February 5

Missing

When I met Hayden, I felt as though every fiber of my being had suddenly connected to her. I became infatuated, helplessly and completely in love, and her returning my feelings was like a walk-in cooler filled with ice water in the center of the mid-July desert.

Hayden completed me in ways that I didn’t realize needed completion. She understood me, didn’t leave me wishing something was different. It was whimsically beautiful like a dream – captivatingly enigmatic like a labyrinth I had no desire to escape from. I wanted her closer even when she was right next to me, and when she said the same with just her gaze, my body became like beeswax in an oven.

I was 24 years, 19 weeks, and 2 days old when my life stopped. I could feel my pulse, and I breathed air, but it was for nothing. I’d gotten a call that no 24-year old should’ve gotten – one that I’d wish on no one and cannot think about without shaking.

Hayden had killed herself. Overdosed on some prescription drug I’ve long forgotten the name of. It was surreal to the point that I couldn’t even believe that I’d heard correctly.

Six months we’d dated without even the slightest hint she’d take her own life. Half a year I’d gone without realizing the person I cared about most in the world was hurting enough to want so desperately to escape.

Sometimes I’m okay. Other times I blame myself. No matter which though, I miss her touch. I miss her fingers in my hair and her nose brushing mine as we kissed. I can’t even begin to describe the gaping hole inside of me that never seems to get smaller.

But worst of all, I will never know why Hayden did it. I’ll never know why she didn’t talk to me about whatever was so wrong with her life. And that hurts almost as much as reaching over for a hand to hold, even knowing it will never be there again.

December 18

Text

Some amount of time ago, I received a text message on my phone from a number I didn’t recognize that plainly said “where are you.” I replied, asking “who is this?” but received no answer.

A week later, the same number texted me again with the same message asking where I was. Confused, I texted back “I don’t know who you are. Who is this?” Once again, my question was not met with a reply.

Six days passed, and I got another message from that number, but it was different. “I know where you are.” I read it a few times before realizing it wreaked of my friend Fred’s idea if a practical joke. He’d probably grabbed a texting app for his phone and gotten a free number to mess with me. Confident that I’d figured out what was going on, I sent a text back that said “And I know where you are.

I figured Fred would try to have a little more fun with me before ignoring me for a while, but like clockwork, the replies stopped until five days later. “I see you,” it said. It was a little distasteful, but I wasn’t one to let a joke easily bother me, so I sent back “Pervert” and figured I wouldn’t hear from him again for a while.

Four days passed this time before a new message came. “that red dress would look better on the floor.”

With that, I’d had enough. “dude, seriously? Stfu or ill text your brother and tell him to kick your ass. Not cool.” I mean, really? Making a joke like that? But then I stopped, looked down, and realized what was happening.

I was wearing a red dress.

But how? How had Fred known? I hadn’t seem him in weeks. Was he spying on me? I racked my brain for answers. I hadn’t left the house all day since the weather was nasty. I literally hadn’t seen or talked to anyone face to face all day. No one short of a creeper spying through a window could’ve known what I was wearing.

I raced around the house drawing all of the curtains that were open. The front and back doors were locked and deadbolted – this I double checked to make sure.

I pulled up Fred’s contact into on my phone and sent a message to him. “have you been texting me for the last few weeks under a different number? This is serious so please tell me the truth.”

A few minutes later, Fred replied. “I broke my phone a couple weeks ago and just got a new one yesterday, so nope.” He could’ve been lying, but I knew he wasn’t. I don’t know how, but I knew it.

I was still on edge three days later when another message came from the number. “the curtains can’t keep me out.”

That was it. I was done. I closed the text and called the police. Told them I was scared, told them to please hurry. I don’t remember much of that day past that moment. The cops showed up and questioned me. I showed them the texts and admitted that I wasn’t comfortable being alone in my house. I think they asked me if I had any friends or family I could stay with for a while, or at least I assume they asked me something along those lines because I remember saying I’d recently moved here from my hometown that was over four hours away.

I do remember the officer pointing out to me that the texts were coming in a day sooner than the last every time, but I was so terrified that I couldn’t think much about it. I couldn’t afford to stay in a hotel for the next week, so I knew I had to stay in the house.

Despite not replying to the last text, two days later I got another one. “You didn’t wash the dress. Thanks. It smells nice.”

I didn’t need a moment to think. I couldn’t find my red dress. It had been missing since at least the day before I’d called the cops. I grabbed my keys, ran to my car, and drove. Didn’t care about work the next day or that it was 9 PM. I just drove straight to my parents’ house in my hometown. I didn’t even call to tell them. If they weren’t home, I’d stay with Fred and his brother.

I got there at 12:30 since I’d sped the whole way. My parents were awake, and they comforted me for an hour or so after I explained everything.

The next day when my phone alerted me of a text, I was scared to look, but not knowing would’ve been far worse.

I followed you

I’m in my parents’ basement right now typing this out. My mom is pacing on the other side of the room while my dad is upstairs with his hunting rifle. As I finished typing half of this up, I got another message.

you are MINE”

I’m so terrified, I don’t know what to do. My dad called the police, and they’re on their way, but I can’t help but think of the danger I’ve put my parents in.

And still, the texts are becoming more frequent.

you can’t run and you can’t hide. I will have you one way or the other.

I have a horrifying feeling that he’s about to make his move.

November 4

Tracks

At 14 years old, there wasn’t a lot for my friends and I to do that didn’t involve the woods near our neighborhood. We were too young to drive, and yet we felt too old to be restricted to playing sports in our parents’ yards. The woods were basically the perfect place for us to hang out, as most of our parents had made them off-limits when we were younger. Being able to freely go there felt like a rite of passage, and we could do basically whatever we wanted there with no one around to tell us otherwise.

Now that I think about it, I guess it wasn’t exactly the best thing for our parents to allow of a bunch of kids that were barely teenagers, though I have never blamed any of them for lack of proper parenting.

The first of us that was allowed to go into the woods was Jerry. His parents gave him that freedom when he turned 13, but no one else was allowed to go yet, so he only went once or twice with his older brother to hunt for rabbits with a pellet gun.

Turning 14 was like a magical age. I don’t know why, but it seemed like once the rest of us hit that age, our parents finally gave in to our begging and let us venture out into places that were previously forbidden. I turned 14 first, then Frank, then Darren, then Melissa, then Jerry. When Melissa’s birthday rolled around and she got permission to go into the woods, we suddenly realized that we’d surmounted the last barrier since Jerry was already allowed. We immediately made plans for the next weekend to go to the woods and explore.

It was exactly like we’d hoped it would be. Nothing but trees for what seemed like miles. Lots of sticks to grab and hit things with. Plenty of leaves blanketing the floor to kick around. The occasional snap of a twig or cry of a small animal to creep us out. It was fantastic.

