Don’t go into the treehouse

Trigger warning: this story involves sexual violence

By Jess Charle

“Don’t go into the treehouse.” It was the first thing Maddie ever said to me.

We met at McCormick Middle School. It was my first day and I was new to the area, so while everyone else found the friends they had made in elementary school and immediately formed tightly knit clicks, I stood in the hallway alone, watching the blurs of my happy peers swarm around me, isolating me further.

I looked down at the thin piece of grey-white paper in my hand.

Second Period. 6th Grade Literature. Mrs. Caldwell. Room E312.

The cardboard paper folder Ms. Stein, the guidance counselor, had given me was in the crook of my elbow and I scanned the map of the school printed in blue ink on the back. A plastic sign with the letter “A” hung above me. Hall E didn’t seem too far, but were the 300’s to the right, or the left?

After getting lost twice, I jogged through the door of my second period English class just as the tardy bell rang throughout the mostly empty halls. I collapsed into an empty desk right inside the doorway, banging my elbow against the metal bar that connected the seat with the attached desktop. I bit down on the inside of my lower lip in an attempt to hide the pain, uncomfortably aware of the loud sound I had made and the many eyes that now lay upon me.

A heavy-set woman in her early forties stood from the large desk at the corner of the classroom. Her thin grey hair was dyed a drastic orangey-red while inch long silver roots sharply contrasted with the fake color. She walked towards the door of the classroom, and turned towards me. My heart pounded hard in my chest. She lifted her hand and, using a worn wooden ruler, pointed to the whiteboard behind her. There a meticulous seating arrangement had been drawn. On the square that represented the desk by the door – the desk I now sat in – was the name George Henderson in neat, red lettering.

My cheeks burned as I scoured the chart on the wall as fast as I could, trying to find my name. I could feel everyone watching me, judging me for being an outsider, for not knowing the particularities of Mrs. Caldwell long before graduating the 5th grade. It was taking me way too long to find myself when my eyes caught it: Lindsey Graham. I looked across the room, ignoring the many eyes turned my way, and found the empty desk meant for me at the back corner of the room.

I hunched my shoulders up to my ears in an attempt to make myself as small as possible as I navigated the narrow paths to my correct seat. I sat and tried to breath deeply, to calm my fragile nerves. Or to at least look calm to the room of middle schoolers around me.

Mrs. Caldwell cleared her throat and began her introduction to 6th grade literature. The interest of my peers waned and they quickly forgot about the awkward new girl. Yet, I still felt eyes on me.

I turned and beside me was a petite girl in a black shirt and black baggy pants. Her eye makeup was heavy and dark, and her large lips were a dark purple. And she was looking at me. We stared at each other for a moment before she turned her face downwards to her desk and the spiral notebook in front of her. She quickly scribbled something and handed me the sheet of paper.

On the sheet of lined paper she had written “Hi, I’m Maddie.”

I blinked, not really understanding. I looked up at her, and she was staring at me again, but this time the corners of her lips were turned up into a small smile. I waved at her timidly, returning the smile.

It was nice to have a friend.

“What tree house?” I asked, startled by the sudden interaction. My square piece of pizza, lukewarm with cheese coagulating in grotesque shapes, sat on the plastic tabletop in front of me.

“You just moved into 220 Hedge Road, right?”

“Yeah?” I said, saying the word as a question instead of a statement.

“I’m your neighbor, my family lives at 218. The red house. There’s a treehouse in the woods behind us. Don’t go in it.”

“Why not?” I asked.

“Because Mr. Itch lives there.”

We sat at the round lunch table, the other five chairs remaining empty. I took a sip of my chocolate milk and looked up at the bare sky above us. The clouds stood motionless. Heavy and thick. I looked around. The outdoor section of the cafeteria was far from full, the day too overcast to draw a crowd.

Maddie picked up a french fry, examined it, and then shoved it in her mouth.

“Who’s Mr. Itch?” I asked, unsure whether my new friend was an appropriate choice. It’d figure that my only friend at my new school would be insane.

