“The one where you and Spencer and Walker come to school with me and scare her. That’s the one I choose. You could stay all day with me if you want.”
“This isn’t a multiple choice …” Aiden began.
“Hold on. Didn’t you say the bully … what’s her name?” Walker asked.
“Okay. Didn’t you say that Morgan was going to torment Cordelia again tomorrow?”
Regan sniffed, and her eyes widened.
“So why are you worried? She’s not coming after you,” Walker said.
She looked so serious. “Because she’s my friend, Walker.”
Aiden smiled. “How do you think she’ll feel if you don’t show up tomorrow?”
“Cordie isn’t going back to that school either. She told me so.”
“Yeah, well, I’m sure her parents will make her go,” Aiden said. “You know, Regan, there are two kinds of people in the world. Those who run from bullies and those who face them.”
She wiped the tears away from her face. “What kind am I?”
“You’re a Madison. You face trouble. You don’t run from anyone.”
She didn’t like hearing that but knew from the set of her brother’s jaw that he wasn’t going to change his mind, no matter how much she argued. She at least felt better because she had shared her fears.
The next morning when Mrs. Tyler was brushing Regan’s hair, she thought about not wearing the barrettes, but she wore them anyway, just in case Cordelia needed extra ones.
By the time she arrived at Briarwood, she was sick to her stomach. She spotted Cordie waiting by the school doors.
“I thought you weren’t coming back to this school,” Regan said when she reached her.
“Daddy made me,” Cordie answered dejectedly.
“My brother made me.”
Sophie called out to them. She had just gotten out of her car and was struggling to get her book bag straps over her shoulders.
When she saw Cordie and Regan together, she ran to them, her long golden hair flying out behind her. Regan thought Sophie looked just like a princess. Her hair was such a light color, it looked almost white, and her eyes were the prettiest shade of green.
“I know what we can do,” Sophie announced the second she’d caught up with them. “We can hide behind the fifth graders on the jungle gym during recess, and then, Regan, you can sneak up on Morgan and get Cordie’s barrettes back.”
“How?” Regan asked.
“How what?” Sophie said.
“How do I get the barrettes back?”
“I don’t know, but maybe you can think of something.”
“Daddy says I have to tell the teacher about Morgan, but I’m not going to,” Cordie said. She brushed her dark curls over her shoulder and added, “Telling will only make Morgan madder.”
Regan was suddenly feeling very adult. “We have to tell her to leave us alone. Aiden said so.”
“Who’s Aiden?” Sophie asked.
“But Morgan’s only bothering me” Cordie said. “Not you or Sophie. You should run and hide from her.”
“You could hide with us,” Sophie suggested.
“Teacher will make us go outside for recess,” Cordie said. “Morgan will find me then.”
“We’ll stay together, and when she tries to make you give her things and tries to scare you, we’ll tell her to go away. Maybe because there’s three of us, we could scare her good.”
“Maybe,” Cordie allowed, but her voice lacked enthusiasm, and Regan knew she didn’t really believe it.
“By recess I can come up with a good plan,” Sophie said.
She sounded so sure of herself, so confident. Regan wished she could be more like Sophie. Her new friend didn’t seem to fret about anything. Regan, on the other hand, was a worrier. And obviously so was Cordie. The two of them worried all morning about Morgan.
Because it was sprinkling outside, they had their first recess in their room, but by lunchtime and general recess, when the kindergartners mingled with the rest of the school, it was sunny, and they were forced to go to the playground.
Too late, Regan realized she shouldn’t have eaten lunch. The milk in her stomach was rapidly turning sour, and she felt as though she’d swallowed a rock.
Morgan was waiting for them by the swing sets reserved for the kindergarten and first grade. Fortunately, Sophie had her new plan in mind.
“As soon as Morgan sees Cordie and starts walking over to her, I’ll run inside school and get Mrs. Grant.”
“Are you going to tell teacher what Morgan’s doing to Cordie?”
“How come?” Regan asked.
“I don’t want people to call me a snitch. My dad says being a snitch is the worst thing you can be.”
“Then what are you going to do?” Regan asked. She was watching Morgan out of the corner of her eye. So far, the bully hadn’t spotted them.
