I awoke feeling unclean from the dreams of the night before and set upon taking a long hot shower immediately after rising. This agreement, this vow of secrecy Maddie made me take with her, it had ghastly undertones, though the specifics of what we were hiding eluded me. I suppose I had my guesses, but I dared not articulate them.
There was something else she said, something I had assumed all the while, though I dared not articulate this idea either: It was the way Maddie said “mom and dad.” Not “your mom and dad” in word or tone. As far as I was concerned, that settled it.
Maddie was my sister. I wasn’t an only child, I had a sister.
For the moment I stopped scrubbing my arm, as I had been doing continuously as these thoughts passed through my mind. My skin was turning a bright, raw red. I dropped the loofah to the tile floor.
I had a sister of whom I had no memory until a few days ago. I had a sister I loved very dearly when I was a small child, who took a very special interest in me. I had a sister I haven’t seen in decades. I had a sister my mother and presumably, my father disowned and disavowed.
Why? For God’s sake, what was going on here? How did I forget about her so completely? These questions swirled in my mind along with the ones too disturbing to ask, even inside my own head, a vortex of confusion, fear, and shame without a definite source. The hell of it all was this: How could I even be sure these memories were real?
Then I thought of it: I could be sure these memories were real, or at least I thought I could. If there was a Madison Benson, or a Madeline Benson, or any damned Benson girl who ever lived in this town, there would be some kind of evidence of it!
For the rest of the morning I was on pins and needles waiting for the library to open. Unfortunately, I searched online for any evidence of her existence to no avail. Unsurprisingly, there were numerous Maddie Bensons, Madeline Bensons, Madison Bensons, Margaret Bensons, et al to choose from, but not one I could concretely link to myself or this town. Frustrating.
Frustrating, but not totally unexpected. When I knew Maddie and we lived here, well it was a different time. The internet had not yet conquered the Earth and all its peoples. Fortunately, I wasn’t counting on it. I was confident that the library would have what I needed. If it would ever open.
I killed time by checking my email. Lisa had, of course, already responded to my email from the night before. She thought my painting was “gorgeous, absolutely breathtaking, your best work yet, an absolute triumph, and so on.” She actually said, “and so on.” If there was something about Lisa Kandinsky I truly admired, it was how deliberately transparent she was about flattery, praise, and schmoozing of all kinds. It wasn’t that she was insincere, by now I knew that. She wasn’t afraid to tell me when what I showed her was shit. It always helped me to admit this fact to myself.
Pending approval from our benefactors, which she assured me we would have, I was under instructions to send the painting to her using one of the pre-addressed mailing tubes. That was all well and good, and on some level, I was pleased to hear it, but my mind was elsewhere. I closed my laptop and sought other ways to whittle the time away.
Some interminable time later the time had finally come, and I was out the door. I could not remember ever having been so excited to head to the library, and I laughed at what a nerd I was as I slid my key into the ignition. My neighbor was out in his yard, again bald and tank top clad. I could tell he was wondering what I could possibly have been laughing at to myself in my car, but I didn’t much care.
Simply put, the library was a dead end. I spent an embarrassing amount of time looking for the microfiche reading room before I realized that the format had been obsolete for decades now. I suppose it was just the sort of thing you saw in movies, and so it was the first thing I thought to do. The newspaper archives were available on computer, and I wasted a few hours poring through them.
The only thing I learned of remote interest was that the archive of the local newspaper was woefully incomplete. I quickly noticed large gaps of missing time, probably lost when the archives actually were on microfiche, stolen by vandals perhaps. Who knows?
Discouraged, I was close to giving up entirely and was just sort of walking up and down the rows, feigning interest in the books on the shelves and considering my next move. I thought I could request a copy of her birth certificate if she was a sibling, but I figured I would have to A. Give her real name, and B. Provide proof of my relation to her. I could do neither.
By chance, I stumbled upon an option I had not considered: Yearbooks! The library had decades of them from the local high school. I had no idea libraries even kept yearbooks on file, but evidently, they did, right in the reference section. I snatched up every yearbook I thought she could have appeared in, and toted them to the nearest empty table.