Maddie’s eyes skited to mine as she held another fry aloft. Her voice was low, “someone bad. Someone you don’t want to meet.”

At home my mother asked if I had made any new friends. I thought a moment before responding.

“Sort of.”

My mother continued cutting vegetables without looking up.

“How does one ‘sort of’ make a friend?” She asked, her rich voice light with amusement.

“I’ll let you know when I’ve figured it out.”

Maddie and I had lunch everyday that week. She was an odd girl, but she was friendly and smart and easy to talk to, so by Friday I indeed thought of her as a friend.

I woke up Saturday morning with an urge to explore the woods out back. I wasn’t intending to defy Maddie’s warning, but she had made me curious to see if there even was a treehouse back behind our houses. The air was cool, crisp with a slight fall breeze. I put on my denim jacket and headed out.

The woods behind our house were sparse, each tree several feet away from any of its neighbors. Yet, the wood was deep enough that one couldn’t see more than ten feet without obstruction. I stood at the edge looking in, digesting the sight slowly, like masticating a thick piece of meat. Red pine needles covered the ground in a thick carpet, and the bare branches of the trees stretched high above me.

Looking back behind my shoulder, the blue-grey wood of our new home looked dark, but not necessarily uninviting. The windows were too dark to make out any person or thing inside, making the house appear empty, void of warmth and light. But it was not cold. I liked our new house. It seemed to have a wisdom to it. A knowledge that only homes that have stood for sometime can possess. I faced the woods once again, and stepped forward.

The pines cracked and crunched beneath my boots. The woods felt deserted – I didn’t see another living creature as I explored.

Soon, I reached a decent sized stream – almost a small river – that gurgled lazily past me. While large rocks lined the sides, I couldn’t see a convenient way to cross. The stones away from the river banks were covered with quick moving water, making them non-traversable. I looked around and saw a tree trunk that had fallen across both sides of the water twenty feet or so down the stream. As I approached it I realized that it was a log that had been cut in two, the halfs laid side-by-side to form a narrow bridge. It didn’t look new, but it also didn’t look particularly old.

I followed the tree trunk and then continued straight, reasoning that the bridge was put there for a reason. My hunch proved correct as I stepped into a small clearing. A squat tree stood in the middle. Stood is the wrong term – more like crouched. On it’s thick branches rested an old treehouse, approximately five or so feet above my head. The wood was stained from years of rain and snow. Slats had been nailed into the trunk and lead up to a trapdoor in the floor above.

The clearing was quiet, still of even a faint breeze. An indistinct smell of musk hung in the air which tickled at my nostrils. I scrunched up my nose instinctively and took a few steps towards the treehouse. The smell grew stronger as I approached. I reached out a hand and rubbed the tree’s bark. It was surprisingly smooth to the touch. As I stroked the tree, relishing the feeling of it beneath my fingertips, the musk around me was interrupted with a new smell, something more floral. Or maybe more woody, I couldn’t tell. A shiver ran down my spine, and I slowly backed away from the tree. Something was wrong. Something… wasn’t right about it.

A groaned emanated above my head, neither human nor the groan of weighted wood. I turned and briskly walked away, Maddie’s warning echoing through my brain. The smell of wood and earth following me all the way back to my new home, now more comforting than ever.

A month later, I had forgotten about the treehouse and was beginning to adjust to my new life. Maddie and I started to have weekly sleepovers. Each of our homes proving to be both alien and exciting to the other. Maddie’s house was pure chaos, especially compared to my own. I don’t have any siblings and both of my parents are academics, so our house has always been full of books and a warm quiet. Maddie, on the other hand, is one of five, all louder than the previous child it seemed. Maddie’s younger brothers – identical twins named Steve and Brad – seemed to make a hobby of running from one floor to the other screaming at the top of their lungs.

