I awoke in a rented bed screaming to the growing dawn. It was morning again. I sat up and rubbed my face, trying to drive away the memories that invaded my night. No such luck. Just like the others, this memory was here to stay.
Maddie was a murderer, a 14-year-old burgeoning serial killer. I didn’t have all the facts in front of me yet, but as far as I knew she was grooming me for the same. Her plan failed, thankfully. I still didn’t know what happened to her after that night, or why I didn’t remember any of this until returning to the town where it all happened. I felt sick. My mind was a jumble of terrible images and unanswerable questions.
Eventually I stumbled down the stairs and into the kitchen to make a pot of coffee I didn’t particularly want to drink. My day had to start eventually, and it was something to do. I measured the water, doled out the grounds into the filter, and started the machine. A simple procedure that did little to take my mind off of things.
While I waited for the coffee to brew I sat at the kitchen island staring off into the middle distance in a sort of daze. What was I supposed to do? Should I report it to the police? How could I explain what I didn’t fully understand myself? Should I just leave?
That was an attractive option, except the job that brought me here was incomplete and I didn’t handle that sort of failure very well. It was supposed to be a simple, uncomplicated assignment with a generous paycheck at the end. Still, I probably had enough reference photos to finish the job at home. Probably. I wasn’t so sure I could stand to look at another barn for the foreseeable future.
As the coffee machine gurgled the cobwebs slowly cleared from my brain and for the first time I became aware that something did not seem right in the house. The atmosphere had changed, and for no reason I could quite pinpoint, I began to feel afraid. Not alone. I couldn’t say why.
Grabbing a knife from the kitchen door that I was in no way prepared to use, I patrolled the ground floor for anything that seemed awry. Both doors were locked and I could detect no sign of a forced entry. The windows were locked as well, and none of them were broken Nothing was missing, I saw no muddy footprints or bloody hand prints. Nothing sinister at all to report. It was strange.
I decided I was just feeling paranoid from a night of bad dreams and returned to the kitchen for my coffee and a bagel. That’s when I saw it. There, on the counter, a newspaper. I kept plenty of them around for light reading and to use as drop cloths, but of course those were all new ones. The newspaper that sat on the counter was yellow with age, practically ancient. I glanced around, grimacing. Someone left it here, but why?
Having once again forgotten my coffee, I snatched up the paper and scanned it for the secrets it held. It was a local paper, The Belleville Republican. The date was October 25th, 1992. That was the year I turned five. We would have moved away by then, but just barely.
I didn’t have to scan for long to find what I was looking for, it was the banner headline. It read as follows:
The Ghoul of Belleville Has Been Caught!
Below this was a photo of several grim policemen hauling a filthy and bewildered-looking man out of a farmhouse. I stared at the man for several minutes, but he evoked no memories, fair or foul. A complete stranger. Still, the connection seemed obvious. I read the attached article.
BELLEVILLE – Last night, at 7:14 P.M. police apprehended Eric James Gunderson, a derelict. Gunderson has been named as a suspect in connection with the murder of three boys, aged five to eight. The town was shaken to its core last Thursday after a thorough search of the town of Belleville and the surrounding countryside resulted in police bloodhounds finally locating the body of the three youths. All three were buried in shallow graves in the dirt floor of an abandoned barn just off Country Road 3356. Adding to the horror and the tragedy was the news that all three bodies showed evidence of having been partially consumed postmortem. All three bodies also showed evidence of torture before finally succumbing to their injuries. The so-called Ghoul of Belleville had apparently lured all three children to the site, as the murder weapons themselves seemed to be improvised from readily available farming implements. A vocal public outcry quickly followed by concerned parents and outraged citizens of Belleville and the surrounding townships, demanding police find and apprehend this fiendish murderer before he could kill again. A curfew was hastily instated and for the past week the familiar sight of children playing unattended in the streets and forests seemed to be a thing of the past. Thankfully, an anonymous tip led police to an abandoned farmhouse not far from the site of the murders, where transient Gunderson had apparently been squatting for an unknown period of time. Found in his effects was a pair of underwear identified as belonging to one of the slain children. Under questioning, Gunderson denied any prior knowledge of the murders and could not account for his possession of the garment. However, a background check on Gunderson revealed, among many charges of vagrancy and public intoxication, a child abuse charge from fifteen years prior. The victim was his own son, now estranged and living with his mother in Tuscon, AZ. The Belleville Police have issued the following statement: (Continued on page six)
I opened the paper to find the rest of the article, but this proved unnecessary. The real message, the one I was meant to find, fell out of the paper and onto the floor. I snatched it from the tile and found it addressed simply to Johnny. I unfolded it and read the message within.