Almost every weekend from that point on, you could find us in the woods. We’d usually meet at Jerry’s at a predetermined time, then trek over there with whatever we wanted to bring, if anything. We brought a tarp and nailed it up to some trees for shade and shelter in case the weather got bad. We constructed a makeshift hammock out of some burlap sacks, rope, and a couple of two by fours. Darren wanted to make a swing, but we’d used all of the rope we could find on the hammock, and rope was more expensive than we thought it was, so we abandoned that idea.

Months passed of us hanging out like that basically every chance we got. We’d explored and memorized most every part of the woods up until a wooden fence with a bunch of “NO TRESPASSING” signs on it blocked us from going any farther. We never really got too curious about what was on the other side of the fence, but we did follow it for at least a mile one time and there was no end of it in sight.

By that point, we didn’t know every inch of the woods, but I can pretty much guarantee that any one of us couldn’t get lost there, which had been a legitimate concern in the beginning. We’d become accustomed to certain landmarks, like the pile of rusted metal scraps that someone had likely dumped there a decade ago, or like the tree that had been splintered right down the middle, probably by lightning. There were lots of little things like that that we could recognize and immediately know where we were, at least in relation to the tarp shelter we’d set up.

It was a Saturday afternoon that Melissa showed up with a girl named Jamie. This was surprising to us for at least two reasons: the first was that Melissa was a tomboy, which was lucky for her, since she was the only girl our age in the neighborhood and would have to either hang out with us boys or just be alone. The second reason it was surprising was because Jamie seemed very girlish, and to be hanging out with a tomboy like Melissa didn’t immediately make a lot of sense. However, they both assured us boys that Jamie wanted to go to the woods with us, and that she wasn’t afraid to get a little dirty.

Now, Melissa was pretty, despite the way she dressed, but Jamie was prettier. There was basically no way that a bunch of 14 year old boys were going to turn down a pretty girl’s request to hang out, so that was that, as far as we were concerned.

We headed to the woods as we usually did, only plus one. We found the trail at the edge that we’d gently worn down over the past few months and followed it a couple hundred yards to a clearing. Here, we’d determined that we didn’t want to make the path to our tarp shelter obvious, and that if we didn’t beat the brush around the clearing down too obviously, any explorer would probably just figure the trail ended at the clearing. We’d even set up some stones in a circle and made it look like a campfire site.

Continuing on another hundred or so yards, we arrived at the familiar site of our tarp shelter. It was just as we’d left it, which we’d come to expect. If anyone had ever found it, they’d never touched it or messed with it in any noticeable way. Jamie looked around with a glimmer of genuine curiosity in her eyes. I’d have never pegged her for it judging by her looks, but she obviously liked exploring.

“This is perfect!” she said, giving a nod of approval to Melissa.

“We have a lot of fun out here,” Melissa said.

Jamie examined the hammock and picked a few leaves off of it, admiring the last one before she tossed it on the ground. “So cool.”

I’d noticed that Frank had been eying Jamie the entire time, and not that Darren or Jerry or I weren’t doing the same, but his glances were far less discreet. I kind of wanted to tell him to cut it out because it was a little embarrassing, but it seemed like Jamie hadn’t noticed yet, so I kept my mouth shut.

Jamie’s eyes suddenly lit up, and she excitedly looked around, her gaze finding each of us as she spoke. “You guys want to build a fire and camp out here tonight?”

It wasn’t a new idea. We’d thought about it before, but there were a few reasons we hadn’t done it. The first one was obviously that our parents wouldn’t let us. We could get around it by lying and saying that we were sleeping over at someone’s house for the night, but there were more issues than just that. There were animals in the woods, and though maybe they would leave us alone at night as they did during the day, we weren’t sure, because honestly, we weren’t even sure what kinds of animals called those woods home. Then, there was the issue of the campire.

“We can’t build a fire here,” Jerry said.

“Why not?” Jamie’s eyelids fluttered.

“The smoke will be visible from outside of the woods,” I said. “People will know where we are.”

“So?” Jamie said.

“This is kind of our private place,” Darren explained. “That’s why we had the decoy campsite back at the clearing.”

“What’s the big deal?” Jamie said. “Camping out would be fun. No one would find us.”

It had always been understood among us, though it remained unspoken, that this part of the woods was something we didn’t want to just broadcast to everyone. But on that day, a pretty girl came with us to our hideaway, and that changed.

“Come on guys, she’s right. It would be fun,” Frank said. I knew exactly what was going through his mind. I’d seen him staring at Jamie. He just wanted to find a way to sleep next to, close to, anywhere in the same proximity as her. Maybe he even wanted more than that. Who knows for sure, but I could see as he looked at us desperately, begging with his eyes for us to agree with him, that he had an ulterior motive.

All of that aside though, sleeping in the woods with my friends did sound like fun. I wasn’t so worried about the animals, especially if we had a fire. And I knew Jerry could sneak his brother’s pellet gun out of the house – not that it could do much damage to anything that could actually hurt us, but maybe it could scare such a creature away with a well-aimed shot.

Darren was either thinking along the same lines as Frank or me, as he suddenly spoke up. “Well, I guess.”

Melissa bit her lip. “I can’t. There’s no way I can come up with a good enough excuse. Jamie is my only female friend, and she’s supposed to be staying over at my house. Whose house would I say I’m sleeping at?”

“Just tell your parents we went back to my house to spend the night,” Jamie said. “My parents think I’m over at your house, yours will think we’re over at my house.”

“What if one of them calls the other, though?” Melissa said.

Jamie dug in her pocket, then held out her cell phone. “Mine have no reason to call yours. If they need me, they can just call me.” We didn’t all have cell phones, but I had one. So did Darren and Frank. But not Jerry, and not Melissa.

“I don’t have a cell, though,” Melissa said.

“Call your parents from my phone, give them my number, and tell them if they need you to call you on it. Simple. If they ask to talk to my parents or for my parents’ number or something, make something up. Give the phone to me or one of the guys or something and we’ll impersonate your mom or dad.”

My impression of Jamie that was initially based entirely on her looks was quickly evolving to more adequately match who she actually was. She was this good at planning on how to trick parents? This innocent-looking girl?

Melissa sighed, defeated. “Fine.”

Each one of us took turns calling our parents on our phones and loaning them to others without phones. We all shared the same risk that Melissa shared, but none of our parents questioned what we told them. Mine only asked when I’d be back, then told me to have fun, and that was it. I felt bad for a moment that they trusted me well enough to not press me at all, when I was, in fact, betraying that very trust.

But it was harmless, right? I was only spending the night in the woods with my friends. It was a victimless betrayal.

