Please note: this story was provided by the author and published as is.
The leaves crunch beneath my hiking boots. In the silence of the forest, the noise is almost deafening. I could hear a pin drop, if I had a pin with me amongst all these trees. But I don’t—there’s nothing sharp for miles around, believe me, I’ve made sure of it.
All I have are the clothes on my back, the thick strap of my backpack cutting into my bare shoulder. It isn’t hot here, not yet. I’ve started early enough in the morning that the sweltering midsummer heat won’t get to me, yet, but hopefully by the time it breaks through the trees, I’ll be deep enough into the forest, where the tallest pines grow, that I’ll be protected by their comforting, cool shade.
Until then I put one foot in front of the other. Crunch, crunch, crunch. I designed it this way—to be so completely isolated. I needed to be alone. Needed to get away from… well, everything. Needed time to think. While isolation may be trivial to some, I can basically count on my hand the number of times I’ve ever been alone. Ever. I’m one of five in my family, and my whole childhood, my whole life has been nothing but non-stop chatter from everyone around me. Being the middle child never helped either. I’m not sure how much anyone ever paid attention to me. Or listened. Or cared.
But now, I am going to be the center of my own world. I can think, move, breathe without someone else interrupting or forcing a thought into my head without my consent. I planned to hike three miles deep into the forest, making sure to leave markers on the trail as I did so, that way I didn’t get lost.
I’ve been wrapping ribbons around trees as I go, too, just to make sure. I dyed the ribbons red with leftover dye I found in a dusty, unused corner of my apartment in the city, dye I’d initially bought for some abandoned pet project I thought might be my new career. I’ve always done things like that, for as long as I can remember. Picking up hobbies hoping they’d turn into real work. I would quickly get bored, or, worse yet, realize I was never even good at the thing I was trying to do in the first place. I was always disappointing my parents. The most disappointing of all my siblings, in fact. Hank, Sally, Truman, Wendy, Robbie. They all had so much more to offer than I ever did. But then again, maybe they made sure of it? Made sure I was the failure so they could shine? Better not think about that now. Not yet. Right now I need to stay focused on maintaining a… rhythm, a pace for how many steps I go to how many red ribbons I wrap around trees. On the fifth tree, I stop to admire my handiwork, see the slippery, silky ribbon pulled tight around the wooden trunk like a dark ruby necklace stretched across a fine ladies neck. Or the line of blood trickling horizontally across someone’s skin after their throats been cut. The image makes me shiver. I keep walking.
I think briefly about the idea of getting lost so that no one ever found me. Girl with troubled past disappears into woods never to be found again. I laugh at the headline. That would really be something, I think to myself, come all the way out here just to get lost in the woods. No, that wasn’t my plan. I came here to be found. Just focus on the steps in front of you, Amy. The wind at the nape of your neck. The trees moving in the sunlight. I don’t know this forest well, only remember it faintly from a memory long ago.
My class took a field trip into these very woods—it’s how I even know that they were here. I’m replicating what we did then with what I was doing now: hike three miles into the forest, spend the night, hike back. I don’t know why we did it back then. My school was very focused on the outdoors that way—they were always wanting us to get outside, come out of our shells. I wish it had worked on me, but if anything it made me retreat farther into mine. On this particular trip, our teacher focused on survival skills. Taught us how to find naturally occurring ibuprofen and filter out the river water with dark gray charcoal. We slept under crinkly tarps beneath the bright stars and the deep blue-black skies and in the morning ate dried food out of hollowed-out coconut shells. Our teacher—and I guess, by extension, our school itself– wanted to teach us about real life, what it meant to have true grit—how to be Lewis and Clark back when there were no planes or trains or automobiles. But now that I think about it, it wasn’t very realistic. At least, there was nothing truly dangerous about what we were doing out there. We were only twelve, and there were chaperones everywhere. Which why it never made sense to anyone who told the story later how Jackson got lost.
We had a boy in our class, quiet, read a lot. His name was Jackson. I sort of liked him, sensed something in him that I had in me. A feeling of loneliness. Of quiet desperation, like he was asking for someone, anyone to pay attention to him. Sometimes he picked fights with other kids in school. I heard several stories that Jackson ran away from home often as a little kid. Sometimes I heard that his dad beat him, but I didn’t know if that was just gossip passed around the lips of nosy middle-schoolers with too much free time for their minds to wander into murky corners. It was dark a rumor to be spreading around for a bunch 12-year-olds, I must admit. He never had any bruises that I could see. But I find sometimes the deepest bruises are the ones you can never see with the naked eye. Those are the ones that hurt the most and last the longest after the final blow is felt. Before anyone realized he was missing, before the chaperones raised the alarms, and we huddled up in a circle and gave our alibis, I saw Jackson. I guess, if you think about it that way, I was the last person to have seen him alive.
I had been playing by myself at the sharp rocks at the bottom of the waterfall several yards from our campsite. I planned on collecting all the pretty stones I could find, the ones that were blue and purple in certain lights… the ones that reminded me of sea glass and gemstones. I was going to keep them and bring them home with me and have something that none of my sisters or brothers could have. I remember cradling one particular gemstone in my hand; it was iridescent in the soft afternoon light. Then a shadow crossed my palm, and I looked up. It was right then that I saw Jackson standing on a ledge. He was just staring at me, his face solemn. I could tell his face was wet, but I couldn’t tell if it was from the spray from the waterfall or something else. Years later, I would always wonder if he was crying or not. He seemed so sad back then. But I didn’t think about any of that right at that moment. Instead, I just waved at him. But if I was expecting anything from him, I was sorely mistaken. He didn’t wave back. He didn’t do nothin’. He just stared at me. And kept staring, until a shiver ran down my spine and I got up, angry. Angry that such a kid thought he could make me feel weird by just staring.