The house was loud but cozy. At dinner time, all nine of us sat around the large round dining room table, the home cooked meal that Maddie’s mother made spread out before us. Maddie’s brother and sisters would fill the air with ideas and events, troubles and successes. Maddie’s mom made a point to include me, asking about my interests, what subject at school was my favorite, what subjects I hated. I liked her mother. Unlike my mom who was tall and lanky, slow speaking and methodical with cold steel-grey eyes that scrutinized every detail, Mrs. Harris was short and stout, quick tongued with laughter so large it seemed to engulf her whole being. Her voice was high with constant excitement, almost in a manic frenzy. Questions and answers piled on top of each, leaving the other party little room to respond. Her eyes were a bright warm brown, the edges of which were constantly wrinkled with her wide smile. I’d answer her questions and nod at her responses and suggestions. She’d tell me how much she loved *Jane Eyre* at my age, scold Steve to stop kicking Maddie’s younger sister Lana, and ask me if I was enjoying my mashed potatoes all in one breath.

Maddie was the second eldest. Her brother, Tim, was five years older than us. The first time I stayed with her, I couldn’t help but notice how handsome he was. He had brown subtle curls that framed his long face. Dark stubble cast a slight shadow down his strong jawline and across his high cheekbones. His brown eyes were clear and focused. They weren’t the warm eyes of his mother, but were colder, revealing confidence and power. He didn’t look at things, but instead stared with a great intensity as if scrutinizing everything, trying to see beneath the skin, the image, into the depth of something’s essence.

I wanted him to look at me with that intent stare. I wanted him to touch me, to kiss me, to want me. But he paid little attention to me. I blamed my young age, my lack of curves, of breasts. I felt ugly and young sitting at the dining room table across from him that first night as he shoveled forkfuls of food into his mouth, fully engrossed in his novel. I was painfully aware of my mousey hair and heavily freckled face, still round with youth. After dinner, Tim went straight up to his room, barely saying a word to any of his family members.

Maddie and I spent the evening eating popcorn and oreos while watching rom-coms with Mrs. Harris. It was an unexciting evening, but I loved every second of it. The friendship, the comradery. At eleven, I set up my sleeping bag on Maddie’s floor. It wasn’t long before I heard faint snores coming from Maddie’s bed. As I lay there, I realized that my mouth was dry and uncomfortable. Probably from all the junk food we ate, I thought. I slowly got out of my bag, careful not to let the nylon shell rustle with the movement, and made my way down to the kitchen.

As I passed the living room, I noticed Tim sitting on the couch watching television. The room’s lights were off and the flickering screen cast blue and black shapes across his face and chest. My cheeks grew red when I realized he was wearing nothing but a pair of plaid boxers. I didn’t notice I had stopped until Tim jerked his head towards the doorway where I was standing frozen in place. I was suddenly, horribly self-conscious of my pink Hello Kitty pajamas. Tim’s brown eyes drilled into me, his face expressionless, his stare blank but penetrating. Slowly, he pushed himself from the couch and approached me. His long limbs hung down loosely, his body relaxed. Yet his gaze was firm and holding, his eyes not leaving mine. My eyes were open wide in absolute horror, stuck in place with no apparent need to blink. An attractive, mostly naked teenage boy was approaching me, staring straight at me. I tried to quell the tremble that threatened to run through my frail body as he reached me. He stood tall in front of me and I craned my neck to look up into his face, ignoring the chest hair that covered the front of his torso directly in front of me. He continued to stare into me as if he was trying to see something hidden behind my skin, under my face.

He leaned towards me and I thought I would lose control of my bladder. I wasn’t ready for this. I didn’t know what to do or what was going on, but I knew that the fear echoing inside of me, making my insides feel empty and far away, wasn’t right. Whatever this was, this closeness, this intimacy, it wasn’t healthy. It wasn’t supposed to feel like this.

It was wrong.

His lips stopped beside my ear, his breath warm and moist against my skin, causing my flesh to prickle.

“Boo.” He whispered.