We’d need supplies, and unfortunately, we didn’t think of that until after we’d already called our parents. No one could go home for blankets or chips or a lighter or anything like that, so instead, we pooled the cash we had on us and gave it to Darren and Jerry, who set off by themselves to the closest gas station to buy at least a lighter and however much food and drinks they could with the $28 we collectively had and the two sets of arms they had to carry it all back.

The rest of us were left with two tasks: to gather firewood and to find something for us to cover ourselves with or sleep on top of or both. Melissa had an idea on how to solve the latter problem, and much to Frank’s dismay, she grabbed his arm and pulled him off with her, saying she needed a “man” to help her carry some stuff. And suddenly, I was left alone with Jamie.

“Well, I guess that means we’re in charge of gathering firewood,” I said.

She nodded and saluted me. “Sir, yes sir!”

I arched an eyebrow at her and laughed. This girl was full of surprises.

“First, we need to clear the leaves away from where we’re going to build the fire,” I said. “The ground needs to be nothing but dirt. No grass – not even if it’s alive.”

“Why not?” Jamie asked.

“If we build the fire on top of leaves or grass, it could catch the entire place on fire,” I said, motioning to the woods around us with my hands. “With all of these dead leaves and stuff, this entire place is a tinderbox. We have to be careful.”

Jamie nodded, seemingly impressed with this wisdom that I had assumed was common sense.

Fortunately, finding an area of dirt wasn’t that hard. When we’d built the hammock, we’d first tried using an old bed sheet instead of the burlap sack. The sheet wasn’t strong enough, of course, so we’d spread it out under the tarp as a sort of “indoors” area for us to relax on. This, however, proved to be a terrible idea, because when it rained, the sheet got soaking wet, and the combination of the tarp and the trees protected it from the sun, so it took forever to dry. We ended up putting the sheet in the clearing instead, and set rocks on top of it. It was better than laying on the ground, and we just had to pick it up and shake it off when it got full of leaves.

That is, until it killed the grass underneath, and the area underneath became dirt, which in combination with the rain muddied the sheet so much that we just avoided it.

Until I remembered that we needed an area that was just dirt. Jamie and I removed the rocks, lifted the filthy sheet, and found exactly the area we were looking for.

SNAP

I turned around and scanned the treeline at the edge of the clearing in search of the source of the noise.

“Melissa? Frank?” I called out.

“Probably just an animal or something,” Jamie said.

I nodded, grabbed the small hand axe we had pilfered from Darren’s dad, and motioned for Jamie to follow me.

“Where are we going?” Jamie asked.

“To look for firewood,” I said.

“Why do we have to leave this area? There’s plenty of trees here.”

“We’ve already used all of the fallen branches here for random stuff,” I said.

“So just use the axe to chop some more down.”

“No, I can’t. We need dead branches. Live wood is moist on the inside and is impossible to burn in campfires.”

Jamie nodded thoughtfully and said, “Oh.” With that, we headed away from the tarp shelter and toward the center of the woods. I knew we’d gathered some branches a while back when we’d tried to make a lean-to, and we’d basically scavenged up everything in the area for it, only to abandon it in favor of just using a tarp. We could just use the branches from the lean-to, but there was a problem with that; I had no idea where it was. We’d built that thing our second or third trip into the woods before we knew them very well, and not once since then had we run across it. To be honest, I’m not sure how we ever made it out of the woods that time, since I knew every single path now, and none of the paths went by the lean-to.

It was strange, because we’d obviously used the branches in this area, so the lean-to should’ve been nearby, but I never thought too much of it. For all I knew, some stranger had stumbled upon it and used it for his own fire. Or maybe Jerry’s brother had found it while hunting and knocked it down as a mean joke, thus making it less noticeable by my quick scans of the area.

Regardless, I knew that once we passed the splintered tree, there would be wood we could use. The path there was pretty simple, but it was a five minute walk at a decent pace. Carrying back branches would be annoying, and over multiple trips, time-consuming.

“How far do we have to walk?” Jamie suddenly asked, interrupting my thoughts.

“Not too much farther,” I said.

CRACK

I snapped my head in the direction of the noise. “Guys? Hello?”

“Probably another animal,” Jamie said. I shrugged and we continued walking, arriving at the splintered tree a couple minutes later.

There wasn’t really a path, per se, as that would imply an obvious beaten trail of some sort, but there was an area that had less brush and less obstacles to walk over or around, and at this point, that area split off in two directions. I knew the left trail ended at the fence, and I knew the right trail circled back somehow and would eventually lead you to the faux campsite we’d set up closer to the entrance we used to get into the woods. The harder trail was the one on the right, because it wasn’t as clear, and it also was easier to get lost on if you weren’t familiar with the layout of the woods.

“You take the left trail,” I said. “It’ll lead you to a fence. Gather the dead branches you can and bring them back to this area, and I will go down the right trail and do the same until we’ve gathered enough wood here for the fire.”

She didn’t look at all hesitant as she nodded. “Okay.”

“I say make three trips, then wait here so we can meet up and bring what we’ve gathered back.”

Jamie nodded once more.

“Stay on the trail and you won’t get lost,” I said. “As long as you turn around and backtrace as soon as you find the fence, it’s basically impossible for you to lose your way.”

We parted ways then and did as I’d instructed. There were plenty of dead tree branches to be found, and by the time I’d brought back my second pile of branches to the fork, still only my branches were there. My trail did have more trees though, so perhaps I’d given Jamie the less fair trail after all. I shrugged and went back to gather my final bundle. I figured if she hadn’t brought anything back by the time I returned, I’d set off down the left trail to help her out. If she was having that hard of a time, we could just both go down the right trail together and pick up what I hadn’t already gathered. It was a shame, because I figured us splitting up would’ve worked out faster, but in the end, I brought my third batch of branches back, and Jamie still hadn’t added to the pile.

I set off down the left trail, beginning to wonder if maybe she got lost, as I started to notice obvious firewood candidates laying strewn about the sides of the trail. But I kept on, as I was certain Jamie was not dumb enough to lose her way on this very simple trail. It did not branch out, did not fork or become unclear at any point unless you left the trail once you got to the fence.

Sure enough, she hadn’t lost her way, as I shortly thereafter found her walking toward me with a bundle of branches in her arms.

“Hey!” she said.

“Hey. What’s up?”

“Sorry, I got sidetracked.”

“By what?” I asked.

“Well, you didn’t tell me about the railroad tracks. I got curious and wanted to explore.”

I arched an eyebrow at her. “Railroad tracks?”

“Yeah, the ones down by the fence.”

“There’s no railroad tracks that run through these woods,” I said.

“I literally just came from checking them out,” Jamie said. “I will drop these branches right here and take you back there if you don’t believe me.”

