“I know you are expecting to read the story about the boy found dead in Arole Woods. I was given that story to write. I was there when the police carried him out to the waiting ambulance. They were hoping for a chance that he would survive, but he was already gone. As I stood there, watching them, I remembered a moment of my life, a moment that I had succeeded in blocking out until this day. Why did I suddenly remember? Why was my focus on me and not the sixteen-year-old, who would never know his future, and why should my past be more important than his life? And this is where my story begins…”
The office always reeked of cigarette smoke. Clouds puffed out of the editor’s room. His raspy voice bit into a telephone conversation, and his hands moved into the air like a magician ready to do his thing. His sharp eyes caught the passing glances of his news reporters, but they dared not enter when he was on the phone. But he snapped his fingers loudly at one in particular, and she froze in mid-step. His eyes shifted from her to the empty chair before his large, oak desk, and he quickly wrapped up his call with a “I’ll call you later because something just came up.”
The phone thundered back into its cradle. Its chord twisted with suspense. Numbers lit up to waiting anticipation. A sharp ring broke the silence, but it was ignored. Instead, fingers tapped beside the smooth, black porcelain as if waiting for an important call, and eyes narrowed in thought. A thin smile pulled at his lips as he said, “Are you avoiding me?”
“No. Why would you think that?”
“Because you’re dodging the stories I’m giving you. Jade, everyone starts on the police blotter, and then they move their way up.”
“Jeff, I’ve been here for almost two-years. The elections are coming up. Let me do a piece on that. If not, there’s still debate in the community on what to do with North Road, and the residents are adamant about not expanding over there because of the traffic conditions.” Jeff shook his head. “How long am I going to be stuck doing the police blotter?”
The phone rang. It gave him the chance not to answer. He held up his pointer finger, signaling her to wait where she was. He pressed the warm plastic to his ear and listened intently. He rubbed his chin, giving the impression that the call was important, but he remained silent. His eyes shifted from the lit numbers to Jade, and his fingers curled around the chord. And he ended his call with, “I’ll send her right down.”
“Another police blotter story?” Jeff dropped the phone back into its cradle. “What will I be writing about?”
“The police just found a dead kid in Arole Woods.” Jeff leaned back in his chair and lit another cigarette. “O.D.” He shook his head and took a long drag. “Damn shame. He was only sixteen.” He blew smoke away from Jade and out his door. “You have to do the story.” He leaned forward, fixing her with a hard stare, and his cigarette dangled from his lips. “I have an idea.” He took another long drag and then exhaled a cloud of smoke. “Run the story as you want to, and if it’s good, I’ll let you move up.” Jade’s eyes lit up in excitement. “Just don’t get melodramatic. I hate that.” She nodded. “Now, get out. I have a business to run.”
“Thank you.” She never knew when he was joking, so she remained serious. “Thank you.” She rose from her chair but tried not to seem so eager. “I’ll head straight down.” She paused by the door. “Should I take the digital?”
“Yeah, but no pictures of the kid. Give the family a little dignity.” He watched her step out of his office. “Jade, don’t make me regret this.” He didn’t return her nod but resumed smoking his cigarette.
The ride down from the office on Main Street to Arole Woods took less than twenty minutes. The police had cornered off the street around the area. She had to show her press badge to be allowed access, but she could tell that they were not happy to see her. They always wondered how the press got wind of breaking news, or did they realize that their boss played golf with her boss? It didn’t matter. She was there, and she was ready to break the story. But how would she do it? This was a tragic event, one familiar to this town, and there was not much to go on. The kid died of a drug overdose in woods used by other kids, who sought escape from their daily lives. No, there was not much to go on, but she would be damned if she didn’t try.
“Damn shame,” he muttered between bites of his buttered roll. “Damn shame.”
Jade was not surprised to see her newspaper’s competition already on scene. They must have an ear to the police too, and they sent one of their best reporters. He was nothing short of a sleaze bag, but he got the job done. She hated sharing the same space with him as he looked her up and down, licking his lips, but she had to remain cordial. “Mark.”
“Jade.” He finished his roll. “Warm weather still.” He slapped his hands together, shaking off the crumbs.
“Maybe winter will hold off until January.”
“Let’s hope so.” She ignored his penetrating stare. “Did they bring him out yet?”
“No. They’re bringing him out now.” He saw an officer step away from the crime scene. “Excuse me. Work to do.”
“Uh-huh.” She shook her head. “What a piece of work himself,” she muttered.
