It felt as if his hands were around me. Choking me. Shaking me. Dragging me.
My fingers wrapped around my neck and I begged for air, knowing that if I felt like I couldn’t breathe, the woman was hurting even more.
Then the evil man started dragging her body toward the water.
In that moment I knew who he was.
The devil pulled the woman’s body toward the water and shoved her head beneath its waves.
And I stopped breathing.
He drowned her.
He drowned her.
The devil drowned a woman on the bank of Harper Creek.
I knew she was dead. She fought back as the devil kept holding her head beneath the water. The devil held her at the edge of the lake and kept shoving her head under the water.
The woman fought at first, clawing her fingers at him, trying her best to attack the devil. The woman’s body pushed against his, but each time the devil brought the woman’s head back from under the lake, her mouth inhaled and exhaled, choking on water, struggling to breathe. The devil pulled her deeper into the waters, splashing loudly. The water was up to the devil’s neck, and I couldn’t even see the woman anymore.
“Don’t leave me,” he begged her, pleaded. “Don’t leave me, Julia.”
I should’ve stopped looking.
I couldn’t stop looking.
She was fully submerged, and all I saw was the devil’s darkness.
He pulled the limp woman from the water, back to the shore, and he wouldn’t stop talking to her. “How could you? How could you do this to us?” He reached for the woman’s left hand and removed the wedding band from her finger. He slid it onto his own finger.
He killed the woman.
He killed her.
I saw it, too—the realization of his actions, him realizing what he had done. He started to shake the woman, her body limp. “Julia,” he whimpered. “Julia, wake up.” He fell to the ground beside her and shook her, trying to bring her back, but he couldn’t. He sobbed over her body. “Please, come back.”
I stepped backward and broke a branch.
He looked up.
He killed that woman, and he was looking at me.
Don’t look at me.
My hands clamped up, my mind spun. I stumbled backward, breaking each and every branch my flip-flops hit along the way. My back slammed against the closest tree trunk as the devil’s chocolate brown eyes danced across my body. A petrified look swam in his eyes, and he dropped the lady. “Hey!” he shouted, looking at me. “Hey, what are you doing?” He moved in closer to me.
His feet dragged my way, his clothing dripping wet.
Don’t wander off on your own, Maggie May. Do you understand? You mustn’t wander off without your sister.
Mama’s words kept circling in my mind. He grew closer and closer, and I screeched, turning away from him. I started running as fast as I could, flying through the branches, feeling my heart pounding against my chest.
His footsteps grew louder, but I couldn’t look back. He was running after me. Closer, closer, closer. Run, Maggie. Faster, faster, faster. Run!
A sharp yank to my dress sent me backward, the poppy in my hair flying to the forest floor. His fingers were wrapped around my dress and he tossed me to the ground. My breaths weaved in and out and I screamed as he tackled my body, placing all of his weight on top of me, his filthy hands covering my mouth, muting my shouts.
I kicked and screamed, screamed and kicked. He was going to kill me.
He’d kill me.
Tears streamed down my cheeks as I struggled.
“You weren’t supposed to be here,” he hissed, starting to sob. “You weren’t supposed to see that. It was a mistake. I didn’t mean to…”
He placed a hand around my neck, choking me, making it harder and harder to breathe. He cried. He cried so much. He cried and apologized. He apologized for hurting me, apologized for pushing a few fingers into the side of my neck, making it harder and harder for me to find my next breaths. He told me he loved her, told me love did it to him, to her. He swore he’d never hurt her. He promised he wouldn’t hurt the woman he already killed.
“You weren’t supposed to be here, but now you are,” he said, lowering his face down to me. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” He smelled like tobacco and licorice, and his forearm had a big tattoo of two praying hands with a person’s name beneath it. “How did you get here?” he asked.
His mouth was inches away from mine, and he shook his head as I parted my mouth to scream for Brooks, praying for him to hear me, to find me. He placed his finger against my mouth, then pushed his lips against his fingers, too, and made a quiet shushing sound.
“Shh,” he whispered. My eyes were wide with fear. “Please, don’t yell. It was an accident.” He moved his lips to my forehead and pressed his mouth against my skin. “Shh,” he said again. His lips traveled to my earlobe and I felt his mouth touching me before he hissed one last time. “Shh…”
I lost myself.
He stole me from myself in that moment.
I felt dirty.
I felt used.
I felt trapped.
“Maggie May! Where are you?” Brooks hollered, his voice breaking the devil from his thoughts.
He pushed himself away from me and took off in a sprint.
I stumbled to stand and didn’t bother to dusk off the dirt, leaves, and sticks tangled all over me. I was wet. His wet clothes had soaked me, and I had wet myself, too. I struggled, but I ran. I ran. I ran as fast as I could toward the sound of Brooks’ voice. The louder his sounds grew, the more my heart raced.
“I mean, geez, Maggie! I went with the stupid purple tie because you were so against the mud tie, and then you stand me up! I can’t believe this!”
When my eyes saw his back, he was kicking around the grass and muttering to himself.
When he turned to face me, any irritation he felt disappeared and was replaced with heavy intense concern. As I ran toward him, I tripped over my own feet and his arms reached out, catching me.
“Whoa, Maggie, what’s going on?”
I opened my mouth to speak, but all I heard in my head was the sound of the devil shushing me, pressing his skin against my skin, pressing his finger against my lips. Against my forehead. Against my earlobes. Against me. He was going to kill me.
There was a rustling behind us and I jumped, my eyes wide as I pushed myself against Brooks hard, clamoring for protection.