What in the world could she be talking about? I knew this area well. I’d been here many times with the group and a couple of times by myself. Maybe, at some area of these woods, far, far away, there were railroad tracks, but not here. Not by the fence.

“Yeah, sure. Let’s go,” I said, hoping she would just laugh at me and say she was messing with me. But she immediately released her hold on the branches, dropping them as she stood, and turned back around while waving me over to her, all in one swift, fluid motion.

I followed her over the familiar trail, across areas that were etched into my mind like street name signs on the intersections of roads I’d traveled my entire life. We were getting close to the fence, and as it came into view, I literally felt a chill go down my spine as the train tracks also became clearly visible.

“What the hell…”

“See? I told you!” she said.

Words failed me at that moment. The tracks were real, they were obviously unused, and they were clearly decades and decades old. Weeds and vines had grown over the tracks in many places, and the resulting takeover of this manmade thing by nature was beautiful, almost artistic in a way. Man had tried to take this strip of land from nature, and nature was reclaiming it.

But it didn’t make any sense. These tracks shouldn’t be able to be “reclaimed” by nature, as they shouldn’t be here at all. I’d been to this area. I’d explored along the fence. Many times, even.

“Are you seriously trying to tell me that you’ve never seen these tracks before?” Jamie asked.

“It’s not that,” I said, with what must’ve been the most unusual look of bewilderment on my face. “I’ve been here before. Like, many times. To this exact spot. These train tracks were not here, and Melissa or anyone else can confirm that.”

Jamie looked at me for a second as if she was trying to decide whether or not she believed me.

“I’m not messing with you,” I said. “This is really screwing with my head.”

CRACK

Once again, I was drawn to look toward a sound that did not have a clear source. But now I knew something was wrong. I was no longer in the mindset of ignoring things that didn’t seem right.

“Who’s there?” I said.

“It’s probably just-”

“No,” I interrupted. “It’s not an animal.” The words came out so forcefully and confidently that I believed them even more than I expected to.

“Who’s there?” I called out again. After a few moments, I spoke up again. “I know someone is there. Stop following us and come out.”

I said those words knowing what they meant, but saying that seemed to make them real, and suddenly, I realized that we were almost certainly being followed. In the middle of the woods. With no one around for what could be miles.

“Jerry, Darren, Melissa, Frank – if it’s one of you guys, cut it out and show yourself.”

The woods weren’t very thick in this area. You could maybe conceal yourself easily at night, but during the day, all you could do is hide behind a tree or duck down behind one of shrubs or bushes. I thought for a moment that maybe I was wrong; maybe no one was there because it would be so hard to hide, but I had a strange and unsettling feeling, and this feeling was sending a chill down my spine and making it so that my confidence in the fact that we were being followed was quickly turning into the resulting fear of a person that knew he was being followed. I held the axe tightly at my side.

“I said SHOW YOURSELF!” I shouted. I had meant for it to sound frustrated. I hoped that it was just one of my friends playing a joke, and that frustrated me, because this joke wasn’t very funny at all, but when the words escaped my lips, they sounded only angry.

Before I could get a response though, I felt the ground beneath me begin to shake.

“What the…” I said.

“What is this?” Jamie said, suddenly grabbing onto my shoulder.

“Earthquake?” I said. But there were no earthquakes here. That was silly. Something was making the earth rumble though, and I couldn’t figure out what. It would have to be pretty big though.

And that’s when it hit me.

“No…that’s impossible,” I said.

“What’s impossible?” Jamie asked.

“A train,” I said. “A train would make the earth rumble like this.”

“But these tracks haven’t been used in years.” Jamie’s face showed an obvious concern.

WHOO, WHOO

“Get away from the tracks!” I yelled, yanking at Jamie’s arm and pulling her back toward the trail. Whether I’d seen the tracks before or not, that was a real train whistle, and standing anywhere nearby sounded like a terrible idea.

The earth shook harder as the train slowly came into view.

“You’ve gotta be kidding me…” Jamie said.

My thoughts were a mess. This was impossible. There weren’t supposed to be tracks here, much less an active train. Was there even a train that passed through town that could go through this woods? I couldn’t think of one, but I could barely think at all.

The train chugged toward us, and as it zoomed past, the resulting wind rushed over my body and Jamie’s, and we stood in awe at what we were witnessing.

It was a short train, or maybe it was long and the time just seemed to pass quickly as we watched it. It continued on down the tracks and slowly disappeared into the distance, hidden by the trees.

Jamie didn’t say a word, and I wanted to, because there were so many things to say, but I kept my mouth shut.

Until I looked down at the tracks.

They were no longer covered in growth. In fact, they looked new. The rails were shining even without an abundance of sun, and the creosote that treated the wood underneath permeated the air and filled my nose.

“What in the world is going on?” I said.

She remained silent for a moment before responding. “What happened to the fence?”

I looked up to discern what she meant, and was met with yet another unbelievable sight. The fence was dilapidated and falling apart. It had never been new since I’d known of it, but it wasn’t in disrepair. But now, parts of it were completely gone, and other parts were hanging on a single nail, just waiting to fall to the ground.

I was shaking now. There was nothing about this situation that didn’t terrify me.

“Jamie, let’s get out of here.”

She didn’t argue or provide any resistance as I grabbed her hand and pulled her back down the trail. I didn’t let go as we raced down the trail back to the beaten path, back past the splintered tree, back to where our tarp shelter was.

Or should’ve been.

Nothing was like it should’ve been. The tarp was gone. The hammock was rotten and muddied on the ground. The dirt area that we’d uncovered to build the fire was overgrown with grass. In fact, the whole area was overgrown.

We stopped there for only a bit, took all of this in, and kept running. My friends weren’t there. I hoped they were safe, but waiting there for them wasn’t an option. We ran back past the fake campsite, through the trails, and darted out of the woods as fast as I could run while holding onto Jamie.

It wasn’t far to my house, so we ran there first. Melissa’s was not far, and I’d have to bring Jamie there. We’d have to make up a story about canceling the sleepover, but it could work, hopefully without them ever finding out that we’d lied in the first place.

I went to open the back door to my parents’ house, but it was locked. I found that to be pretty weird, since they never locked the back door, but weirder things have happened. Just 10 or 15 minutes before, actually.

I knocked and waited for my mom. She was also faster at answering doors than my dad, after all.

The wave of confusion that passed over me when my mom finally did open the door is difficult to describe. There she was, my mom that I knew and loved, but she looked…different. Her hair had grayed a little and was much shorter. There were wrinkles on her face that hadn’t been there before, and the look she displayed when she saw me probably nearly matched the one I had.

“W…Warren?” she stammered.

“Yeah mom, it’s me.” I didn’t know what else to say.

She reached a hand forward and cautiously touched my face. “Is it really you?”

I nodded. “You look different, mom.”