Jade surveyed the scene. There were a few onlookers. It shouldn’t have come as a surprise because the town residents knew what took place in these woods. A handful of police officers stood between their squad cars and ambulance. Medics waited impatiently but then caught sight of movement coming their way. And Jade readied her digital, snapping pictures, but when the body came into view, she lowered her camera. Mark however snapped away. “So much for dignity,” she thought, but she wasn’t surprised.
“Help me!” Jade nearly dropped her digital. “Someone, help me!”
A young girl ran toward her. Tears streaked her face. Her hair was wild. Her arms were wrapped around her chest as if to shield herself from some unseen attacker. Her feet thundered against concrete, and her body melted through Jade. And as she spun around, the girl disappeared into thin air.
“You okay?” Mark now stood behind her. “You look like you just saw a ghost.”
“Did you… Did you just see that girl?”
“What girl?” He laughed harshly. “I think you’re inhaling too much of your editor’s smoke, and he knows better than to smoke inside the office.” He tucked a notepad into his pants pocket. “If you’re going to get quotes, I do it now. They’re packing up.” He moved away from her.
“Why are you being nice?”
“You caught me on a good day.” He hardly turned her way but continued toward his parked car. “Won’t be a habit. Trust me.”
“I believe that,” she muttered. “What the hell just happened?”
The crime scene was quickly dismantled. The ambulance screeched down the road. Police officers slid into their driver-seat, and the squad cars disappeared from sight. Yellow tape warning not to cross flapped around a tree, forgotten. The few onlookers that did stop now went about their business like another day. Only Jade remained behind, waiting beside her car.
“Okay.” She tried to calm her nerves. “Why did I see that girl?” The digital dangled on her shoulder, bumping into her small pocketbook. “What was she trying to tell me?”
Jade hardly believed in ghosts. There were stories about them roaming these woods. She never imagined on meeting any of them, but one found her. She wanted to know why. If there was a reason, then maybe that could be her story, and she would link her discovery to this kid’s tragic death. But if she came up empty-handed, then it would just be another regular police blotter story.
The sun was high in the air. Noon. Her stomach growled, but her curiosity was hungrier. The thirst to know why pushed her further into the woods, silencing her fear, and her footsteps cracked over now broken twigs. A bird’s song used to be a welcomed sound, but it instead sent a shiver down her spine. Go back, the bird said. Go back now, but she continued forward.
Old Man’s Bridge. She remembered. The summer after tenth grade, she and her boyfriend used to accompany a bunch of kids over here. They would crank out the music, crack open the beer, and get high. Well, all of them except her. She was the party kill, and they were no friends of hers. But her boyfriend was, and where he went, she followed. And they would stay here late into the night and sometimes until dawn.
“You want a beer?” She would always say no. “How about some pot?” Again, she refused. “You’re no fun, Jade. Party kill.”
Apparently, things haven’t changed much. There were still empty beer cans scattered around the bridge. Cigarette butts decorated the soft earth. Sneaker treads raced back and forth. Whoever the kid was with panicked, and they left him behind. They could’ve saved him. They could’ve called the cops, but they were more concerned with not getting busted. So, they sacrificed one life for theirs, and maybe later on, they would regret that.
Someone ran through the woods. Jade jumped to her feet. Her eyes darted back and forth, trying to capture the ghost. She could feel them watching her every move. Why couldn’t they just tell her? Why did they have to play games?
“You’re making a mistake,” she warned her. “You have no idea what kind of guy you are dating. Be careful.”
It was the last night that she would spend at Old Man’s Bridge. Her boyfriend’s ex had shown up out of nowhere. Someone else brought her, and tension was as thick as her editor’s cigarette smoke. Anger flashed across his face, and he gripped Jade’s arm a little too tightly. They hardly spent ten minutes there, and then he dragged her out of the woods. But she was trying to warn Jade, and she did not listen.
“I don’t like him,” her grandmother said. “There’s something dark there.”
Jade stared at the bridge, remembering her grandmother’s words. She missed her. She was always trying to protect Jade, but back then, she thought her grandmother was being too overprotective. And she didn’t listen. What did her grandmother know? She was just having fun. They both were, but her grandmother watched him like a hawk. She knew. She knew what kind of man he really was.
“How about we go camping?”
She snuck him up into her bedroom one night. He was holding her, and she remembered how tight his grip was. The skin on her arm complained from memory, and she quickly rubbed at it, trying to ease its suffering. But she still remembered, and she remembered the intent stare that he gave her, waiting for an answer. And she said, “Yes.”