I turned on my heels and ran up the stairs taking two steps at a time until I reached Maddie’s room. I ran in and slammed the door, my heart pounding, tears forming in the corner of my eyes. Maddie groaned and turned, but did not wake.

Curling back up into my sleeping bag, hugging my knees to my chest, I shook with the memory. A memory that both frightened and excited me.

I avoided Tim from then on. Part of me was still attracted to him, even more so from our bizarre encounter, but I prefered to admire him at a distance. To think of him and to replay that night, but the idea of talking to him or having his eyes on me again caused my stomach to twist. He was better as a fantasy than a reality.

As the school year continued, I found my heart fluttering for other boys in my grade, and even went to the school dance with Matt Rickson. Maddie and I continued to have regular sleepovers at each others homes, but I was able to keep a distance from Tim that made me forget him.

Almost.

It was late one night, me and Maddie had been watching slasher films at her place. Maddie had fallen asleep and was snoring peacefully beside me as I watched the final girl run through the woods, tripping over branches, her white shirt brown with mud, ripped to expose her moist flesh, cut and ripped by man made tools and nature alike.

The film ended with dawn breaking over the untamed southern landscape, our heroine – only powerful in her ability to not die throughout the night – hopping into the back of an unsuspecting farm truck.

As the credits ended, the room fell into an uncomfortable darkness. Still not totally familiar or comfortable with my surroundings, I sat there, unsure what to do while my friend slept beside me.

“Maddie?” My voice was small and timid in the empty air. Her snoring continued.

I heard a noise in the hallway and looked, squinting my eyes to try and see through the darkness. A light turned on down the hallway, slightly illuminating the space around me. I stood and followed it to the kitchen. The fridge door was open.

“Mrs. Harris?”

A lanky figure stood, his cold eyes piercing me instantly. I froze. He smiled.

“Hiya Lindsey.” He said, his voice dripping my name out, as if it were a bloated, heavy liquid.

I swallowed. “Hi Tim.”

He closed the fridge door lazily, “what are you doing up so late?”

The clock on the kitchen wall beside me read 2am. “Just watching movies.”  I shrugged, trying to make the gesture seem nonchalant. “I’m going to head to bed now.” I added, sliding my back foot past the kitchen barrier.

“Wait.” Tim said, a command disguised by a charming half grin. He walked towards me, his stare gluing my feet to the floor. Something about the way he looked at me terrified me. I imagine it’s how a wolf looks at a lamb. When he was standing in front of me, his chest only inches away from mine, he asked, “do you want to hear about Mr. Itch?”

The name rang in my ear. I remembered the first conversation I ever had with Maddie, months before.

*“Don’t go into the treehouse.”

“Why not?”

“Because Mr. Itch lives there.”*

I shook my head, taking a step back away from Tim. Tim reached out a hand and firmly grasped my upper arm. A small whimper escaped my lips and I tried to take another step back, but Tim tightened his hold.

“Has Maddie told you about Mr. Itch?” he asked.

I nodded, slowly.

“I bet she told you he lives in the treehouse.”

I pulled at my arm again, his hand remained tight around me. I looked back down the hall, towards the dark living room. I knew I should yell out for help, but my throat was too tight – my instincts to be quiet at night, to not wake anyone up, keeping me silent even though I knew I shouldn’t be.

Once again, Tim moved his lips to my ear and whispered, “sometimes, Mr. Itch leaves the treehouse.” His breath felt scratchy against my skin. Hot tears welled in the corners of my eyes. “Mr. Itch likes little girls, and sometimes, Mr. Itch leaves the treehouse to come and get them.”

His arms wrapped around me, pulling me against him. I tried to push him away, but he was too strong. I felt something move by his leg and I squirmed to get away from it. It felt like something really really bad. Something I didn’t want to touch me.

“Tim!” Maddie’s voice broke through around us, like shattering glass.

Tim let go of me and I ran to Maddie, who hugged me protectively while glaring at her brother. My head was buried in my friend’s shoulder, but I could hear Tim snort as laughter caught in his nose. I felt his heavy presence pass beside us, his footsteps growing faint as he climbed the stairs towards his room.

