Everybody’s looking for Malinda Paige. The entire town would sling a rope around a tree and clap and cheer as she jitterbugged her way to hell. And the Police, of course. They won’t find her.
I’ve seen her. That’s why I’m here. I need to let it out. I think back to the start of last term, when the three young men that killed themselves. You probably didn’t hear about them. Or about Malinda Paige. That’s the kind of town I live in. The 70s and 80s tore through the region like a disemboweling knife, spilling the guts of industry to dry under the summer sun. A town full of hard people, made so because of the mountains we lived in. Hard of body and hard headed. A town too stupid to know it was already dead.
Exit Malinda Paige. We last saw her in her junior year. School broke for summer and we never saw her again. That wasn’t uncommon. We bled people, year after year. The smart ones would get a one-way ticket out and never look back. We hadn’t figured Malinda for the type. But rats flee a sinking ship too.
Malinda wasn’t pretty. Her eyes had that wet poached egg look about them. The glasses didn’t help. Her cheeks a little too round to give her that hollowed cheerleader look. Her face framed by a headful of lanky, greasy brown hair. This didn’t matter much. She had more than enough jiggle under her sweats during gym class to get the boys staring.
She didn’t have friends that I knew of. The human equivalent of styrofoam package stuffing. Just filling up the space around the people that mattered. There was something a little darker about the girl. She’d walk by the little knots and cliques in the corridor and someone would say slut or whore in a stage whisper, loud enough for me to hear from twenty feet away. Malinda wouldn’t bat an eyelid. It got around that she got suspended for a week for blowing someone in one of the cleaning stores. The type of guy that was part of a supply chain all too common in the town. Adderall, Oxycontin and worse. Apparently Malinda was getting fucked in more ways than one.
That’s why it didn’t blip when she didn’t turn up for senior year. Some things were made to sink without ripples.
She wasn’t the only one that didn’t turn up on the first day of school. Shane, one of the school’s basketball players had quietly slipped away into a shed behind his house, cradling his father’s handgun. He set there for hours before painting the wall behind him with his brains. Things get out in a small town. Secrets seep and leak. Someone’s brother mentions something. An EMT at a bar may drop the worse case he’d ever attended to. Some case like Shane’s suicide, how, perhaps, the bullet didn’t quite take as much brain as poor Shane wanted. How Shane, his eye sockets filling up with blood, screamed, “She sees me!” Over and over, weeping scarlet tears till he repeated it one final time in an exhalation of spit and gore.
This all came out later of course, whispered between shocked students at the cafeteria. Back then it was just the first day of school. Everybody moving up a year, swapping classes, lockers. My new locker bore the scars of some epithet scrawled in sharpie and inexpertly scratched off. I could still make it out.
The diary was sitting in the locker. A plain thing, paper bound in faux leather. A diary was an anachronism. An oddity, just like Malinda Paige. In a world where people posted the shallowest thoughts on Facebook and snapchatted glimpses of nipple to each other, there was something ancient and archaic about putting pen to paper. Something secret. The diary came off the rusty metal of the locker with a soft ripping sound. It had been gummed to the surface by a veneer of soda, a present poured down the top of the locker by one of Malinda’s fans.
I shouldn’t have taken it. Diaries are secret things. Some secrets were meant to be buried. Like Malinda Paige.
Where to start when it comes to her diary? It didn’t say where she was. It left me with more questions than answers. Who was Malinda? What was Malinda?
I didn’t look at the diary. Not for a week at least. I was caught up in the rush of the start of school. I meant to hand it over to someone. The school. Her family maybe. It sat on my desk for a whole week. Curiosity is a bitch of an emotion, isn’t it. It creeps. Like a rash you can’t scratch at. One rainy Saturday, tired of daytime TV and bored of the banality of Facebook, I flipped that thing open.
