Last summer, I started going on walks at night.
It was a good way to relieve myself from the stresses of life: most oppressing of which were work and trying to be a good parent for my daughter. It was easier during the school year when she would be at kindergarten while I was at work, but this obviously wasn’t an option from late-June to early-September. I couldn’t leave her at home alone, and I didn’t get off work until three PM at the earliest. So, she needed a daycare, which placed an even higher financial burden on us… Which in turn meant I often had to work longer hours.
The struggles of making a living as a single parent often discolored how I viewed the world. The innumerable days lost vibrancy, and I found myself falling into a deep depression. I did everything within my power to remain a beacon of security for my daughter, but I knew she could see my despair. Children are quite intuitive when it comes to sensing the emotions of their parents. She was my only comfort, and I ensured our home remained a stable place for her to grow.
One night, after I had put her to bed, I sat on the porch for a while and watched the sun set. As the last pink rays disappeared behind the trees, I found myself staring up at the dark blue sky full of faint stars. For the first time in months, some of the color had returned to life. I went inside to check up on my daughter, who was already fast asleep. I quietly slipped out the front door and gently closed it behind me. I figured no harm would come from me taking a short walk.
The night air was refreshing, and the Pennsylvanian backroads I lived on were quiet, save for the lively buzzing of insects. There are only a few houses on my street, interspaced among thick stretches of deep forest. At the end of the road, about a mile from my house, was a small rustic church no longer used by any congregation. I walked as far as there and did a lap around its empty parking lot before heading home.
By the time I was on my porch again, it had been almost an hour. I wanted to stay out later but I had to work the next morning. As I settled into bed that night, I realized there was something new I loved doing and the world felt a little brighter.
For the remainder of the summer, I continued going on walks to the church and back nightly. It was my one escape from life, where I could just enjoy myself without responsibility. I even began leaving my phone at home, so there would truly be no distractions that would creep into my downtime.
I’m sure my neighbors thought I was weird; as a few of them would occasionally drive past me on the dark, narrow road. I would always wave to them and smile as they passed, but I could only imagine how it felt to be driving through a tunnel of trees on a dark night, only to see someone standing on the side of the road. I probably unintentionally scared the shit out of at least someone.
Eventually the air began to bite, and the leaves ripened to a crispy brown. I maintained my habitual walks well into the fall, but it soon became too cold to continue going on them. I had to stop for the winter, and once again, the color drained from the world. The two things that kept me going were my daughter, and the knowledge that I would be able to resume my night walks as soon as the warm weather began to return.
After a few months that lasted for an eternity, Spring reared itself once again. The grass turned easter-basket green, and small budding leaves peppered the barren woods. My daughter was happy to be able to play outside, and I was grateful to resume the one activity that brought peace to my life… blissfully unaware that said activity would soon be the catalyst which would tear my life apart.
It was early July. I had made it as far as the old church and was surprised to find that the parking lot was occupied this time. On the side of the building, where the parking lot ended and the wood-line began, was a single nondescript van. It was white and had no windows (save for the driver and passenger side doors). It was the exact kind of van one would stereotype as being driven by a balding old man who offered candy to children.
I was very unsettled to see the vehicle, but I forced myself not to think too much of it. I told myself somebody was moving something into, or out of the old church, and had left the van there overnight. Still. I hastened my lap around the parking lot upon seeing it. It made me eager to start my way trek back home.
I found myself walking in the middle of the road. Normally I would walk on the furthest lefthand side so any vehicles coming up behind me could pass easily. But that night, something about the air was different. The rustling of the wildlife around me kept changing between being aggressively heavy, and deathly still and I was afraid when walking too close to the woods. The center of the road made me an easy target for an oncoming motorist, but at least nothing could reach out and grab me unexpectedly.
When I was about a third of the way back home, I heard something in the forest I hadn’t heard before. It sounded like a distant voice, faintly echoing through the trees, though I couldn’t hear it very clearly. My skin chilled and my breath halted. I crept forward slowly, the only thing continuing to propel me onwards was the thought that I had to get home to be truly safe.
I soon fully understood what it was that I was hearing. It was a woman’s voice, maybe some hundred feet or so back into the woods. She was crying. Sobbing. Her voice was strained, and she sounded like she was in agonizing pain. Immediately, dozens of scenarios played out in my mind; each one more terrible than the last.
I then remembered that I did not have my phone on me. Who, or whatever was in those woods, I had a responsibility to my daughter. I had to ensure my own safety, so I sprinted home as fast as my legs would carry me. It still took my almost five minutes to get there.
When I got inside, I immediately called 911, and told them there was a woman in the woods near my home. It took the police fifteen minutes to arrive at my door. When they did, I told them what had happened. Those damn officers couldn’t wrap their heads around why I was out walking to begin with. It took another twenty minutes for them to even drive to where I had heard the voice and shine a light into the woods. Nothing. They told me someone would do a search of the area the next day.
