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Wink – Part 3

by Nicole Mabry

My eyes fell back onto Casey, lying still on the gravel like roadkill. I reached my quivering fingers down to check his pulse. There was no thump thump, no cadence of a pumping heart. I pressed harder into his neck, but all I felt was the warmth of his skin. I wrenched my hand back and started pacing the length of Casey’s body. I gripped the knotted curls at my scalp and tugged hard, hoping to pull a solution loose. If I called the police, I’d be arrested for murder. They’d handcuff me and throw me in the back of the car while my whole class watched. Horrified eyes would judge and accuse. I’d be booked and fingerprinted. I’d lose my scholarship and never make it to college. Mom had no money for a lawyer. A public defender would plead my case but even he wouldn’t believe me. The DA would argue that I’d wanted it, why else would I wear such a revealing dress, paint my lips red, and drink four shots of tequila. He’d point out my unpopular status and compare it to Casey’s popularity in a flow chart projected onto a screen. I’d go to jail for the rest of my life. I’d be beaten in a courtyard, raped in a closet, shanked in the laundry room. I saw the blood leaking from my gut as life drained out of me.

The door from the bar slammed shut and I jumped. Voices floated down the path. I placed my hands under Casey’s armpits and dragged him toward the shelter of the forest. With one final grunt, I pulled him behind a patch of dense brush, shielding us from view. Seconds later, three guys walked past talking about how much easier it was to get laid in college.

My mind darted around. Going to the police was not an option. Us against Them. I stood up and dragged his body further into the forest, my feet shuffling back an inch at a time. My heels hit something solid and I fell back, dropping Casey on the way down. I landed on cold, hard metal. I turned to find I’d tripped over a covered well. It whispered salvation.

Crouching on one side, I pushed the heavy lid. The metal scraped back against the stone until it rested off the other side. I pulled Casey’s body over the lip, his limp arms dangling down into the well like a discarded marionette. I straightened and dragged my hands down my face. Was I really going to do this? Hide a body? I thought about Mom, about Jo and my full-ride scholarship. And then I thought about Janelle Pickford. And Marielle Cordoza. And Dani McDonaugh. And Kim Duley. All other thoughts fled.

I lifted his legs and his keys fell out of his pocket. A photo keychain stared back at me. Casey next to his dad, both holding up silvery fish in one hand, satisfied grins plastered on their faces. Sheriff Bachman’s free arm was wrapped around Casey’s shoulders, pulling him close. I stumbled back. My knees buckled and hit the forest floor. Pebbles and branches punished my skin. I killed him. I took his life. I murdered him. I repeated these words in my head as I rocked back and forth with my eyes clenched shut. Breathe in. Breathe out. Repeat. When my lungs filled again, I sat back on my heels and opened my eyes.

A truck started loudly in the parking lot and I knew if I was going to do this, I had to get on with it. I straightened, zipped his keys into my fanny pack and lifted his legs higher. His body teetered over the edge and whooshed down, down, down the shaft. It landed with a sickening thump. I pushed the grate back over the well and jogged through the trees to the parking lot. Casey’s keys also had a Mustang keychain on them. There was only one Mustang in the lot. I unlocked the door and climbed in. The engine roared to life and I drove six miles back to the outskirts of Peekskill, pulling the car inside Barden’s abandoned barn. It was a good place to hide things.

I ran three blocks to my house and up to my bathroom, blocking everything out except the need to scrub my skin clean of Casey. The face in the mirror startled me. Was that really me? Unfamiliar, wild eyes stared back. My hair was a jumble of tangles, twigs, and leaves. Eyeliner ran in streaks like fingers reaching down my cheeks. Casey’s blood dotted and slashed my skin like one of my abstract paintings. I looked like Sissy Spacek in Carrie and I heard her mother screaming “They’re all gonna laugh at you!” I tore my gaze away and ripped the dress off. I stepped into the shower and turned the knob to the left. Every inch stung. Red streams of blood slipped down my inner thighs. Bright pink welts stippled my arms and legs. Dirt, skin, and blood were jammed under my fingernails. When my skin turned crimson under the onslaught of my loofah, I turned off the water and toweled my tender skin.

Avoiding the mirror, afraid of seeing myself again, I threw on sweats and Mom’s thick crocheted sweater. The red dress lay crumpled on the floor, stained with dirt and blood. I picked it up and threw it in the trash. My feet carried me across the living room where I opened the sliding doors to the backyard. I rested my head on the doorframe, my breath coming out in white puffs as I cried. I mourned the Maggie I used to be. I was different now, someone I didn’t want to know. I took solace in my favorite Weeping Willow that seemed to weep lower than it had yesterday.