Her warm hand didn’t falter as she began to cry.

“Mom, what’s the matter?”

Jamie just stood there, not understanding what was wrong. After all, she had no idea what my mom normally looked like.

“Son,” she forced through tears. “Where have you been for the past 10 years?”

September 9

The Hallway

When I moved into my first rental house, I remember the feeling of being terrified at every strange noise that found its way to my ears. The ice maker in the freezer, the A/C kicking on, the house settling – it all made me nervous the first night I slept there. I was expecting it the second night, so it wasn’t as bad, and by the third night, it was all commonplace. I spent another 362 days in that house sleeping soundly without a worry in the world.

Then my lease ended, and my landlord decided to let his deadbeat brother live in the house for free, so I had to find another place to rent, since I had planned on keeping my lease for three years before buying my own house.

I ended up looking across town from where my first rental house was located. Both areas were good as far as safety and proximity to grocery stores and restaurants, but I’d gotten a new job, and across town would be closer to my new office, even if not by much. The houses I could find for rent were mostly around the same price I had been paying at my old place, until I came across one that was two thirds the price of anything else in the vicinity. The listing was simple, had plenty of pictures, and seemed very honest about the house’s shortcomings: a burner on the stove didn’t work and would likely not be repaired, the water in the guest bathroom didn’t get any warmer than room temperature, and the lighting in the hallway did not work due to some sort of electrical issue that was beyond a simple light bulb or light fixture change. The listing cited these things as the reason for the low rent, but other than that, the house seemed perfect for me. I called about it, got the owner to give me a tour, and I was sold. I signed the lease the following Monday.

My first night in the house was almost exactly what I expected. There were strange noises – some of which I identified pretty easily, and others that threw me for a loop. I continued unpacking the next day, and as I was doing so, I came across the source of one of the noises I couldn’t recognize. It was an egg timer of some sort that appeared to be partially broken and had been going off – no bells, only a slight vibration – for God-only-knows how long. It seemed rather odd, but I’d seen much odder things that had been left behind in apartments and dorm rooms back when I was in college, so I turned it off, tossed it in the garbage, and continued unpacking, resigning myself to think nothing more of it.

That night, I gave up unpacking and decided to go to bed early. I’d acquired a lot more junk than I’d realized, and sorting through it all was more of a hassle than it had been the last time I moved. The important things were out of boxes, and that was what mattered the most.

The first night I was there, I didn’t have my bed moved yet, so I slept on the sofa in the living room, but by the second night, I had my bedroom furniture in my new bedroom.

The issues with the house had yet to bother me. I’d likely never have to deal with the lack of hot water in the guest bathroom, and I never cooked enough things at the same time to use every range on the stove, but that night, I absentmindedly went to turn the hall light on while walking to my bedroom, and of course, nothing happened. It wasn’t a huge deal, but I’d probably need to get a lamp so I didn’t stub my toe or trip and fall in the middle of the night when I got up to use the bathroom or get water or whatever.

I know the hallway was empty when I went to bed. I hadn’t put any boxes there or unpacked anything there because, well, it was a hallway, and that’s not normally where I kept any of my things.

That’s why it was so weird when I woke up and found a roll of toilet paper on the floor in the hallway. I reasoned it out in my head and eventually came to the conclusion that it had fallen out of a box and rolled down the hall when I’d gone to bed. It was a pretty logical conclusion, except for the fact that I knew I’d put all of the toilet paper in the bathroom, and I knew the hall was empty when I’d shut the bedroom door the night before. But I had been tired, and I’d misplaced things before or forgotten that I moved things around, so I was willing to accept what was most logical and continue about my business.

Again on the third night, I flipped the switch in the hallway only to immediately remember that it was a pointless action. I shrugged without flipping the switch back and went to bed.

I began hearing strange noises at some point after midnight. I’d randomly woken up, or perhaps been woken up by the noises, and it was all I could concentrate on. I could pick out the sounds of the appliances, but the most prominent one was a bizzarre whirring noise that sounded almost familiar, but was too muffled to be completely discerned by my ears. I sat up in bed, aware that perhaps I was hearing something from outside, but I was too curious to not investigate.

Upon opening my bedroom door, I halfway expected to find something else lying on the floor, but it was as I had left it – empty. I tiptoed down the hall and followed the sound of the whirring, but as I rounded the corner into the living room, the noise ceased. I looked around anyway, but found nothing worth noting. Feeling slightly defeated, I turned around and headed back to my bedroom, but stopped cold as I reached the hallway.

Right on the floor where the toilet paper had been the morning before was my electric razor.

It instantly clicked in my head that the whirring I had heard was coming from this razor, but how? How had it gotten here? And how had it been turned on? Furthermore, it wasn’t even plugged in.

My mind raced. Logical scenario after logical scenario played out, but the only logical thing that made sense was that I was going crazy or that someone was in my house messing with me. I was pretty sure it wasn’t the former, and before I started to think that my house was haunted or something ridiculous like that, I was going to entertain the idea that maybe I wasn’t alone.

I knew the living room was empty since I’d just come from there, so I went back to the living room and dug through one of the only few boxes left that I’d yet to unpack. I knew I had a hammer in there somewhere. It didn’t have much reach, but it was better than nothing and would hurt like hell to be hit with.

My eyes finally rested on the wooden handle of the tool, and I pulled it up out of the box. Clutching it tightly with one hand, I held it up and beside my head, prepared to strike anyone or anything that might be in the house. I went back to the hall, ignoring the razor on the floor. My bedroom was the door at the end, but there was a closet to the left and a guest bedroom to the right. I briefly considered the terrifying possibility that someone could have been hiding in one of those places, but it didn’t make sense. I always locked my doors. The windows were all locked. The only way someone could’ve gotten in is if they had a key, which, the more I thought about, the more I realized was entirely possible. Who knows if the locks had been changed after the last tenants had moved out, or if they’d been changed ever.

My stomach did a flip.

I realized my grip on the hammer had become sweaty, but ignored it. The closet would be the easiest to check, so I approached it without making a sound, gently reached out for the knob with my free hand, and quickly opened the door. The vacuum I’d put in there yesterday was the only thing to be found.

I nervously turned around to the guest bedroom. The door was already slightly ajar, but I had left it like that. I pushed it back a little with my foot, saw nothing in the room, and pushed a little more until the entire room came into view. There was nothing in the room at all, just as I’d left it, but I entered anyway, making sure to keep an eye on the hall. The closet in the room was open already, so I just quickly scanned it, and then went back in the hall.

Frustration began setting in as I realized I would never be getting any sleep if this went on. I was still a bit frightened, but for just a second, I almost hoped that I when I opened my bedroom door that there was an intruder there so I could beat the shit out of him, call the police, and then get some sleep.