A cold wind whipped around her. The sun was gone. Darkness crept over the woods. The bird’s song faded into silence, and her footsteps were hollow along the ground. Her mind tumbled between past and now, and she begged herself to stop remembering. Whatever this memory was, she did not want it. She did not want to remember, but her pleas were ignored.
“Over here.” She followed the voice. “There’s a short trail that we can follow.” She walked in that direction. “Take my hand.”
“No,” she whispered. “No!”
She could see her. A faint ghost of herself appeared. She took the dark stranger’s hand and followed him deeper into the woods. She was nervous and kept looking behind her, and then her gaze met Jade’s. But she still followed him.
“Let go. Let go of his hand,” Jade begged her. “Don’t follow him. Please!” Tears stung her eyes. “I don’t want to remember!”
As if an invisible hand held hers, she was pulled forward. She retraced that short trail. It felt like yesterday, but it’s been ten years. She knew where they were going, but she fought her mind every step of the way. She lost and walked into the clearing.
“You weren’t kidding about camping,” her younger self laughed. “When did you put up the tent?”
“When earlier? It’s ten a.m. now.” She checked her watch. “Isn’t it a little early to be camping?”
“Now is perfect.” He pulled her closer to him. “We won’t be disturbed.”
“Run,” Jade whispered to her. “Run.”
“Tom, I said I wanted to wait.”
“I’m tired of waiting, Jade.” He pushed her toward the tent. “Go inside, and take off your clothes.”
“No.” He struck her across her face. “No,” she cried.
“Do it, or I’ll rip off your clothes.” He grabbed her by both arms now, tightly and drawing blood. “Maybe I’ll do it anyway. It might be more fun that way.”
“Help me!” He struck her again across the face. “Help me!”
“Keep screaming, and I’ll gag you.” She fell silent. “Well? I don’t have all day.”
“Okay. I’ll go inside and take off my clothes.” Her body shook. “Please, don’t hurt me.”
“Don’t worry. You’ll thank me afterward.” He pushed her into the tent.
“You sonofabitch!” Jade struck at him, but her fist flew through him. “I hope you are dead! Do you hear me? Dead!” She watched him enter the tent. “Don’t you touch her. Don’t you dare touch me!”
To her horror, she found her younger self nude. She was trembling like a leaf. Tears stained her face. Her lip was bloody. She was like a deer caught in headlights, and he came toward her, laying her flat against her back. He just didn’t notice the large rock that her hand fell against.
He wasted no time. He quickly pulled off his pants and boxers. He kicked his sneakers to the side. A hungry look crossed his face, and he stood over her, ready. He touched her lips and licked her blood off his finger. He descended slowly. He wanted her to remember every single moment until the deed was done, and she was his. As he got closer to his destination, she slammed the rock into the side of his head, knocking him over.
“Run,” Jade screamed. “Run!”
Her younger self flew up to her feet. She grabbed her clothes and shoes. She moved toward the entrance of the tent, but he grabbed her by the ankle, nearly twisting it. She almost fell forward but spun around instead, and she kicked him right in his face. She could hear him howl in pain, but she broke free and ran. She ran until she got to Old Man’s Bridge, and she quickly threw her clothes back on. And then she bolted toward the road, screaming for help, and Jade followed her.
The road was empty. The only car was his. She was his, if she stayed, so she ran. She ran all the way home. Her family was out at a carnival, but she had her keys. She would get inside her house and lock all the doors, but would she tell them what took place? Could she look at her grandmother and tell her that she was right? But she never told anyone, and that day remained between him and her. Until today.
“I know you are expecting to read the story about the boy found dead in Arole Woods. I was going to write that story. I was there when the police carried him out to the waiting ambulance. They were hoping for a chance that he would survive, but he was already gone. As I stood there, watching them, I remembered a moment of my life, a moment that I never wanted to remember. It was the summer, where I was sixteen, and this was where I lost my youth. This poor kid and I were just trying to escape our lives. We were trying to find ourselves, but we made the wrong choice. We trusted the wrong people, and we both paid dearly for it. Now one life is gone, and another struggles to recover. But we were young. What did we know, and will he ever know the life that he could’ve lived? How do you undo the past and take back those mistakes that brought you into now? You can’t. You can’t go back. You can’t forget. You can only survive and remember those lost and left behind. This is the tragic tale of my life, interweaved with his, and this is where our story begins…”