We only had sleepovers at my house after that.

The air hung heavy with the crisp autumn air, and the leaves on the trees were painted with every shade of red and yellow that nature had to offer. It was Friday and like clockwork, Maddie was on my front porch at 6pm. My mother and I greeted her warmly. It had taken some time for my mom to get used to Maddie’s thick black eyeliner and dark lipstick, the studs and buckles, but she had grown to know and love the sweet girl beneath all of the black.

We were an odd couple of sorts. I wore knit sweaters and plaid skirts, thick stockings and mary janes while Maddie looked like she had just stepped out of a Hot Topic after a shopping spree. But we loved each other like sisters.

That night, I awoke suddenly. My bed was comfortable and warm from my body heat. I turned, pulling the covers tight around my shoulders, determined to close my eyes and drift off to sleep once again. Then I realized what was off in the room, what had waken me: I couldn’t hear Maddie’s breathing.

I opened my eyes and peered over the edge of the bed. Maddie’s sleeping bag was empty, flat against the carpet. I cautiously dropped my legs to the floor and, tiptoeing to avoid making a sound, I walked into the hallway. The bathroom door was open, the light off. I continued past and down the steps to the kitchen. Maddie wasn’t there either.

Light moving beyond the small window above the sink caught my eye. I stepped to the window and peer outside. A flashlight beam danced across the ground, bobbing steadily towards the forest. I could make out two figures behind the light, one tall and lanky, the other short and thin.

Maddie.

I raced upstairs, still careful to not make a noise – I didn’t want to get Maddie in trouble for leaving the house so late at night – and threw on a pair of jeans and some wool socks. In the mud room, I stepped into a pair of old boots and grabbed a jacket from one of the hooks along the wall. A wicker basket full of an assortment of odds and ends one might need for the outside sat in the corner. I reached inside and my hand quickly found a flashlight.

I was off.

The cold air pierced my naked neck and cheeks as I jogged through the now familiar woods. I slowed only as I crossed the makeshift bridge over the creek, which gurgled and ran menacingly beneath me. My flashlight illuminated the wood before my feet and reflected in the water black with night.

My breath caught as exploded out of the woods and into the clearing, the treehouse looming in front of me. I approached it for the second time. It was bigger than I remembered, the tree beneath its floor more knotted, its branches more twisted and tangled. It’s trunk black and thick, its roots ripping through the earth around it, stretching towards me.

A high pitched scream filled the air startling me into action. I recognized the voice immediately as Maddie’s, and before I realized it my feet were pushing against the hard cold dirt, racing me forward towards the treehouse.

Thrusting the flashlight into my jacket pocket to free up my hands, I grabbed the piece of wood in front of me meant to be used as a ladder rung. It was nailed into the tree trunk, and as my hands wrapped around it a piercing chill cut into my skin. I yelped in pain, but did not let go. I reached for the next rung and my breath caught sharply as the wood seemed to cut into my hand like a knife. Pulling myself upwards was agony, but Maddie’s scream kept me going.

Concentrating on moving one hand in front of the other, trying to ignore the burn of the cold wrapping around my legs and wrists like tendrils and the cutting of the wood beneath my hands, I bumped my head against the floor of the treehouse with a hard bang. The sensation quickly faded into the cacophony of pain assaulting my nerves and I looked up. There was no discernable way to open the door towards me, so I pushed with one hand, holding tight to ladder to keep my balance. The door opened a crack, and then fell hard above me. It was too heavy.

Moving one foot and then the other up a rung, I pushed again, this time straightening my legs to rocket all of the force I was capable of towards the door. It swung up, and fell back away from the opening with a loud crash.

With a hand on each side of the opening, I pulled myself into the treehouse.

I sat along the edge of the door, my feet dangling out over the ground below. My breath came fast and hard with the pain radiating through me. I squeezed my eyes shut to prevent the tears from forming completely and sucked snot back into my sinuses and down my throat.