I was reasonably confident that Maddie was somewhere in the vicinity of fourteen in my memories, surely older than twelve and definitely not as old as eighteen. Just to be on the safe side I grabbed the volumes that assumed her age to be between ten and twenty. A generous range to work with.
I was probably about halfway through the volume that assumed her to be fourteen, scanning photo by photo to find one that resembled my memories of Maddie before I slapped my forehead audibly enough to catch sidelong glances from other early bird library patrons. Yearbooks had indices. I would have made a truly terrible detective.
I flipped to the back of the book and made another frustrating discovery: Half of the index was gone, predictably including the B section. I would have muttered profanity or slammed my fist on the table, but I was already painfully aware of eyes still on me. Another quick check through the book confirmed another suspicion: Several pages were missing.
It couldn’t have been a coincidence. Maybe a nostalgic vandal would have stolen a page from the yearbook but who would have stolen pages from the index? It made no sense at all, or at least no sense that I could see. If someone wasn’t trying to hide the existence of Maddie, then what were they doing?
I checked the previous and following yearbooks. The year following was complete, which came as no real surprise to me. That was the year we moved, of course. Maddie wouldn’t have continued to go to school here after we left. The previous yearbook was missing its entire index and I nearly threw it aside, but by some impulse, I flipped through it.
There were no missing pages that I could find, but there was vandalism just the same. On page seventy-six, third row down and two to the left, someone had scribbled the photo into oblivion with a magic marker. A jagged black void was all that remained. I stared at this bit of improvised censorship for quite a while, pondering its possible meaning.
This could not be a coincidence. It couldn’t be. Maddie was not some imaginary friend a single child concocted to fight his loneliness. She was a real person and for some reason, someone was trying to erase any evidence she ever existed. What happened all those years in the hot, dusty darkness? What happened to Maddie?
It was all so frustrating, I could feel the sting of tears in my eyes. After all of this, I was no closer to an answer to any of these questions. The only thing of which I was certain was that someone was hiding something. Leaving the books on the table, I stepped away to clear my head and use the restroom.
When I came back only my bladder felt better and I decided to give up the search for a while. As I gathered the books together I noticed something else: The autograph pages were filled out. So these yearbooks were donated by former students.
Having already given up hope, I flipped through the autographs not expecting to find anything of interest. But I did. Among all the wishes for great summers and gratitude for friendships was a message with no signature that seemed markedly less age faded than the others. I stared at it for what must have been solid minutes while a conflict erupted within my head of impossible acceptance and obstinate denial. Acceptance won. This was a message from Maddie, addressed to me. Which was impossible. But true.
The Message ran as follows:
I know we’ve already been apart for much too long, but be patient. I’ll see you soon, kiddo.
I threw myself into my work after that. For the next several days I spent my waking hours painting and planning paintings. On sunny days I embarked on further scouting expeditions and felt no fear, on all other days I was cloistered in my studio, laboring until my hands would no longer grip a brush. If I had dreams, I did not remember them.
The one positive element of this strange trip was my work. Though I still held no intention of transitioning to a career of landscape art, I felt I was producing here some of the best work of my life. Perhaps it sounds conceited to say so, but I don’t care. I was never one for false modesty any more than I was for undeserved pride.
These images I created of pastoral scenes were alive with color and movement, life and death in the season of fluctuation. The rustic ancient structures were not monuments of rural decay, they were structures in the process of reclamation by nature. The emotions generated were of joy, even in sadness.
I forgot even to feel lonely in my isolation. I thought I would miss the city, the light, and the noise, the constant activity. Not at all. My limited interactions with the world outside my studio were, if anything, an unwanted distraction.
The people here were friendly, though aloof. I expected that. They were not hostile, at least. I wasn’t treated as an interloper, more of a curiosity. Word quickly spread of my artistic endeavors, as I mentioned before, and almost everyone had questions for me. I quickly ran out of business cards, though I expected them to generate few sales. It was not what I would classify as an art-buying community. On the plus side, I was given numerous leads and some of them even panned out.
Lisa continued to be my sole conduit to the outside world, and of course, we almost exclusively talked shop. She assured me that our benefactors were most pleased with the paintings they received and were positively bursting with excitement to see what I would send them next. I eventually lost the fear of rejection that normally hid under the surface of my thoughts when these times came.
