Author’s Note: Blame Persona 5 for the delay in my publishing this. (God, but that is a very long and very awesome game.) Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year from Austin and me! 🙂 ❤
The slamming of the door served as an exclamation point on Big Mac’s dramatic exit from Reggie’s garage. Jackson’s whole body shook as he absentmindedly rubbed his hands together. He turned to face Ann Marie and found that although there was evidence that tears had been running down her cheeks moments ago, it appeared that they had now ceased. In fact, Jackson was surprised to find Ann Marie more or less collected. No running to the door in regret, no uncontrollable shaking; Jackson would have thought her to be in shock if she didn’t turn away from his gaze to begin removing the gym bag from Todd’s head.
When it was off, Ann Marie put her hands on Todd’s shoulders and bent slightly to make eye contact with him. “Are you all right?” she said.
Todd shook his head. “I’ll live,” he said. “Now that I think about it, I could have done that myself…” He held up his unbound hands. “Man, everything happened so fast.”
Jackson and Reggie made eye contact. “Man, that’s the fucking truth. I’m so sorry, man. Big Mac just went fucking crazy and I just reacted. I…Fuck, I don’t know what to say,” said Reggie. “I’m really sorry you guys.”
Todd rose from the chair, sidestepped Ann Marie, and squared up with Reggie. He stood up straight and was a noticeable six inches taller than Reggie. He looked Reggie in the face for a moment, and then he dropped his eyes to the floor and rounded his shoulders.
“It’s okay, Reggie. I know how Big Mac can be,” he said. Then he smiled and stuck out his left hand. Reggie’s dark eyes gleamed for a moment. Jackson thought he looked to be on the verge of tears. Reggie blinked once or twice and then took Todd’s hand.
“Thanks, man,” he said. He hesitated, then said, “But why did Big Mac freak out? He screamed something about other people messing with his shit or something weird. Motherfucker flat out lost it.”
Todd opened his mouth and then closed it. Then he opened it again and said, “Does he know, Annie?”
All eyes turned on Ann Marie, who immediately went rigid. Her eyes darted back and forth between the three of them. “Know about what?” Now her voice shook. Jackson could see genuine trepidation surround her, as if a malevolent aura had invaded her space.
Todd’s mouth hung agape for a moment, and then he said, “Well, I’ve been trying to text you so we can talk about it.”
Her eyes continued to dart back and forth but seemed to see nothing. “We’ve just been so busy trying to figure out what’s going on with Ethan…I’m sorry I haven’t been able to meet up with you.” Suddenly, Ann Marie’s eyes stopped and she froze. Then her hand darted to the pocket of her hoodie. “Oh!” she said, “Hang on!” She turned around and walked over to the couch and grabbed her purse. She rifled through it recklessly, and then dumped the contents onto the couch. Then she turned back to them and said, “Big Mac has my phone. He took it to the store with him.”
Jackson’s brow furrowed as he said, “Is that bad?” He looked back and forth between Todd and Ann Marie.
“Do you think he read my texts?” said Todd.
Ann Marie exhaled. “It’s possible,” she said. “Do you think he was upset just because you were trying to meet with me? What exactly have you been texting me?”
Todd opened his eyes wide and said, “I think it’s definitely possible he’s upset if he read my last text.”
Ann Marie shook her head, and then her whole body seemed to take motion, like unsettled snow kicking up during a violent wind. She threw the now empty purse on the floor and marched towards Todd almost yelling, “What the fuck did you say, Todd?!”
Todd took two steps backwards and then sank into the chair that he had originally been placed in. Ann Marie gazed down upon him, as a parent would an unruly child.
“I’m sorry, Annie! I was just trying to tell you that he was cheating on you! I didn’t know you already knew! Look, this is all I sent!” Todd reached into his pocket and pulled out his phone and began to pull open his messages.