How do you describe the shape of madness? Let me try. Madness isn’t a hundred pages of spidery handwriting. No punctuation. No paragraphs. Madness isn’t series of geometric scribbles, filling up every square inch of paper that didn’t have writing on it. So dense and intricate that the patterns crawled and shifted when you looked at them too close. No, madness was what Malinda wrote.
when did it start i first heard the voices after my second period i remember thinking that i was crazy because thats what crazy people do
There was stuff in there that was just plain wrong.
i thought of dad for the first time in a long time mum fell down and bashed her chin it was the blood i remember when dad used to hit her so bad that she couldnt walk hes long dead why do i still hate him so much
Reading the text was difficult. There were no dates, the only way you knew she’d ended a section was when she left a single monogrammed initial at the end of it.
the voices arent mine i know that now its only when i went to school when it got much worse the voices are from other people i hear other peoples voices not the ones from their mouths the ones which they lie and whisper from their hearts secret voices i know them all
The girl was crazier than I thought. I think some of her words alluded to the start of high school.
i hate it here its even worse than grade school i feel their eyes on me when they look at me i hear their whispers in my head and it feels like cut glass in my tummy and needles behind my eyes i hate them all
Malinda Paige kept score, that was the worst thing. The number of times she’d had sex with an entire list of guys from school. What kind of person does that?
the other girls stare at me but i can hear what theyre saying in their hearts they dont know what its like the pills help but only so much the voices always cut through its only in the afterglow that the voices are stilled if you were going crazy wouldnt you chase after a little peace
There was no clue to Malinda’s disappearance in her diary. That was the strangest of all. If she ran, wouldn’t she have written something, planned something? The last thing she wrote was even crazier than everything else.
im more than a hole for these guys im more than a target for girls to spit on more than just this flesh waiting to rot away theres a bird here in this eggshell skull it needs to be free i want to fly
Nothing about where she went. I put the diary away. The shadows had grown long in my room and the light streaming in from the window had darkened to a dim orange hue. Malinda’s diary set at my desk, pages upon pages of nonsense. It wouldn’t have surprised me that she was mental. There’s a lot of that in the community, broken people, broken families. We just plastered over the cracks and pretended that everything was okay. But the cracks were there and they yawned open under our lies and facades. And then Malinda Paige went missing. I stared at the diary for a long while, the orange light dimming until there was nothing in my room but shadows.
The following Monday, our town had the second of the suicides.
Jimmy was well liked. Pleasant looking. Did averagely well in school between band practice and running track. Not rich, but he still hung with the cooler kids. He worked at a pool cleaning company to make ends meet. Not that we had many pools up in the hills. Pools were a money thing and there was precious little of that around.
Pool cleaning means chemicals. Stuff that you need to wear gloves to handle. Not the stuff you chug. When they found him, the pool boy was spread eagled on dry land,drowned in his own blood. He didn’t die easy. He didn’t die slow. He lasted long enough to scrawl she sees me in his own blood. We spoke of this in hushed whispers in school, nobody wanting to link two tragedies.
There was something at the back of my mind, something about Jimmy and Shane. I found it when I got back after school. I found it and something else besides. Jimmy and Shane. Of course, the names were familiar. It was a small town. But I’d seen those two names together not long ago. They were both on Malinda’s scorecard.
There was something else inside that damned book when I flipped the pages. Something that I hadn’t seen when I’d read the diary cover to cover the day before. Past Malinda’s last cryptic message was a single meaningless phrase, repeated over and over.
five went up four came down
There was new writing in Malina’s diary. A book that had been in my room all this while. There was no mistaking the spaghetti scrawl of her handwriting. Or the little smudges across the paper from left to right. Malinda was left handed. Had been.
My stomach roiled at the sight of the text. Malinda Paige was missing. Maybe dead somewhere. Missing girls don’t come to good ends around here. And yet there was a fresh page of her handwriting in her diary. Had the words sprung forth from the paper, seeping out of the pristine white like an old photograph developing? Even worse was thinking that Malinda Paige had somehow been in my room, sitting at my table, penning those words herself. Impossible. I had to swallow twice and take in a huge, shuddering breath before the nausea passed.
