Chapter no 28

Hidden Pictures

She’s hovering in a kind of mist, a woman in white with long black hair parted in the middle. Her dress is speckled with little bits of leaves and dirt. Her face is obscured by the darkness and her head is tilted at an angle, like she can’t hold it up straight. But I’m not frightened anymore. If anything, I’m relieved.

I try to stand up and go to her, but I’m still seated in the chair. My wrists are still bound behind my back.

And then I have a terrifying thought:

Is this my afterlife?

Is this my punishment for the time I’ve spent on earth? An eternity alone in an empty cottage, bound to a hard-backed wooden chair?

“I don’t know what I’m supposed to do,” I whisper. “Can you please help me?”

Margit moves closer without actually walking. I’m aware of her scent, that noxious mix of sulphur and ammonia, but it doesn’t bother me anymore. I’m so grateful for her presence, the smell is almost comforting. As Margit passes the window, the moonlight illuminates her face and body. And I see that beyond all the scratches and black bruises and broken neck, and all the snags and rips in her dress, she is a shockingly beautiful woman.

“You have to help me, Margit. You’re the only one who can help me. Please.”

She struggles to raise her head—as if she’s trying to listen more carefully—but it just flops back down, like a

flower with a broken stem. She rests a hand on my shoulder, but I don’t feel any touch or external pressure. Instead, I’m struck with an overwhelming sense of sorrow and guilt. In my mind I see a place I’ve never actually visited—a field beside a lake, a canvas on an easel, a child on a blanket. I realize I know this place from pictures—from a drawing that Margit left on my porch, and from a stack of Teddy’s artwork that Caroline keeps in the den. I can summon both pictures from memory, the same scene from two different artists.



And as I look upon the woman and child, I can feel Margit’s grief as plainly as my own: I should have been paying more attention. I shouldn’t have been so distracted. If I had just been a little more careful, everything would still be okay. Or maybe it’s my grief, because I also hear Margit saying, you’re not to blamemake peace with the pastforgive yourself. I’m not sure if I’m consoling her or she’s consoling me, I can’t tell where my guilt ends and hers

begins. Maybe it’s the kind of grief we will never ever shake, not even after we’re dead.

Then the door opens and Ted turns on the lights.

He sees my tears streaming and his face falls. “Oh, Jesus,” he says. “I’m so sorry, Mallory. Just sit tight.”

I look around for Margit but she’s vanished. I am still in my cottage.

I am not in some hazy ethereal afterlife, I am still in Spring Brook, New Jersey, bound to a wooden chair with my feet on the floor, and the clock on the microwave oven says 11:52.

I can still feel an icy chill on the crook of my arm, where Caroline injected the needle—but I am very much alive and not the least bit high.

“She drugged me. Your wife—”

“Baby powder,” Ted says. “I switched the heroin with baby powder. You’re fine.” He moves behind me, tugging at the cloth straps binding my wrists to the chair. “Gosh, she really went overboard with these knots. I need a knife.” He goes into the kitchen and starts rummaging through the cutlery drawer.

“What are you doing?”

“Protecting you, Mallory. I’ve always protected you. Don’t you remember your job interview? All those rude and nasty questions about your qualifications? I was trying to scare you away. I tried scaring all the candidates away. But you were persistent. You really wanted to be here. And Caroline thought you were the solution to all our problems.”

He carries a serrated blade to my chair and quickly saws through the restraints. My arms fall to my side and I’m free to move them again. Slowly, carefully, I press my fingers to the throbbing lump on my head, and I feel little bits of glass clinging to my scalp.

“I’m sorry I hit you. We’ll stop at a gas station and get you some ice.” Ted opens the door to my closet and he’s delighted to see all the empty clothes hangers. “You’re

already packed! That’s perfect. My bag’s in the car, so we’re ready to go. I figure we’ll drive all night. Find a hotel to catch our breath. Then we’ll keep pushing west. I found a gorgeous house on Airbnb. Just to get us settled. You’ll love it, Mallory, there’s gorgeous views of Puget Sound.”