After the chaperones realized he was gone, they rounded up my crying classmates and shepherded us back to the beginning of the trail so we could finally call the police to have someone come look for him. They would look for five days before calling off the search. The forest was just too big, and he would’ve run out of food by then. I never told anyone I was the last to see him, because what good would that do? Jackson was already long gone.
Later, when we were assigned to speak with a school psychologist just to make sure we weren’t scarred too much by Jackson’s death, kids in my class would say that his disappearance was one of the saddest moments of their young adult lives. That it was the first time they came across death, or true sadness and loss. They often said that forever that trip would be marked by this horrible tragedy. I said as much when it was my turn to talk to the psychologist. She looked at me sympathetically when I told her I wasn’t sleeping well and had nightmares about Jackson. Then she handed me a jolly rancher and asked me to bring in the next kid. That was so long ago now, I wonder why my most vivid memory from that afternoon was not the words coming out of my mouth, but rather the sickly sweet taste of the red jolly rancher as it rolled around my tongue. If I were to really be if honest here, (and I guess I consider this now as ever a time, to be honest) I look back on that trip as one of the happiest of my childhood because for once in my small little life, I was finally away from my family. Finally got to taste and feel what my thoughts were without one of them yammering in my ear, or shoving something down my throat. Sure, we all went to the same school. But thankfully none of us were the same age, and so those three days? They were all mine. Missing Jackson and all.
Shoot. How many trees have I passed? 1… 2…. 3….4… I’ll just put one here.
Oh god. I feel light-headed. I need to sit down. Remember, remember, remember. Remember why you are here. Remember. Its because you killed your family. I didn’t mean to, I swear! Oh great. Now I’m talking to the trees. But I’m not, right? The trees cant hear me. What’s the old saying… if a tree breaks in the forest? No. That’s not right. If a tree collapses…No. What’s the word? If a tree falls in the forest, and no one is around to see it, does it even make a sound? Yeah, that’s right. I’ve got it. I’m not totally crazy, right? But the thing is, I’m here, in the forest, and I can hear the trees, and the trees can hear me. They’re hearing me, what I’m saying. What I am admitting to you right now in the deep dark silence. They can hear it. Will they tell anyone? I guess at this point you’re wondering if I have the ability to explain my descent into… whatever drove me to do it. Insanity? Craziness? Are those the words? Or am I too far gone to really explain the situation? I can give you reasons and they would probably be right, if you asked a psychologist specializing in the murder of your entire family. I’m sure there are a few specialists out there, however gruesome it may seem. They’d explain, pinpoint something about me being a middle child. I killed my family in cold blood. I did. I did the thing you never think of doing. Never dream of doing in a million years. They’re my family, they say. Family. What a funny word.
It never really meant anything to me, it was a synonym for nuisance rather than love. For judgment rather than acceptance. Family meant your father yelled at your mother and your brothers stuck bugs so far down your ears while you slept you had to be rushed to the ER to get them out. Family meant your sister stole your prom dress and spilled grape juice down the front of it the moment your date rang the doorbell. Family meant comparison, competition, never being… yourself. One entity, one person in charge of their own destiny. Family meant someone was always getting in the way. I told you, I never was alone. They were always there. Even as I got older, went to college, moved into my own apartment, tried to getaway. They were always dropping by. Always wondering why I never made much out of my life, never followed in any of their footsteps, never applied myself. So I snapped. I’m not saying it was good. I’m not saying I agree with why I did it either. I’m only telling you the thinking that went into it, the moment I made a rash decision, and then had to carry it through.
You know how I said I was being honest? Well, I lied about that. I lied about something else, too. I told you the ribbons were dyed with paint. But that isn’t true. Not true at all. If you really wanna know, I’ll tell you. The ribbons were dyed with blood. I know it wasn’t right. It’s why I’m telling all of this now. As if admittance is any sort of trade for the lives I stole from them. But they stole mine right? Or have I been wrong my whole life? Read things the wrong way, alienated myself when they were only trying to help? Trying to love me? I guess I’ll never know. I don’t know why that frightens me the most.
I lied about something else too. Jackson? I know where he is. Where his bones are buried. It’s because I buried him. All those years ago. Jackson was a bully. Did he deserve to die? I don’t know. But he bullied me, made me feel small, small like the other kids made him. When I saw him on that rock, and how he didn’t wave back, I got angry. Very angry. He angered me with his silence, just like my family angered me with their noise. So I stood up and went over to him and wrapped my fingers around his neck.
That was the beginning of it. Of an anger I couldn’t control. I thought I would never do it again, but here we are, all those years later, and I’m admitting it to you now.
By the time you’re listening this I should be dead. The ribbons having led you to my corpse in the middle of the national forest, my hand clutching the very recorder I’m speaking these words into, the tape probably stopped by the time you’ve reached me. Jackson is buried a few feet to my left. I hope his family may now find peace. I know I will. I told you before I didn’t come here to get lost in this forest. No. I came here to be found. Now come find me.