I couldn’t help but think of Malinda Paige in the past tense. Something terrible must have happened to her. Broken though she was, she would not have left without that diary. I shivered at the sight of it, still open to that fresh page of text, the edges stained with brown cola from some cruel prank. I had to get rid of it, but it deserved more than simply being tossed into the trash. There had to be a way. Malinda was gone, but her family was still here. I had to give it back.
The Paige house was on the outskirts of town, where homes were within the reach of even the poorest in our town. It was better than having a home on wheels, but not by much. Paint was peeling off the walls. One of the front windows had been broken and boarded up instead of being fixed. A collection of dust and dead insects had piled up between the glass and the wood over the years.
I thumbed the doorbell twice. On the second time, the button got stuck and didn’t pop back out. I rapped on the thin wooden door hard enough to bruise my knuckles. Getting Malinda’s address hadn’t been easy. She’d not made any friends in school. In the end, I went up to the school office and said that she’d left stuff in her locker and I’d do the school a favour by bringing it straight to her home. The clerk at the office hesitated at giving me Malinda’s address but gave in eventually. It would have been easier than dealing with another piece of orphaned property.
My assault on the door was rewarded by a slow shuffle approaching. The door squealed open to reveal a stooped lady, her frizzy hair streaked through with grey.
“Mrs Paige?” I asked.
The woman gave a huge grin, revealing a set of yellowing teeth set at odd angles. “Yes, that’s me.”
“I’m Emm, I was a… friend of your daughter. I found something of hers in her locker and came over to drop it off.”
“Emm is such a lovely name. Is it short for Emma?”
I nodded and forced a smile. I hated the name. It was so old sounding. Mrs Paige stepped out of the way and gestured at the open door. “Please come in.”
I already had my fingers around the edge of the book, meaning to hand it over and for it to leave my life forever. But curiosity bit again. Mrs Paige stepped into her home, the bright light of day rendering the interior almost inky dark. I followed behind, too eager to solve the mystery of Malinda Paige. I wish that I hadn’t.
The cool of the house was a welcome change from the spring sun. It took a moment for my eyes to grow accustomed to the dim light. The home was sparsely furnished, a threadbare sofa, the arms scratched and disfigured. The TV was old, even by the modest standards of where we lived. The wallpaper curled away from the walls, revealing pocked plaster. Dust glinted as it drifted lazily in the stifling air.
It wasn’t the poverty that got to me. My family wasn’t rich. It was the fact that I wasn’t in a house. I was in a shrine. Every picture in the house was of a single subject. Malinda Paige. I felt the weight of her gaze from more than two dozen photographs, like the little footfalls of insects on my skin. Pictures hung on the walls, in frames on the tables. She was everywhere in that house. I shuddered and made my way towards the kitchen behind Mrs Paige.
“Have you been in contact with Malinda?” I asked the elder Paige, trying to shake my unease off by breaking the silence.
“No, but she’s not far. She’s never far from me. She’ll be back.” She gave me a lopsided grin, pulling a chair up by a dinner table in the kitchen. There were dark streaks of grease or worse down the back of the chair. I bit my lip and sat down.
“Did you report it to the Police?”
“Oh yes, had to be done. I’m sure she’s alright, she’s so clever and so strong. So hard for a little girl to grow up without a father you know. Emery, that’s the late Mr Paige, killed himself when she was only fourteen. Can’t say I missed him, he was a devil when he was a few drinks in. One day he beat me to within an inch of my life. I’m talking eyes so swollen I couldn’t even see. That day I guess all the bad just caught up with him all at once, so he sat here in the kitchen, had a beer and a cigarette and slit his throat from ear to ear.” She drew one long dirty fingernail across her throat, all the while wearing that off centre smile, delivering her monologue in flat tone, almost a recitation.