That’s probably why it hit me so hard when one of my paintings finally was rejected. I was closing in on my second full week of furious activity when it happened. I was barely eating, sleeping only when exhaustion claimed me, and I’m sure that contributed to the object of their complaint.
I was halfway through the first layer of another painting when my laptop chirped an incoming call from Lisa. I grimaced, but only because I resented the interruption. I paused Metric in the middle of Satellite Mind and clicked the icon to accept her call.
Lisa’s face appeared with almost visible storm clouds hovering over her immaculate silver coiffure.
“Lisa, how are you?” I said, a bit too brightly as though I were blind to her clearly foul mood.
“Well, John,” She answered, “I’m not too great, actually. You see, I just got off the phone with our most generous benefactors, and they tore me a new asshole over your most recent piece. Would you care to explain to me the changes you made from the proof you sent me?”
I was dumbfounded and searched my memory for the last painting I sent her. It was another barn painting with autumn leaves swirling in the wind and great old oak trees swaying in the foreground, sort of framing the work. I didn’t make any changes after the proof, I almost never did.
“Lisa, I’m going to have to plead ignorance here. What changes?”
“Plead ignorance?” Lisa sneered. I could not recall having ever angered her like this. “You’re telling me that you do not remember adding that shit to the painting? You’re going to sit there and tell me that this was not some infantile prank you played? John I’ve been your agent and manager for almost ten years now, and I think I can differentiate your work from that of some disgruntled postal employee, so don’t play dumb with me!”
Now I was starting to feel my own anger welling up alongside the confusion and I told her, “Lisa, I am not fucking with you! I told you I didn’t change that god damned painting and I stand by that. I really and truly do not know what you are talking about. I’m a professional artist, I’m not… Ashton Kutcher or something, I’m not punking you or anyone. I absolutely did not change that painting.”
Lisa sighed, and said, “Okay John. Give me a second, I’ll show you the photo they sent me.”
I sat there in silence while she composed the email waiting for this strange shoe to drop. Anger subsided quickly, as it often did with me, and confusion reigned once again. In a few moments I received a notification of her email. There was no message, of course, only an attachment. I opened it.
The color drained from my face as I stared at the image on the screen. Displayed there was undeniably my work, undeniably the painting I sent a couple of days ago. Undeniably, the addition was mine. Standing in the middle ground between the trees and the barn were two figures, a boy and a girl. Me and Maddie. Maddie seemed to be laughing. I was holding a dead cat, its head caved in. On the ground was the bloodied rock used as the murder weapon. We were both streaked with the animal’s blood.
“John, are you there?” Lisa asked, breaking my fugue. I’m not certain how long I was staring at the image.
“Yeah, Lisa, I’m here,” I told her. “I’m sorry, I really am. That is definitely my work but I swear to you, I don’t remember adding that… that thing. It’s sick.”
Lisa sighed again, though this time it was a sympathetic sort of sigh. Her anger was also abating. “You’ve been working too hard, Johnny. Nobody expected you to get all these paintings done in the first month, you know.”
“Yeah, I know,” I told her, raking my fingers through my hair.
“Take a break, all right? You don’t look so well, Johnny. You need to get some sleep, get some real food in you. Maybe find yourself a boy toy, huh? A little fling?”
I laughed, and it only sounded a little forced. “Sure, Lis. Listen, I really am sorry about this. I hope they’re not too mad.”
“Ah, forget about it,” She said, “I’ll smooth things over with the benefactors. That’s my job, it’s what I’m good at, you know? Now, are you going to do what I ask?”
“Yeah,” I told her, “All except the boy toy part. These country boys… not my type, you know? I prefer a man with callous-free hands and hair that has never seen a Super-Cuts.”
Lisa laughed and I knew things were okay, at least barring any further “pranks.”
“All right, Johnny. I’ll talk to you soon.”
I said my goodbye and closed Skype, wishing my own fears were as assuaged as hers. That terrible image, two children reveling in the death of an animal, it wasn’t just a gory image. It was another memory. That was the part I found truly revolting. It happened. I did it. I killed that cat. That poor animal.
