"I don’t really want to get involved. I mean, I don’t know the woman personally, and I don’t know how she went missing. Ok, not missing but murdered, whatever."
I think that will be enough information to get the cops off my back. Doesn't work though. It'll only take a few minutes, they prod. Let us come by your place to talk, they push. A woman was found dead and you were one of the last people to see her alive, they charge. How do they even know this? I call my psychiatrist to get me out of this mess.
Dr. Perry is on vacation until the end of the week. I leave a voicemail and call right back. I explain to the receptionist that I am having an episode and my meds aren’t helping. I tell her that the police are asking to come to my house to talk to me about a murder and this is all Dr. Perry's doing. She is the one who tells me I need to get out and meet people. She says that exercise will help me. What she doesn’t tell me is that exercise plus strangers can end in a conversation with cops.
I can’t really put my finger on when it started. In my first memories of being me, I was around 3 years old, at a photography studio. I didn’t want to get in front of the camera, but my mother made me. I cried so hard that my eyes were puffy and red. Despite all my mom's urging and threats, I refused to smile. I pulled my pigtails down and pushed out my bottom lip. I look at the photo now and the feelings flood in, as if I were 3 years old again, cajoled into performing like a monkey in a cage.
I have never been happy. I pretend though. It makes others more comfortable. I hated school and people. The controlled environment was suffocating. By seventh grade, I was in constant fight or flight mode. I ran out of school several times a week. My parents took me for a psychiatric evaluation. We left with medication and a recommendation for homeschool and therapy. The diagnosis was PTSD, anxiety, and depression. I could tell you about the PTSD, but that is a whole other story.
I went to a nearby college at 17, graduated 3 years later, and was living on my own by the time I was 21. I manage my own finances but my parents maintain medical power of attorney, just in case I go off the rails.
I make a living as a data analyst and after many attempts to work in an office, I find that I am much more productive as a remote employee. Needless to say, the pandemic is good for me.
Almost everything I need is delivered by Amazon or Walmart. I force myself to go to Starbucks everyday. I lie and tell my doctor that I go in, but actually I go to the drive thru. I do talk to the cashier though, so that at least one human interaction per day.
I started seeing Dr. Perry six months ago. My psychiatrist recommended her when he closed his practice. My parents retired to Florida right before the pandemic hit. If you ask me, I am just fine without them. Or I was until I took terrible advice and joined a hiking club on Facebook.
Usually, I RSVP to hiking events and don't show up. On my monthly visits to the doc, I confess. Personally, I don’t see what the problem is. I just don’t like people. Plain and simple. I am an extreme introvert. No, no, no, she wags her finger at me. You are avoiding being vulnerable, she nags. Try it once. Go to the next hiking event. You don’t have to talk to anyone if you don’t want to, but being around others will be good for you. On and on she goes. If you can’t do this, we may need to think about other treatment options.
Man, this lady is a bitch. Other treatment options? For introversion? I wish I could just punch her in the neck, but she would tell my parents and that would be a whole other shit storm. I cave. I tell her that I will go to the next hiking event. She is blackmailing me into being social, proving my point that most people are controlling assholes.
I open the app on my phone and search for the hiking group. The next event will be on New Year’s Eve at 9 p.m. A night hike. The organizer posted all the details of where to meet, the trail difficulty, and what to bring. About 10 people have already RSVP’d. I look through the faces and they seem normal. Most are women that are in my age group. There are a few men that appear to be older, but not creepy old. Still, I have a strange feeling about this. It doesn’t feel right. At the same time, it won’t feel right for Dr. Perry to call my mom, either. So, I click the RSVP.
On the day of, I have a panic attack. I convince myself that it is not safe to leave my apartment. New Year’s Eve is a terrible time to go outside. Why did I ever agree to this? I take an emergency panic pill and wait in the dark for the 20 minutes that it takes for the meds to kick in. My phone rings. It is my mom on Facetime. Great.
She is all dolled up with a Happy New Year headdress. She asks what my plans are for the night. I realize that I will have to find the strength to leave my apartment and go hiking. She is elated with the news and puts my dad on. We are proud of you, they say. Shit. Now, I have to go.
