Follow the leader1

The tension hung so heavily in the air that Sam found it difficult to draw breath. The others were quiet, still with the anticipation of what was to come, what it was that they would do…what it was they must do.2

There had been preparation before now, of course; this day had not occurred in a sudden nature. It was the very slowness, the gradual nature of things, that had led them all to stand here today, as they would not have dared dream to only a few weeks before. Even now Sam could hardly believe it…even now, this moment in time seemed nearly unreal, almost a dream.3

The others' breath came as unevenly as his own, their shoulders stiff, their postures unnaturally rigid and alert. Sam swallowed repeatedly, his eyes darting about without catching the others' gazes for more than a split second at a time. He did not look at the figure they circled in a tight cluster; none of them did. To do so would break their will down even farther, and then…then, they might be unable to go through with it. They might be unable to obey.4

No one knew what might happen then. No one wanted to consider. 5

Sam tried not to look too closely at the others, to see the way Emily was unconsciously chewing her lower lip, the way Melody's cheek muscles twitched every few moments, the way Ben had broken out in a cold sweat, so heavily that bitter-smelling stains emerged on the front and back of his shirt and in his underarms. And Abbie…Abbie was shaking, shaking so much that her teeth clicked together, her face so drained of color that Sam was distantly surprised that she was still able to stand up.6

Abbie was the youngest of the others, only seven years old, but it was not the reason she had always shown the most fear. Any of them would be as terrified as she, if not considerably more so, if they, like Abbie, were HER younger sibling.7

One child alone remained calm, composed, confident. One child alone did not fidget, clear her throat, or avoid meeting the others' eyes, but rather looked at each directly, the clear blue of her gaze open and friendly at a glance, even as a savage amusement twisted her smile and excited eagerness glittered in her eyes. She alone held no reservations, harbored no fear. But then, she never did.8

Sam had found this to be exhilarating at first, fun…he had seen her lack of fear as an excellent characteristic to make an exciting new friend, a friend who opened him up to possibilities he had never imagined. But silly games and pranks had become more intense, more destructive, more alarming in nature, and now…now here he was, and he could not back out. He could not say no.9

No matter how much he wanted to. 10

She spoke to them as a group, but her eyes landed on each of them in turn, holding their gaze long enough so each reacted with a shudder, small twitch, or swallow, unable to tear their eyes away from even the briefest of glances of the small blonde who stood at their head. 11

"It's time. Remember, don't go too fast. You don't want it over with too fast…it's hardly worth it when there isn't much time to watch."12

The others were silent, or perhaps silent was not accurate; they did not speak, but Sam could hear his heartbeat mingling in erratic sympathy with theirs, thudding in their chests in screaming protests. He could still hear their heightened breathing, the shuddery sobbing quality that Abbie's carried, could still hear the faint rustle of clothing as they shifted their weight…and the muffled whimpers of the figure at their feet.13

No, it was silent, simply because no one spoke.14

She grew impatient soon, and her blue eyes narrowed, her voice dropping dangerously as she addressed them again.15

"I said that it's time. Why aren't you moving? This is what we're doing. This is what we have to do. What YOU have to do. Why don't you say anything? Why aren't you DOING it?"16

Sam heard Melody swallow audibly, Abbie let out another soft sob and hurriedly cover her mouth, her eyes widening as she quickly looked to the other girl and visibly prayed that it had not been heard. Still no one spoke, no one made verbal their inner protests, and Sam's heart sped still faster, his stomach cramping so insistently he was half afraid he would vomit. 17

She was not looking at him, and maybe that was why the words were able to emerge. Maybe he hoped she would not realize that they had come from him, that she would be unable to identify who among the others had spoken.18

"I think…Madison, I think…I think we shouldn't do this…I think we should stop."19

Her small body turned towards his slowly, with such painstaking deliberateness that the others tensed even more, and Abbie trembled so badly that she brushed Ben, who was standing next to her, with her body repeatedly. Sam swallowed, wanting desperately to back away from Madison and her hooded gaze, but he knew it was no use. Never mind that she was smaller and that at ten years old, she was younger than him by an entire year. Never mind that she was a girl, that she was small and pretty, that she was just a kid. 20