“Malinda was right in the room, too. Hiding in one of the cupboards like she always did when he started up with his fists. Poor dear. Oh, where are my manners, I need to get you a drink.”
Mrs Paige walked over to the fridge while I sat, rooted to the chair. She had related the account of her husband’s death with little more emotion that someone reading out a shopping list. It had been a mistake to come. Nothing about Malinda Paige made sense, perhaps the girl was mad, but she was also surrounded by madness. I felt the same lightness in my belly that one got on top of a roller coaster, just before the plunge.
The older lady plucked a can of Coke from the fridge and set it in front of me. The cheery red can bore a Christmas motif from two years before. It opened with a satisfying hiss. The can was warm, blood warm even though it had just come from the fridge. I took a sip. It was flat, even though I could have sworn it was fizzing a moment before. Everything about this house was wrong. Mrs Paige. The pictures. The furniture. The food.
Mrs Paige leaned in towards me, so close that I could smell her breath, sour and warm. She looked me in the eye.
“I don’t worry because I can still feel her out there. She sings me to sleep sometimes. Five went up, four came down. Five went up, four came down. Five went up, four came down.”
She repeated it over and over, an idiot litany. I had to leave. The legs of the chair scraped on the stained floor as I stood. Mrs Paige struck then, her hands as fast as snakes, fingers digging into the soft flesh of my forearm. She pulled herself closer to me, still chanting that strange couplet.
“Five went up, four came down.”
A thin trickle of blood leaked from one nostril. Her nails bit deep into my arm. I tugged backwards, but her thin frame masked a wiry strength I could not overcome. I was trapped.
“Five went up, four came down.”
Our noses were almost touching. Her eyes had a dazed look about them, as though they were focused on something far away. Her voice got louder and louder, until she was nearly screeching the same thing over and over.
“Five went up, four came down. Find me.”
With that, she let me go. I fell backwards into my chair so hard that it slid back several inches. My flailing arms had caught the can of Coke and sent a fan of the sweet drink across the table. Through it all, Mrs Paige just sat there, smiling her broken smile. I gathered my things and fled.
Find me. Not find my daughter. Find me. The Paige household was a faint outline in the distance, but words echoed in my head. Just who had I been speaking to? Malinda had grown up in a household where violence was as common and unpredictable as the storms we got in the mountains. She’d spent most of her time in school on drugs or with a growing number of young men. She was scarred, broken. Five people went up somewhere. Malinda. Shane. Jimmy. They were two of her favourites, according to her diary. There were two more above them in her list. Cliff. Lucas. Another pair of golden boys. Tall, sporty, just the way she liked them. It had to be the five of them. Things were falling together, piece by horrific piece.
But still nothing to take to the cops. Not good enough to speak to Cliff and Lucas. Mrs Paige was right. I had to find Malinda.
I spent that evening going through the diary over and over, until my eyes watered. Nothing. No clues could be gleaned from the mess of words. I didn’t even know how tired I was until sleep snuck up on me and stole my last waking moment. I’ll always remember that dream I had that night. I remember it better than the lunch I ate this afternoon.
I knew I was dreaming right away. I knew that from the extra weight on my hips and the extra bounce under my t-shirt. I wasn’t in my own body. There was a thundercloud in my head, dark with flashes of light. There was a desert under my tongue. I knew that I had already taken a little something to calm the voices. I was meeting Cliff today. I liked him more than the others. He had a car, maybe we could go in the woods, somewhere a little quieter than usual.
He led me to his car. There were three others there already. Lucas. Shane. Jimmy. Cliff pushed me into the car. One of the guys was on my left and the other on my right. They were already slick with sweat. Not from the weather, which was still cool. I could smell it off them. Fear? Excitement? The car filled with the musky, animal stink of it as they crowded me in. I smiled at them, the cotton wool between my ears not letting me do much else. The car was unnaturally quiet, none of the banter, none of the jokes. I wore a clown’s mask, my smile tight and unnatural. I looked to the left and the right. Lucas’ jaw was clenched tight, cords sticking out on his neck.