“Ted, slow down. What are you talking about?”

He laughs. “Right, right, I’ve been planning so long, I forgot we haven’t fully discussed it. But I know how you feel about me, Mallory. I feel the same way, and I’m ready to act on those feelings.”

“You are?”

“I’ve cashed in my IRAs, I’ve got eighty grand in a bank account that Caroline can’t touch. That’s plenty for us to start over. Build a new life in Washington state. Whidbey Island. But we need to leave right now. Before she comes back to clean up.”

“Why are you so afraid of her?”

“She’s out of her mind! Don’t you realize that by now? She just tried to kill you. She won’t hesitate to kill me. And if I tell the police, I’ll go to jail. So we have to run. Right now. If we leave the kid, she won’t follow us.”

“You want to leave Teddy?”

“I’m sorry, Mallory. I know you love him. I love him, too. He’s really sweet. But he can’t come. I don’t need Caroline and Margit chasing us across the country. The kid stays here with his two mommies. They can fight each other, battle each other to the death, I don’t care. I can’t take this shit anymore. I don’t want to be here another minute. This whole nightmare ends tonight, do you understand?”

Outside the cottage, we hear the tiny snap of a twig—and Ted moves to the window, peering outside. Then he shakes his head, assuring me it’s a false alarm. “Now, please, I need you to try standing up. Would you like some help?” He offers me his hand, but I wave him away and manage to stand on my own. “There you go, Mallory. That’s great. Now

do you need to use the bathroom? Because most places won’t be open after midnight.”

do need to use the bathroom—but only as a quiet place to steady my thoughts. “I’ll just be a minute.”

“Fast as you can, okay?”

I close the bathroom door, turn on the sink, and splash some cold water on my face. What the hell am I going to do? I pat down my pockets but of course they’re empty. I poke through the medicine cabinet and search the shower stall but there’s nothing I can use to defend myself. The closest thing to a weapon is a pair of tweezers.

The bathroom has a tiny screened window, just a few inches high, positioned near the ceiling for ventilation. I close the toilet seat and stand on top of it. The window faces south, toward Hayden’s Glen, looking toward the shadowy brambles of the forest. I manage to pop out the screen and push it out the window, letting it drop to the floor of the forest. But even if I mustered the strength to pull myself up, there’s no way I can fit through.

Ted taps on the door. “Mallory? Almost ready?” “Almost!”

I have to go with him. I don’t have any choice. I’ll get in his Prius, I’ll smile as he describes Washington state and Whidbey Island, I’ll try to sound excited about our new life together.

But the first time we pull over for gas or food or water, I will find a police officer and I will scream like hell.

I turn off the water. Dry my hands on a towel. Then I open the door.

Ted is standing there, waiting. “Ready?” “I think so.”

“You think so?”

His eyes move past me. He looks into the bathroom—and I wonder what he’s seeing. Did I leave footprints on top of the toilet seat? Has he noticed the window screen is gone?

I throw my arms around him and rest my head on his chest and I squeeze him as hard as I can. “Thank you, Ted. Thank you for rescuing me. You don’t know how much I’ve wanted this.”

He’s startled by this outburst of affection. He pulls me even closer, then leans down to kiss my forehead. “I promise you, Mallory, I will never let you down. I will work every day to make you happy.”

“Then let’s get out of here.”

I go to lift my suitcase and my trash bag full of clothes, but Ted insists on carrying them, one in each hand. “You’re sure this is everything you need?”

“Ted, that’s everything I own.”

Again he smiles at me with real love and affection, and he looks like he’s about to say something very sweet when there’s a loud POP and a bullet rips through his left shoulder, knocking him off-balance and spattering my wall with blood. I scream and there are three more POPs, and I’m still screaming as Ted slumps onto the suitcase, hands over his chest, blood seeping out between his fingers.

Caroline stands in the open window of the cottage, pointing Mitzi’s gun at me. She’s telling me to shut up but the words don’t register until the fourth or fifth time. She opens the door and with a little flick of the pistol’s barrel, she gestures for me to sit back in the chair.