A thought occurred to me, and I dashed to the pile of finished paintings. I had a few completed in the past couple days of furious activity that had not yet been submitted for approval. When I saw what I had done, I tore them all to shreds. All three had been defaced with a memory.
The first was of a freshly tilled field sheltered by a blanket of blazing stars, an image of peace, tranquility, and order. All three were shattered by the inclusion of two somber figures digging a shallow grave. The bludgeoned feline lay asprawl in the dirt at their feet.
The second sickened me. It was an image of the kill itself, committed within the barn itself. The original image focused on the motes of dust in the beams of light that filtered through the wooden slats. I could remember the hours I spent rendering this delicate dance, so like a snowstorm captured in microcosm. I could not recall the image of violence rendered in grotesque detail. I could not recall rendering Maddie pinning the cat to the dirt, the complex pattern in its fur highlighted in those same beams of light. I could not recall rendering myself crushing its tiny skull with a rock. But having seen it, I could remember the deed itself. I stared at my hands and knew I was going to vomit.
Several minutes were spent bent over the toilet and voiding what little I had in my stomach to expel, followed by dry heaves and miserable sobs. How could I do something like that? How could I do something so… so awful? So heinous? I would rather die myself than even hurt another living being, so how does that explain the joy, the revelry in my expression? God!
Finally morbid curiosity won over my shame and revulsion. I had to see what the final painting revealed. What could else would it reveal? What new horror? I wish I didn’t know.
It was, for mercy, not another violent image, though that mitigated little of the horror it evoked. The final image, one I initially felt great pride for, portrayed a woodland path winding through tall grasses, waving gently in the breeze. Light played over falling leaves, and a sleeping owl could be seen nesting in the hollow of a tree. It was a genuine miracle that I snapped the picture before waking her. Only moments later she sprung from her hideaway and swooped away, outraged at my intrusion.
Maddie and I were in this painting as well, both of us marching down the path toward an unknown destination. Maddie took the lead, looking back at me with a dazzling smile, arms spread wide and gesturing forward. Her eyes sparkled and every line of her body spoke of her enthusiasm and palpable anticipation.
I did not share her excitement. I looked sick with fear, the same sort of dread I felt now. Mixed with this trepidation, however, was a dark sort of anticipation of my own. I was almost proud of the way I rendered this complex mix of emotion. Behind my back, I held an object that shined like a heliograph in the filtered light. It was a knife.
That wasn’t all. That wasn’t the worst part. The worst part was that we were not alone. Between us was another child, even younger than myself. His expression was one merely of interest, and of vicarious excitement. He didn’t know. He had no idea.
We were going to kill that child.
That night, after finally falling into a fitful sleep, I had a final dream. I was back in the barn again, the hot dusty darkness. The light was dim, almost non-existent. The sun was going down, and when it finally dipped below the treeline I would be immersed in total darkness.
I was alone. I was soaking wet. I was terrified. Something terrible had happened. I’m not sure what it was, only that I needed to escape. If I could just get out of this barn I could run home to mommy and daddy. They would know what to do.
There was no way out. My young mind crackled with the static of uncontrollable panic. The barn was a maze and I was the experiment, the rat who must solve the maze or die. The walls of the maze were made of the rusting hulk of dead machines and barbed wire. It was Maddie’s maze. She showed me the maze, I had traveled through its halls dozens of times, but always with her to lead me. Maddie wasn’t with me. Maddie was the monster at the center. Maddie was the Minotaur.
She told me that story once, when Maddie was my sister and my friend, before she became the monster. She told me of the bad old king who sealed the monster up where it couldn’t escape, and of the brave hero who solved the maze and slew the beast. The hero became the king in the end.
Sometimes she told the story differently. Sometimes the Minotaur was the hero, and the hero was the monster. He was an assassin who invaded the labyrinth that was the Minotaur’s home and killed it defenseless in its sleep. In this version of the tale the bad old king and his mean old queen were the Minotaur’s mommy and daddy. Maddie was always sad when she told it this way.
The sun was dipping lower. Darkness was coming. The Minotaur was coming. I could hear it behind me, hear its beastly bellows, hear its cloven hooves kick at the dusty ground. I had to escape the maze before it could catch me, and the maze was its home. It knew the way.
