March, 2010: 3 o’ clock a.m.
Two police cruisers and my mom’s silver Hyundai found me there not ten minutes later, hugging Clark as I sobbed in the dirt. Clark held onto me tightly, despite the fact that I had gripped his shoulder in my hand hard enough to draw blood with my stubby fingernails. Poppy had woken a few minutes after my arrival, and came down to join the embrace. When the adults arrived, we were all caked with dirt and freezing. Officer Gale, the one officer I was getting sick of seeing, got out of the first car.
“Miss Taylor?” he called, warily approaching me as if I were a wild animal.
“Go away,” were the only words I cold force out through the tightness in my throat.
“Honey?” my mother’s voice called from the doorway of the car.
Another officer I wasn’t familiar with got out of the first car as well and strode toward us. He was an older man, bald, and slightly taller than average with small, blue eyes. Immediately, I felt more at ease; he reminded me of my father. His hat was tilted slightly over his eyebrows, framing the kind look on his face. He knelt beside me without stirring the dirt. His black shoes and beige uniform remained immaculate.
“Miss Taylor, for your own protection, you need to get out of the open. That little bastard could be watching you right now,” he explained, looking from side to side.
I followed his gaze but saw no one, just a shadow behind the trees. Tearing myself away from my friends, I stood, brushing the dirt off my pants. “Can you guys come back to my house? I don’t want to be alone.”
Poppy was nodding before I had even finished speaking. “We’ll follow you.”
When I looked back up, the officer was gone. He hadn’t stirred the dirt beside me, it stood flat until I disturbed it, but I saw him disappear into the words and refrained from following him. Gale opened the door for me to the back of his cruiser, and I had every intention of ignoring him to get in my mom’s car, until I remembered what the officer told me. He could be anywhere. He could come out at any time.
As much as I didn’t want to be stuck in a car with the bipolar cop, I wanted the protection being in the cruiser could provide. He gave me a small smile and bowed gallantly as I slid into the backseat. Once the door was shut, I fell onto my side with my eyes closed. The ride home was silent, except for the purr of the engine beneath my ear. When the car stopped, my door was immediately ripped open and Poppy pulled me out.
“Goodbye, Officer Gale!” Clark yelled, too loud for the sleeping neighbors, as we bounded up the steps into the house. Gale waved to us before pulling out of my driveway and speeding around the corner.
“Don’t encourage him,” I joked half-heartedly. “I’ve seen his face enough today to last a lifetime.”
“It’s been a hard day, Paige,” Poppy murmured soothingly. “Tomorrow will be better.”
“Marshall’s mother spat at me. She thinks I did it,” I whispered pathetically.
“We could egg her house,” Clark suggested, wiggling his eyebrows and shooting me a grin.
I chuckled darkly, twisting Marshall’s delicate ring, the one that would have changed so much, around the third finger of my left hand. “As if they haven’t been through enough. He called me, y’know? Cody.”
“What’d he say?” Poppy gasped, pulling me down to sit beside her on the couch. Clark followed suit on her other side, pulling her back to lean against his chest. I felt sick to my stomach by the display of affection that my own boyfriend wouldn’t ever be there to give me.
“He said he was watching me. I went to the window, and he was standing right there, and he got away!” I looked up into the window, half-expecting Cody to be standing outside, but the street was abandoned. “Did you call Brianna and Joel?”
“Ya,” Clark whispered. “They’re coming over in the morning. My place.”
“Thanks, Clark.” Yawning loudly, I asked, “What time is it?”
He glanced at his watch. “A little after three. You should sleep.”
“No,” I bit back immediately. “I won’t. I can’t.” Tears welled up in my eyes. “I can’t face the nightmares.’
“Okay, okay, shh,” Poppy pulled me into a hug. “We won’t sleep. What do you want to do until then?”
“Let’s watch a movie,” Clark suggested, heading over to the shelves of DVDs. He picked up one of the many musicals I owned and pushed it into the DVD player. He went to turn off the lights.
“No!” I yelled, startling everyone, including my parents, who instantly came running down the stairs.
“Are you okay?” my mother gasped.
“What’s going on?” my dad said at the same time.
“Nothing, I’m sorry,” I announced.
“Are you sure?” my dad asked, rubbing his eyes.
“Ya, please go back to bed.”
They nodded and scaled the stairs. “What’s the matter?” Clark demanded.
“If you turn off the light, I’ll fall asleep.”
By the time dawn rolled around, I was the only one still awake and watching what had once been my favorite movie. Now, the movie just seemed dry and cheesy and I had run out of coffee hours ago. The sun was coming up and I was watching the movie for the third time when Poppy finally stirred. Groaning, she looked around the room.
“I’m sorry, Paige, we fell asleep,” she yawned. No kidding, I mused dejectedly, but kept up the smiling front.