“Were you serious?” she asks. “Were you really going to leave with him?”

I don’t even hear the questions. I’m still staring at Ted, down on the floor and struggling to speak, as if he’s acquired a stammer. His lips tremble like he’s trying to pronounce a difficult word and he’s drooling blood, it’s running red over his chin and shirt.

“See, I think you were lying,” Caroline continues. “I think you would probably say anything to get out of here right now. But I can assure you that Ted was completely serious. He’s had his eye on you since you first got here.” She points

across the cottage to the white smoke detector mounted on the kitchen wall. “Did you ever wonder why that fire alarm never went off? Even if you were burning dinner?”

I don’t answer and she raps the butt of the pistol on the kitchen counter, three loud bangs. “Mallory, I asked you a question. Did you notice your smoke alarm doesn’t work?”

What the hell does she want me to say? She’s pointing a gun in my face and I’m too terrified to answer; I’m worried my first incorrect word will cause her to pull the trigger. I have to look down at the floor to muster the courage to speak. “Ted said the cottage had old wiring. He said it was something called knob and tube.”

“It’s a webcam, dummy. Ted installed it right after your interview. Plus a signal booster so it would reach our Wi-Fi network. He said he wanted to check on you, make sure you weren’t using drugs. A ‘precautionary measure,’ right? But give me a break. I’m not stupid. Some nights he’d stay awake in his office for hours, just praying you would take a shower. I always wondered if you knew, if you felt like you were being watched.”

“I thought it was Anya.”

“No, mommy stays with her baby at night. It was always Mr. Family Man here. Mr. Father of the Year.”

Ted shakes his head, like he wants to contradict her, like he’s desperate for me to know the truth. But when he opens his mouth, all that comes out is more blood, running over his chin and chest.

I turn to Caroline and she’s still pointing the gun at me. I want to sink to the floor, cower and beg for mercy. “Please,” I say, raising my hands. “I won’t tell anyone.”

“I know you won’t. You killed Ted, using the gun you stole from Mitzi’s house. Then we struggled, but I managed to grab away the pistol. You took a knife from the kitchen drawer so I had to shoot you. It was self-defense.” She glances around the cottage, as if she’s trying to work out the precise choreography of the sequence. “You know, I’m

going to have you stand closer to the refrigerator. Next to the cutlery drawer.” She points the gun at me. “Come on, don’t make me ask again.”

She come closer—the gun comes closer—and I back away from her, moving into the kitchen.

“All right, that’s better. Now reach down and open the drawer. Pull it all the way out. There you go.” She moves to the opposite side of the kitchen counter, then leans over so she can study the knife block. “I guess you should use the chef’s blade. It’s the big one, all the way on the end. Reach down and grab the handle. Get a real nice grip on it.”

I’m so scared I can scarcely move. “Caroline, please—”

She shakes her head. “Come on, Mallory. You’re almost done. Reach down and grab the knife.”

And in my peripheral vision, just over her shoulder, I can still see blood dripping down the wall. But Ted is no longer sitting there. He’s vanished.

I reach down. Put my hand on the knife. Wrap my fingers around the grip. It’s so hard to do something when you’ve been told it’s the last thing you’re ever going to do.

“That’s it,” she says. “Now hold it up.”

Then she screams and falls—Ted has lunged for her legs

—and I know this is my moment. Stupidly, I let go of the knife, because I don’t want to waste even a second pulling it from the drawer.

I just run.

I throw open the door and behind me there’s an explosion—a gunshot, reverberating off the walls of the cabin. I leap off the porch and hit the grass sprinting. For three terrifying seconds I am completely vulnerable, a silhouette moving across the wide-open lawn, and I brace myself for the next explosion.