Hey kiddo. It’s good to see you again, even if you haven’t seen me yet. Hehe. I’ve missed you all these years, and I wanted you to know I don’t blame you for what happened. Let us start fresh. “The Ghoul of Belleville!” Pretty cool nickname, huh? I don’t have one these days, nicknames are for the careless and I move around too much for that. But I’ve been keeping tabs on my baby brother, and when I found out you were coming back to Belleville, I knew I had to come back too. Do you remember everything yet? I know how tirelessly mom, dad, and their shrink have worked to erase me from your memory. Fuck them! I think it’s time for a reunion of the old club, don’t you? You still haven’t been properly initiated yet, and what sort of example is that for a Vice President to set? Come on down to the clubhouse, whenever you’re ready. Oh, and kiddo? Don’t get any funny ideas about bringing company along. I’d hate for this one to have to die without you.
Love, Maddie (your imaginary friend! haha)
I let the note fall to the floor at my feet and sat there for a long time, wondering just what I was supposed to do. I had no doubt someone like Maddie would find a way to make me take the fall for her crimes, even with this note that was essentially a signed confession. Maddie had been all but erased from history, living off the grid for decades. My parents, damn them, helped her along with their revisionist history. She was the proverbial one armed man.
As far as the townspeople knew, I was the only weirdo wandering through the backwoods and spending an awful lot of time in and around barns. Any crimes she committed could be pinned on me as easily as her first murders were pinned on poor Gunderson. I stepped into her noose without even knowing it. She didn’t have to tell me that “this one” was another child, my initiation the taking of the poor child’s life.
If I ignored her note she would find me, and probably hurt other people in the process. If I came with the cops she would kill the boy and disappear. As far as the cops would know, I was leading them to my own signed confession.
I didn’t hold any illusions that if I met with her I could reason with her. Her note made it sound like she had been very busy over the years, and nothing I could say to her could convince her to turn herself in to the authorities. I had to stop her somehow, but for the life of me I had no idea how I was going to do it.
It was the afternoon before I gathered the will to face her. On the kitchen counter I left Maddie’s note, the weathered newspaper, and a note of my own. In it, I explained everything as well as I could in what I considered to be the very likely event of my own demise. I could only hope that it would be enough for the authorities to find and capture her before she could kill again.
I came unarmed, without so much as a kitchen knife to protect me. I felt naked without it, but I knew in my heart that the child’s odds were better if I came to Maddie without aggression. She had much more experience with deadly weapons in any case, I was hopelessly outmatched.
The precise location of our “club house” still eluded me, but my extensive exploration of the countryside aided me somewhat, along with the clue of the country road given by the newspaper article. With the help of satellite imagery provided by the internet I was able to narrow the location of the barn down to a few strong candidates. I only hoped I would find the right one before she grew impatient.
Even with all of my admittedly lackluster detective work the search was slow going. The first barn I tried had burned to the ground sometime in the period between the satellite photography and now. Only a few charred timbers remained. I wasted the better part of an hour hiking to the location, and each moment ticked by felt like a moment closer to doom.
I ran back to the car and drove to the next location as quickly as I dared. Occasionally I passed motorists, farmers and other locals who likely recognized my vehicle. Surely the child was missed by now, and I couldn’t afford to attract attention to myself. I glanced at my watch and swore. If I didn’t find her soon I would be forced to face her after dark.
The idea of Maddie’s growing blood lust was never far from my mind. How long could a creature like her restrain her murderous impulses? Her cannibalistic impulses? I had no idea. I could only hope that whatever she wanted from me was enough to stay her hand.
The second barn still stood, but I knew on sight that it was a dead end as well. It sparked no feeling from me, no dreadful recollection. I checked inside to be sure, and found it empty save for a few birds nesting in the rafters. They screeched and fled, leaving behind a gentle snowfall of discarded feathers. More time wasted.
Somehow I knew the third candidate would prove to be my final destination. I knew it as soon as I stepped out of the car and into the woods beyond the road. The path was still there, as Maddie knew I would find it. She tied a rag of cloth around a tree branch all those years ago, and though it was surely rotted away in the span of decades, another had taken its place. The trail was overgrown but I could still see the ghost of it. The woods seemed impossibly dark in the waning light. I stepped in, flashlight in hand.