There was no "just" where Madison was concerned. They all knew that by now. Madison might be a kid, but she wasn't like any kid any of them had ever met before. All they had to do was look down at the ground before them to see that. She might be a kid, but Sam had no doubt of the harm she could cause him, or anyone else she wanted to.21

It had been fun at first, to be with Madison, to be chosen by her. And there was no other word for it…all of them, from seven year old Abbie to twelve year old Melody, had been chosen by Madison to be associated with her. There was no choice in the matter for any of the others. When it came to Madison's will there was no such thing as choice. All together, including Madison, they made six. She had liked that. From what Sam could gather, Madison believed that the specific number of their party would make their actions more powerful.22

At first Sam had been excited, even grateful, to be chosen. Madison was different from other girls in a way that he couldn't quite describe. Smarter, of course, and more grown up, when she wanted to be…and prettier, definitely she was prettier. The first time Sam had ever seen her, he had thought she looked like an angel. Even now when she tilted her head and softened her smile, he could almost forget what he knew about Madison, about the sort of girl she really was…a girl who was no angel at all, a girl who at ten years old and 70 pounds scared Sam more than any person he had ever seen or heard from. A girl that none of them knew how to defy without drawing upon themselves consequences…severe consequences.23

Sam had enjoyed himself at first. All of them had, except maybe Abbie…when he thought about it, Abbie had always held back. Abbie had always seemed nervous and jumpy, even when the rest of them were laughing and having a good time. Sam had merely thought that it was because she was younger, accepting Madison's assertion that her sister was a "crybaby."24

It was only over time that he began to realize that he should have watched Abbie more closely, that he should have questioned her from the start. As Madison's sister, there was no telling what the younger girl had seen or heard in the seven long years they had shared the same home…it was something of a miracle that Abbie stood with them now. But then, she was a scapegoat, an example…a living proof of what Madison no doubt thought of as her mercy.25

Sam had met her at the park after school. It was close enough to his neighborhood that several others that parents rarely occupied their children to it once they were over the age of six or seven, and he had played there alone…until he looked up and another child was standing almost invasively near, the dark blue of her eyes so arresting that he nearly thought it was possible to drown in their depths.26

"Come with me," she had stated, and Sam had not even thought to disobey. None of them had, not then. 27

He had enjoyed it at first. To have a group, a leader, something to be a part of, to be proud of…all of that was something that Sam had not been used to. And of course, wisely, she had started off small. Elaborative imaginative play ideas became mild vandalism; as time went on, they began to blow up mailboxes and engage in more serious vandalism. It had been a rush, a thrill seeking of sorts that Sam had never before taken part in, and he grew to love it. Next it was fires, small at first, then larger, until the St Paul church had been destroyed…and he had helped. Then there had been the sexual aspect, which Sam had been perfectly fine with at first. After all, Madison was a pretty girl, and he wanted to see what it was like to kiss anyway- especially one as pretty as Madison, who always had such exciting ideas.28

But the first time Madison had asked- no, commanded- Sam to kiss her, she had forced her mouth against his for so long and so roughly he choked, unable to breathe. When she bit down on his lip, it was hard enough to swell up and draw blood. And when she made Melody do it too- and Emily, and even Abbie….and the other stuff too, stuff so sick Sam couldn't even think about it without his stomach flipping…Abbie's had been the worst. Even now Sam sometimes couldn't look at Abbie without seeing her face blanched with shock and pain, without seeing her streaming tears as she did the terrible thing that Madison had commanded. 29

Even after, it had not been enough to make him pull away…Sam had been certain that he could not pull away. Even when she had made them kill the snake, the goldfish, Emily's hamster, and Abbie's favorite cat. Even with his hands stained with blood, even with scratches up his arms and the creatures' dying shrieks echoing in his ears, Sam had been sure that he could not leave Madison's ranks…he was sure that no matter what, even if he didn't understand how or why, he would never be able to question her, let alone defy her. 30

But this…this was too far, this was too much. And even as the others looked at him in shock for his speaking out, their eyes widening, and even as Madison fixed cold blue gaze upon him, Sam held his ground, even as his heart thudded still faster. 31

There had to be a way out of this…there had to be.32

"You think," Madison repeated slowly, empathetically, her gaze never wavering, "that we should stop. You THINK…that WE…should stop."33