“It’s okay,” I lied through clenched teeth, shaking my head in an attempt to shake off the exhaustion. “Get Clark, we’ve got to meet Joel and Brianna”
An hour later, the five of us were convened in Clark’s living room, gazing sadly at the empty seat belonging to our sixth member who would never again return to us. My left hand still wore his ring and rested on his seat. My eyes hurt but I refused to cry again. The silence stretched on for a few minutes without anyone willing to be the one to break it. I stared at the couch cushion beside me longingly. Gone, never coming back, dead.
My head snapped up instantly, looking for Brianna. “What?” I barked, a little colder than I intended.
“Are you okay?” she inquired, unfazed by my tone.
I laughed. “Of course not.”
Silence followed again, this time for much longer. Eventually, it was Joel to break it when he finally said, “Clark told us you saw him last night. What did he say?”
“I saw him twice last night. He told me the first time that I shouldn’t drop my purse; that was when he took my keys. The second time was that he was watching me. He was outside my house for Christ’s sake!” I yelled, pulling at my red hair.
“My parents are changing the locks tomorrow,” Brianna shrugged. “No worries.” That should have raised red flags for me, but it wasn’t happening.
“I already did it,” Clark added.
“Me too,” the others agreed.
“Good,” I sighed. “He’s out there, and the police cannot find him. How the hell does he keep getting away?”
“I don’t know. Paige, maybe you should stay with one of us tonight,” Poppy suggested. “He keeps going to your house.”
“Stay with me!” Brianna pleaded.
“No!” Poppy countered. “He’s got the keys to your house, Bri!”
“He doesn’t know that,” she argued. “Besides my parents aren’t coming home from D.C. until tomorrow morning. Don’t leave me alone!”
“The point of this is to keep Paige safe, not you,” Poppy snarled.
“Poppy, relax, I’ll stay with Bri tonight. We can keep an eye on each other,” I said.
Poppy’s jaw dropped. “But—”
I left a little while later to pack and drove to Brianna’s house. Poppy texted me eight times to tell me this was a bad idea, but I didn’t listen and ignored her. It was just passed noon when I got to Brianna’s house and, sure enough, her parents weren’t home. “Paige!” Brianna squealed when I rang the doorbell, enveloping me in a hug and pulling me inside. “What do you want to do? I’ve got movies, we can make food, anything you want!” she dropped me.
“Uhh,” I stammered, “I’m up for anything.”
The day started out fun in the kitchen, stuffing our faces with cookie dough ice cream. I was almost happy for a while with my mind off Marshall. Then, we drove out to get candy, popped popcorn, and ate until we were sick watching movies into the nighttime. I was on such a sugar high, I didn’t even feel the effects of staying up all of the previous night. I came down from the high when all the candy was gone and a scary movie was playing on the television.
“Ya?” she retorted, wrapping an arm around her cramping stomach.
“If I fall asleep, and I start looking like I’m having a bad dream, wake me up,” I ordered.
“It’s been a tough couple of days,” I sighed.
She gave me a sympathetic look. “Alright, I guess.”
“Thanks.” My eyes began to droop. As the minutes went by, I tried to keep my eyes open, but I was losing the battle. The screaming in the movie began to fade into oblivion, the movie sucked anyway…
“What was that?” Brianna gasped.
I snapped back to attention. “What? What happened?” I countered thickly, viciously rubbing at my eyes.
“There’s something outside, I heard it!” she insisted.
I was too tired to put the right amount of worry into the situation. “I didn’t hear anything, just watch the movie.”
“No way, there’s something out there!”
I rolled my eyes. “The movie’s just making you nervous.”
“Come outside with me,” she demanded.
“No, I don’t want to,” I moaned, feeling more and more nauseas by the violent killing unfolding on the television. Dead people didn’t really look like that, and it wasn’t entertaining to see anymore. I had seen the real thing.
“Well I’m going to go check it out. What if it’s Cody, Paige? What if he found us?” she cried, putting on flip flops.
I shrugged. “Fine, Brianna, go ahead, but I’m staying here and watching the movie. It was probably nothing.”
“Whatever,” she grumbled, pulling on a small jacket over her booty shorts and bra. “If I get chopped up by Cody, it’s all your fault.”
“Then don’t go,” I argued, but in vain. She was already going out the sliding door before I finished speaking.
I focused my sole attention on the movie and tried not to count the minutes she was gone. After five minutes of her absence, my eyes began to droop, and, though I fought it as hard as I could, the sleepless hours caught up with me. For a split second, I didn’t care about the nightmares, I had to sleep. Brianna would be back any minute, and if I had a nightmare, she had already agreed to wake me up. I slipped easily into deep sleep.
“It looks like I got your precious Marshall, Paige,” the voice mocked. “It’s too bad you had to be there, isn’t it.”