But it doesn’t happen. I dart through the shadows on the side of the big house, past the trash cans and recycling bins. I run across the front lawn and stop at the end of the two-

car driveway. All the neighboring houses are dark. Everyone on the block is fast asleep. Nobody walks on Edgewood Street after midnight. And I don’t dare knock on a neighbor’s door—I have no idea how long it will take someone to come downstairs. Right now my biggest asset is speed—increasing the distance between me and Caroline. If I sprint I can be at the Flower Castle in three minutes, I can bang on the door and scream for Adrian’s parents to help me.

But then I glance back at the Maxwells’ house and realize Teddy is still sound asleep on the second floor. Oblivious to all the mayhem in his backyard.

What will happen when Caroline realizes I’ve escaped? Will she take Teddy, throw him in the car, and flee to

West Virginia? Or California? Or Mexico?

How far will she go to protect her secret?

Back at the cottage, there’s another gunshot. I want to hope for the best. I want to believe that Ted has somehow wrested the weapon away from his wife. Maybe in his dying moments, he has given me and Teddy a chance to escape.

But if he didn’t—well, I still have time to make things right. I’m a fast runner. I used to be the sixth-fastest girl in Pennsylvania. I dart around the side of the house to the backyard and thank you Jesus the sliding glass door to the kitchen is unlocked.

I enter the house and lock the door behind me. The first floor is dark. I hurry through the dining room and take the rear stairwell to the second floor. I crash into Teddy’s bedroom but don’t turn on the light. I just pull off his blankets and shake him awake. “Get up, Teddy, we have to go.” He pushes me away, burying his face in his pillow, but I don’t have time to baby him. I pull him off the bed and he grunts in protest, still half-asleep.


Caroline is already inside the house, calling to me from the foyer. I hear her climbing the wooden steps. I run the

other way, taking the rear stairs back to the kitchen. Teddy can’t weigh more than forty pounds but I nearly drop him anyway; I hoist him over my shoulder, steadying my grip, and run outside to the back patio.

Outside, the yard is perfectly still. All I hear is the gentle lap of water in the swimming pool, the occasional trill of a cicada, and my own labored breathing. But I know Caroline is coming. She’s either moving through the inside of the house, or advancing around one of the sides. My safest route is forward, toward the Enchanted Forest. It’s a long sprint across the yard but I don’t think Caroline will shoot at me, not as long as I’m carrying Teddy. And once we make it to the trees, we can make our escape.

Teddy and I have spent the whole summer exploring these woods. We know all the trails and shortcuts and dead ends and there is just enough moonlight to guide our way. I tighten my grip on his body and then throw myself into the brambles, shoving through branches and vines and sticker bushes until we’re on the familiar terrain of Yellow Brick Road. The trail runs east-west, moving parallel along all the backyards on Edgewood. We follow it to the large gray Dragon’s Egg boulder, and then I veer off onto Dragon Path. I hear footsteps thrashing behind me, but in the darkness I’ve lost all sense of scale and perspective. I can’t tell if Caroline’s breathing down my neck or a hundred yards away. I also hear the faint cry of police sirens, all too late. If I had just run to the Flower Castle, I would be safe by now.

But I have Teddy squeezed tight in my arms, and that’s what really matters. I will not let anything happen to him.

The Royal River sounds louder in the dark and I’m grateful for its noise, concealing my footsteps. But then we arrive at Mossy Bridge and I don’t think I can do it. The log is too narrow and covered with moss and I can’t carry Teddy across.

“T-bear, listen to me. I need you to walk.”

He shakes his head no and squeezes me tighter. He doesn’t know what’s happening but he’s terrified. I try to set him down but his arms are locked around my neck. There are more and more police sirens wailing in the distance; they must have reached the Maxwells’ by now. Most likely a neighbor heard the gunshots and called the police. But they’re too far away to help me.

A narrow shaft of white light cuts through the forest. The flashlight beam on Caroline’s Viper. I don’t know if she’s spotted me but I have to keep moving. I tighten my grip around Teddy and take one step onto the bridge, then another. I can see enough to discern the shape of the log, but not its entire surface. I can’t tell which parts are rotten or speckled with slippery moss. Below us, the water is rushing swiftly, two or three feet deep. With every step forward I’m certain I’m going to slip off the sides, but somehow I keep my footing. I scramble up the trail to the base of the Giant Beanstalk before my arms give out. I can’t carry Teddy another inch. “Buddy, I need you to do this part yourself.” I point up to our hideout in the boughs of the tree. “Come on, you need to climb.”