But when I opened my bedroom door, there was no one there. My sheets and bedspread were pulled back from when I’d gotten out of bed, my slippers were untouched on the floor, and my closet door – though I did open it and look inside – was closed.

Nothing about this added up. If there was no one in the rooms down the hall, then for someone to have been in the house and leave the razor in the hall, they would’ve had to pass by me in the living room. I wasn’t the most observant person in the world, but there was no way that I wouldn’t notice a person sneaking around the same room that I was in.

At that point, though, I was willing to accept that maybe I was wrong; that maybe someone could’ve snuck past me. So, keeping an eye on where I’d come from to ensure that no one could sneak past me to a place I’d already checked, I began canvassing the rest of the house. Yet, room after room, closet after closet, even cabinet after cabinet, there was no one there. I traded the hammer for my old baseball bat, checked the doors and windows, and rechecked the entire house along the way. Still nothing.

I didn’t know what to do. I could lock my bedroom door and slide the dresser in front of it, then hope to get some sleep. But I doubted that would happen. I was spiked with adrenaline; my body was ready to fend off an attacker to protect my property, not rest.

What else can I do, though? I thought. There wasn’t an inch of the house I hadn’t checked, and I was going to be exhausted at work in the morning if I didn’t get some more sleep. Rather than expending energy walking around the house looking for something that isn’t there, I might as well lie in bed and stare at the ceiling.

And that’s when it hit me. The ceiling. Did the house have an attic? I hadn’t even noticed. I clutched the bat and began jogging through the kitchen and the living room looking up for an attic entrance on the ceiling. Finally, I found it, right where I should’ve expected it.

It was in the hallway.

The rope to pull the door down was missing, but it looked like someone had attached a handle to pull down on. I was pretty tall, but still not tall enough to reach it, and, at eight feet in the air, I didn’t see how anyone – short of a professional basketball player – would’ve been able to reach it without stepping on something.

I went back in the living room and grabbed the hammer I had been using for self-defense earlier. It had a claw on the end to grab the handle on the attic door and gave me an extra foot of reach. It would do the trick perfectly.

Wait, I thought. If I really think someone is up in the attic, I need to call the police. I thought it over for a few minutes. What would I tell the police? I’d found a razor and a roll of toilet paper in my hall, so I’d logically come to the conclusion that there was an intruder in my house? I could go into detail, and they’d probably come out to look either way, but…

No, I would look in the attic first. The police had better things to do than investigate why my bathroom supplies had seemingly sprouted legs.

I put the claw of the hammer up in the air and grabbed the handle with it. Then, letting it dangle there, I switched to my non-dominant hand, grabbed the hammer with it, and got a tight grip on the bat with my dominant hand.

I was probably crazy, but I wanted the whole ordeal to be over with, so out of tiredness or sheer stupidity, I pulled the hammer. The attic door swung down, and I was halfway prepared for a person to fall on me, but there was nothing there but the ladder folded on top of the door. I realized that, compared to my last rental house, the spring mechanism that let the door down and up was much quieter, but it still made considerable noise. I should’ve been able to hear it if someone had pulled it down or let it up, but I was not ready to discount the idea at all.

I put the hammer down on the floor next to the razor, then reached up and pulled the ladder down. My heart was pounding harder and harder. I wished for a moment that the light in the hallway worked, but all that would do is illuminate me, not the attic. There was a flashlight back in one of the boxes in the living room, but I also knew that the batteries were almost dead in it. My smart phone had a light on it, but it wasn’t the most ideal thing to carry up in the attic, nor was it a very powerful light.

To make matters worse, if there was someone in the attic, they knew I was coming because I’d let the door and the ladder down, and they also knew exactly where I’d be coming from since there was probably only one way in the attic, but I had no idea what I was going into. There could’ve been nine guys up there throwing a very quiet party, or there could’ve been no one.

I reconsidered calling the police. It was daunting, and, despite my pride as a man, I was scared. There was no denying that, and there was also no shame in it. Or at least, that was the logic running through my head. I put a hand on one of the rungs and was about to begin my climb, but a chill ran down my spine and I just couldn’t do it. I grabbed the ladder, lifted at the bottom, folded it back onto the door, and let the door rise back to the ceiling.

I wasn’t crazy. Things in my house were moving, and there was a strong possibility that whoever was doing it was in my attic. No way I was going up there.

Keeping my eye on the attic door, I went back to the living room and started dragging stuff to the hallway: a couple of cube-shaped ottomans, a bar stool, and an end table. I carefully began arranging them under the attic door. First, the end table, then the bar stool on top of it, then the ottomans one on top of the other on top of the chair. I stacked a few thick books on top of that until they were firmly pressing up against the attic door. If someone was up there and tried to push the door down, it would be pretty damn hard. It wasn’t fool-proof, but it would do until the police got there.

I called them, explained the situation and how silly I felt, and the dispatcher told me I would be better safe than sorry, and she sent a patrol car out to the house. I thought it would’ve felt like hours, but the knock came at my door so fast that it made me jump from the sofa.

The officer came in with my profuse apologies about the whole situation, and I led him over to my homemade attic-blockade. He chuckled a bit at my creation and helped me dismantle it. I watched as he went through the steps of releasing the attic door and producing the ladder. He grabbed a rung with one hand, then pulled out his gun with the other.

I probably could’ve handled the situation if I had one of those, I thought. It was a mental attempt to try to salvage some of my manhood.

The officer continued up the ladder, stopping halfway up to pull a flashlight out of his belt. Relying only on his feet for balance, he climbed up, now with the added guidance of the bright beam of light cast by the tiny flashlight. He climbed up into the attic at the top of the stairs and shone the light around in all directions, stopping as he came to the area of the house that was behind me. I couldn’t see his face at that moment, but when he looked down, I knew something was wrong.

“Holy shit, man,” he said.

“What’s wrong?”

“You’ve got to see this.”

“Is it safe?”

“Probably safer up here with me and my gun than it is down there with you and your baseball bat.”

He had a fair point. I climbed the stairs, much less fearful now to not only have the protection of a firearm, but also just the simple security of not being alone.

At the top of the stairs, the officer extended his hand and helped me up. I stood next to him and turned to face what he’d been looking at.

Timers. Kitchen timers. There had to be dozens of them. Plates, utensils, some plastic cups, a few articles of clothing – all neatly placed right there in front of us.

“What the hell…” I trailed off. The timers were just like the one I’d found in my kitchen. Upon further inspection, I also noticed a box of tissues and a bar of soap that I could easily identify as the ones that I thought were currently in my bathroom. Someone had obviously brought them up there, and it wasn’t me. But whoever it was, well, they were nowhere to be found. The officer and I scanned the entire attic, then went over the house again for good measure.

