Dad doesn’t like me being out late, but I’m not afraid. So, here I am in the middle of the woods, surrounded by towering trees that block out the shining white light of the moon, making it hard to see my own nose, never mind the path to our destination.
“God!” I groan, wishing I could take a minute to crack my spine and relieve the pain a bit. “How much does this thing weigh?”
“We’re almost there,” Finn replies with a moan of equal discomfort to mine.
I waddle like a constipated duck, carrying one end of what feels like a bag of weights while Finn, who waddles like me but backwards, fares much better than I with the other end. It’s such an awkward way to walk unless my goal in life is to have the back of an eighty-year-old before I reach my twenties.
I’m almost sure this bag is a living thing and doing everything it can to make this trip harder for me and Finn. It’s like it’s pushing itself down, bringing all its weight to the center of its body. It’s making me sweat, and I don’t like that one bit. As my best friend, Finn should know that I hate strenuous activities and–
“Oof!” My ankle burns as it twists harshly. All it takes is me stepping on a dumb little rock and now I’m folding like a lawn chair to the ground, my hands digging into the dirt and face smushing in the leaves.
“Did you fall?” Finn asks, alarm and concern in his voice.
“No, I just wanted to know what mud tastes like,” I retort, pushing myself up to a sitting position. Dusting off my hands as much as I can, I look over at Finn’s vague figure in the dark. He’s still holding onto the bag, waiting for me to get back up. Ankle still throbbing, I start to stand, but as soon as I put weight on it, a horrific shooting pain races all the way up, through my shin and to my knee. I cry out and fall back to the ground.
“Kenz!” Finn drops the package abruptly and rushes over to me, crouching beside me.
I hiss through the pain until it starts to subside to an almost bearable sensation. “I think it’s sprained. I’m sorry, I can’t walk. I’m sorry–”
“Stop apologizing, it’s okay!” he insists, gently moving my ankle to place it on a log. “I can hardly complain when I dragged you out here in the first place, can I?”
“You didn’t drag me out here, Finn. I wasn't gonna let you do this alone.”
He nodded, wrapping his scarf tightly around my foot. “Okay, but neither of us would be here, in the middle of the night if I wasn’t such a–”
I batted his arm with my hand. “Stop.”
Since I made the shocking discovery a week ago, Finn has made it abundantly clear that he doesn’t think himself a good person. He thinks he doesn’t deserve my friendship, my forgiveness, my acceptance, that I should run away, call the police, and let him rot in a cell or worse…
Convinced he’s the worst kind of person, Finn has been avoiding the question: why am I helping him? Why am I sticking by his side? And honestly, I’m avoiding the answer, which is why while I stare at his face, my heart rate begins to increase. I can see the question playing over and over in his mind as he wraps my ankle carefully, and I can see it beginning to form on his lips. I can see part of him trying to resist the urge to ask: the part that fears the answer.
“Why are you here, Mackenzie?” His brown eyes become shiny under the moonlight as he looks at me. “Why don’t you hate me after everything I’ve told you?”
He crouches by my leg, waiting for an answer in the long silence that I bring after he asked the question. It’s true that any normal person would have been completely freaked out by everything Finn has admitted to doing, but it’s also true that he’s not the only obsessive person in this friendship. I never thought I’d tell him about the reason we are friends, that his infatuation with me isn’t random. Nothing about our meeting was accidental.
When I was little, nobody wanted to play with me. I was the weird kid who smelled funny and whose hair was never brushed, and because nobody that age would understand that things weren’t great at home, they just assumed I was gross. I had made peace with being alone, until a mean boy had pushed me over into a puddle, and when I looked up again, I saw Finlay Dawson shoving the bully away from me. When Bully reluctantly left, and a kind hand offered to help me up, that’s when I knew nothing was going to stop me from making this boy love me.
I never thought I’d tell him that the first time I laid eyes on him, I knew I wanted to be his best friend. I never thought I’d tell him that I found his Spotify account just to find out which band he had the most songs of, and that the very next day, I came in wearing my brother’s T-shirt of Finn’s favorite just so that he’d strike up a conversation with me. Or that one day, I brought in some extra pens, a bottle of water and a hoodie to put on his usual desk in class so that the only spare seat would be next to me. I never wanted to tell him that while we were selling our house, I’d snuck into the principal's office to find his address, so that I could find a house in his neighborhood and show my father, and that that was the whole reason we were neighbors.
I didn’t think I’d tell him those things, but now I relay the whole story like there are no boundaries because honestly … there are no longer boundaries. Finn watches me the whole time as I tell him how I laid the groundwork for our blossoming friendship. The dominoes he thought were the product of his manipulation were actually the ones I placed to cascade in a line that led to me.
I sighed as I came to the end of my confession. “So, if we’re talking crazy, I got a lot of that myself.”
I haven’t looked at him while I’ve confessed my Machiavellian ways, but once I finish my admittance, I force myself to meet his eyes. Something is playing on his lips that I can’t quite make out in the dark. Then, a chuckle escapes his mouth.
I frown. “You knew?”
“That you’re a mastermind? Of course I did. Well, I didn’t know the specifics, but I knew you were trying to get my attention. The thing is, you already had it from day one. I was just too scared to talk to you until I found out you wanted me to.”
I couldn’t help but laugh at that. The whole time, both of us wanted desperately to befriend the other, but neither of us could do it directly. Finn had spent our entire time together thinking I was some innocent girl who trusted a bad man. I’m over him calling himself psychotic, crazy, weird, because it would be hypocritical of me not to tell him that I’m just as much those things.
“Feels good to get all that off my chest, though. You’re not the only stalker in these woods, doesn’t that make you feel better?”
He threw his head back in laughter. “I guess so, yeah. Though your dad would argue that the Madison Madman is here with us, too.”
“Shows how much he knows,” I retort. I move my foot around in painful circles, but as I look to my left, I realize that I don’t have time to be injured. “Speaking of serial killer things, we should really get out of these woods. I can limp the rest of the way.”
“Are you sure?” Finn asks as I start to get to my feet.
“We don’t have much of a choice, do we?”
“I guess not.” He goes back around to the bag. “Sorry about the slight delay, buddy.” As we work together to lift the bag from the ground, I force myself to ignore the horrendous pain shooting up my entire leg. It’s not safe in these woods, and I should be afraid, but I’m not. I have my best friend, I tell myself, who still loves me despite the things I’ve been so scared to tell him–
Lewis’ arm falls out through the slightly open zipper, his fingers catching on the mud below him as we trudge on.
– I suppose he’d been the same, though. When I caught Finn for the first time weeks ago, he thought I’d hate him, too, but I don’t think I’m capable of hating Finlay Dawson–
We make it to the lake and take a moment of gulping in some air before proceeding to lift Lewis even higher, swinging him back and forth between us like a swing.
– Not even when he told me he was our town’s serial killer.
We launch Lewis into the air, watching him splash into the lake and sink to the bottom, joining the rest of the fools who’d tried to come between me and Finn.