He’s too petrified to move. Using the last of my strength, I push him onto the tree, and fortunately he grabs a branch to steady himself. Then I push up on his bottom and slowly, haltingly, he starts to move.

The flashlight beam sweeps across the base of the tree— Caroline’s at the river, she’s getting close. I grab the lowest limb and pull myself up, following Teddy from bough to bough, all the way up to a branch we call Cloud Deck. I wish we could climb even higher but there’s no time and I don’t dare risk the noise. “This is good,” I whisper. I put my arms around his waist, holding him close, and lower my mouth to his ear. “Now we just need to stay very quiet, okay? Are you all right?”

He doesn’t say anything. His body is trembling; it’s coiled like a spring. He seems to understand that no, we are not all

right, something is very very wrong. I stare down at the ground and wish we’d climbed even higher. We’re only eight or ten feet above the trail and if Caroline stays on the path she will walk directly underneath us. If Teddy makes so much as a whimper—

I reach into the hollow, fumbling through our arsenal of rocks and tennis balls until I find the broken arrow, the short, splintered shaft with the pyramid blade tip. I know it’s a useless weapon but it’s comforting to have something— anything—in my grip.

And now I see her coming. Caroline is over the mossy bridge and she’s advancing toward us, sweeping the flashlight over the path. I whisper to Teddy that we need to be very quiet. I tell him he’s going to see his mommy but he has to promise not to say anything. And fortunately he does not ask any questions because she scrambles up the trail and stops right below our tree. There are voices in the distance, men’s voices, shouting. A dog, barking. Caroline looks back in their direction. She seems to understand she’s running out of time. I’m so scared, I am holding my breath. And my grip on Teddy is so tight, he can’t help but make a little cry of protest.

Caroline looks up. She points her flashlight into the tree and it’s so bright I have to shield my eyes. “Oh, Teddy, thank goodness! There you are! Mommy’s been looking all over! What are you doing up there?”

I see she’s still holding the pistol in her opposite hand, carrying it casually, like it’s an iPhone or a water bottle.

“Stay here,” I tell Teddy.

“No, Teddy, please, it’s not safe up there,” Caroline says. “Mallory is wrong. You need to come down and we’ll get you back to the house. You should be in bed right now!”

“Don’t move,” I tell him. “You’re okay right here.”

But I can feel him moving toward her, instinctively, drawn to the sound of her voice. I tighten my grip around

his waist and I’m shocked by the warmth coming off his body. He’s burning like he has a fever.

“Teddy, listen to me,” Caroline says. “You have to move away from Mallory. She’s very sick. She’s had what’s called a psychotic break. That’s why she drew all over the walls. She stole this gun from Mitzi and she used it to hurt your daddy and now she’s trying to keep you all for herself. The police are at our house and they’re looking for us right now. So let’s get down from there. Let’s go tell them what happened. Leave Mallory in the tree and let’s go straighten this out.”

But there’s no way Caroline is leaving me in the tree. She’s already told me too much. She’s told me the name of Teddy’s real mother. Her name was Margit Baroth and she was murdered near Seneca Lake. If the police do even a cursory investigation of my story, they’ll realize I’m telling the truth. Caroline has no choice but to kill me. As soon as she gets Teddy down from the tree. And then she’ll try to spin the whole thing as self-defense. And I’ll never know if she gets away with it, because I’ll be dead.

“Come on, sweetie. We need to go. Say bye-bye and come down.”

He shakes off my grip and shimmies across the limb. “Teddy, no!”

And when he looks back, I can see the whites of his eyes. His pupils have rolled back into his head. His right hand reaches out, snatching the arrow from my grip, and then he leaps from the tree. Caroline raises her arms, like she thinks she can actually catch him. Instead she collapses beneath his weight, tumbling backward. The gun and flashlight fly from her hands, disappearing into the bushes. With a sickening thump she lands on her back, holding Teddy close to her chest, protecting him from the fall.

