.”
“Yeah, it was. It was my fault for not being there to protect her, and now she ain’t talking or leaving her house because something scared her, and I should’ve been there to stop it, to save her.”
“Brooks…” Mom lowered her voice and clasped her hands together. “Whatever happened to Maggie is tragic, but it wasn’t your fault. If I’ve learned anything in life, it’s that it doesn’t help to sit and play a situation over and over again in your head. You can’t change the past, but you can shape the future with the right now. You know how you can help Maggie now?”
“How?” I asked eagerly, sitting up straight. I’d do anything to fix her.