Various electronics partially illuminated Jackson’s basement room. He felt that his bed was as comfortable as usual, but he found the warm folds of his sheets and the soft give of his mattress and pillows to be borderline inhospitable. He tried laying on his back, then his side, then his stomach, then his back once again.
The image of Big Mac leaving Reggie’s garage played out in his mind over and over again: “Whatever. This is all bullshit.” Jackson had barely had time to process that moment, let alone finding out that Big Mac was cheating on Ann Marie and Ann Marie storming out herself moments later. Everything had happened so quickly, and now Big Mac was dead, just like that.
Jackson tossed and turned a couple more times and then settled on his back once again. He closed his eyes, hoping, praying for sleep. A couple of minutes later, drowsiness surrounded his body and the room began to feel as heavy as lead. It felt as though roots were growing out of the bed and encircling him. He opened his eyes and it felt like he was looking on at himself, as though his spirit was floating off to the side of his body. A sound began to fill his ears, soft at first, like an untuned ham radio, but the sound inched louder and louder until it was all at once a deafening roar. Jackson tried to move his arms, but they would not budge. He pulled and pulled with all of his might until he was completely exhausted and then, suddenly, he laid still.
He could feel something else in the room. Something. Spectrally, he moved his vision around the room. And then, all at once, his spirit darted back into his immovable body, as if in fear. When he opened his eyes, he saw something perched at bottom of his bed. A form that was so dark that the darkness around it seemed illuminated by comparison. Pure dread filled Jackson’s body, and still, he could not move.
“Jackson,” it said. “Sweet, sweet Jackson. Your father may be gone and your mother may have forgotten about you, but I have not. I’m coming, my dear. I’m coming for you.”
And then, with impossible jerky motion, the figure scrambled up his bed towards him and, all at once, he recoiled with every inch of his consciousness. His eyes, his true eyes, jerked open and his arms, his true arms, pushed off his covers and he sat up in bed, gulping for air.
“Fuck,” he said. “Jesus fucking….” He reached for his phone and clicked the backlight on. It said that the time was 11:23 PM and it said that he had received a text from Todd. He set his phone down, turned his light on and began looking around the room. In the corners, in the closet, he found nothing. He sat down on his beg again, shaking his head, but always looking at the spot where he had seen the dark figure. Eventually, he picked up his phone and read the text message from Todd. It said, simply, “Call me.”
Ann Marie set her phone to the side, having messaged Jackson about Big Mac’s death. She massaged her forehead and wrapped one of her arms around her midsection, as if to hold her guts inside of her stomach. Her mind moved through memories rapidly, like changing channels on a television, settling on one moment for an instant before quickly switching to another. She just couldn’t wrap her mind around everything that had happened. There was too much, too many memories to process, too many questions that would never be answered. Before she knew it, there were tears in her eyes. She tried to blink them away, but they would not stop coming. She would have thought it impossible with the amount of tears that she had shed in the last 24 hours. Her eyes felt puffy and strained and dehydrated, but there was nothing else that she could do.
“Don’t cry,” she said to herself. “Don’t cry…”
Gradually, her mind settled on a memory. Not a memory of Big Mac, but rather one of her mother. Her mother had been a model in her youth. Always gorgeous, always put together. By the time Ann Marie was born, her modelling days were over, but she had become a mentor to quite a few prominent up-and-coming models from around the country. Ann Marie did not get to see her much as a child since she was constantly travelling the country, one week attending a shoot in New York, the next a shoot in the Bahamas.
Ann Marie’s aunt (her mother’s sister) had died from ovarian cancer in her mid-forties. During the funeral they showed a slideshow of old pictures that had either been provided by family members or friends of the family. The touching images of various moments from her aunt’s life, capturing jubilant birthday parties and hot days at the reservoir and various other instances, moved Ann Marie to tears. She remembered crying among her extended family members for a few moments before her mother came and grabbed her by the hand and led her out of the room.
In the lobby, Ann Marie continued to cry. Her mother handed her some tissues, and then hugged her daughter, running her hand through the hair on the back of her head.
“Shhh,” she said. “Don’t cry, darling. Don’t cry.” After a minute, Ann Marie regained her composure. Her mother let their embrace go and Ann Marie stood back and looked at her mother’s beautiful, stunning face. Not a single tear had sullied her impeccable makeup.
“There we go,” she said. “That’s better.” Her mother smiled and fixed her daughter’s hair. “Remember, my love: Ladies like us? We’re too beautiful to cry.” And then she turned around and walked back in to watch the rest of the slideshow. A year later, her mother also developed ovarian cancer. Within another year, she was dead.
Ann Marie sat on her bed, wiped the tears from her eyes once again, and then smoothed her hair back into place. “Don’t cry,” she said. “Don’t cry…”
She knocked, three slow knocks on Maggie’s door.
“Just…you two try and stay positive in there, all right, sweetie?” Maggie’s mother had told Ann Marie. As she walked through the living room, she exchanged low faces with Maggie’s brother, Trevor. They had not seen each other in a few years, but it made sense that he was there. Trevor looked exhausted and unkempt. Ann Marie figured that she would be seeing quite a bit of him in the days to come.
“Come in,” said Maggie. Ann Marie opened the door and found Maggie laying on her bed with her hands over her eyes. The only light in the room came from the overcast sunset that was peering through the blinds. Maggie was wearing sweatpants and an overly large hoodie.
“Hey, Maggie,” said Ann Marie, unsure of what to expect. Maggie slowly lowered her hands from her eyes and saw that it was Ann Marie.
