It was a lovely day in the woods just outside of Still Creek. The towering trees and dense foliage muted the sound of traffic coming in and out of the little town. Apart from that distant roar of tires on asphalt, the forest was silent. The birds and insects and animals sat hushed, waiting. It was there, in quiet beneath the trees, that 9-year-old Sean found the body while taking a shortcut home from a friend’s house.
The lazy, small-town Saturday soon filled with commotion. Police sirens, the lights of an ambulance, and the grumble of the town’s only firetruck sent a wave of alarm through the streets of Still Creek. Neighbors filed out onto their porches, calling loudly to one another to inquire what was the matter. News traveled fast in Still Creek, but rumors traveled faster.
“Some hiker got mauled in the woods. I'll bet it was that damn mountain lion that got Bill’s dog last month,” said Mrs. Woolridge, between sips of iced tea.
“No, I heard it was Old Dan. Drank himself half to death and got lost out in the forest. Didn't make it home," Mrs. Kinsley replied from the comfort of her wicker rocking chair.
While the rumors flew from porch to porch on the warm breeze of the afternoon, the police arrived at the scene in the woods and stared in shock. Sprawled out on the ground lay a young woman with yellow leaves in her dark hair. Blood and other things congealed heavily on the grass and wildflowers around her head, staining each blade and petal in a deep red. She had a birthmark on her slim wrist and a gun in her hand.
Sheriff Wyatt Black was a very practical man. There was not a bone of dramatics in his entire body, and he was quite proud of that. He regarded the body solemnly, adjusting his glasses on his large nose to get a better look at the gun.
“I reckon it’s a suicide, then,” he said. The other officers kept their distance and their silence as he walked around the woman’s body. They could not bring themselves to look away from her face—or what was left of it, that is. The animals had clearly gotten there first.
“Well, go on then,” Sheriff Black said, gesturing towards the officers. “Get some pictures and inspect the area, make sure we don’t miss anything.”
He reached down with a gloved hand and put the handgun in an evidence bag. As he waited for the officers to comb through the nearby woods and finish taking pictures of the scene, Sheriff Black stared at the woman’s corpse, his gaze locked on her empty eye sockets. He felt for a moment that she was staring back at him, and the thought made him shiver.
“Who are you?” he whispered, half expecting the corpse to whisper back.
The night before the body was found, Susanna Martin saw everything. She saw the car pull over to the side of the road, the young woman who climbed out. She saw the man in the driver’s seat adjust the belt of his jeans as he stepped out into the night air. Susanna remembered thinking that it was a little odd to be walking out in the woods at night, but surely there was a reason.
She saw them walk deeper into the woods, saw the man kiss the woman as he reached one hand behind his back. Saw him press the gun against the woman’s temple. She felt the woman’s fear, the trembling in her body and her voice as she realized there was nothing to do but beg. Susanna did not remember what the woman said, but it was not enough. The fury in the man’s eyes was as unreasonable as it was insatiable.
Susanna remembered most clearly the sound of the gun as he cocked it and put it under her chin. When the gun went off, Susanna felt as if she couldn’t breathe. She wanted to run, but her limbs would not respond. She watched from a distance as the man wiped his fingerprints from the gun and wrapped the dead woman’s hand around it. She saw him slip a piece of paper into her pocket, a note of some kind. Susanna watched her blood soak into the ground and coagulate on the grass, its dark surface reflecting the dim beams of moonlight shining through the trees.
As he left the woods and drove away, Susanna was frozen in shock, frozen in time. At some point in the night, she was struck by a deep, irrational fear that the man knew she was there and would return for her. She hid herself in the shelter of a fallen tree, unable to go much further in her terror. Sometime in the night, she fell into a fitful sleep. She woke after the woman’s body was found and the police arrived, but Susanna was still too frightened to leave her hiding place.
An officer walked by and she held her breath. He did not see her in the dense foliage but came close enough that she could see the crumbs on the collar of his uniform.
From between the branches and leaves of the fallen tree, Susanna caught glimpses of the officers as they took the woman’s body away. She could not tear her eyes from the stain of the woman’s blood on the forest floor. It was hours after the police left before she emerged from her hiding spot, just as dusk began to spread over the woods outside of Still Creek.
Sheriff Black knew he needed to identify the body, and soon. Word about the scene in the forest had gotten out by the time he brought the woman back to Still Creek. Families gathered on their front lawns to try to catch a glimpse of the ambulance that bore her body, speculating in hushed tones about who she was. The town felt as if it was holding its breath. As night began to fall, the air was tight with a fearsome curiosity.
Back at the station, Sheriff Black poured himself a cup of coffee and strode purposefully into his office, ready to begin looking through local missing persons reports. The body hadn’t looked familiar to him, but it was impossible to tell, really. Her face was so disfigured, she could be anyone. Poor girl.
The sheriff cast a glance to the single photo on his desk: one of the few pictures he had with his daughter, Marie. She was 13 and lived in Seattle with her mother. He only saw her twice a year, and as she got older, she enjoyed the visits less and less. Still Creek was not an interesting place and he was not an interesting father. He was slowly coming to the realization that Marie would never love him the way he loved her.
Sheriff Black sighed and took a long swig of his coffee, preparing himself for a long night at the computer. His fingers swept clumsily over the keyboard. He had never been a good typist. Just as he was about to begin digging through reports, an officer knocked on the frame of the sheriff’s open door. The young man was breathing fast, as if he had run to the office from the opposite side of the building.
“Sheriff? Someone here to see you in the front,” the officer said.
