Chanlin Marr

It's as if I'm watching Autumn leaves June. Both disturbing and just plain weird. The terror of it all has yet to set in, I think. Maybe it's delayed reaction, maybe it's shock, or maybe it's just denial. But, for whatever the reason, the authorities still find it necessary to keep me here.

From the beginning I told them there was a mistake in all of this. I protested, of course, but perhaps not as vehemently as another innocent person might. It's just that I am confident the real killer will be caught. I know that the police are just doing their jobs, so I'll just wait until they discover what I already know. I grant them, though, that it will be difficult to uncover all that happened that night.

* * * *

Many have heard, by now, about those three kids that disappeared in the Black Hills near Burkittsville in October, but not many can honestly claim to have been out on the search for them that first night. I hadn't wanted to even join the search that night, but some girlfriends of mine at Montgomery college, where I'm studying to be an Environmental Biologist, had known the missing girl, Heather, and they goaded me into going with them to help out in the effort.

The car ride to the "base camp" of the search, just outside Burkittsville, was very somber and quiet. Gina, Mandy and I hadn't know Heather personally, but Karen had. I remember she said they had been lab partners in some class or another, but I think Karen's motivation was more for the sympathy she received from people when she told them she knew Heather. Her going on this search was more out of obligation "as a friend" then anything else.

But it was out of friendship of Karen, sheer boredom, and the fact that going on the search got you a pass out of classes for 2 days, that we were making the trip at all. All I can recall of the ride is watching the lush, green countryside slowly give way to the oncoming nightfall, and the thickening of the shadowed forest as it creeped across my vision outside my window.

* * * *

   When we finally reached the search HQ, I finally felt there was purpose to our travel. The police and volunteers there immediately made us feel like part of the team, assigning us a group call number, and giving us a walkie talkie (which Karen immediately commandeered) and plotting out an area for us to search.

As luck (or fate) would have it, our assignment was a section of the woods just slightly east of the fabled "Coffin Rock", a place of local legend, and local blood. The four of us headed out into the forest, and we felt a sense of camaraderie with the other teams we passed as we proceeded further into the woods, the beams from our respective flashlights cutting through the darkness.

Soon enough, the sounds of voices and flashes of light from the other searchers faded, and it was the four of us out on our own. We were left with the soft silence of the woods, and the occasional crackle of muffled voices from the walkie talkie. As we neared our assigned area, the sound of the gurgling Tappy East Creek amplified to a gentle roar.

We did not talk much, as we advanced. Karen's faux "determination" and "concern" seemed to pervade the rest of us into respectful quiet. It was like being at a funeral. Karen took the lead as Mandy and Gina conversed quietly to themselves. I, on the other hand, hung back from the three. My attentions were on the dark, almost repellent beauty of the forest around us. The crunch of dry, fallen leaves under our hiking boots; the gentle whisper of the breeze through the skeletal branches of the trees...there was something frightening and yet, comforting about the place. I still can't quite put my finger on it...

My mind was instantly brought out of its reverie by Karen's cry that we had arrived at Coffin Rock. Three shafts of light joined a forth in falling across the flat, dark and angled stone that sat overhanging the rolling water of the creek. And then, in unison, we turned our lights towards our direction of search. It was then that we saw the Christmas tree. At least, that what I thought it was, at first.

Directly across from the rock, as if its tapered tip were a guiding finger, stood a single tree, separated from the rest of the tree line, just feet from the shore of the creek. Our spots of light roamed over its distinguishing features: it was like every other tree that surrounded us, except for the decorations of twine-tied stick figures that hung from its lower branches.

Silent gasps escaped all our throats. Karen, taking this to mean something important, swung the hand holding the walkie talkie up to her mouth. But, whether exercise-induced sweat had slickened her palms, or just plain clumsiness had overtaken her, the quick movement sent the radio flying out of Karens grasp. Our eyes lost track of the black plastic radio as it flew into the dark, but our ears were quick to retain the unmistakable sound of an object carrying some weight splash into the nearby waters of the creek. Collectively, our hearts fell, and hairs on the back of our necks rose.

The radio had provided us a kind of psychological link back to the majority of civilization. But, only now, cut off from the rest of the world, did the true isolation and fear of those woods settle over us. Every sound in the trees was magnified a thousandfold: a rustled leaf a footstep, a whistle of wind a scream.