My battered mind wanted answers. When had Casey chosen me? Had he spotted me as I ran past the bar to the bathroom? I hadn’t seen him but maybe my mad dash pulled his eyes in my direction. Was it when he’d handed me the jacket? He’d barely glanced at me and seemed more interested in Colleen. More likely it was when Jo opened the door, when we paused and didn’t walk through. The cold air hitting Casey’s back, Danny calling out Jo’s name, me walking out the door alone. A wheel clicking, an opportunity not to be wasted.

“Honey? What are you doing? You’re letting the cold air in,” Mom said behind me as she clicked on a lamp.

When I turned around, her hand flew to her mouth. “What happened? Your cheek…”

I reached up and felt a long scratch I hadn’t known was there. Whether it was from Casey or an embroiled twig I wasn’t sure.

My face crumbled and I moaned, “Mom!”

She rushed over and gathered me into her robed arms. The red robe that Mom wrapped me up in whenever I was sick. I inhaled its comforting lilac scent and buried my face in the velvety fabric. The robe, like a memory of a lost loved one, made me cry even harder. Mom rubbed my back and smoothed my hair until I quieted down. We sat on the couch and she clenched both of my hands tightly. Tears slid down her cheeks while I detailed what Casey had done. What I had done.

When I was finished, she whispered, “You killed him?” Mom never whispered.

“Yes,” I whispered back.

“You killed him,” she confirmed, looking down at the ground.

“It just happened, Mom. My instincts took over. Us against Them, remember?”

“Maggie, that’s not what I meant! Oh my god!”

She jumped up from the sofa and began pacing the room, chewing on a fingernail. I pulled my legs up and wrapped my arms around them. Anger pulsed through my veins. My fingertips throbbed.

“What should I have done, Mom? Let him rape me? Let him kill me? What would you have done?”

Her feet stilled and her eyes latched onto mine. In the silence, the cuckoo clock ticked loudly in the dining room, like a metronome marking the beats of tension between us. Mom turned and went to the kitchen, bringing back a tall glass of water and two aspirin. She pulled my hands from my legs and held them in hers as she lowered onto the couch.

“Baby, I’m sorry, you’re right. You did what you had to do.” She paused and swallowed. “Are you ok? Are you hurt?”

“Just scratches and bruises.”

She ran her palm over my cheek and down my arm. “Maggie, I’m so sorry this happened. Do you want to talk about it?”

A sob broke loose and it sounded like it was coming from far away. “I feel so ashamed. I shouldn’t have worn that dress. I shouldn’t have drank so much. I should have waited for Jo. It’s my fault.”

“Maggie, it’s understandable that you feel guilty, you killed someone.” She winced as the words left her mouth. “But it was an accident, you didn’t mean to kill him. It’s his fault, not yours. It’s his,” she repeated.

I stopped crying. “I don’t feel guilty for killing him, Mom. I’m ashamed that I was stupid enough to put myself in that situation. And yeah, I think I did mean to do it. Maybe not when my fingers found that rock, but when my arm flew through the air, the look in his eyes. Mom, he knew he was suffocating me. He was enjoying it.” My eyes darted down as the moment replayed in my mind like the climax of a horror movie. I looked back up at her. “Yeah Mom, I meant it.”

I searched Mom’s shocked face for signs of revulsion. Her eyes flicked to the side until she landed on something I couldn’t quite place. Something like repulsed admiration. My tongue shuddered. She pulled me into her arms and I cried for what seemed like hours.

“Where’s the car?” she finally asked.

“In Barden’s barn.”

“Grab your jacket, let’s go.”

“What? Where are we going?”

“We’re gonna make sure this never comes back to you.”

The next three hours were a flurry of instructions Mom flung at me and I obeyed without question. I followed behind Mom’s rusting orange Toyota Corolla in Casey’s car. Tucked into the forest about half a mile from the main highway was a popular high school make out spot called Pandora’s Point. I’d never been. Mom parked in the dirt, out of sight, and then ducked into Casey’s car. We pulled into the far right corner, opposite a black Honda with fogged up windows. Mom handed me a cloth and we wiped down the keys, steering wheel, gearshift, and door handles. And then we waited half an hour for the Honda to leave.

“Leave the doors unlocked,” she said.

The sun was just rising over the tips of the tall redwoods as we drove slowly back to our house. I wanted to turn the car around, drive straight to the airport, to my dorm at Columbia and check in early for the summer intensive program I’d been so looking forward to. But I knew we couldn’t afford to change my plane ticket.

Over my final three days in Peekskill, Mom wrapped me in a cocoon of support, sleeping in my bed, wiping my tears, and telling Jo I had a cold when she stopped by. The morning of my departure, Jo showed up when Mom was out buying last-minute supplies. I was still wearing Mom’s red robe.

“Are you feeling better? You look like hell. What happened to your cheek?”

I fingered the jagged, crusty line. “Oh I…was packing my clothes and a hanger scratched my face.” I turned away.

