11:00 at Night in the Forest Where a Friend was Murdered
Last night my best friend, another friend and I decided do to the dumb white person thing.
We’d been hanging out for a few hours at this point, gone to a mall, an ice cream shop and even wandered a Wall Mart for a bit. In the Wall Mart parking lot, we were lost for something to do so I jokingly suggested hanging out in the state park by my home for a bit. Without another idea, we decided to do it.
So my asshole friend pulls up to this forested area at almost 11 PM, grabs his flashlight from his glove compartment and the three of us set off down the trail. My best friend uses his phone to help light the way and I follow along.
I know this park very well. In the daytime, this place is where I go when I need to get away. There’s a fallen tree over a creek, Bridge To Terabithia style, that I like to sit on when things get tough. I put my phone on the ground, whatever angst music I need on- or perhaps silence if I’m overloaded sensory-wise- and just sit there and look at the trees.
I have always felt at home in the wilderness. Something about the trees and the distant call of birds feels welcoming to me. I always figured I’d eventually live in a small cabin in the woods somewhere.
And usually this park is empty and I can scream, cry or break down in silence as I need. Sometimes I pick up stones and launch them at the sheer cliff faces on the opposite side of the creek. Or I climb up to the peak and lean against a tree and look down. To say I’ve never thought about letting myself fall would be to tell a gross lie.
In the dark, this place is far less welcoming. I still know my way around, I’ve been through these paths too many times not to.
“Where do we go?” The asshole friend asks.
“There’s a good sitting tree where I have mental breakdowns down that path,” I say, pointing into the darkness.
“Alright. Show us your breakdown tree.” Neither of my friends question it. My best friend is one of the few who knows I have Asperger's. He’s got it too actually. And the asshole friend (who’s not really an asshole, it’s just our dynamic) has enough depression and anxiety issues to match us and more. I think there’s about five attempted suicides between us three. To admit I have a specified place to break down is nothing.
So I lead them through the dark until we find it, a one-foot in diameter fallen tree that’s been stripped of bark in places. We plant ourselves on it in silence and my two friends pull out their vape mods. I’m not the greatest fan of them vaping, but they’ve been doing it in the car all night and they either don’t nic or don’t use much. They’re using some of the better smelling stuff, and we’re outdoors now, so it’s not too bad.
And the smoke is kind of pretty in the flashlight glare against the dark trees around us. I watch the white clouds dissipate into the air and scan the tree line. It’s beautiful in a creepy way.
When the sun lights the pathways, you can tell that the park isn’t actually all that pretty. It’s a small section of woods trapped between two major gentrified neighborhoods. At one point, a road crosses over it and to get past it you either have to wade through a tunnel with the creek or climb up, dash across the road, and slide back down into the park.
This place is a death trap of the casual kind. The paths are barely marked, the stairs leading down into the park are loose at best and there are no railings on any of the high points. I know many kids who used to free-climb some of the sheer rock walls for fun. The creek is just deep enough to drown in if you manage to knock yourself out face-down. Everyone knows the bridges are more likely to collapse under your weight than hold up, so crossing the stream by foot is marginally safer.
Litter, trash, cigarette butts and joints litter the ground. Once a year, the misdemeanor kids sentenced to community service do a sweep for it all. It’s the kind of place people go to get stoned in peace.
“My dad sees kids coming out of here at 6 am all the time.” The asshole says.
“Wonder what they’re up to,” the best friend drawls as he takes another drag. Smoke leaks out between his lips and I snort.
“It kinda looks like that’s what we’re doing,” I mention. They both shrug. Silence falls for a moment, then a distant crack of a branch makes the Asshole jump.
“It’s like a fuckin horror movie out here,” he says.
“We’re the stupid white kids that get killed,” I joke and we all laugh for a moment.
“We’re just missing the token black kid,” says the asshole. I look around the trees again, like Jason or Freddie or Cthulhu is about to emerge from the darkness.