Opening my eyes again began the scariest moment of my life. A stabbing pain seemed to separate my skull as I looked at two identical rooms superimposed over each other at once. It felt as if my being was pulled apart as I watched two realities play out in front of me, both as real as the other. The closest thing I can compare it to is the visual mess that happens if you take off your glasses while watching a 3D movie. My stomach twisted with the sensation, and I thought I was going to be sick, both by the tableau in front of me and the sensation of two overlaid images, my eyes unable to focus on either one.

Time felt like it was frozen, like a paused movie, as I took both scenes in.

In both, the interior of the treehouse looked the same, as if someone wanted to recreate the sublime hyperbole of macabre gore you usually only find in a haunted house during Halloween, but this time with real blood and viscera. The walls were streaked with red, clumps of organic matter pierced with chips and splinters of bone forming masses in the sticky substance. Raw animal pelts hung from the ceiling, tied with twine along with skulls and teeth like repulsive windchimes. The largest collection of ripped flesh and broken bones hung in the middle of the room like a gruesome mobile hung over a child’s crib to create a lifetime of nightmares. Vomit tickled my throat as I noticed the corpse of a cat nailed to the far wall, its front paws stretched to either side, its back legs nailed one on top of the other in a hideous recreation of the crucifixion of Jesus. Around it’s head was a crown made of thrones. Blood flowed from where the nails bit into the wall. Dirty cloth, wet and clumped with blood, lay along the walls in shreds. The smell of wood and earth filled my nostrils, mixing with the rusty smell of blood.

I tried to focus my eyes to see only one image to no avail. The scene was too muddled. But as I strained, I was able to see enough of each.

Tim was on top of Maddie, his hands around her wrists, his weight pushing her down into the wood. She wriggled beneath him, crying out in pain. Her pajamas were in a pile beside her, ripped as if torn from her body. A low grunting noise was coming from Tim as he heaved up and down. The smell of sweat mixing with the foulness of the air.

It was only a moment before my eyes rejected the effort of focusing and the images blurred into each other once again.

I inhaled sharply, terror reverberating through me as I squinted, focusing on the image behind the image.

Tim was in the same position, his arms holding Maddie down against the dirty wooden floor. Above them was a shadow, almost like the shadow of a man, but the darkness of the shadow was heavy, actual matter instead of an absence of light. Its silhouette was stretched upwards, its limbs, or what I assumed were limbs, elongated downwards, towards Tim and Maddie.

The shadow, thick and viscous, began to draw forward. Maddie’s body twisted and her face distorted as she screamed again. Her voice seemed to echo against the meaty shadow. The top of it, what I thought of as its head despite lacking any defined shape or feature, came down to her mouth as the rest of the being laid over her. Tim continued to hold her down, allowing the beast, for that is what it was, to lie on top of her, and to enter her. The smell of cedar filled my nose, accompanied by a earthy wet scent, not the scent of dirt, but of a burning rubber. I recognized it as tar. The scent burnt the delicate skin inside my nostrils and assaulted the back of my throat.

My head began to hurt looking at the double image, and I felt nauseous. A different type of nauseous than I was used to. It wasn’t accompanied by an urge to vomit, but instead my brain spun as if I were on a rouge merry-go-round. Now that I’m older, I realize the sensation was the same as drinking too much too fast.

I swallowed, pushing my mind forward through the haze and the spinning. Finding a more solid mental footing, I breathed deep and lunged forward into Tim. Startled, he fell to the floor. Maddie was crying, blood staining her thighs. I grabbed her and pulled her down with me. We collapse out of the trapdoor, and fell to the hard ground. I heard a sickening snap, and my stomach dropped with the sound. I stood, and then fell again, my ankle screaming with pain.

Maddie, standing naked beside me, grabbed my arm and pulled me up and over her shoulders. Using her as a support, we ran towards my house. As we left the clearing, I turned my head to see Tim climbing down the ladder, his pants hanging loosely around his thighs as he held them up with one hand, the other falling to the rung below him, holding his weight as his feet hopped down to the ground. The tips of the grass was white with the first frost of the season.

