In The Pines chapter twelve

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Her bare feet ached from the stones and sticks on the forest floor. Blood wept from the cut on her upper arm. Her heart pounded and she struggled for every breath. The baby moved, kicking and flipping like an angry little fish in her belly. She was scared, too, Maggie thought.

I stumbled into a tree and leaned against it for a moment. How was I able to see into this window to the past? Not just see, but feel it? Del shouted Maggie’s name somewhere behind me. I pushed off from the tree and ran. The tattoo on my wrist burned, as did the cut on my arm. I ran through sunshine and moonlight, no longer sure what was real and what was Del Mahaffey’s dark magic.

Music teased at the far reaches of my hearing. Moments later I realized I’d slowed, listening. Trying to pinpoint where the music was coming from. Trying to place the tune. I knew it was the song I’d heard in the vision, but I still couldn’t put a name to it. My belly tightened painfully, followed by a fierce kick. I cried out.

Maggie fell to her knees, hands cradling her stomach. Nothing about having this baby had been easy. That was gonna change. Del would see that he loved her. That she could make him so much happier than he’d ever been with Pauline. They’d be happy with their little baby, so happy.

She heard Del’s footsteps seconds before he grabbed her hair and yanked her sideways. The knife bit into her neck. “All you had to do was go.” He spoke into her ear, a mockery of the way he used to whisper to her in bed. Such sweet, dirty things he’d say.

“Where am I gonna go?” Tears slipped down her cheeks. The baby moved, calmer this time. Maggie circled her fingertips on that spot, afraid to move too much but needing, desperately needing, contact with another person. A person she loved, the only person in the world she loved more than the man holding a knife to her neck. “This is my home. Your home. Our baby’s home, too. This is where we all belong.”

“There ain’t no we, Maggie. No our.” He pressed the knife deeper into her skin. She tried to pull away but he wrapped his arm around her tighter. Arms that used to hold her so tight in gentler ways, in better times. Oh God help her, maybe she really had angered him too much this time. She’d seen what his temper could do.

“Please don’t hurt me, Del.” She slipped one hand down to the ground, searching for something she could use.

“You shoulda done what I told you.”

“We could leave together. The three of us, we’d be happy.” Small sticks, grass, a few stones not big enough to hurt a mouse.

“I’ll never leave my wife. How many times I got to tell you that?”

“You can’t just abandon us. You told me you loved me. You said you’d take care of me.”

“It’s not my fault you were stupid enough to believe all that. I know you’d been with others before me. I can’t be the first one to tell you whatever you wanted to hear just to get you to open your legs, you little whore.”

Shame cascaded through her like a rush of ice-cold water. Shame and fury and hate. He dared call her a whore when he’d been cheating on his wife? Sure, she’d been with other men before him. So what? Why did they get to do what they wanted but she was the only one called a whore?

Her fingers found a rock the size of a fat, ripe tomato. “Take that knife off me, Del. Do it right now.”

“No one tells me what to do, least of all a slut like you.”

Maggie gripped that rock tight and swung it as hard as she could at his head. They were so close, she felt his body react when the impact hit him. He released her and fell backward, snarling ugly words. She didn’t care what he had to say anymore. She scrambled to her feet, ungainly and off balance. She had to get away. Now that she’d hurt him, she had to get as far away from him as she could. She’d seen what he could do to men twice her size when he was in a rage. If he did that to her, she’d be lucky to be alive in the morning. She had to

Run.

I knew I had to keep running. That was the only thing I was sure of. I didn’t get far, though. Bo tackled me from behind, sending us both to the ground in a painful fall. My breath rushed out of me. I rose on hands and knees, flailing and kicking to get Bo off of me. Sharp pain seized my stomach and I didn’t know if it was real or what Maggie experienced all those years ago.

Bo slammed a fist into my back. I collapsed, my face in a bed of undergrowth and fallen leaves. He flipped me over, screaming incoherently. Moonlight filtered through the trees and shone on the blade as he brought the knife down in one swift, brutal plunge into my belly. I screamed, so loud and raw it shredded my throat.

Was this real? I couldn’t tell. It felt real, especially the cold fire of agony in my midsection. My vision dwindled to a pinpoint of bright silver light, the sound of Del’s screams roaring in my ears.