How those things got moved around, I’ll never know. I know a person did it. I am sure of that. But how they got in the house, how they snuck around while I was sleeping, while I was even in the same room…that frightens me and keeps me awake at night sometimes to this day.

I broke the lease and moved out of that house the next day.

August 29

Connections

When I was 19, my younger brother was killed in a car wreck.  Derek had just gotten his license, and the rules of the road had not yet become second nature to him.  I was with him in the car, and somehow, I managed to come out of it alive, but not without some head trauma.  My memories became lost in a void and had stayed there ever since.  My brother –  I didn’t remember him.  My younger sister – well, I didn’t remember her either.  I’ve since spent two years with my family and the people that were apparently my friends, rebuilding relationships, connections, and making new memories.

Lexi is 17 now, and I treasure her dearly.  I didn’t remember playing with her and my brother when we were younger.  I didn’t remember holding her when she was a baby, nor did I remember my parents’ faces without wrinkles; my dad without gray hair in his sideburns or my mom without a constant hint of sadness in her eyes.  It’s so strange knowing that my family had probably changed so much, yet I couldn’t recognize  the changes.

My brother had gotten his license at 17 years old.  It was the earliest a person could do so where we live, and despite my brother’s accident, my sister was still eager to get her license as well.  Of course, to think that the same thing would happen to her was silly, so my parents did not object to her getting her license, but it very obviously worried our mom.  I heard her talking to our dad about it late one night when I got out of bed for a glass of milk.  She may have been crying a little, but I could not tell for certain as I slowly passed my parents’ closed bedroom door.

It didn’t surprise me that they’d at least be worried.  It brought about bad memories for them, and they still seemed incredibly anxious when I went on trips or got back home from my college classes a little late.  I hated to worry them, but I had to live my life, as did Lexi.

When Lexi asked mom to teach her how to drive, mom told Lexi to ask our dad.  We both knew why mom deferred to dad, and I knew dad would do anything to comfort mom when she had her moments, but who would be there to comfort dad?  He’d lost a son, and his other son had lost 19 years of memories.  It had hurt both of them, as well as my sister.  But me?  I never knew how to feel.  Was I supposed to be sad about things I didn’t remember?  I felt like even though there were things I was missing that I was supposed to remember, I should be happy with what I had.

I offered to teach Lexi how to drive, but dad shot my idea down almost as fast as I mentioned it.  It wasn’t that I’d only been driving for four years, but rather that he thought it would worry our mom even more.  After all, the last time one of my younger siblings had been at the helm of a car with me in the passenger seat, things didn’t turn out so well.

She wasn’t barred from driving me places once she got her license, of course.  Just, in this case, dad knew it would make mom feel better.  She’d have to come to terms with it at some point, but for now, he wanted her to have the time she needed to do exactly that.

Lexi had been 17 for three weeks when she got her first lesson from dad.  I expected dad to come back with a look of absolute terror on his face, but much to my surprise, he seemed rather happy.

“She’s a natural,” he said.

My mom seemed shocked.  “Really?”

“I honestly can’t believe that’s the first time she’s ever driven.”

Lexi grinned and handed the keys back to dad.  For a second, I could’ve sworn I recognized the look on her face.  It reminded me of someone.  Maybe my friend Christina?

“I watched a lot of videos on the Internet, dad.  No sweat,” Lexi said, then looked over at me.  “Also years of beating Alan at racing video games.”  I couldn’t vouch for anything more than two years ago, but she did indeed very regularly beat me in our favorite racing game.  Badly.  According to her, she’d always beaten both me and our brother at that game.

It was strange, at first, seeing my little sister behind the wheel of a car.  I only had two years worth of memories of her, but none of those had ever put her behind a steering wheel.  I’d grown protective of her, probably because of how hard she tried to make me feel normal.  She was also the first person I saw after waking up from the accident.  When I said I didn’t know who she was, she introduced herself to me with tears in her eyes.

The doctors had apparently told my family there was a possibility of amnesia, so my sister wasn’t very surprised, though they’d all hoped for the more positive option – that I’d wake up and have no lasting issues.  They even said I’d probably eventually regain my memories.  Yet two years later, the first 19 years of my life remained a vacuum of nothingness.  I sometimes had feelings of déja vu, but everyone has that.

Lexi got her license a couple weeks later after a few more lessons with dad and a driver’s ed class.  She wanted to drive everywhere, every chance she got.  Mom needed groceries?  Lexi offered to go to the store.  Dad left something at the office?  Lexi offered to take him there.  She didn’t have a job yet, so she couldn’t justify constantly joyriding while our parents were footing her gas bill, but for any real reason she had to drive, she practically already had the keys in her hands and the car started.

It was her third day of being a proud, licensed motorist when Lexi offered to drive me to my night class.  Mom obviously wasn’t thrilled about it, but she tried her best to put on a happy face.  She was glad that we got along, and I think maybe that was the rationale she used in her head to be okay with having such a similar situation to what had caused her so much pain and misery in the past.

“Lexi, be careful,” was all she had to say.  I grabbed my things, and Lexi and I headed for the car.

Maybe I should’ve felt nervous.  Memories or no memories of the wreck, I still knew what had caused my life and the lives of my family to change so much.  But this was Lexi and I two years after all of that happened.  It was similar, but it was not the same.  She looked so proud to be driving around her big brother, too.  I would not sour her smile by bringing up depressing things.

I looked over at her while she was driving, and confidence was clearly visible on her face.  Driving was not something she planned to mess up on.

She must’ve seen me staring out of the corner of her eye, and shot a glance at me.

“What are you looking at?”

“You just seem completely in your element,” I said.

Lexi grinned.  “Driving is a lot of fun.”

As she refocused her attention on the road, her grin once again reminded me of someone.  The way her lips wrinkled at the edges from her smile, the shape of her cheeks, and the way her nose turned up a little – no doubt, she reminded me of someone I knew.  Was it one of my friends?  I went through them in my head, but none of them seemed to fit this image.

Suddenly, the car ahead of us came to an abrupt stop, causing Lexi to slam on the brakes.  She stopped with a good distance to spare, but her grin had quickly morphed into fright.  Though it was probably the first time Lexi had ever had a scare while driving, I had seen that look before.

In that moment, it all came rushing back to me.  I remembered Lexi’s first day of elementary school, Derek’s first baseball game, having a full kitchen table…and the horrific look on Derek’s face as he realized he’d made a huge mistake, turned to me, and shot me an almost apologetic glance as he crashed the car into a guardrail.

Tears began to well up in my eyes as the past two years meshed together with my previous life.

“What’s wrong?” Lexi asked, shocked to see tears suddenly streaming down my face.

“I remember.  I remember everything.”