“I’m so sorry I made you take the bus. I was drunk. You know I’d never do that if I wasn’t. I should have left with you. Do you forgive me? I promise I’ll never do that again. It was totally lame. I’m sorry.”  She looked up at me with that hangdog expression I could never resist.

“Of course I forgive you,” I said with a sad smile.

She threw her arms around my neck and squeezed tight. “Oh thank god, I was freaking out after you left. I almost ran after you but Danny was such a dick! He called me a spaz for worrying about you. Then he got into a fight with Dylan and spilled beer all over my dress. I wanted to kill him!”

Anxious to change the subject, I replied, “I’m just excited to finally get out of here.”

“Me too! Goodbye small town with no imagination! New York here we come!” she yelled, cupping her hands around her mouth.

Mom walked through the door just then, her arms full of bags. “Not yet Jo, you still got a month in the town of no imagination.”

While we unpacked the supplies, Jo asked, “Did you hear about Casey Bachman?”

Anxiety shot through my synapses and my tongue tasted metallic. Mom threw me sharp glance and said evenly, “What about him?”

“He’s missing. He was at the bar on graduation night. I don’t remember seeing him, but I was pretty drunk.” She chuckled nervously and peeked at Mom. “His friends said he went outside to make a phone call. But the bartender said the payphone doesn’t work. Mark Donahue saw him driving out of the parking lot.” Jo shrugged her shoulders. “His car was found yesterday at Pandora’s Point. Doors unlocked, keys in the ignition but no Casey. The cops think he must have taken a girl there. But like, no one’s fessing up to going there with him. Emily said they found a drop of blood on the floorboard.”

A sharp breath hissed into my lungs. My fingers itched to touch the scratch on my cheek, but I kept my hands on the bulk package of Cup O’ Noodles. Jo’s eyes narrowed.

“Blood? That sounds…bad,” I finished lamely.

“Maybe he finally messed with the wrong girl,” Mom interrupted.

Jo looked back at my mom, her eyebrows disappearing under her bangs. “And what? She attacked him? Casey’s a big guy. I’m so sure.” Jo laughed, but Mom looked at me pointedly and winked.

“Well, whatever happened, he probably deserved it,” she replied bitterly.

Jo looked down and frowned. “Yeah, maybe.” She placed a 3-pack of binders on the table. “Anyway, I wanted to come say goodbye, my parents are taking me to The Big Yellow House for a belated graduation dinner.” She wiggled her eyebrows at me. “Fancy, right? So I won’t be here when you leave.” She threw her arms around me again. I closed my eyes and tears leached out before she pulled away. “Hey, no crying! I’ll be in the city before you know it. We’ll go eat pizza and beat all the old guys at chess in the park, ok?”

“I’ll miss you.”
“Me too. Call me after you settle in, tell me all about your roommate who could never be as radical as me!”

After she left, Mom and I sat across from one another drinking lemonade, thinking the same thoughts. There was no way they could to trace the blood to me, right?

I changed into jeans and my favorite Mr. T ‘I Pity the Fool’ sweatshirt and met Mom outside at the car. Silently, we packed up the Corolla and when I slammed the trunk shut, I asked, “Can I take the car?”

Mom stared at me for a beat before dropping the keys into my outstretched hand. “No more than an hour. We have to leave by 6. Take this, too.” She handed me a small black cylinder in a canvas case.

“What is it?”

“Mace. Anyone messes with you, spray ‘em in the face.”

I fingered the trigger and nodded before hopping in the car. I had only one stop to make. On the way over, I thought about everything I’d told Mom the night of the rape, and what I’d left out. And with it came the memory of Mom’s third and final rule. When I was seven, someone had written ‘bas-turd’ on my backpack in permanent marker. Mom locked herself in the bathroom for an hour.

When she came out puffy-eyed, she said, “It’s time I found you a dad.” When I told her I didn’t need a dad, she replied, “Ok then, it’s time I found me a husband.”

Thus began Mom’s dating life. She never brought men home, rarely stayed out for more than a few hours, and usually dumped them within a month or two, citing some perceived flaw. But Norm had made it past the two-month mark. She said he had ‘potential.’ The way she said it sounded like Norm had super powers to my Thundercats obsessed brain. I wondered if he’d have a giant red mane like Lion-O. Maybe he’d even bring a sword! He came over one rainy Saturday night after Mom spent two hours in the kitchen making lasagna and my favorite white cake with strawberry frosting. I was brimming with excitement, sure that Norm was going to be my new playmate like Pop Pop had been. When I came out of my room, he was sitting on our faded yellow couch, a warm smile on his lips. He wore a button up shirt with a purple paisley pattern that clashed with his ruddy coloring. Sadly, his hair was brown and he came empty handed.

“Wanna play horse race?” I asked.