“Hello, Annie,” she said, and she began to crawl along the bed to sit on the edge. There was weariness on every inch of Maggie’s face, but as she settled she gave Ann Marie the smallest of smiles and it all melted away, for just one second. Then the weariness came back just as strong the moment after. Ann Marie hesitated for a moment and then walked over and sat down next to Maggie and pulled her into an uneasy hug.
“I’m glad you’re all right,” said Ann Marie. “So glad.” She could feel tears touch the edges of her eyes, but she blinked them away and then pulled herself together again. “I’m so sorry about what happened. I…I should have been there, I shouldn’t have let you walk home alone…I…I don’t know what to say.”
They let go of the embrace. Maggie cocked her head to the side, looked Ann Marie in the eyes, and said, “It’s all right, Annie. It wasn’t your fault. None of it was.”
Ann Marie blinked once or twice, shook her head and then said, “Do you remember anything that happened?”
Maggie shook her head. “I don’t remember any of it. I remember telling you that you should drop me at the corner so I could have a cigarette on the walk home, and then I remember waking up in the hospital bed. There’s…nothing in between. Just…darkness.”
Ann Marie nodded and looked at the floor. She hesitated for a moment, and then said, “I…I just can’t believe he’s gone.” And then the tears came. Maggie put her arms around Ann Marie as tears welled in her own eyes. They both buried their faces in each other’s shoulders and cried. They cried and cried, as hard as they knew how to do, until there were no more tears and no more energy to carry on. They both sat there in each other’s embrace for another minute, sniffling, trying to regain their composures.
And then Ann Marie said it, in between sobs: “I know…I know about the two of you. I know you were sleeping together.” They both let go of their embrace and sat up straight, both looking anywhere but at each other. There was an uneasy stillness to the air as they both continued to sniffle, but then Maggie nodded and said, “I knew. I knew when you walked in the door that you knew about us. I’m so sorry, Annie. I’m…so sorry.”
They sat like that for a moment, with a mutual unsureness about where this moment would go. Finally, Ann Marie stood up and took a couple of steps back.
“That’s all you have to say? You’re sorry? You’re sorry?! What the fuck, Maggie! Sorry isn’t good enough! I can’t believe you would do that to me. I can’t fucking believe you would do that to me! You don’t have enough already that you have to go and sleep with my fucking boyfriend?! And now he’s gone! He’s fucking gone! I can’t fucking believe you! I just can’t fucking believe you…” Ann Marie had run out of words to say. She just stood there by Maggie’s door, looking at the floor and shaking her head back and forth.
Maggie looked at her, and shook her own head. After a moment, she simply said, “I’m sorry, Annie. I’m so sorry….”
Ann Marie turned around and walked out the door.
Jackson was driving his mother’s car along the Lower Withering Pine Fork with Todd in the passenger seat. They had just passed the fork where Big Mac had driven off the road. It was dark enough that they simply saw some caution tape as they drove past. They both would have liked to have stopped and inspected the area where the crash had occurred but there was no time. Todd needed to meet Delia in 20 minutes and Jackson was in charge of getting him there.
Todd had told Jackson enough about Delia and her relationship with Maggie to convince him that it was a good idea for them to meet up with her as soon as possible. Jackson decided that they could borrow his mother’s car just as long as they got it back before the morning. His mother hardly ever went in the garage and rarely ever drove the car. At worst, she would be passed out when Jackson got home and, at best, she would not be home until well into the morning.
They passed the campground, turned, then began to ascend the switchbacks that led to the Falls, a perilous task even in the daytime. Jackson kept his high beams on and watched the road sharply, occasionally itching his face. A song called Tech Noir by the band Gunship played softly in the background, loud enough to urge Jackson on but not so loud as to distract him. On and on they went, for what seemed like an hour, till suddenly the grade of the road leveled off. They crept forward a few more feet and then parked the car next to a small hill with a well-worn path in it. The path led up the hill; a five minute hike that would take them to the waterfalls that lined the cliff. As they both got out of the car, the roar of the Falls was deafening.
They both came around the car and looked at the steep hill for a moment.
Jackson said, almost yelled at Todd, “Well, should we do this?”
Todd turned around and looked at Jackson. “So…” he said. “Look, Delia’s my cousin. I’ve know her for quite a while and she’s pretty skittish. She doesn’t…she doesn’t know you came with me. Is it cool if I just run up there and talk with her by myself? I’ll tell her you’re waiting down here and, if it’s all good, I’ll yell at you and tell you to come on up. How does that sound?”
Jackson nodded his head and wrung his hands. “Yeah, okay,” he said. “Don’t take too long though, ya know? It’s fuckin’ spooky down here….”
“No prob,” said Todd. “Talk to you in a minute.” He turned on the flashlight on his phone and began marching up the path.
Jackson leaned up against the car and felt the still warmth of the engine through the fender. He wrapped his arms around himself and stared at the ground. He was annoyed that Todd wanted to leave him here, but he understood the delicacy of the situation with Delia. Everything in his life, and the lives of all of his friends, had gotten fucked up recently; even more fucked up than usual and now he wanted some answers.
Then he heard something in the distance. Something in the trees. He opened his eyes wide and shot his gaze up to the treeline. He started to shake slightly as he scanned along the branches of the trees that lined the downward slope of the hill that they had just climbed. He went back and forth, eyes darting from branch to branch, once or twice until he settled on something. Something that made his blood run cold. He saw a dark figure in the trees: dark among darkness. So dark that it seemed to warm the darkness that surrounded it. Something. And it knew. It knew that Jackson could see it. He stood there, frozen, gazing at the darkness, until all at once it jerked and scrambled away, silently, down the hill, towards Deercliffe.