The four of us froze, our senses attuned to anything, or anyone that might be out there. Karen, still attempting to be the crusader, let out a tentative squeak into the all consuming darkness: "Heather?"

As if in reply an owl's "Whoooooo" burst forth from somewhere in the high branches, sending the latter three of my group screeching for their lives and running in a cacophony of crunching leaves back from whence we came!

I took pause, however, calmly passing my ray of light up and down the length of the stickman laden tree. As if in some sort of trance, I suppose, I deftly hopped a series of footsize rocks across the bubbling creek to the opposite side.

I rationalized...I "think" I rationalized that it would be best to take one of these wooden ornaments back to the HQ, in case they meant something to someone.

Staring up at the nearest one, I reached up my hand, grasping it by the "leg", and tugged lightly. It came off from whatever secured it to the branch like a ripe blackberry off its thorn. Holding the figure close, I took one last swipe at the odd tree with my light, turned, and made my way back to base camp.

* * * *

    Unlike my companions, I strode, not ran, back to camp.

I'm not sure what it was, exactly. I just didn't feel frightened. I had gotten over my fear of the dark a long time ago, and sticks in trees were hardly something to worry about.

I walked with my head up, gazing around at the comforting quiet and stillness of that place. I think I must have been daydreaming for, before I knew it, Karen was rushing up to me from the bottom of a hill where many other searchers were gathered, crying something to the effect: "Thank god you weren't lost, too!", and hugging me tightly.

She pulled back, and I stared into her tear soaked eyes that filled with horror as she glanced down at my hand. In slight surprise, I looked to see that, for some reason, I had been clutching the stickman so tightly my fingernails had cut into my hand, and now blood streaked both my hand and the wooden...but the stickman was gone. I swear I had it with me the entire time I walked back...

* * * *

   In a daze, I was tended to, and then the search leaders suggested we head back home. Karen and the others babbled about the sticks we had seen in the trees, but the lead searchers dismissed all that was told to them as just a couple of hysterical girls who got scared in the woods.

The four of us grouped back together. I was quiet, and the others didn't say much to me. Gina and Mandy said that a couple of their other friends were here, and that they were going to hang out and then hitch a ride with them home. Karen sighed, looked at me, and guided me back to her car.

I was asked the standard, "Are you alright", and , "I'll get us home fast so you can rest." All the while, I couldn't take my eyes from the dark forest as we pulled away, and got back on the road to begin the long trip back to campus.

* * * *

   About halfway along our journey, Karen decided to make a rest stop at a gas station. She needed to use the restroom, and asked that I come along; something about the "crazies that hide in ladies bathrooms."

I shrugged agreement, and slid out of the car into the cool air of the fluorescent gas station lit night. As I followed Karen towards the age-worn bathroom door, I felt a sudden weight in my hand. I looked down to see the stickman, its fibers stained red with blood, resting in my now bandaged hand as if it had never left.

I smiled, as if in a dream, and lifted my head to say something to Karen, but she was already in the door.

I pushed the door open, the hinges protesting for needed oiling, and the smell of an old, badly cleaned restroom hit my nostrils like a brick wall. The sputtering light revealed an ugly yellow linoleum coated room with a sink, a mirror, and one stall. Karen was already in the stall, complaining about the rooms condition.

I waited, not caring. Then, my wandering eyes fell upon the mirror. I saw myself: haggard, dazed, and bandaged, holding...but it was gone again.

I looked down at my hand, then at the mirror...and an old woman was there, at my side, as if from nowhere! Pale white and draped in tattered white cloth, she smiled at me!

I shut my eyes, and cried silently, willing her to go away! I heard screams, and a voice, a crashing noise, children laughing, and I sank down against the wall, curling myself into as tight a ball as I could, to keep the evil I felt from the smile that woman had shown me...

* * * *

   The police tell me they found me in that bathroom, standing with my back to the mirror, covered in Karens blood and holding a bloody stick in my hand so tightly, my wounds had reopened.

I told them what had happened. I told them the old lady had done it. I told them about the stickman. I told them....

    For now, I sit in my cell, restrained, until they find her, whoever, wherever she is. But, somehow, sitting here like this isn't so bad. All I have to do is close my eyes, and picture myself back in those dark woods.

And I am home.