Though they were already closed, I squeezed my eyelids more tightly shut. I knew that there would be nothing to see, only the nothingness. The torturous dreams would only plague me with the sounds of my impending demise, the ending I deserved, but would never be awarded with. Nevertheless, they opened of their own accord.
It was darkness I was met with, but a place very familiar all the same. I was in Brianna’s backyard, but she seemed to be ignorant of my presence behind her. She was walking through the trail with her back to me, wearing the pajamas she had left in. My steps were slow and measured, almost stalkerish. I was wearing a large, grey sweatshirt over jeans, all of which were far too big to be mine.
The opening of the trail was like a threshold over head as we crossed into the forest. She looked cautious, splaying her arms out, away from her sides like a true Hollywood victim would do in a cheap slasher movie. She passed a mangled tree stump down the narrow path; a hatchet was still stuck in the ancient wood at the blade. My hands were not my own as they reached for the handle of the hatchet and held it in my palms. The heavy axe hung in my arms against my legs, swinging forward with each step.
“Who’s out there?” Brianna yelled, turning around sharply.
The axe in my hands swung forward hard into the hollow between her breasts, implanting itself into her custom-made Victoria’s Secret pushup bra. As the blood flooded through the split flesh, she screamed, falling backward with the force of the obstruction wedged within her. Her eyes were wide, wide enough for me to see my reflection in them as I leaned over her and tore the hatchet free. It wasn’t me I saw looking back at me, only the hideous clown mask beneath the oversized grey sweatshirt hood. I swung the axe back down, this time towards her abdomen, and watched her blood spray across my face.
“Paige,” that horrible voice sang. “I got another one.”
“Leave me alone! Leave Brianna alone!” I mumbled fervently.
He chuckled in my ear. “Too late.”
I woke up with a tight feeling in my chest and a wild beating against my ribcage. Just a dream, I told myself, it’s just a dream. Tears were dried in my hair, against my face, and in the corners of my eyes. Above the feeling of fright, I was pissed. Why hadn’t Brianna woken me like I told her to? The soreness in my throat meant I had been shrieking from the nightmares, like I knew I would. There was no way she could have missed it.
The title menu of the DVD was replaying on the television, playing music that aggravated my headache. “Can’t turn off a freaking television, either!” I grunted, turning off the television in favor of the lamp beside my head. My eyes adjusted to the light quickly and I took in the room with distaste. The first thing I noticed was the mud trekked across the carpet from the back door to the bathroom. The second thing I noticed was the sound of the shower beating the wall in the on the other side of the bathroom door, and Brianna wasn’t here.
“Brianna!” I yelled, but I knew that if she were in the shower, there would be no way she would hear me.
Begrudgingly, I got up and went to the bathroom to check on her. The clock on the wall read two in the morning, and she would have had to have gotten pretty damn filthy to warrant a shower at such an ungodly hour of the morning. The door was unlocked and released a puff of steam when I threw it open. After stopping for a moment to cough for thinner air, I turned back to the bathroom. My feet splashed from the first step in.
A puddle had formed across the floor, spilling over from the full bathtub and still running. A pile of clothes soaked up a great deal of water in the corner, but I didn’t pay much attention to it when I ran for the tub. Pulling back the shower curtain revealed the bathtub to be empty. The water was cold, it had been running for a long time now, and Brianna was nowhere to be found. Turning off the shower and draining the tub, I spun around to go out in search of her.
The mirror caught my eye when I faced it for the first time. My everyday, pink lipstick was broken in half in the sink, staining the porcelain, but the frightening part was that someone had written something on the mirror with it. Breaking up the reflection of my face was the message:
You know where she is, Paige.
Terror gripped my heart tightly in its hand and I looked down for the first time to take a better look at the room. The pile of clothes was a grey sweat-suit, too big for me or anyone in Brianna’s family, and it was spattered with blood. He was in the house. He could still be in the house. I took off like a bat out of hell through every door until I was out in the night, sprinting down the familiar path.
It was still raining, and my bare feet were caked with mud. As I ran further into the trees, the mud slowly became redder, until it came to a single place in the center of the path that was entirely red. There was nothing there, only the blood. The stream continued on, like it had been poured down the line as someone walked away. I followed the trail, looking from left to right and holding my breath.
I broke through the pathway entrance into a clearing we had all once used as a picnic spot. There was a single tree in the center that had always been perfect for climbing when we were younger. Now, it showed a different purpose. My eyes zeroed in on the decaying tree and I shrieked, especially since Cody was running away from it at full speed into the trees, this time without his mask. The mask had been placed crookedly on Brianna’s face above the thin, white wire constricted around her neck, hanging her from the lowest branch of the tree. The axe was still implanted in her abdomen.
Needless to say, she was dead.
Needless to say, he got away.