As I trudged through the undergrowth flashes of memories came flooding back to me. I remembered the innocent time when I had not an inkling of Maddie’s darker side. I remembered my first and greatest friend, the person I idolized. The person who always had time for her baby brother. The person who always showed me kindness, taught me how to read, and encouraged my earliest creative efforts. She was there for me in ways my own parents never matched.
I remembered the formation of the club, a place just for us where she promised to teach me all secrets older children knew and adults forbade. All of it given under the pretext of guiding my path to a brilliant future and untold success. I did all she asked, wishing only to see her smile. That strange smile I loved so well. I did as she bade even when it frightened me.
Soon her tutelage began to grow strange and terrible. Though my love for her burned as brightly as ever, I began to fear her as well. I began to fear her lessons and fear what I understood adulthood to represent. When I finally failed her test I saw a side of her previously unsuspected. I saw her rage. I saw her seize the head of a squalling lamb and snap it with a terrible roar. The next time I obeyed. The cat. The rock. How close did I come in the end to becoming just like her?
I switched the flashlight on, the light failing enough to make progress difficult through the trees and the brush. I felt eyes on me from all around, and told myself this was just paranoia. Every step was an act of will. Somewhere out there in the growing darkness I could feel the barn, our clubhouse. I could feel its pull. It was close.
Finally I could see the shape of it looming through the thinning forest. High up in the hayloft I thought I could see a faint glow. This was it. I could not turn back, I didn’t dare. Somehow I knew she knew I had arrived. I stepped into the clearing, into the barnyard. The door stood open a crack, inviting.
Muscle memory guided me through the twists and turns of decay. I ignored the paths of dead ends and switchbacks created both by the carelessness of those that left them and the ones created by Maddie herself when she was little more than a child. This time was so much easier than in my last, terrible dream. The panic of that night was replaced by a strange calm, and I had my flashlight to guide me away from the teeth and the traps.
“Johnny!” A voice called out from the darkness.
I froze, my heart pounding and prickles of fear riding up and down my flesh. It was her, it was Maddie.
“I’m so glad you made it, I was starting to worry you wouldn’t come! Do you remember everything yet? Well, never mind, I’ll help you fill in the blanks when you get here! We have plenty of time to talk.”
I didn’t answer, I couldn’t. After a time I forced myself forward again. The flashlight’s beam created grotesque shadows from the strange machinery. Ghoulish faces leaped up and lunged at me, razor claws swiped at my face and I could almost hear the cruel laughter of these phantasms. I tried to ignore them. The real monster lay ahead. I was close.
“I missed you so much, Johnny!” She called.
I could almost believe her kind tone. A ghost of the love I once felt for her welled up unbidden from somewhere deep within. I still did not dare believe I could get through to her. Not much farther, now.
“It’s been so lonely all these years, but I never stopped thinking of you. You’re my best friend, Johnny. I want to share everything with you. We still can!”
I turned another corner, walls constructed of bales of barbed wire. An image grew in my head of the the castle of Sleeping Beauty, and the terrible thorny bramble that sprung up around it. Another of Maddie’s stories. I always imagined her as the princess, imprisoned in her own mind as much as the magically fortified castle. The idea that I was her prince gave unpleasant connotations in my grown mind.
Through the narrow path in the thorns I saw the ladder to the hayloft. The entrance to the castle. In this fairy tale it was the wicked witch waiting above. Beyond the ladder was the rare open patch of dirt floor where sacrifices were made and tiny bodies were buried. I clambered up the ladder to my waiting destiny.
Her hand seized my own as I groped at the wooden platform of the hayloft. I gasped and nearly fell to the jagged mess below. Instead she hauled me up to relatively solid ground. It was nearly a miracle the wood had not rotted away. I still didn’t trust it any more than my present company. I scrambled as far away from her as the limited space would allow.
As my thudding heart slowed with excruciating slowness, I became aware that we were alone in the loft. There was no child. Maddie, allowing me my space, nodded sympathetically from the opposite side. An electric lantern glowed dimly beside her, illuminating her makeshift camp. A bedroll and a stash of canned food I recognized as having come from my own pantry.
“The kid?” I asked, able to speak at last.
Maddie smiled. “It’s just you and me, little brother. I’m sorry, I didn’t want to deceive you like all the others. I just wanted to make sure we would have this time alone, and I couldn’t have the police interrupt us. You understand, don’t you?”
“What do you want?” I asked.
“I told you, kiddo,” She replied, “I just want to talk about old times. I really wasn’t going to hurt you that night, truly. I never wanted to hurt you, and I understood you weren’t ready yet. It was just like the lamb, remember? You were scared then, but soon enough you were ready for that. I was so proud of you when you crushed that cat’s skull. I could tell, you loved it. The power! But it’s nothing compared to a human life. God!”