There was music, too. Always music. Del’s banjo melody, a spooky, hard-driving train to Hell. The trip-hop and jazz that got me through dark nights and brought me safely into the dawn. The two strands of sound clashed. Fought. Synced into a mash-up that shouldn’t have worked but somehow did, then fell apart again. Flashes of silver and gold broke across my narrowed vision. Gradually a voice reached me, and though soon I could make out the words being spoken, I wasn’t sure which man I was hearing, Del or Bo.

“I didn’t mean to do it. Oh, God, please, believe me. I wasn’t gonna hurt you. I just wanted to scare you. Scare you so you’d leave.”

Pressure on my stomach. Hands. His hands. My skin wet under my clothes. I raised my head as much as I could, just enough to see. Blood everywhere. So much blood. I squeezed my eyes shut and let my head drop down.

“Please forgive me, Maggie.” He took my hand in his. “I never meant to hurt you. Please. Oh, God, please.”

I had no forgiveness to offer Del Mahaffey. It wasn’t my place, no matter that I’d been forced to play a role in this. “Bo.” The name slipped out barely above a whisper. “Bo, it’s Nikki. Can you hear me?”

Light and shadow played across his face. His expression changed slowly, as if he was waking up from a bad dream. “Nikki.”

“He’s your family’s demon. You said so yourself. Haunting his children and grandchildren and now you and your brother. You’re the one who has to exorcise him.”

“I don’t know how to do that.”

“He begged Maggie for forgiveness. He paid for killing her but maybe forgiveness is what he still needs.”

“That’s…that’s what he said. I thought that was why he wanted you here.”

“I can’t give him that. It’s not my place.” I tried to sit up, to move at all, but couldn’t.

“He doesn’t deserve forgiveness. Not after what he did.”

My breath grew ragged and I dug my fingers into the ground. Why couldn’t I move? I was myself, in my own head, and so was Bo. Why was my body still trapped in the vision?

“I saw it all through his eyes,” Bo said. “Felt what he felt. All that rage. He hated her in that moment. He didn’t care that he used to love her. That she was pregnant with his baby. He didn’t care about anything. The only thing in his world in that moment was rage. A man like that doesn’t deserve forgiveness.”

The tattoo rippled with heat. Hopefully, that meant I was still partly inside the vision or spell or whatever this was, and that it would be over soon. I’d come out of it, unharmed, covered in nervous sweat instead of blood. I swallowed my panic and tried to get my thoughts into something resembling order.

“I don’t think forgiveness necessarily has anything to do with being deserving of it. I think sometimes it’s the person doing the forgiving that needs it.” It was a struggle to speak, and took way too long to get the words out.

“You think Maggie needs to forgive him?”

“No, I think you do.”

Bo flinched. “That doesn’t make any sense.”

I tried to sit up again. This time I made it. My midsection hurt like hell and I wasn’t brave enough to take a look, but since it didn’t feel like my guts were falling out, I decided not to worry too much. “He destroyed more than Maggie’s life that night. He destroyed his family, too. What he did, it reverberated down through the generations. His wife suffered for turning him in. All that anger and violence he passed down, like it was eye color or high blood pressure, just like you said. What he did that night has haunted your family. Haunted you so much that it kept you from something you were good at. Something you loved.”

I took his hand, both to pull myself up further and for the human contact that we both needed. “Del influenced your brother, but he communicated with you. Have you thought about why that is?”

“I did. I thought a lot about it. I think it’s because we’re so much alike. People think I don’t have a temper, but I do. A bad one. I just work really hard to control it. Because I know what could happen if I don’t.”

“You’ve got something else in common, too. You gave up music because of family history. Maybe because you’re able to control the violence in you, he thinks you can help him find what he needs. And maybe you need it, too, so that you don’t feel like you have to close off a good part of yourself because of him.”

Bo was quiet for a long time. The forest softened into a peaceful twilight. The air tasted of ozone and magic. I didn’t know if Del Mahaffey deserved forgiveness for the horrible things he’d done, but I was certain that it was time for his descendants to stop paying the price for his sins. So if letting go of the past meant a kind of absolution for Del, then so be it.

A rustling noise came from the other side of the little hill where we’d wound up. I tensed, so not ready for more supernatural shenanigans that left me screaming in pain. Beth stepped out of the shadows, Del Mahaffey’s Supertone cradled in her arms. She hurried to us, knelt next to me and rested the instrument carefully on the ground.

“My God, what happened?”

“Tell you later,” I said. “Where’d you find it?” I indicated the banjo.