Arriving at the trailhead, several people are already there standing in a circle. I can hear the loud talking and exaggerated laughter from my car, over 100 feet away. Fantastic. All these folks must know each other. Otherwise, why are they talking and carrying on like that? I am the outsider. I should give up and go back home. Can’t. My parents are proud of me for hiking with strangers in the dark. Fuck.
I find out that most of the crowd are strangers too. I introduce myself to the organizer and he introduces me to everyone else. He announces that we will wait another few minutes for late arrivals then we'll head out. The hike is 5 miles one way, then we will turn around and be back at the starting point by midnight. Ten miles of hiking in three hours. Super.
Just as we are about to take off, someone approaches from the parking lot. In his late 20s or early 30s, he is at least 6’ 3” and has a sort of slim, muscular build. His light brown hair is pulled back in a man-bun, and his chin covered with a well maintained beard. Dressed in gray camo pants and a dark grey long-sleeved shirt, he is quite the looker. Hands down the best looking man in the group.
Apparently, I am not the only one who thinks so. The energy of the other males in the group shifts palpably. Alpha male problems. The women now have a twinkle in their eyes and quickly put on extra lip gloss. I chuckle to myself. People are so basic. Does everything boil down to sex and pecking order?
The organizer lets us know that it is time to take off. Naturally, groups break into pairs or trios as we walk on the trail. Two women join me. They are normal. The idea of talking to them is paralyzing, but they are persistent. Both just moved to the area. One is an attorney, shorter than me and in terrific shape. The other is an accountant for some corporation. She is younger than me, a little taller, and a whole lot chunkier.
I know enough to not share what I really think about anything. I saw that on an episode of Dexter once. In the show, Dexter’s dad advises him to think of what he wants to say, then say the exact opposite. That’s the best advice I ever heard. I use it every time I interact with live people.
About a mile or so into the hike, the group starts shifting. It is organic, really. Someone walks a little faster or slower and next thing you know, you’re with a whole new crowd. The accountant falls back, and man-bun joins me and the attorney. Funny, he says that he just moved to town too. I am beginning to think that I am the only person in the group who is a native. More than likely, every other native already has friends to do stuff with and I am the odd ball. Figures.
The organizer yells for us to stop, loud enough for all to hear, and just shy of the three mile marker. I turn to see the accountant sitting on the trail, grabbing her ankle in pain.
I think, "Why am I out here again?"
Her whimpering is driving me nuts. My gut instinct is to simply walk off or tell her to shut up. That’s why I do the exact opposite and walk toward her, asking if she is ok.
She can’t keep going. She thinks she has a bad sprain. She will try to make it back to the parking lot and then drive to the hospital. Great. Poor baby. Just as I am getting into this, she wants to turn back because of an injury. The organizer asks the men to help him get her back to her car. She is hefty afterall. Reluctantly, they agree. Not man-bun. He gallantly offers to lead the remaining hikers to the end of the trail.
Except for the attorney, the other women decide to go back with the accountant. I had that wrong. I would've bet that the women would definitely go with man-bun. But, it is starting to get chilly and maybe it isn’t as much fun as they hoped.
The attorney asks me if I will continue on with her and man-bun. I have a feeling that I should turn back with the group, but I ignore it. Hiking is sort of fun and hell, I have come this far. I need to finish for myself, just to say I did it. I agree to continue on the hike. I wish everyone well and make promises to the organizer to come out again sometime.
We turn and walk away up the trail. We can still hear the accountant whining for several minutes, then it is silent. Not only silent, but pitch black. Others in the group have headlamps, but not us. I have a dim, tiny flashlight that illuminates about three feet ahead of us, so I lead the way.
The organizer told us that the trail would dead end into a lake. He said there were a couple of benches where we could rest before we turned back. According to my fitness tracker, we have gone 3.5 miles. Just a mile and a half and we will be headed back. We walk along in silence for several minutes. I turn around and see that the attorney and man-bun are not on the trail behind me. Surely they are back there, right? Probably just walking slowly. I wait on the trail for a few minutes but they don’t show. I call out for them. No reply.