That was all I said, but Lexi understood immediately.  She pulled over, we got out of the car, and she held me as I cried.  My relationships now were so different.  My life had changed so much and I didn’t even know it.

But for the first time, I remembered Derek, and even though he’d been gone for two years, I was finally able to miss him.

August 21

Justice

If I could choose to be alone,

If I had the strength to walk down that road,

I would still need you like I need you,

I would still feel your touch across time zones,

I would still have a heart that beats for you,

And I would still not have words that did my feelings justice.

August 10

Common Senses

“How do I even begin to describe these feelings?” he said.  His mind raced as he tried to think of words that came anywhere close to what he felt.

“It’s okay,” she said.  “I understand your feelings.  They’re the same ones I have.”

“But people experience feelings in different ways.  There is no telling that your experience is the same as mine.”

“Maybe not, but the end result is the same.”

“That’s adorably sweet,” he said.  In his head, he had an image.  It was him and her and nothing else.  Just the two of them and empty space.  And they held each other and smiled, because nothing else was necessary.

But that was too dramatic.  Perhaps too dark.  Maybe even far too simple.  How could he explain this to her?  The words simply escaped him.

“What’s wrong?” she asked.  Obviously, she’d seen the look on his face – the one he got when he was deep in thought.  Unfortunately, it looked strangely as though he was upset when he unwittingly acquired this expression.

“Nothing.  Just thinking.”

“About what?”

“About how to explain my feelings.”

“You really don’t have to.  I understand.”

“I know, but I want to.  I may even feel like I need to explain them to you, but I just don’t know how.”

She smiled and reached her hand out for his.  The look on his face relaxed, warmed.  He locked his fingers in between hers, carefully paying attention to the feeling of her fingers as they meshed with his.

She was there in a field, standing atop the only hill within visible distance.  The air was crisp, and the grass was the greenest green, though pockmarked with bright yellow dandelions.  He was at the foot of the hill, barefoot, standing atop the perfect grass.  He could feel every blade beneath his feet.  She looked down at him as he began to make his way up the hill.

A field?  No, that was too cliché.  Why were the feelings manifesting like this?

“You have that look on your face again,” she said.

“Sorry, I’m…”

“It’s okay,” she said, squeezing his fingers as they continued walking down the sidewalk.

As she touched him, as he took in the sense of her warm skin, the words suddenly came to him.  He could never verbally paint the pictures in his head, but the feeling of her touch reminded him that the senses were linked to emotions.

“I’ve got it!” he said.

“You know how to say it now?”

“Yes, I think I know how to explain.”

Her lips raised at the ends to form a smile that seemed too caring for him to deserve.  “Tell me how you feel.”

“It’s the scent of cherry blossoms and freshly brewed coffee; the feeling of silk against skin, of an ice cube on your tongue on a hot summer day.  It’s the sight of shooting stars, of lightning that flashes across a deep purple sky.  It’s the sound of the wind blowing through your hair and of waves gently lapping at the shoreline; the taste of fresh apple pie followed by a cold glass of milk.”

She stopped walking and stared at him for at least 15 seconds before saying a word.  He felt the intensity of her gaze and immediately knew what she was trying to convey.  She’d understood what he meant, and now she was the one at a loss for words.

He smiled.  “It’s the feeling of wanting to spend our forever together.”

She nodded, brought herself closer to him, stopping just for a moment.  “I don’t know how you did that.  I don’t even understand why I understand what you mean.  But I do.  And I love you.”

The kiss that followed made all of the things he’d said pale in comparison.

August 1

Function

My arm extends and falls atop the pillow upon which her head had lain,

My stomach twists and there is an ache in my chest that pills cannot cure.

Only one pillow had decorated the bed, and now there are two,

The second serves as a constant reminder that she had been there,

That I had lost myself in her eyes right there, and she into mine.

My arms had never felt better than when they were wrapped around her.

Now, nothing is there except the pillow and an empty spot in the bed.

When my arm reaches out for her, it grasps only at emptiness,

And I don’t know how to function without her touch.

July 27

Stained

She told me once that there was always a cloud over her head; that she might as well carry an umbrella around just in case the downpour started when she wasn’t prepared for it. It was a poetic way for her to describe her sadness. It was a terrible thing for her to live through though.

I’d had no clue before she said something. It made me feel like an awful friend. Like I’d let her down by not noticing; like I seemingly didn’t even care. Of course I cared, though. She knew I did, but being a guy, sometimes it took me longer to notice those sorts of things.

It was honestly pretty weird that she was as cheerful as she was. She walked around with this smile that she had to have forced. Maybe she was hiding it; maybe it was a mask, but it seemed so genuine that it hurt me to think that I’d ever felt sorry for myself if she could manage a real smile through everything she’d been through.

As a child, she lost her mom in a pedestrian/vehicle accident. She told me about it once without very much detail. I could tell it hurt her to think about it, so I didn’t press for more information than she was willing to voluntarily provide, but it was the kind of accident that violently ripped a loving mother from her five year old daughter and her husband of only six years. I don’t know how her dad carried on. I can’t even imagine having to go to the hospital to identify your wife as she lay mangled and dead from being slammed by two tons of steel and plastic and aluminum moving at 50 miles per hour.

Somehow, though, that man made it through everything. Raised his daughter by himself. Made a good life for her. But, his one mistake was taking up smoking to cope with the loss of his wife. It would kill him 20 years later, just weeks after his wife had died years earlier.

She didn’t tell me that she had any other family, but I knew she was an only child, and I knew her parents were gone, so I assumed she was alone in the world. Maybe she had some some aunts and uncles. Maybe some grandparents. But none of that replaced her parents, and understandably so.

Yet, she managed to wear that smile, day after day, like it was her job; like it was the one thing from keeping her world from collapsing on itself.

And then, as if the world had to pry with a knife at her open wounds, her best friend of the past 12 years was hospitalized with a rare heart disease and little chance of survival.

I wanted so much to make it better for her. The world had already taken so much from her and for it to keep on taking…well, it hurt for me to think about, and I wasn’t even in her shoes. I couldn’t even imagine losing the things she’d lost. Carrying on after all of that may have seemed like more trouble than it was worth.

It was for that reason that I was with her as often as I was. I knew that the world could be a wonderful place even if it took a shit on you every once in a while, and I tried my best to pass that on to her with simple jokes and friendly smiles that I hoped would get that point across.

Usually, I considered her my best friend. Sometimes I thought she might mean more to me than that, but something in her eyes always kept me from saying anything. I think it was her intense fear that anyone that got too close to her would share the fate that her parents and friend had suffered. She didn’t want boyfriends, she didn’t even call me her best friend, even though I knew I was.

But that was okay. I didn’t mind, because despite what she’d been through, she was still in one piece, and she was still my friend. And sometimes you just need a friend to lean on.