“Close to a stream. I think the same spot where Del buried Maggie.”

“That’s where I left it,” said Bo.

“Did he tell you to do that?”

He shook his head and turned his face away.

“What did he want you to do?”

No answer. I kept pushing because I thought I knew the answer. “Bo, what does he want you to do?”

“He wants me to play. Okay? That’s what he wants.”

“So play for him. And for Pauline and their kids. Play for Maggie and her baby. Play for your brother. Play for yourself. Pick up that banjo and let whatever needs to come out, come out.”

“My magic can’t exorcise that banjo,” Beth said. “If it’s going to happen, it has to be you.”

Bo looked dubious. “I don’t have any magic in me.”

“Of course you do, you’re a musician.” I leaned over and picked up the Supertone. My abs pulled as if I had stitches, a fiery band of pain that wrapped around my midsection like a belt. I stifled a gasp and handed Bo his great-grandfather’s instrument.

He held the banjo in his hands as if he didn’t know what to do with it, but I knew the falsehood of that. It took time, long moments wherein Bo had whatever private conversation he needed to have with himself. Then he began to play. Hesitant at first, shy before his audience of two women and the forest in its early evening gloom. I watched his hands, his fingers finding where they belonged on the strings. I watched his face, the varied emotions that washed through him. Mostly I just listened to the story he told on the Supertone.

That story was full of wild, untamed energy. Mountains and hollers, moonshine and violence. Passionate courtship, illicit romance, betrayal and heartache. A rage so dark that the banjo seemed to shimmer with an unearthly light. The music reached a terrifying crescendo before falling into a bleak, endless drone. The sound clawed at my nerves and called forth nightmares I’d believed long buried. I tangled my fingers in the grass and the undergrowth, hoping solid earth would keep me steady.

Finally, Bo ended the visceral torment and took us to a place of aching regret. It hurt in a totally different way, but no less powerful. It soon became a clear-eyed lamentation, devoid of self-pity, laying claim to sins with a deep, unspoken horror. I didn’t realize I was crying until I noticed Beth wipe tears from her face.

Del Mahaffey didn’t believe he deserved any absolution, but his family was long past due their freedom from him. Somewhere during the final notes of Bo’s song, peace filled the air, along with a palpable sense of release. All the magic in the forest slowly dissipated. My tattoo stopped burning and I found the courage to inspect my midsection. No wounds, just a lingering soreness. I shuddered with relief, though I couldn’t say I was surprised.

Bo rested his hand lightly on the strings. For the first time since I’d met him, the tension was gone from his face.

The money Bo made from selling the haunted banjo to the professor paid for an excellent lawyer for Justin, who soon found himself facing a legal slap on the wrist and an unhurried reconciliation with his girlfriend. But reconcile they did, as I was glad to hear about from Bo during a late night call several months later. I was in Minneapolis working on a cover story about a band destined to be the Next Big Thing. Bo was on a cruise in the Caribbean, his first real vacation as an adult. He joked about liking the organized fun on the ship because he wouldn’t know what to do with himself otherwise. I groused about the cold and told him to send me a postcard with a pretty beach scene. We didn’t talk about Del, and when we hung up I was hit with the sudden realization that I would never hear from him again. But it didn’t make me sad. I knew he was okay.

<- Chapter Eleven

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In The Pines chapter eleven

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Bo sat on the forest floor, against a tree with his knees drawn up and a long knife in one hand. The banjo was nowhere in sight. Beth motioned toward the woods. I nodded. She slipped away to look for the Supertone while I approached Bo slowly, careful of startling him. Once I was close enough we’d be able to hear each other but just far enough away that he wouldn’t be able to grab me, I came to a halt. He glanced in my direction but didn’t meet my eyes.

“I’ve been calling you,” I said. “How come you don’t call back?”

“You shouldn’t be here.”

“Then who should? If there’s someone else who can help you, give me their number. I’ll go pick them up myself.” I took a tentative step closer. “But Justin’s in the hospital and you guys don’t have anybody else. There’s no one else who knows what’s going on. No one who would understand, or even believe it.” Another few slow steps. “It’s just us, Bo. So what are we going to do about this?” And where the hell was the banjo?

“Del needs my help. I’m the only one who can do it.”

I crouched in front of him. “What does he need you to help him with?”