Ann Marie’s hands dropped to her sides. She said, “What?” Her eyes became unfocused again and she seemed to sway on the spot. “What are you saying?” she said, her voice beginning to melt with oncoming tears. “He’s cheating on me? How do you know? Gimme that!” She reached for Todd’s phone, wiped her eyes and began to read the message that Todd had sent to Ann Marie’s phone. Jackson, mouth agape, looked over at Reggie, who’s mouth was also hanging open. Reggie shook his head and Jackson began to run his hands through his hair.
Ann Marie finished reading. She turned the screen of the phone off and handed it back to Todd, who was rising out of his chair. She brought a hand up to her mouth and shook involuntarily.
Jackson came out of his stupor for a second and said, “What is it, Annie? What did it say?”
“Big Mac is cheating on me,” she said, matter-of-factly. “Big Mac is cheating on me with Maggie.”
“What?!” said Reggie, looking at Jackson, who’s eyes had opened as wide as they could.
“Big Mac is cheating on me with Maggie,” said Ann Marie again, and then she put her hands over her eyes and began to sob.
“What the fuck, dude?” said Reggie. Todd held his hands up with an apologetic look on his face. Jackson walked over to Ann Marie and put his hands on her shoulders.
“Annie, I’m so sorry,” he said. Ann Marie put her weight on him and he held her, just for a moment, until she pulled away and screamed, “Don’t touch me!”
Jackson, surprised, took a step back, and held up his hands. Ann Marie seemed to float in time for a moment, perfectly still, her mascara running down her cheeks and her face contorted in absolute misery.
In between sobs, she said, “I’m so sorry. I just can’t do this.” And then she grabbed her keys and ran out the door. Jackson, Reggie, and Todd were left standing in the middle of Reggie’s garage, looking at each other. Outside, they could hear Ann Marie’s car start up and then pull away from the curb.
Excerpt from one of Amanda Sanders’ interviews with Sheriff Essie Boyer:
AS: What was it like when you finally got to speak with Maggie, after she regained consciousness?
EB: I approached the first meeting with Maggie after she woke back up with…caution. The girl was still in the hospital for God’s sakes! Her family let me have a few minutes alone with her, but I could tell they didn’t really want me there. Her mother and father both asked me to keep it as brief as possible. A big part of my job is maintaining empathy for people, regardless of their reputation. I knew a few girls like Maggie when I was young. Unfairly labeled from a young age. People forget what it’s like to be a kid her age; you look and act like an adult, but not everything is quite…there yet. (Pause) I guess what I’m trying to say is that I could understand where her parents were coming from. She was just a kid and she had been through a lot. The initial stages of an investigation are crucial, and time is of the essence. I wanted to move as quickly as possible, but I was also under the impression that without a conclusive finding with the SAFE Kit, we weren’t going to get very far. Of course…Well, I’m getting ahead of myself. You wanted to know what the first meeting was like?
AS: Yes. As best you can recall.
EB: Right. (Laughs) Sometimes you remember the strangest details. When I walked in the room, Maggie was bathed in sunlight. It was a mid-November day, before the first big snowfall of the year, the sun was still high in the sky. Maggie was four or five stories up in the hospital and I remember being taken aback at how beautiful the view from her room was. You could see all of Deercliff, the tops of all the buildings, Mueller Peak in the distance. I had heard in dozens of interviews how beautiful Maggie was. Honestly, when I first met her, I was surprised to find her quite plain. One might even say “homely”. Of course, that disappeared when I began to speak with her. She had a way with words. She never said anything too profound, but she had a way of putting things that…stuck with you, I guess. I found myself thinking about what she said hours, days even, later. I could see why so many of Deercliff’s youth had found themselves taken with her.
AS: What did you talk about?
EB: That’s the thing: I remember looking back at my notepad following the interview, or whatever you want to call it, and realizing that nothing of any real significance was said. We talked for maybe twenty minutes and I felt as though I got a good impression of who Maggie was, or rather, who it was that she wanted me to see. Beyond that, all that was communicated was that she could remember nothing from the time she left the Halloween party to the time she woke up. Not unusual when it comes to traumatic incidents. I figured that more info would come with time, and, of course, I didn’t want to rush her so close to her awakening.