We were out of town, speeding up into the mountains. Rocks, trees whirred by in a blur of grey, brown and green. It could have been hours and it could have been minutes, but the car finally stopped. We were far from town, far from any other human being. They dragged me from the car and pushed me deep into the woods. I thought to run, to flee, but the pills had slowed my thoughts to a glacial pace. We were in a clearing. Strong hands gripped my arms; they didn’t need to. My limbs flailed with all the resolve of a pool noodle. I looked into Cliff’s eyes. Sweet, beautiful Cliff. Always my favourite. He had something dark in his hands. With a flick of his thumb, a bright blade sprang from its sheath.
It took me a full ten minutes to convince myself that I had been dreaming. My sheets were soggy with sweat and I had to rub the feeling back into my arms where Malinda had been held. She’d been taken up into the mountains. Five went up. She was still up there.
Her diary was open on my desk. Last I remembered, it had been in my lap before sleep took me.
It had been written in strokes so deep and savage that the paper had ripped under the pen. That familiar script, slanted and smeared in a way only a leftie would know. It couldn’t have been me, not even in my sleep. I’d been right handed all my life. She had been here. She wanted to be found. And under those bold words, a series of numbers. Coordinates. She’d given me coordinates.
Many things went through my mind as I searched for Malinda’s clearing. That I was stupid. That I was crazy. I’d been getting so close to the dead girl that I’d finally joined her in her madness. Did I actually believe her diary? That she was some kind of mind reader? Or something more? And yet I was trudging through the forest, halfway up the mountains surrounding the town, on nothing more a feeling in my gut and a dead girl’s diary.
But there was a clearing, just like I’d seen in my dream. In the centre of the clearing, there was a space where the rocks had been pushed aside and the grass was a little greener than the rest of the clearing. The rusted metal of my shovel bit into earth. It was softer than I expected. I’d found her.
The rich brown earth gave Malinda Paige up slowly, her pale flesh seeing the light of day for the first time in months. She should have been a worm eaten mess, a dried out husk. I wish she had been, so that I wouldn’t have had to see what the four of them had done to her. It wasn’t enough that she’d been violated. They’d done other terrible things to body as well. Her hands were gone, both lopped off at the wrist. Her face had seen the worst of it, empty pits were her eyes should have been, horrific damage done to her mouth. No dental records? Even through all that I knew her for who she was,
There was an ugly, black thing sticking out from her torso. It came free with a struggle, the dried blood giving way with a sound like a plaster coming free. This was it. I’d found Malinda Paige. Now I just had to tell the world.
I found Cliff leaning against my Dad’s car when I left the forest, his car just slightly behind mine. I thought to flee back into the safety of the woods, but the nights were bitterly cold and I would not have lasted.
He spoke first.
“I know why you’re out here, Emma.”
“Emm.” I said, instinctively.
He grimaced when I said that. “It’s not what you think it is. Lucas killed himself this afternoon.”
“Guilt will do that to a man. When’s your turn?” Perhaps the bravado would distract him. My heart was hammering away in my chest. There was no way past him.
“You don’t understand. We did what we had to. You know she was different, you wouldn’t be here otherwise. There wasn’t any other way to get here. Only four of us knew she came up here.”
“And you didn’t mean to kill her. Just have a little fun but it got out of hand?” I circled a little to the side, trying to judge the distance between the door and me. Cliff played defence for the football team. I couldn’t outrun him even with a fifty foot head start.
“We did what we had to. She wasn’t normal. She was sick in the head. Sometimes she’d talk about how she could hear other people’s voices in her head. You know, after we’d done it. She’d tell me about how the noise nearly drove her mad. But I think there was more to it than that. She didn’t just hear voices. She could could put whisper back. Put things in your head. Make you do things.” He pulled his t-shirt over his head, baring his toned torso. Overlayed on the smooth muscle was a network of pale scars and marks. I recognized the little circular mark of a cigarette burn.