Sam swallowed again, blinking several times in a rapid attempt to settle his nerves, to keep from looking away from her, but even had he tried, they all knew that there was no escaping Madison's eyes. His voice did not come out as strongly as he would have liked when he replied. 34

"Yes…yes, I…"35

"You do," Madison repeated meaningfully, her eyes narrowing, "is that what you think?"36

Finally tearing her gaze away from Sam abruptly, she let her eyes settle on each of the other children in turn, briefly yet meaningfully. Even before she asked the question, the expected answer was clear in her gaze.37

"Sam, here…SAM thinks that we should stop," she said slowly, deliberately, a mocking undertone in her emphasis of the other child's name. "SAM thinks we should stop…what about the rest of you? Do you think we should stop?"38

The others seemed frozen, making no gestures, scarcely daring to breathe, to blink, let alone to refuse to meet Madison's eyes. Not satisfied with this lack of response, Madison's eyes narrowed, her brow slanting, and she addressed each of the children individually, her voice heavy.39

"Melody…Ben…Emily…Abbie."40

With each child's addressal, she was greeted with a jerky headshake, though Abbie's was slow in coming, and accompanied by tears. As Madison turned her gaze back to Sam, her lips curved up into a triumphant faint smile.41

"No one else thinks we should stop, Sam…and do you know why? Do you know what I think, Sam?" 42

She paused, giving him ample time to think, to squirm inwardly and outwardly, and the others stood rigidly, their anticipation of the confrontation between the two at its height.43

Sam did not reply; there was no need to. Madison would provide him with the answer, and already he knew he would not enjoy its outcome.44

"What I think, Sam," Madison said softly in the tone and with the facial expression of someone older, someone adult, someone entirely lacking of the innocence generally associated with childhood, "what I think, is that you made us do this. What I think is that you brought us all out here, and none of us knew what you were doing…what I think, Sam, is you told us that we were going to play a game in the woods, a secret game. I think we followed you here, and then we saw IT."45

She let her eyes drop down meaningfully to the motionless form at her feet, but as she lifted her eye back to Sam's there was not so much as a flicker of uncertainty, of guilt. There was nothing in Madison's eyes but cold cunning, even as she spoke with deceptive softness.46

"I think we wanted to leave, Sam, and you took out a knife and said that if we ran, or screamed, you would kill us all. And I think that then you made us watch what you did to it. And you know what else I think, Sam? I think after I watched you do all this, I realized just what a bad boy you are. And that I should tell your mom."47

"No," Sam burst out with, unable to help it anymore, to maintain calm in the face of this threat…a threat he was all too certain that Madison would carry out. "No, Madison, don't, don't do it, don't-"48

"I think you would have to go to jail then, if your mom found out what you did. If she knew it was your fault," Madison pressed on, ruthless, unrelenting, and it seemed to Sam without her moving at all that she was somehow closer, almost in his face, entirely too close for his comfort or even free ability to think. "I think all the men in jail will hit you and hurt you, because you're small…or maybe they'll like you, Sam. Maybe they'll think you're a little girl, since you're so small and so pretty. Way too small and pretty to be a man. And then they'll-"49

"Madison, stop," Sam said desperately, his voice shaking, palms sweating, mouth dry, but of course, she had no intention of doing so until all her points had been hammered home. She used to say when she grew up, she would be a lawyer, and to Sam, that was almost as scary as the thought of Madison as a teacher…her second career choice.50

"I think I should do that," Madison said softly, ignoring his pleas, ignoring the stricken looks of the others…or perhaps she was reacting in response to them. "It would be for the best…unless, of course, I kill you."51

Even as his heart nearly stopped, his breath choking, halting in his throat, Sam was able to think in a hazy, disconnected sort of mental state that it was a strange thing, how it was to be with Madison. Even now, with his fear for his life, his liberty, and his last remaining vesiges of being "good," of doing what was "right," Sam was not able to look into Madison's dark blue eyes, her full lips and clear, delicate features, without thinking that she was pretty…without wondering if maybe the next time he let her touch him, she wouldn't be so rough, and it wouldn't be so bad.52