I turned back to the forest before us. The bridge over the creek was only a few feet away. We were slow, but steady. Tim’s angry cries rose behind us, but we didn’t slow.

The bridge groaned with our weight, the wood too narrow for Maddie and I to walk next to each other. We had to rotate, Maddie first, me still holding on to her weight, using her as a crutch. Sideways, facing the openness of the rumbling stream, Maddie stepped cautiously forward as I hopped beside her. As Maddie’s bare feet touched the other side, I felt the cut tree trunk sag with additional weight.

Tim’s pants were fastened around his waist again, leaving his hands unhindered. They reached for me greedily. As I screamed, my good foot slipped under me and I fell on the narrow bridge hitting my tailbone hard. My broken ankle dangled uselessly over the side of the bridge as a sharp pain radiated with a shudder up my spine.

Tears in my eyes, I looked up at Tim, who loomed over me, his face twisted into a deranged smile. His prey had fallen, and he had the upper hand. His eyes were wide bulging circles of white, red, and brown. His hair stuck up in odd angles, and his chest heaved with excited breath. He reached a hand down to me and I closed my eyes.

Before his fingers could tighten over my shoulder, I heard a dead thunk. I opened my eyes just in time to see Tim land with a yell into the water below us. Behind me, Maddie stood, breathing hard, a large branch in her hands. Her face was set in pure hatred.

She looked down at me and extended her hand. I grabbed it and together we stumbled to the house.

The next few weeks were a blur. Tim was sent to the hospital with hypothermia and I was wrapped in a cast for my broken ankle. Once Tim recovered, he was taken into police custody. Maddie and I had to testify against him. We had to describe what he had done to us in all its brutal detail. But I never mentioned the black shape, the beast in the treehouse and the magic spell it had cast over my eyes and mind. The case was simple. Open and shut as they say on crime shows.

Maddie came to live with me and my parents after the trial. Mrs. Harris was devastated that her eldest son was sent to jail, even though his sentence was only for a few years, and Maddie felt herself alienated from her family and her home.

I avoided discussing that night with Maddie. I wanted to ask her why she went with Tim in the first place, and I still want to ask about it, but I know it doesn’t matter. All that matters is what happened in the treehouse.

I’m 16 now. Maddie tried to commit suicide last year and is now living in a special home for troubled teens. I haven’t seen her in months. My last memory is her pale face looking out at me from her window at the house, the trademark black eyeliner and dark purple lipstick making her look like a drowned corpse under crystal waters, searching for me. For help that I could never provide. For healing that could never be.

Tim was released and is living back with Mrs. Harris. He’s on the sex offender’s list, but it doesn’t seem like enough. They say he won’t come after me, that I’m safe, but I don’t feel safe.

Since that night I dream of Mr. Itch a lot, the dark shadow beast, his arms reaching for me as I’m frozen to the floor in fear, unable to tear myself away or to even look anywhere but his dark faceless head. I wake up most nights screaming. My mother comes in and hugs me, hushing me and telling me it’s ok, letting me calm down in her reassuring grasp.

Last night though, as Mr. Itch bent down, his shadowy presence only inches from my face, his body hovering just above my own, he changed. The slinky wet mass shifted and morphed into a human. At first I thought I was seeing Tim, that it was those hands that will haunt me forever reaching, grasping, holding me down. But the face was older, much older, even older than Tim would be now. The face was harsh, a thick rust brown beard barely brushing against my chin.

It was Mr. Harris. Maddie’s dad. My memories of her home came back with a new focus. A focus that included a large, portly man, face stained red with alcohol and fatty foods. His nose wide, his skin greasy. Mr. Harris. The quiet father, sitting at the end of the dining room table, an open beer can beside him. The father who disappeared during Tim’s trial. The father who no one’s seen in years. The roofer.

The man who always smelt of cedar and tar.

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