The banging on the door thundered in the room. The receptionist bounded out of her chair and ran to the door. A woman tumbled in, soaking wet from the rain and covered in mud. Tripping and slipping, she hurtled herself to the desk and cowered against it. The receptionist closed the door and slowly approached her.
“It’s alright, you’re safe now.” She extended her hands in a pacifying and soothing manner. “Can you tell me your name?”
“M-m-Mary.” She shivered and curled in on herself. “Mary Burns.”
“My name is Abbie. Would you like some water?”
Mary nodded and began to relax. She accepted the plastic cup then held it with both hands as she stared into its depths. Abbie waited for her to gather her composure before speaking again.
“Can you tell me what happened, Ms. Burns?”
* * *
Mary had just finished putting her house together for the new season when she saw two teen girls slipping into the woods. They were already in disarray, one clutching her stomach as though nauseous, and both seemed less than happy. Mary felt a sinking sensation deep in her gut. She grabbed a light jacket and dashed across the street to follow them.
Branches crackled as she forced her way forward. The trees were so dense that even the light of the afternoon sun was unable to pierce through them. She moved forward and listened for any sound as quietly as she could.
“…stake your claim…”
“…what you know…”
Mary pressed up against a tree and tried to focus on the faint whispers.
“…by the due date…”
“…can’t find out…”
Mary stepped forward. A branch snapped. She froze.
“Did you hear something?”
The girls’ pace quickened, and silence fell before Mary moved forward. She was taking too long, and she knew they must have gotten very far away from her. It was several minutes before she heard any sound other than the cicadas. Someone screamed.
Mary went rigid. It came from the edge of the river, just two trees away. She steeled herself and crawled to a nearby tree. One of the girls stumbled back, a red stain spreading on her shirt. Mary pressed her hands to her mouth. Her silent scream pierced through her brain. She turned away and forced herself to breathe evenly. The bark of the tree stabbed into her. The pain it caused reminded her that this was real. Something wet dripped onto her cheek. At first she thought she was crying, but the drops on the crown of her head announced rain.
A gasp cut into the air. A low voice grunted. There was a splash as something heavy hit the water. Mary ran. Her panting caused a seizing pain in her chest. Her foot caught in the newly created mud and she fell head first. Wiping the mud off her face with her sleeves, she heaved herself up. Her feet pounded the ground. Her heart pounded in her ears. She was through the trees now. Not pausing to see if anyone followed her, she ran to the police station and banged her fists on the door.
* * *
Abbie went around her desk and put her phone to her ear. “Officer Rogers, officer Harman, we have a possible homicide witness.”
Moments later, two officers came around the corner. One, with obviously more experience, approached Mary.
“Can you tell us what happened?”
“I just told her.” She gestured at Abbie in annoyance. Having gathered herself together, she was impatient. “We should go back right now, they might still be there.”
“Are you sure you can handle that?” Officer Rogers, the younger one, asked politely.
“Yes. We have to hurry.”
The three of them rushed outside and leapt in a cruiser. The road was slick and the window was being assaulted by the excessive rain of a flash flood. Two miles down the road, she stopped them with a shout.
She lead them through the woods, but their progress was slow. The rain blurring her vision made it difficult for her to see where to go. They slipped on the mud as it sloshed into their shoes. Rogers groaned in exasperation. Harman silenced him with a look.
“This is where I was.” She whispered, gesturing to a tree. “There doesn’t seem to be anyone here now.”
She turned on her phone light and the officers pulled out their flashlights. There was nothing there. Staring at the place she had just seen a body fall, her brain tried to reconcile the lack of a print with what she had seen. She searched frantically for any sign of what had happened, but she couldn’t find any evidence of a scuffle. The officers seemed to have as little luck as she did. Kneeling in the mud, and examining every rock, they scoured the area with growing frustration.
“There’s nothing here.” Rogers looked to Harman, a hint of annoyance in his voice. “Not even a broken twig.”
“He’s right.” Harman shrugged, as Mary looked at them like a deer in the headlights.
“But there was.” Her voice squeaked. “T-they were fighting, a-a-and I think she got s-s-stabbed. They w-went on that bridge, and t-threw her in the r-r-river.”
She ran onto the bridge as though it would be her saving grace. There was no blood, muddy footprints, or chipped areas to vindicate her. Harman followed her.
“Take some deep breaths for me.” He placed his hands on her shoulders. “Try to calm down.”
She took some shaky breaths, and tried to steady herself.
“Look,” Rogers approached her and spoke quietly. “Why don’t we walk you home, and call you if we do find something?”
She nodded and they made their way back through the woods. The sun was almost set by the time they came out, and the dusk light was weakly illuminating the way. She said goodbye to the officers and made her way across the street. The lights were still on from when she’d rushed out earlier. Not bothering to turn them off, she settled into her chair by the window.
She was nervous, but not nearly as much as before. It felt like a dream now. A surreal feeling enveloped her, and she pulled her curtains shut. Moving to the kitchen, she heated up some leftovers and noticed her unfinished book on the table. A murder mystery. Flipping it over in her hands, she contemplated the day’s events. The microwave’s harsh beeping yanked her from her reverie. She read while she ate.
Perhaps she had just gotten lost in the story. No footprints. No blood. No body. No evidence. Maybe that meant there was no crime. She always did have a tendency to let her imagination run wild.
She walked up the stairs. In her bedroom she slipped on a matching nightgown and robe. Meticulously completing all ten steps to her nighttime routine, she calmed herself down. Alone in her home, with all the lights out, her heart raced. She closed her eyes. It was when she was slipping into bed that reality struck with three sharp bangs.