“We’re the protagonists in a movie a baby boomer would make about the evils of millennials,” I say. “Three depressed poor young adults, vaguely hipster, two of which are queer, two of them vape.”
“The black kid would have to vape too,” says the best friend. “Okay but seriously, this does look like a place kids disappear in.” The best friend shrugs on his flannel. “We’re the next three bodies.”
I look at a stump that’s just barely illuminated by the flashlights.
“I had a friend get murdered in these woods,” I say.
In the daylight, I can forget this is the last place Jenny was alive. In the dark, it’s impossible to ignore. I can’t stop myself from wondering what part of this pitch-black hell she took her last breaths in. Where that boy she considered a friend watched her blood soak into the ground.
I wonder if their joint bunts were ever found, or if they’ve been swept up by the community service kids. I look around and I try and guess which tree was the one he sliced her throat open against. I entertain the irony of it possibly having been at the Breakdown Tree.
It’s strange how much sunlight can change about a place.
“Oh shit, really?” The best friend asks.
“Good job bringing down the mood, Parker,” says the asshole.
“Hey, I’ve even got the creepy backstory for the horror movie,” I say. Humor is how I escape, I know. So that’s where I go now. My friends laugh in spite of themselves. I don’t mention the rape, I just let them move on with the conversation.
Jenny was 18 when she died.
Jenny was murdered the night before my 15th birthday. When I was celebrating another damned year on this planet, she was rotting in a field outside of our high school. I found out the next morning, when her body was discovered and the police closed school for the day.
Jenny had a future in front of her. She wanted to be a nurse, and was going to graduate school in the spring. I remember her so clear, so sharp in my head. She was the older sister I never had.
She made some mistakes, but she didn’t deserve to end up raped and dead in a forest at some ungodly hour of the morning.
The Asshole friend is too superstitious not to start to get a little freaked out from our talks of stalkers in the trees and supernatural beings in the water. The moment he spots what he thinks is someone with a flashlight he panics and we get out of there.
Technically, we were trespassing for a total of 15 minutes. Even if it hadn’t been spooky as hell, I didn’t mind getting out. I don’t need to get arrested before college for doing something stupid. I also don’t mind leaving Jenny behind in that wooded area.
I’m 18 now. It’s been about 3 1/2 years since that morning I lost Jenny. It’s been about 2 since my major suicide attempt. I’m older than she was, older than I thought I’d ever reach. I don’t think about her daily as I used to, but when I do stupid things like break into a state-sanctioned park at 11 at night, she comes roaring to the forefront of my mind.
I don’t talk about Jenny much. Out of all the various traumas and issues I have, Jenny is the one I keep locked away the deepest. When people ask why I don’t like my birthday, I shrug it off. I don’t tell them I spend my birthday locked in my bedroom trying to think of ways I could have stopped it.
It’s stupid, I know. We had been close as children, but by the time Jenny died we hadn’t spoken in months. Not because of any falling out, just because we were different ages and life takes it’s toll on everyone. I can’t help but wonder, if I had stayed by her side, could I have prevented it somehow? Asked her to hang out that night instead of her eventual murderer? Hell, invited her to my birthday celebration so she would have stayed in to sleep instead of going out at all?
Despite all that, I know there’s nothing I could have changed. It was out of my hands.
The three of us end up at an IHOP at midnight. I’ve got $20 to my name and I get French Toast. Somehow the conversation turns to how out relative slides into depression started. I mention Jenny for the second time in a very long time.
I like to think I’ve moved on. I like to think that I went through the stages of grief and found peace. And maybe I’ve moved on. But to me, Jenny still floats around that forest when the sun goes down. Her laugh echoes in my ears in the cricket chirps and her face smiles at me from the shadows.
Perhaps I have moved on, but I haven’t let go.
~Parker, off to find a way to forget
(Jenny’s name has been changed for privacy)