AS: Do you remember –
EB: Oh! There’s one more thing.
EB: I remember that when I went to shake Maggie’s hand at the end of the interview, she shocked me.
AS: What do you mean?
EB: Like static electricity. When you shake somebody’s hand. She shocked me. Of course, I thought nothing of it at the time, but with everything that happened next, it made a bit more sense.
“Motherfuckers.” Big Mac stumbled up his driveway into his backyard. He weaved back and forth as he made his way to the RV that was parked there. He used his father’s keys to unlock it and then began to rifle through the ice chest that was under one of the seats near the door. He threw a couple of old bags that used to contain ice over his shoulder and found what he was looking for: an unopened pint of Elijah Craig. He twisted off the cap and took a large drag. When the burn hit his throat and the fumes filled his sinuses, his body rejected the whiskey and the alcohol and some vomit shot back out of his stomach. He managed to close his mouth before all of it spilled out and he was able to re-swallow most of it. His body erupted in cold sweat and tears welled in his eyes as he took deep breaths and struggled to keep the mixture inside of him. His hands trembled as he put the cap back on the bottle. He finally regained his composure and made his way back down the slope towards the pickup that he had inherited from his brother when he joined the Army.
Big Mac had tried to unlock the liquor cabinet in his family’s den. When that failed, he raided the fridge in the garage and pounded all of the Twisted Teas that he found in there. In the midst of all of this, he remembered the pint of Elijah Craig that his father kept in the family RV. The keys to the RV hung from the hooks on the side of the gun cabinet. There, Big Mac also discovered the keys to his pickup which had been taken from him following the Halloween party.
Big Mac jumped in the truck and started the engine. He dropped the shifter into neutral and rested his foot on the brake. For a moment, a sense of clarity fell upon him and he realized that what he was doing was quite reckless. Then, all of the emotional weight that had driven him to drink in the first place began to resettle on his shoulders and back. He thought of Ann Marie: Does she really want anything to do with me? Do I really want anything to do with her? I don’t need her…I don’t need anyone.
He pushed in the clutch, dropped the pickup into reverse and backed out of the driveway. I just need to go somewhere I can think, he thought. Ten minutes later, Big Mac found himself barrelling down a dirt road. Lower Withering Pine Fork was a straight shot to the Pilgrim Falls campground. Big Mac had felt at home with his siblings there, had had a moment of clarity there. Maybe he could figure something out again if he placed himself near the creek and the trees that lived there.
Big Mac pulled the whiskey pint from his coat pocket and removed the lid again. He fumbled it and it fell somewhere among the floorboards.
“Motherfucker,” he said. He took a hearty slug and found that most of the burn was gone. He was starting to feel pretty good. He took a deep breath and pulled his phone from his pocket. He held down Ann Marie’s speed dial button and put the phone up to his ear. In his drunkenness, he couldn’t feel her phone vibrating in his coat pocket.
After he was forwarded to the voicemail he said, “Annie, baby, I’m really sorry about everything. I just…lost my temper. I just want you to know that I love you. I’ll be in touch really soon. I’m just gonna go somewhere to think for a little bit. Bye.” He ended the call and then took another pull of whiskey.
He drove on for a moment. The moon was rising in the sky and a dark night had fallen upon the forests that surrounded Deercliff. He had always been good at drunk-driving; Reggie often talked him into driving them to McDonald’s on Saturday nights after they polished off a case of Natty Ice together. It wasn’t uncommon that they would cruise up the very road that he found himself on that evening to enjoy their meal in the solitude of nature. He knew every list of the road and every cattle-guard by heart. I wish I just had someone to talk to, he thought. Somebody who understands me.
He opened his phone again and began scanning through his contacts. Maybe if he just talked things through with his brother he could figure out what his next move should be. After all, he had seen crazier shit in Afghanistan than Big Mac would ever see. He pushed the send button and then looked up just in time to see that he was driving off the road into the coulee that was formed by the Withering Pine Fork.