“I don’t know yet what I’ll tell teacher, but I’ll get her to come outside, and then I’ll get her to get close enough to hear Morgan scare Cordie. Maybe she will see Morgan making Cordie give her her barrettes.”
“Sophie, you’re so smart,” Cordie said.
It was a great plan, Regan thought. Sophie disappeared inside the school just as Morgan, looking every bit like the giant Regan likened her to, came stomping toward them.
The two girls took an involuntary step back. Morgan stepped forward. Regan frantically looked for Sophie and Mrs. Grant but couldn’t find either one of them. She was terrified. She stared at Morgan’s feet, thinking they looked as big as Aiden’s, and then timidly looked up into her beady, brown eyes. She felt nauseated.
Now Regan had two horrible worries. Suffering Morgan’s wrath, and puking in front of the entire school.
The bully put her hand out, palm up, and glared at Cordie. “Give them here,” she said, wiggling her fingers. Cordie immediately reached up to remove the barrettes, but Regan grabbed her hand and stopped her.
“No,” she said as she stepped in front of Cordie. “You leave her alone.”
It was the bravest thing she had ever done, and she felt faint and giddy and sick all at the same time. Bile was burning a path up into her throat now, and she couldn’t quite swallow, but she didn’t care how miserable she was. She was being brave, and she couldn’t wait to tell Aiden all about it.
Morgan poked her in the chest. Regan staggered back and almost fell down, but she quickly righted herself and defiantly planted her feet. “You leave Cordie alone,” she repeated. The bile in her throat made her voice weak, and so she swallowed hard and then shouted the order again.
Uh-oh. Her stomach lurched, and she knew she was never going to make it to the girls’ restroom in time.
“Okay,” Morgan said. She took another threatening step forward and poked Regan again. “Then you give me something.”
Regan’s gurgling stomach was happy to oblige.
THE DEMON WANTED OUT.
The man wasn’t surprised or alarmed. The beast always began to stir at the end of the day when his mind wasn’t consumed with his job, and his body so desperately needed to relax.
For a long time, nearly a full year, the demon had hidden from him, and he hadn’t known it was there. And so he’d naively believed that he was having panic attacks, or spells, as he liked to think of them, because that somehow made them less threatening. They started with a yearning deep in his belly. It wasn’t altogether unpleasant. He likened the sensation to wrapping his arms around a hot stone to warm his freezing body, but as the day progressed, the stone began to get hotter and hotter, until it radiated unbearable heat. Anxiety would come over him then, horrific anxiety that would make his skin crawl and his lungs burn with the need to scream and scream and scream, and in desperation he would think about taking one of his special pills the doctor had prescribed, but he never did take anything, not even an aspirin, for fear the medication would weaken him.
He believed he was a good man. He paid his taxes, went to church on Sundays, and held down a full-time job. It was a stressful, had-to-stay-on-his-toes kind of job, requiring his full concentration, and there wasn’t time to think or worry about the heavy burden waiting for him at home. He didn’t mind the long hours. In fact, there were times he was grateful for them. He never ran from his responsibilities in his professional or his personal life. He took care of his invalid wife, Nina. At her insistence they had moved to Chicago for a new start after the accident. He’d found employment within two weeks of his arrival and had felt that was a good omen. It was a hectic but joyful time. He and Nina decided to use a small portion of the settlement money to purchase a spacious story-and-a-half house on the outskirts of the city, and once they were unpacked, he spent the summer evenings putting in ramps and modifying the first floor so that Nina wouldn’t have any trouble getting around in her new state-of-the-art, featherweight wheelchair. Nina’s legs had been mangled in the accident, and she would, of course, never walk again. He accepted what fate had dealt them and moved forward. He was relieved when his wife slowly regained her strength and learned to do for herself during the day.
When he was home, he insisted on pampering her. He prepared their dinner every night and did the dishes, then spent the rest of the evening with her watching their favorite television shows.