“Look at this. She’d make us do it to ourselves, knives sometimes. Fire other times. And she’d watch and laugh while we did it. It was never enough for her. The sex. The pain. Not enough for us to do it to ourselves. She started wanting more. For us to hurt each other and worse.”
The funny thing is, for a second there, I believed him. The more he spoke, the more animated he got. I saw the fear in the whites of his eyes, the way his voice got higher and higher the more he spoke about Malinda. But he was crazy, just like she was. He was the only one of the four left, if Lucas was already dead. Nobody knew about Malinda Paige, except for him… and me. He wasn’t going to let me down the mountain. Malinda’s grave was big enough for two.
“I don’t even know if we finished the job. Shane was the one who took her eyes and he blew a hole in his head. Jimmy worked on her teeth and he swallowed bleach. Lucas took her hands so that there wouldn’t be fingerprints to work on. You know earlier today he put his arms into a woodchipper? You stand there and believe that’s a coincidence.”
I stared at him, watching the sweat roll down his neck, watching his fingers flex. He was wound up, a coiled spring twisted twisted to breaking point.
“Or it could be that the four of you were sick and crazy and a coward’s death is the only way out.”
“Don’t fuck around with me!” His shout bounced back from the surrounding trees. “She called you here too. Didn’t she? Don’t lie now. We both know it. How?”
There wasn’t a need to antagonise him. “Her diary. She’s been writing in it.”
“How can you be sure it isn’t you that’s writing? Imagine someone that could wear you like a glove. You know something, Emma?”
“Emm,” I said again.
“No. Emma. That’s how you introduced yourself last year in chemistry. You’ve never called yourself Emm. Malinda wasn’t just some girl. She’s not just that mess rotting in the ground up there. There’s something left of her. It got to three of us. It got to you. You’ve been too close to her.”
There was something in my pocket, digging against the flesh of my thigh. A slim block. Something that had been, until recently, sticking out of the chest of Malinda Paige. My fingers closed around it, found the little catch.
Cliff took a step towards me.
Cliff’s murder would be whispered about for years. They found him strung up in the woods, a bloody mess, ribbons of his skin dangling off him. The coroner said that the massive blood loss had killed him in the end. Which meant that he’d been alive all the way while someone methodically peeled him. There was a single suspect. A hit on the fingerprints left on the knife stuck in his chest. A girl that had gone missing the year before. Malinda Paige. Or at least that’s what the police thought they found. She’d made sure of that. She’d also made sure that Cliff had left a signed confession, telling about how five people had gone up and only four had come down.
There’s a merciful blank in my memory from that day. I came to in my own bed, clean and changed. There was only the faintest trace of blood under my fingernails. She’d been thorough but not thorough enough. Or maybe it was a reminder for me.
They searched the woods but never found Malinda’s body. If it were ever there in the first place. Her diary I buried in the dirt, without a marking. Life went on.
There are three ways the town remembers the story of Malinda Paige. They are all true. They are all lies.
Ask the Police. Malinda Paige was a normal girl. She was brought up to the mountains and raped. The four young men tried to kill her and thought they succeeded. But they didn’t. Guilt took them one by one until Malinda came back to finish the job and has been on the run ever since.
Ask the dead boys. Malinda Paige was a monster. She wormed her way into their skulls and whispered dark things in their minds until they hatched a plan to kill her. They thought they succeeded. They failed and the whispers continued and they died for it.
Ask me. Malinda Paige was something special. She found another girl, a lot like her, and told her story in the only way she knew how. I’d like to think that she would have wanted me to write everything down.
There’s another story. One which floats in the dark moments when I’m alone. Like when it’s just me and the murmur of the breeze and the thump of my heart beat at night. That the four of them couldn’t have hatched a plan without her knowing. That Malinda Paige was more than just a corpse up in the mountains that refused to rot. That she’d always had a plan, a way to get out and she’d tidied up all the loose ends. That she would never be far from me.