Bo hummed softly. The tune jogged my memory, though it took me a long moment to place it. It was the song I heard during the vision I had when I first plucked the banjo’s strings. The vision that I now believed to be a snapshot of poor, doomed Maggie, running through the woods in an attempt to escape her lover and her fate.

“She was so scared of him.” At first I didn’t realize I’d spoken aloud. “I could feel her fear. Not just in my head, either. I could feel it in my body. My muscles tensed up. I couldn’t think straight. I was nauseous. I was so scared of him, I thought I was going to throw up.” My own words hit me and I shook my head. “She was scared. She was so scared, she almost threw up while she was running away from him.” But maybe it wasn’t fear that caused the nausea. Maggie was pregnant when Del killed her, though I didn’t know how far along she’d been. It twisted something inside me, knowing she’d been afraid for her baby as much as for her own life.

“He didn’t show you everything,” Bo said.

I swallowed the sudden lump that rose in my throat. “Did he show you everything?”

Bo ran his thumb over the edge of the knife. Blood welled on his skin, drops rolling down the surface of the blade. “He had to, so I could understand what he needs and why.”

“Tell me what he showed you. Tell me what he needs.”

“It doesn’t work that way.” Bo looked right at me. Something wrong glowed in his eyes, dark and full of need. “I can’t just tell you. I have to show you.”

I shot up so fast that I nearly fell over. “Del showed me enough, thanks.” I backed away from him, not fast, but not slow, either.

“It makes sense.” Bo climbed to his feet, the knife gripped in his bloody hand. “He slowed you down so I could get here first, but he still wanted you here. You have a role to play in this, Nikki. You came here to help us, Justin and me, and to do that you have to help Del, too.”

“The only help Del needs is a road map to Hell.”

A grin that didn’t fit on Bo’s face appeared. “Oh, he agrees with you on that one. But first, he needs something.”

“Whatever it is, I don’t have it.” I turned to run, my feet tangling on undergrowth. Bo grabbed my arm and swung me around, slamming me into the tree. It knocked the breath from me. The world went sidewise and when it righted again, moonlight shone through the tree limbs instead of late afternoon sunshine. My insides shifted and my body was not my own.

Del Mahaffey held a knife to my throat. “I told you not to push me, girl.”

“Don’t do this.” The words echoed in my head, in my own voice and one I didn’t recognize.

The air shimmered between us and Bo stood where I’d just seen Del. “Please help us.” He dropped his hand to his side, the knife slipping from his grasp.

“Fight him, Bo.” I stepped away from the tree, ready to run if I had to. “Whatever it is Del wants, it’s not worth hurting someone or losing yourself.”

“I told you,” Bo said, squeezing his eyes shut. “I told you.”

I took the stun gun out of my pocket and held it at the ready.

“I told you to leave me be.” Bo’s voice twisted and changed into someone else’s by the end of the sentence. He opened his eyes. I saw nothing good there. He raised his arm, pointing at me with the knife. “I told you when we started, I’d never leave my wife.”

“What am I supposed to do about this baby?” Maggie put her hands on her belly, the swell of her growing child barely hidden by a dress two sizes too big. I looked down to see my hand on my stomach, only it wasn’t quite my hand. “Oh, God, what’s happening?” A wave of vertigo hit me and I stumbled but didn’t fall.

“What’s happening is you’re gonna leave town like I told you to.” He stalked closer, moonlight glinting on the edge of the knife. “I don’t care where you go, long as you don’t come back.”

The baby kicked. Jesus Christ, the baby kicked. Maggie glared at Del. “You don’t tell me what to do anymore. And you don’t scare me. This baby’s yours and you’re gonna do right by it, and by me.”

Del rushed at her, slashing the knife. A line of burning pain opened up on my arm and I dropped the stun gun, biting back a scream. “Oh, you’re gonna be afraid, little girl. By the time I’m done, you gonna beg.”

Maggie ran. I ran. I no longer knew the difference. One moment the woods were dappled with sunshine, the next it was dark except for pockets of moonlight. Bo dropped the knife. I saw that happen. But then Del had it in his hand and this cut on my arm hurt like hell and oozed blood that damn sure felt real. And feeling the baby kick? What the hell was that? I’d never been pregnant but I knew instinctively that the sensation I’d felt was a baby kicking.

None of this made any sense. When Maggie demanded to take over, I was too confused to fight. We ran through the forest.

 

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Chapter Twelve ->