They’d been married ten years, and in all that time their love hadn’t diminished. If anything, the terrible accident had removed any possibility of their falling into complacency or taking each other for granted. And no wonder. His sweet, gentle Nina had died on that operating table, and then, miracle of miracles, had come back to him. The surgeons had worked through the night to save her. When he heard the news that she would recover, he got down on his knees in the hospital chapel and vowed to spend the rest of his life making her happy.
He lived a rich, full life … with one little exception.
Awareness of the demon hadn’t been gradual. No, enlightenment had come all at once.
It was the middle of the night. He hadn’t been able to sleep, and rather than toss and turn and possibly wake Nina, he went to the kitchen on the opposite end of the house and paced about. He thought a glass of warm milk might help calm his jitters and make him sleepy, but it really didn’t do much good. He was putting the empty glass in the sink when it slipped out of his hand and shattered in the basin. The sound seemed to reverberate throughout the house. He rushed to the bedroom door and stood outside, waiting and listening. The noise hadn’t awakened his wife, and he felt a moment of relief as he padded back to the kitchen.
His anxiety was building. Was he losing his mind? No, no. He was having one of his spells. That was all. And this one wasn’t so terrible. He could handle it.
The newspaper was on the counter where he’d left it. He picked it up and carried it to the table. He decided he would read every single page, or until he was so sleepy he couldn’t keep his eyes open.
He started with the sports section, read every word, and then moved on to the metropolitan news. He scanned an article about the dedication of a new park and jogging path, spread the paper wide and immediately saw the photo of a beautiful young woman standing in front of a group of men. She was posed with scissors ready to cut a ribbon draped from one stake to another across the path. And she was smiling at him.
He couldn’t take his eyes off her.
He was reading the names under the photo when it happened. He suddenly felt a crushing tightness, and he couldn’t catch his breath. A jolt very much like lightning raced through his heart causing excruciating pain. Was he having a heart attack, or was it another panic attack?
Try to calm down, he told himself. Just calm down. Take deep breaths.
The anxiety was growing even stronger, and with it came the horrific yet familiar terror. Then his skin began to burn and itch, and he frantically scratched his arms and legs as he jumped up and paced around the kitchen island. What was happening to him?
He realized he was running and forced himself to stop. Looking down, he saw the long, jagged scratches. There were bloody streaks on his arms and legs, some cuts so deep, blood dripped on the floor. He was close to exploding. He tore at his hair and whimpered, but the terror was taunting him now. Then, like a blinding light, the epiphany came. He suddenly realized he no longer had control over his own body. He couldn’t even make himself breathe.
With startling clarity he saw and understood. Someone else was breathing for him.
He awakened the following morning curled up in the fetal position on the kitchen floor. Had he fainted? He thought maybe he had. He staggered to his feet and braced his hands on the island to steady himself. Closing his eyes, he took several deep breaths and slowly straightened. He spotted the scissors on top of the folded newspaper. Had he placed them there? He couldn’t remember. He put the scissors back in the drawer where they belonged and picked up the newspaper to throw it into the recycle bin in the garage. He saw the clipping from the newspaper then. Both the article and the photo of the smiling woman were there in the center of his table, waiting for him. He knew who had placed them there. And he knew why.
The demon wanted her.
He buried his face in his hands and wept.
He knew that he must find another way to placate the beast. Physical activity seemed to help. He went to the gym and began to work out like a man obsessed. One of his favorite routines was to put on boxing gloves and pound the bag as hard as he could for as long as he could. He would lose track of time and stop only when he couldn’t raise his arms without suffering unbearable pain.
For days he’d kept his body in the state of perpetual exhaustion. Then, even that wasn’t enough.
Time was running out. The demon was consuming him. Ironically, it was his wife who gave him the idea. One evening, while she kept him company as he did the dishes, she suggested that he should have a night out. A night, she insisted, when he could enjoy himself and have some fun with his friends.
He put up quite an argument. There were already too many nights when he had to be away from her because of pressing commitments at work. And what about all the time he left to go running or to work out at the gym? Surely that was enough alone time.
She was more stubborn than he was and wouldn’t stop cajoling. He finally agreed, only to make her happy.
And so, tonight would be his first night out. He could already feel the adrenaline pumping. He was as nervous and excited as he had been when he had gone on his first date.