“Are you okay? Teddy, sweetie, are you okay?”

He sits up so his body is straddling Caroline’s waist. She’s still asking if he’s okay when he spears the arrow through

the side of her neck. I don’t think she realizes she’s been stabbed until he pulls it out and stabs her again, three more times, chop-chop-chop. By the time she starts screaming she’s already lost her voice; all that comes out is a wet gurgling yelp.

I cry out “No!” but Teddy doesn’t stop—or rather, Margit doesn’t stop. She can’t control most of her son’s body, just his right hand and his right arm—but surprise has given her the advantage, and Caroline is choking and gagging on her own blood. The dogs bark louder, drawn by the sounds of struggle. The men in the forest are getting closer. They say they’re coming to help us, they yell for us to make more noise. I scramble down from the tree and rip Teddy off Caroline’s body. His skin is hot to the touch, like a boiling pot on a stove. Caroline lies thrashing on her back, clutching the remains of her neck, and Teddy is soaked with gore. It’s in his hair, all over his face, and dripping from his pajamas. And somehow I have the clarity to think clearly, to understand what has happened. I know that Margit just saved my life. And if I don’t act very quickly, Teddy will spend the rest of his in an institution.

He’s still clutching the arrow in his right hand. I lift him off the ground and pull him close, squeezing hard, so the blood spreads from his clothes onto mine. And then I carry him down the trail to the banks of the Royal River. I step into the water and my foot sinks into the mossy, squelchy mud. I take another step and another, wading deeper and deeper until the water is waist-high and the shock of the cold jolts Teddy awake. His pupils snap back into place; his body goes limp in my arms. He drops the arrow, but I manage to catch it before it hits the water and sinks out of sight.

“Mallory? Where are we?”

Teddy is terrified. Imagine waking from a trance and finding yourself in a dark forest, up to your neck in a cold creek.

“It’s okay, T-Bear.” I splash water onto his cheeks, scrubbing off the worst of the blood. “We’re going to be okay. Everything’s going to be fine.”

“Are we dreaming?”

“No, buddy, I’m sorry. This is real.”

He points to the bank of the river. “Why is there a dog?”

It’s a big dog, a black retriever, sniffing furiously and barking like mad. Some men come running out of the woods, dressed in reflective gear and waving flashlights.

“Found ’em!” a man shouts. “Woman and child, down by the creek!”

“Miss, are you hurt? Are you bleeding?” “Is the child okay?”

“You’re safe now, miss.” “Let us help you.”

“Come on, buddy, reach out your hand.”

But Teddy wraps his arms tighter around my waist, attaching himself to my hip. There are more police officers and more dogs approaching from the far side of the river, closing in on us from all directions.

And then a woman’s voice, calling from farther away: “I got another one! Adult female, PNB, multiple knife wounds!” They’ve got us surrounded now, a ring of flashlights advancing from every direction. It’s not clear who’s in charge because everybody’s talking at once: It’s okay, you’re all right, it’s safe now, but they see all the blood on our clothes and I can tell they’re freaking out. Teddy’s freaking out, too. I whisper in his ear: “It’s okay, T-Bear.

They’re here to help us.” Then I carry him to the riverbank and gently lower him to the ground.

“She’s holding something.” “Miss, what’s in your hand?” “Can you show us please?”

One of the cops grabs Teddy’s arm and yanks him to safety, and they all start shouting again. Everyone wants me to step slowly out of the water and lower the arrow to

the ground and by the way am I carrying any other weapons? But I’ve stopped listening because I’ve noticed another figure in the distance, standing outside the ring of police officers. The moonlight glints off her white dress, and her head lolls crookedly to one side. I raise my left hand, showing everyone the broken arrow.

“It was me,” I tell them. “I did it.”

Then I hold out my arm and let the arrow drop to the ground. And the next time I look up, Margit is gone.

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