He smiled even broader and said, “Sure!”

I raced around the back of the couch and hopped up onto his shoulders. Lacing my fingers together on his forehead, I leaned back and yelled, “Giddy up, horsey!” All of a sudden, his scalp slid off in my hands and I fell backward onto the carpet. I looked at the mound of hair in my hands and screamed. Norm leapt from the couch, his hands frantically covering the top of his head. I thought he was holding his brain in. I screamed again.

He shook his head and said, “Dahlia, I can’t. This is too much.”

Mom pulled me up from the ground and we watched his retreating back as he scurried out the door. She sighed and took the toupee from my hands.

“Sorry, Mom,” I whispered, tears pooling in the corners of my eyes.

She bent down, took my chin in her hand and said, “You have nothing to be sorry about. He’s the one who should be sorry.” She pointed at the closed front door. “That toupee is a bad lie.”

I cocked my head. “Aren’t all lies bad?”

Mom smirked and said, “Yes, they are.” Her right eyebrow shot up and her left eyelid scrunched down in a dramatic wink. “Unless no one ever knows. I was bound to find out he was bald sooner or later. That was a bad lie. See the difference?” I didn’t but I nodded anyway. She smiled and said, “Good, now always tell the truth.” Her left eye jigged another wink.

She hasn’t deemed another man worthy of meeting me since. Instead, she stole a life-size cardboard cutout of a handsome, retired NFL football player who was hawking his homemade salsa at the grocery store. She pinned him to the wall in my bedroom with flat silver pushpins, one in each hand and foot so he could never leave, and told me this was my new dad. He had light brown hair, warm hazel eyes like mine, and one hand up so I could high five his cardboard hand if I stood on my desk chair. I named him Carl.

After that, I noticed the way Mom told her good lies like the truth was just a jumping off point, vital details expertly left out, the ever-present wink always forcing me into cahoots. Sorry we’re late, we had a bit of car trouble. (wink!) The trouble was, she couldn’t find her keys. I sent the payment already, it must have gotten lost in the mail. (wink!) She’d actually sent the check the day before. She was a sly woman, my mom. And now, so was I.

As I rounded the bend and drove into the empty pub parking lot, I felt my stomach quivering and my hands shaking. I parked and rested my head on the steering wheel. I had no idea what made me come back, but I felt compelled. A trauma that doesn’t kill you takes you in pieces instead. I needed those pieces back. I got out and walked through the gravel path into the woods. The trees embraced me. The birds sang a sad lullaby. The well was easily spotted if you walked back far enough and knew to look for wells. I wiped the grate clear of dirt and leaves and sat on top of the special pocket that held my secret.

My mind flashed back, back, back to the night Casey died, like hitting the rewind button on my VCR three times. Before I’d hidden his car inside the barn, before I’d walked away from his body, before I’d pushed the metal grate back over his hollow grave. I sat back on my heels to catch my breath and noticed Emily’s red dress was ripped up the side. As I tried to pull it down over my exposed thigh, an owl hooted in the tree above me. When I looked up, its glowing yellow eyes cut through the dark night, bearing witness to what happened next.

A soft, muffled moan floated up from the depths of the open well. It only lasted a second and was so faint I almost missed it under the cacophony of frogs and crickets laying down a melancholy soundtrack. But I knew instantly it was Casey. He wasn’t dead like I’d thought. My fingers must have been numb to his elusive pulse. Was there any way to save him? What would I say if I called the police? What might he say? The situation hadn’t changed. I would go to jail, he would go free. And I’d known, just as I had when I swung that rock, it was him or me. With one last look into the well, I’d pushed the grate over and walked away. And no one would ever know. Not even Mom.

My mind swung back to the present, to the sunlight filtering through the trees and warming my cheek, to the birds singing and the distant sounds of traffic on the highway. I scooted off the grate to a patch of sun-drenched dirt next to the well and ran my hands over Casey’s grave marker. I tapped three times with my fingernail.

“Are you there, Casey? Remember me? Though you never asked, my name is Maggie. I’m the one who finally stopped you.”

Knowing no reply would come, I looked up at the branch, half-expecting to find my only witness still perched there, three days later. The branch was bare, but somewhere in the distance, I heard a surreptitious hoot. I rose and walked back to my car with one last thought. I’d finally mastered Mom’s third golden rule. No wink required.

Nicole is an award-winning photographer, retoucher, and writer who now lives in New York City after growing up in Northern California. She manages photography post-production at NBCUniversal, working on USA Network, SYFY, and Bravo. Nicole’s photography has graced the covers of books internationally and has been featured in shows throughout the city. Nicole is an animal lover, avid book reader, and horror movie junkie. Her love of the macabre led her to write The Remnants, an apocalyptic women’s fiction novel coming out in 2019 with Red Adept Publishing.

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