He was crazy…he was crazy, or else she was a witch, a witch who had been able to possess him mind and soul. Sam considered both to be equally possible. 53

She was looking at him now with the calmness of her voice belying the coldness of her eyes, and Sam knew she meant it. She always did mean it. Whatever words she spoke…at least in their presence, she always meant it. With the grown ups, of course, it was a different story.54

If he didn't do this, Madison would tell it all, all they'd done before this, and this too…somehow even if he ran she would blame this on him, and the others would back her up. Who would believe one person over five…especially when one of the five was Madison? 55

Or she would kill him. And as much as he hated himself sometimes for what he had done, what he had become, under Madison's hand…as scared and ashamed as he felt, as trapped…Sam still didn't want to die. He was eleven years old. He had barely had time to live.56

She could see that, he knew…her lips curved upward again, and suddenly the knife was in his hands, Madison's own hands on his shoulder, pushing him forward, thrusting him down…forcing him to face the figure before him, on its own level.57

"I think, Sam, that you should go first."58

He was vaguely aware of the other's eyes on him, wide with dread, unable to look away; he knew that when it was their turns, he would stand in an identical position. With Madison standing over him, her voice dropping to a hiss, seeming so close to his ear even as she stood a slight distance back, a shudder rolled through his spine, and he had to hold back the bile that rose up.59

"Do it, Sam. Do it now. NOW."60

Until now Sam had looked at the figure they encircled as little as possible, trying not to see, not to have to fully take in what Madison had brought them to, what she had prepared as their next step…but now he looked, and from only inches away, and his mind roared with the protest of what his hand already itched to accomplish.61

A small boy lay before him, no more than two or three years old. He had been taped with silver duct tape, thick pieces pinning down his small arms and legs, covering his mouth. Steady tears streamed down his bulging brown eyes. Sam did not know where Madison had gotten him, or how she had managed to subdue him alone, before bringing them all to him. But then, he did not want to know. And it was not important. 62

He had to do this. There was no other option…there never was, when it came to Madison and what she wanted.63

He could hear Abbie's stifled sobs, Emily's ragged breaths, Ben's audible swallows, Melody's grinding teeth…he felt their eyes on him, and he felt the terror of the child before him as if it were physically striking his heart. His own heart beat so loudly he almost believed it must be visible, that the others must see it thudding through his shirt.64

He could run…he could throw down the knife and run, never again to return, just go and go until he was away from Madison's eyes boring into his spine, away from the oppression of her very presence, away from the small part of him that was still drawn to her and her every idea…even this one.65

He could…but his fear of doing so was greater than his horror to obey her, and he raised the knife high. As its blade descended, it glinted brightly, clearly casting the reflection of Madison's small smile.66

They had to wash their hands, before going home. All of them were stained, because each child had taken a turn…each child had been required to. All, of course, except for Madison. Madison never participated; Madison only watched. It was in that, Sam thought dully, that she got the most happiness out of it…just sitting back and watching others' pain.68

She warned them, as always, what would happen if they told, her eyes narrowed to slits, her small childish features hard as she spoke with low ominous tones.69

"No one would ever believe you…you'd go to prison, and anyway, you did it. Not me, you. So guess who would get in trouble? They might even kill you for it…and if they don't…"70

She let the words trail off, but everyone knew the implication. If "they" don't, she would. Even Sam, a boy a year older and inches taller than her, even Melody, who was not only two years older, but also half a foot taller and heavy enough to have developed breasts. Somehow, if she needed to, Madison would find a way to kill them all.71

Sam watched for just a moment, his insides cramping terribly, fighting a strong impulse to vomit as Madison walked out of the forest, holding her younger sister Abbie's hand. Sam saw how tightly she gripped the younger child's fingers, how fear stiffened Abbie's shoulders and hurried her steps…but any observing adult would only smile, seeing the protective sweetness of an older sister with the younger. 72

Sometimes he thought about killing Madison, about sneaking into her room at night and cutting her throat before she ever woke up. But even in those daydreams, the thought froze him, for what if she woke up and got him first? What if she screamed?73

Or even more scary to think about…what if in the end, Sam looked at her and just couldn't do it…what if it turns out that some part of him would rather kill for Madison than do anything to harm her? 74