“I didn’t!” I cried, “I didn’t love it. It was sickening! I wish I never did it, I wish I could have forgotten it forever.”
“You loved it.” Maddie said, emphatically. “I think you know that, too. I saw your painting, saw the look on your face. You put it there, it was just like that night. It was gorgeous, Johnny. I always knew you had talent. It’s a gift, a gift from God, and this is the same, it really is! If I just had a little more time with you I could have taught you to understand that to destroy is just as beautiful, just as joyous as to create!”
“No…” I moaned, but something inside me could see the truth in her words. I could remember that terrible, terrible joy. As loathsome as it was, as unspeakable, some spark of it shone in a space my waking mind had locked away. But I wasn’t like her! So what if I felt anticipation well up against the fear when we led that boy to the clubhouse? In the end I turned away from destruction, denied her teachings. I ran away and embraced creation.
“I know, kiddo.” She smiled, “It was too soon. I was careless, like I said. A little restraint would have made all the difference, but your big sister hadn’t learned yet to control her… urges. That’s why I didn’t blame you.”
“For telling them everything?” I asked, “For telling mom about the animals, and the boy? The clubhouse?”
“Mom already knew,” Maddie told me. “Or at least she suspected. She suspected me, at least. I’m not sure how, exactly. Mothers have a way about them, so I’m given to understand. She knew, do you understand? She knew, and she looked the other way. Tacit permission, as far as I was concerned. Not that I gave a shit what she or dad thought. They sure as hell never cared what I did. Not after you were born. I don’t blame you for that either. I’m just saying, neither of them would deal with a problem, they were content to ignore it until it grew out of control. Or to run away from it, leaving it all alone.”
“What happened after that night? After I told them?” I asked. I suddenly remembered standing in a darkened hallway and listening to a screaming fight between the three of them. “You came back.”
“Yeah, that’s right. I had to tell them I forced you to do all those things, I couldn’t let you take the fall. I tried to explain why I did the things I did, I hoped they could understand. They couldn’t, or wouldn’t. Hell, I guess I hardly understood why I did it either, just that it felt good to do. Like nothing else, not sex, not drugs. Nothing compared. I never even felt alive, or else I felt like nothing else in the world was real. Nothing compared to the feeling I got when I took a life, when I tasted the flesh. God!”
“What did they say?” I asked, “What did they do?”
“What did they do?” She repeated, “They screamed, they yelled, they gnashed their teeth and quailed at their own poor fortune. They told me I was sick, that I needed help. They wanted me to stop. I would rather die. To stop is to die. I couldn’t. I ran. They didn’t try to stop me. They called the police and reported me a runaway. When enough time passed and I didn’t come back for them, I was declared dead. They took you away as soon as they could.”
“Surely there would be a record of your death, though, right?” I asked, perplexed, “I should have found it online.”
“Oh that’s easy. There probably is a record somewhere, no matter how hard I tried to cover my tracks and no matter how much our parents tried to hide the truth. That’s why they changed their name. Yours too.”
“Of course,” I muttered. It was so simple, I should have thought of it.
“The rest,” She told me, “as far as I know, is simple programming. You were so young, so pliable. I don’t know the particulars of it, of course, but they got some shrink to fill your head with bullshit and… and fucking gaslighted you into thinking I never existed and that all of those times we had together were nothing but nightmares and daydreams! They really did a number on you, little brother. God, I wish I had killed them too. I still could, I know where they are.”
I was dumbstruck, but it all made sense. Even as recently as a few weeks ago my mother was still up to those tricks. Still turning a blind eye. I could hate her for that, but I still didn’t want her to die.
“Maddie, maybe mom and dad were not the best parents, but you can’t kill them! Please, please, you’ve got to stop! You have no right!”
Maddie just stared back at me, eyes cold and mouth set. My stomach dropped a few floors and my brain pulsed with static, the onset of panic. I knew that look from years ago. From the first test. The lamb. Rage was coming.
“NO RIGHT?!” She bellowed, the tendons in her neck standing in stark relief. For the first time I noticed the ripple of muscle beneath her skin, like a mixed martial arts fighter. She must have spent years training her body into a machine every bit as powerful and awesome as the hulks that rusted below us. She advanced on me, and I tried to shrink back into the wall. I suddenly wish I had brought a gun.