I didn’t sleep that night. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t stop thinking about the voice. I also couldn’t escape the feeling that the police didn’t take my claim seriously. They would though.
Morning came. I dropped my daughter off at daycare and I went to work. I was drowsy, and my performance suffered as a result. By the time I had gotten off work though, I had completely forgotten about the events of the night prior. Said events remained out of mind until I was driving back home and saw three squad cars parked on the side of the road… next to where I heard the voice.
An officer was next to one of the vehicles and waved me to pass by. I slowed down and asked him what had happened. He was vague but said there had been an accident. From how he looked across from me and back, I could tell he was hesitant to speak freely in front of my daughter.
I felt my stomach drop but kept driving. I knew right away, something terrible had happened. I wouldn’t find out until a day later though, when everyone in our community was talking about it.
A body had been found in the woods. The body of a young woman. College age, to be specific. There were deep lacerations all over her. The investigators determined that she had been horribly abused elsewhere and left to bleed out in the woods alone. It had been a slow, torturous death, and it could have been prevented if someone had only helped her in time.
I told the police about the white van I had seen next to the church that night. Of course, nothing ever came of it. Nothing came of the rest of the case either. It went completely cold. I saw the faces of the grieving parents on the news, talking about the incredible person their daughter had been. Every time I saw her face, I was reminded of my own daughter. A terrible fear overwhelmed my life: the fear of knowing she was being raised into a world where something like that could potentially happen to her someday.
I started drinking after that. Routinely, like clockwork, until I would stop thinking and be able to fall asleep. I also stopped taking night walks. For a while anyway. Why would I want to risk experiencing something like that again? But then the realization set in that, maybe, I could have done something. What if I had conquered my fear and just called out back to her? What if I had my cellphone on me, and I was able to call for help right away?
Who was to say whoever had murdered the first woman, wouldn’t leave another victim to die in the woods?
I started taking my walks again, about two months after the incident. I took my time during them, trying to drag them out for as long as possible. By lingering, I figured I was maximizing the possibility of hearing somebody else if they needed help. I always brought my phone with me then, as well as a flashlight.
My neighbors soon took notice that I was back to my old pattern again. This time though, they started treating me with hostility and suspicion. Never mind that I was the one who heard the young woman and called the police; I was now the weird man who was still stalking the roads after a local tragedy. They stopped waving to me casually when we passed each other. If we met in public, they would pretend they didn’t see me. My daughter even told me that many of the kids she went to school with said I was a freak, and that their parents instructed them to avoid me. By extent, that included her.
At nights, my walks lasted longer each time. I became obsessed with the thought that maybe, if I stayed out just a little bit longer, I would have the opportunity to help someone else. It reached a tipping point when I had just gotten home from a walk but couldn’t escape the feeling that that night was different. I had to work the next morning, but how could one day’s performance at my job ever compare in value to the life of another person? I went on a second walk that night. I heard… nothing. Nothing happened.
My performance was terrible the next day. My boss even sent me home early. Normally I got off work an hour before my daughter was let out from daycare, but now I had most of the day still ahead of me. I decided to take a nap for a few hours. I figured I’d set my alarm and be awake before I had to go pick her up. However, in my tired state, I had forgotten to change my alarm from AM, to PM. I was woken up fifteen minutes after I was supposed to have been there for her, by the sound of my phone ringing as she called to ask where I was. She wouldn’t say anything to me as we drove home.
That night, I couldn’t sleep after the nap I had. So even though it was counterintuitive, I took another night walk. And so, it continued. I kept performing worse and worse each day. My relationship with my daughter strained. The tiredness only amplified my paranoid sense of responsibility to act. Next time some sick monster dumped another victim in the woods, I’d be there. All the while, my drinking kept increasing to numb the discomfort from the stress.
I got fired three months ago. My boss brought me into his office and told me to sit down. I knew what was going to happen before it did. My performance had deteriorated so much, it just wasn’t profitable to employ me anymore.
I didn’t find work after that. And due to the circumstances of my firing, I didn’t qualify to receive unemployment benefits. I had enough money saved away to last me for a little while, but life quickly burned through it, and soon I had to decide between paying my rent and putting food in my daughter’s mouth. The choice was obvious, but it was still devastating to receive the notice of eviction. The worst was yet to come.
Homelessness was not an option for a young child. With no relatives for my daughter to live with, child services got involved. I was forced to take a psychological welfare test; the results of which, along with my failure to hold down a job, led the government to conclude I was unfit to be a parent. I still remember my daughters screams, as social workers pulled her away from me and told her she had to go with them. That was two days ago. I haven’t heard anything about her since.
I am writing this now from one of the computers at the public library. I don’t know where to go. I don’t know what to do. I miss my daughter so much and wish I could tell her I’m sorry for failing as a parent.
The library’s closing soon. I think I’m going to walk my street all night tonight. It’s not like I have anything to wake up for tomorrow.
Credit: Ry Dandel
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