The sheriff stood and pushed in his desk chair. He allowed the young officer to lead him through the narrow hallway to the front room, where a thin man sat impatiently in one of the uncomfortable chairs that lined the wall.
“Mr. Martin?” Sheriff Black called. “How can I help you?”
Gary Martin stood and looked the sheriff in the eye, his own eyes red with tears. His voice wavered and his hands shook.
“It’s my daughter, Sheriff. She went out with that good-for-nothing boyfriend of hers last night and hasn’t come home.” He glanced at his hands, trying to hide the tear which rolled down his gaunt cheek. “Didn’t leave a note. It’s not like her to be gone this long with no note.”
Sheriff Black felt a sobering clarity. “Does she by chance have a birthmark on her wrist?”
The next day, the town was shocked by the announcement that the body in the woods belonged to Susanna Martin, a popular young waitress at the town’s favorite diner. Mr. Martin’s doorstep promptly filled with casseroles, candles, and sympathy notes. Given the meager evidence, Sheriff Black believed that Susanna and her boyfriend broke up that night and she reacted poorly, stealing his gun and running off into the woods to take her own life. Of course, the boyfriend was nowhere to be found, but Mr. Martin said he came and went as he pleased and would be hard to pin down.
Then they found the note in her pocket, which said simply “I’m sorry, Dad.” For Sheriff Black, it was enough evidence to confirm his suspicions and rule Susanna’s death a suicide. Mr. Martin took some convincing, but ultimately trusted the sheriff’s judgement over his own grief-stricken doubts.
For a while, the residents of Still Creek avoided that part of the woods. The children were prohibited from playing there, and hunters and hikers took the long way around to bypass it. But as time went on, the town began to forget, and the invisible boundary faded around the woods where Susanna Martin died. As time passed, Still Creek resumed its peaceable existence of rumors shared on porches, accompanied by tall glasses of iced tea.
Even years after Susanna’s death, the sheriff visited Mr. Martin for dinner regularly, just to check in and talk. They spoke sometimes about their daughters, though for both men it was a painful subject. Mostly, they talked about the newest town gossip, shaking their heads at the absurdist of the stories and speculating about who started them. The only rumor they never mentioned was the one they both feared to be true: that Susanna’s spirit still haunted the quiet part of the woods where she died, looking for the way back to Still Creek.
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An original detective short story. Wow! I don't think I've ever read a story like this before and I kinda like it. I loved how at the very beginning, it slams you with the problem and as you read on, it slowly gets fixed. The ending was what really impacted your story though. I think when all the dads got together it was like a breath of fresh air. Amazing story!!
I’m beginning to think I’ve tricked you into reading my pedestrian stories while I get to read your masterpieces. This brought to mind Stand By Me and Where the Crawdads sing. It was full of fantastic description. The rumors on the breeze. The crumbs on the collar. The repetition of Still Creek. I am a big fan of your talent. You will be famous one day. I don’t think I’ve recommended The Natural. It’s one of my longer stories and one that was well received. I always let you choose but if you want a suggestion.....😀
Not so my friend, your stories are fantastic as well. Someday we’ll both be published and famous and we’ll read each other’s novels, too. I don’t think you’ve recommended that one. Looking forward to it!
I love how you delve into the small town personality here. We don't get the satisfaction of the case being solved, but we're in the same boat as your characters. Great story, wonderful job!!
Thank you! I'm glad the small-town personality came across well, it was really fun to write!
This gave me chills. The whole scene with the man and the woman, adjusting his belt, pressing his gun against her... just chills. I thought this was beautifully written. The ending was somber, chilling, yet even happy with the fathers together...all kinds of emotions. What a great response to the prompt!
Thank you so much Leilani! Your comments always make me smile 😊
Of course!! It's always such a pleasure reading your work. :)
I love how you chose to interpret the prompt. The only way I could think of was cleaning the crime scene. But this is brilliant. The evidence of it having happened is what disappears, though it's a faint memory. And the in and out personal to big picture style you chose was perfect! I loved getting a peek into the different character's heads while also viewing them as one entity, a township entity. I'd love to be helpful and add a critique, but I honestly just enjoyed this one!
Thank you so much, Molly! Your comments always make my day 😊 I'm looking forward to reading yours later today after work!!
Well, your stories always deserve a truckload of praise :)!
I commend you for creating a story based on this prompt. To me it was probably the most challenging one of the bunch (because it probably required the most planning). For me this prompt can only work in a story if it's organized and has great transition, and to me this story has that. I liked the dialogues and how the story flowed, it made a lot of sense and was really put together, very matured. I liked that last line in the first section, having the character talk and interact with the corpse, it really set the tone for me. By ...
Thank you so much for your comment, I’m so glad to hear you enjoyed the story! And thanks for the suggestion to leave a bit more suspense at the end; I think that’s a great idea and if I have time to edit I’ll go back and adjust the ending a bit. I’ll head over now to check out your work :)
Ooooh this is chilling. I love the alternative perspectives in this story, and it slowly came together perfectly at the very end. This is such an incredible ghost story! And unbelievably well written, as always. I love these lines: "Sprawled out on the ground lay a young woman with yellow leaves in her dark hair. Blood and other things congealed heavily on the grass and wildflowers around her head, staining each blade and petal in a deep red." There's quite a dissonance to imagine such violence and brutality associated with beautiful n...
Thank you so much for the read! I’m glad to meet a fellow grad student— it sure is a crazy time to be working on a degree. I hope your university gives you some tangible plans soon!
Still slightly obsessed with ghost stories at the moment. I'm toying with the ending so if you have any suggestions, let me know!