Wait, am I confused? Maybe they passed me and are ahead on the trail? I don’t think so, but it could be. Still, they can hear me yelling out for them, can't they? I decide to keep going. They are up ahead for sure.
I reach the end of the trail. Not a soul around. The moon is high and shining onto the lake. If I wasn’t so paranoid, it would have been a beautiful scene. I sit down on the bench thinking that more than likely the two will saunter up any minute now. I wait for 15 minutes.
It is almost 11 p.m. when I decide to return the way I came. Is it possible that there has been another accident and they need help? Or, they turned back and couldn’t get my attention? There are lots of scenarios that could have happened. It is dumb for me to be all the way out here alone, anyway. I knew I should have stayed at home. My thoughts are racing and I know what comes next. My toes are dangling over the cliff of panic. I have to get home, now!
I start running. I run as fast as I can, holding the flashlight pointed toward the ground so that I can see. That’s when I am slapped in the face by a tree branch and fall. I do a face plant into a rock as the flashlight flies off the trail a few feet into the woods. I take a minute to get my bearings. I can tell that I have chipped my front tooth and more than likely I have a small gash on my forehead. It doesn’t hurt too bad, but there is a little blood running down my face. Nothing broken though. I can make it on my own. I just need to be careful.
I dust myself off and go to retrieve the flashlight. Picking it up, I see something neon just a few feet away. It is a shoe. I walk a little closer and pick it up. It's brand new. It looks a lot like the shoes that the attorney is wearing. I am horrified when I see blood dripping onto the shoe. It's coming from my face. I drop the shoe and head back to the trail. I won’t run, but I'll walk as fast as possible. My mind is foggy from the fall but still racing with reasons why the shoe is out there in the woods. It takes all my power to calm down. I look at my fitness tracker every minute to monitor progress towards the parking lot.
It is just after midnight when I reach the car. Mine is the only one left. I jump in and lock the doors. I think about calling the police, but what will I tell them? A woman I just met was with a man that we both just met and now they have vanished? No. I will go home, shower, put a bandaid on my head wound, mind my own business, and go to bed.
My phone keeps ringing. The police are insistent. I can either talk to them at my apartment or come to the station. I call my mom after trying the doctor again. I tell her the story, carefully placing the blame on Dr. Perry. My mom does her best to soothe me. She calls my dad to the phone and gives him the abridged version.
“Honey”, he says. “I am so sorry. The best thing you can do is help the police find this man and put him in jail. I’ll send Jim over to your apartment to take you to the police station. Call me when you are done and we will go from there.”
“Thank you Daddy. I love you.” I knew my dad would help me with this. Jim is one of my dad's old golf buddies and on retainer. He will help me get out of this by lunch time.
I tell my story to the police detectives. They stare at me unblinking as I talk. I try to smile but it isn't reciprocated, which is strange because I am pretty charming. I think these cops are assholes and do my best to keep my opinion off of my face. I finish my story. They sit staring at me. Jim asks if we can leave. They say, not yet.
One of them opens a manila folder. He pulls out a picture of the shoe, with blood on the side.
“Is this the shoe you found in the woods?”
“Yes, that’s the one.” I say.
“We need a DNA sample and fingerprints from you.”
“Why, I already told you what happened!” I say a little too loud and begin to stand up.
“Not yet. Just a few more questions. How did you get that gash on your head again?”
Jim pipes up and says that I have already given my statement and that we are leaving. He says that they should be spending their time looking for the guy with the man-bun.
The cop says, “Yeah, we found him already.”
“Good, then my client and I will be leaving.” Jim stands up.
“We found him. He is dead. His body was recovered from the trail, a few feet away from the female. Please sit back down.”
All eyes turn toward me as the room begins to spin. Nausea grows in my belly, then I spew on the table. It rolls off the table onto the floor in clumps. Flashes rush through my mind of what happened last night. Out loud I say, "There were no good options!" I lose consciousness and collapse on the floor.