“NO RIGHT!? Who decides what is right, brother? Was it right for those bastards to turn their back on me, to take you away and fill your head with lies? I’m the only one who ever told you the truth, and you take THEIR SIDE!?”
She roared and leapt at me. Somehow I rolled away in time. The ancient boards creaked menacingly with her impact. The window gaped open at my back, a short wall the only thing separating me from hanging out into the open air.
“Stop! Maddie, please!” I begged, “Stop, let’s talk about this!”
“Too late, kiddo.” She said, stalking toward me. Again I tried to scramble away, but there was nowhere to go. “I wanted to talk, but you turned on me! Just like the others, you son of a bitch!”
In a fluid motion she leaped at me again, drawing a knife from a sheath at her hip. I wasn’t fast enough this time, the blade drew blood from my left arm, searing pain. The bloodied knife shone blackly in the moonlight. The impact shook the rotted boards again, and they felt terribly close to collapse. I sprung away, but she was ready.
I begged her again and again to stop, but the sight of my blood only intensified her fury. She swiped the blade back and forth as I backpedaled and sidestepped desperately and with limited success. I was bleeding now from several wounds in my chest and arms. Some were shallow, some felt horribly deep. I was going to die.
Finally sick of her cat and mouse game, Maddie charged at me and tackled me to the ground. She rose the gory knife high to deliver a killing blow when the floorboards finally gave way.
It felt like we fell forever.
I fell badly on my arm and felt it snap, and I screamed with a pain never before suspected. Somewhere through this agonized haze I could hear Maddie scream as well. I looked, and saw her bleeding from wounds of her own. Nails and shards of wood pierced her side where she landed. No mortal wounds, but as a gestalt it was more than enough to keep her busy for a minute.
I gritted my teeth and prepared to move. To escape. I half crawled, half lurched toward the bramble forest bleeding in a thousand places. I held my shattered arm with the one still whole, and focused all my energy on not blacking out. One step. Another. Another.
A hand seized my foot and a banshee shrieked from somewhere behind me. I fell to the ground trying and failing to protect my arm. Blackness crowded around my vision, I was going to die.
“Nuh-uh, kiddo. We’re not done here yet,” The Minotaur snarled. Her eyes shone in the failing light of the lantern, which landed somewhere nearby. Something else shone. I wasn’t sure what, the blackness was crowding in too deep. It was close. I reached. She crawled up my prone body. My arm sang a spirited symphony of outrage.
The Wicked Witch was on top of me, straddled my sides. She stared into my eyes but I saw no life there. Only death. She bared her teeth at me. They seemed terribly sharp. My neck was terribly exposed. My hand found the shining thing it sought. I swung the shining thing at Maddie with all of my remaining strength. There was more of it then I thought.
The Maddie-Thing shrieked again and clawed at its neck. Something had sprouted there, protruding from the base where neck met shoulder. She rolled off of me, still screaming. In the dim light I could see the shining thing was her knife. Somehow I found the strength to rise and crawl to her. Her screams had stopped by the time I reached her.
I looked down at my sister, her face growing peaceful. Rage had subsided at last. She looked up at me and smiled, tears welling in her eyes. I loved it when she smiled at me. Somehow I forgot about the pain, forgot about dying. I wanted to tell her something, but I didn’t know what it was.
She had something to tell me too, and she did know what it was. She said, “Oh kiddo. Am I your first?”
Then Maddie died.
I don’t remember much about the rest of that night. I somehow managed to call 911, and I somehow managed to direct them to that remote barn. Maybe they tracked my cell phone, I don’t know. All I can say for certain is that I eventually woke up in a hospital.
The police had the predictable onslaught of questions for me, though they were kind enough to wait until I was lucid enough to answer them. I answered their questions as honestly as possible, including admitting that I killed my sister. They seemed to accept my self defense plea, though I suppose I won’t know for certain until it goes to trial.
I heard from Lisa before I heard from mom or dad. She called me in the hospital with her own onslaught of questions. Thankfully, as per usual, she did not require answers to most of them. After determining that I was going to survive my injuries, it was back to business for her. She assured me that she would handle the benefactors, however I decided to move forward with the project.
Mom and dad did eventually call, but I couldn’t answer either of them. I wasn’t ready for the conversation we had coming.
When I finally had time to think about all that had happened, the story that began when I was just four years old, I was at a loss for how to feel. She was a monster. A psychopath, a murderer, and a cannibal. She tried to make me like herself. She was my sister. I loved her. I wanted to be just like her.
I don’t know what the future holds for me, but my past is clearer than it’s ever been.
I remember everything.
I remember Maddie.