Over and under, between and through, bit by bit I navigated through the terrible twists and turns. More than once the sharp edges caught me, tore at my clothes and bit into my flesh. I could not cry out. The Minotaur would hear me.
Nothing seemed familiar in the growing darkness. The shapes grew and loomed over me, as if they too were trying to stall my escape. The maze seemed endless, though some small part of me knew that it could not have been so. It was just a dusty old barn full of junk, wasn’t it?
I was young enough to know that things were different in the darkness, the darkness held a power over little boys. The closet full of toys became a haven for the creatures of the night, creatures who would wait for a boy’s foot to hang over the edge of the bed and strike. I always suspected these monsters were real no matter what my parents told me, and now I knew.
“Johnny, stop!” The Minotaur cried. I could not tell from where, I only knew it was all too close. I didn’t answer, I didn’t make a sound. I only tried more desperately to escape its snares and pitfalls, ignoring the bite of sharp machines as they snapped at my tender flesh.
“Talk to me, Johnny! I don’t want you to get hurt! It’s okay! Tell me where you are and we’ll talk, okay kiddo?”
Lies. The monster was trying to trick me, that’s all. I was getting away and it was trying to lure me into its terrible claws. I thought I could see a line of light in the darkness. Was it the door? I scrambled through the darkness, desperately trying to pick out a familiar landmark.
CRASH! Something fell in the darkness behind me, close enough that I could feel the ground shake with the impact. I couldn’t help myself that time, I yelped. The monster heard me.
“Johnny! Stay right there, okay! Let me explain!” The monster called. God, it was close. But so was the line of light! Only that line was disappearing, and fast.
Cuts and scratches all over my body sang with pain, and the wetness was growing sticky. Dust clung to me and tickled my throat and sinuses. I had to get out now, or I would be stuck there with the monster forever. I could see a brilliant beam of light shining through the darkness. It wasn’t the setting sun. The monster had a flashlight. If the beam fell upon me I was finished.
I groped blindly ahead, feeling the cool bulk of what I thought was the rusty tractor that blocked the doorway and my escape. I knew from my many expeditions in the daylight with Maddie that there were many clever twists and turns between me and freedom, but there was no time. The beam played dangerously close to my position. I would have to crawl underneath.
Dropping to the floor I had to stifle another sneeze from the dust that rose with my impact. Thank god I was small enough to scramble underneath, though I feared this act nearly as much as the dreadful Minotaur that pursued me. Many times we startled rats from underneath such machines, foul creatures who hissed and glared at us with beady soulless eyes, outraged at the intrusion. I had nightmares sometimes about their jagged yellow teeth.
“Johnny! Don’t go!” The beast cried, desperation in her voice. “Please, Johnny, we can talk about this!”
I didn’t listen. Under the tractor I went, and never mind the creatures that may object to my presence. She sounded close enough to touch. Almost there. Almost…
“There you are!” The beast cried, and I could tell by the light that illuminated the decaying undercarriage of the tractor that my escape had been foiled.
A hand seized my foot and I shrieked. Small and now insignificant creatures skittered off in the darkness, squeaking their outrage and offering no pity for my own misfortune. With what little room I had, I struggled mightily against the clutches of the great and terrible Minotaur.
I was no hero sent to slay the beast, nor an assassin bent on murdering the pitiful creature as it lay helpless. I was just a kid, just a scared kid whose only friend was his sister. His sister he loved so dearly. His sister he feared. It was over. All over.
And then my shoe slipped from my foot. I could not count the number of times Maddie or mom and dad would warn me of the dangers of my perpetually untied show, but this time it saved my life. I abandoned the prize to the Minotaur and crawled to the open air.
“JOHNNY! STOP!” The Minotaur screamed, but I didn’t listen. I burst through the door into the waning light.
Before I ran screaming for home, I looked down at myself. The wetness that coated me was browned with dust but I knew what it was. It was blood. Not my blood, but boy’s blood all the same. When I refused to do what Maddie asked, she took the knife and did it herself. She grabbed that screaming boy by the hair and slashed his throat open with a butcher knife. And she laughed, and laughed, and laughed. She drank that boy’s blood and laughed.
I ran, screaming into the night.