I slapped at a mosquito on my neck as I trudged along the muddy wooded path. It had rained the night before, forcing me to pick my way around the sodden leaves and rocks. The air was thick with the odor of wet bark and damp decay.
The day was hot and humid, which wasn’t unheard of in Wisconsin in July, but it would have made my normal five-mile circuit through the various surrounding neighborhoods very uncomfortable. Canceling my walk wasn’t an option, so I went with the next best thing—a hike near the lake where the trees overhead would at least offer some relief from the sun. It did nothing for the humidity, though, as my frizzy hair could attest. I was covered with sweat, my tee shirt and jean shorts sticking uncomfortably to my skin.
I was never much of a hiker. Actually, I was never even much of a walker. Growing up in New York City, I took a lot of taxis or rented cars. If I wanted exercise, I went to the gym.
Since moving to Redemption, Wisconsin, a year ago, I no longer needed the gym. Cleaning the large, rambling house I lived in and caring for the massive garden in my backyard required quite a significant amount of energy and physical exertion. It was more than enough to keep me active.
It wasn’t until this summer that everything changed. I could even pinpoint the exact moment it happened—the day Penny died. That was the day that turned my life upside down, even though I hadn’t realized it at the time. In retrospect, though, I could see how Penny’s death was the catalyst for everything that turned my life to crap: from Wendy and Jill and Zane and the 1888ers and Eleanor to the Church of the Forgotten and all the rest of it.
So now, I walked.
Unlike gardening and cleaning, walking allowed me to escape. And that’s all I wanted to do. Escape my house. My relationships. My life. All of it.
At first, I tried spending more and more time in the garden, thinking it would at least get me out of the house and away from everyone. Gardening had always grounded me, too. Spending time with my hands in the rich dirt and focusing on helping things grow was therapeutic. But then, my roommate, Mia, started setting up her computer in the backyard on the little outdoor table. She said she just wanted to get some fresh air. Between her job at Aunt May’s and her online college classes, she was spending way too much time indoors.
If this had happened before Penny died, I would have welcomed her company. We could have chatted and laughed for hours. I would have made a fresh pitcher of lemonade each morning, and we would have spent the day drinking and enjoying conversation. It would have been wonderful.
Instead, it was more stressful than if I’d just stayed inside and cleaned.
Mia and I rarely talked anymore. Our conversations mainly consisted of her asking me a lot of questions, especially around how I was feeling or sleeping, or if I had seen anything strange around the house. And if she wasn’t asking me questions, she seemed to just watch me … something she spent a lot of time doing when we were outside. Pretty much every time I stood up to take a break from weeding, I would see her eyes on me. Sometimes, she would quickly duck her head down, as if pretending not to, which just made what she was doing even more obvious.
If I questioned her about it, she would tell me I was being silly. Or paranoid. One time, she asked me who else I thought was watching me when I was in the garden.
I knew she still didn’t believe me. About any of it.
The girl in the woods. That Jill was real and had been kidnapped. What I had heard in the Church of the Forgotten’s barn. She didn’t think any of it was real.
Now, to her credit, it wasn’t like she believed I was lying about it or trying to manipulate anyone. At best, she thought I had been mistaken, or had misinterpreted what I had seen and heard.
At worst, she thought my mind was leading me down a dark path again. Hence, why she kept such a close eye on me.
Even though I knew she had my best interest at heart and was doing everything out of love, it didn’t suppress my anger … or the constant stream of thoughts reiterating that as my friend, she should have believed me. She should have listened to me. She should have been on my side.
That was when I decided to take up walking. When I was walking, I didn’t have to be reminded of how little she trusted me.
The only problem with walking was it gave me too much time to stew in my own thoughts. I bought a pair of ear buds so I could listen to music and podcasts, which helped some, but not enough. Too often, I still found myself getting sucked down into a pit of resentment and depression.
I knew it wasn’t healthy. I knew it was at the crux of my over-drinking, where I teetered precariously on the edge of alcoholism. And I knew if I wanted to save my relationship with Mia, I had to figure out how to let go of all the negative emotions and move on.
I just wasn’t sure how to do it.
Especially since it wasn’t just Mia I was struggling with. I hadn’t even begun to sift through the rubble that was once my relationship with Daniel.
Oh, we were still dating. Technically, anyway. Neither one of us had talked about breaking up or seeing other people or anything like that.
But I knew he was just like Mia, in that he didn’t believe me either. Worse, he blamed me for getting reprimanded at his job.
Part of me understood—after what I told him, not finding anything in the barn would have been a huge professional embarrassment. I continuously kicked myself for not getting out of the barn before Eleanor found me. I was sure that was what had tipped her off, and if there had been anything there, she surely moved it.
That was definitely my fault. I should have handled it better.
But just because I had screwed up didn’t mean I was wrong about Eleanor or the barn. She was just a step or two ahead of me. Daniel should have trusted me and believed in me enough to keep at it … to do what he could to search the farm and uncover their secrets.
Instead, he blamed me for causing trouble and refused to investigate further.
And that betrayal cut even deeper than Mia’s.
A branch slapped me across the face, jolting me out of my thoughts and back into the present. I paused to wipe the sweat off the back of my neck before fumbling for my water bottle. What I really wanted was a glass of wine, but it was too early for that. Instead, I drank the water, which was warm and unsatisfying, before continuing on the path.
I knew a conversation with Daniel was in order one of these days, just like I knew I was either going to have to have a conversation with Mia or just let it go. And it needed to do it sooner rather than later, as the longer I let it all drag on, the more my resentment grew.
Still, I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. At first, I had simply waited, hoping a little time would soften the sharp edges of my emotions, but the opposite seemed to be happening. It felt like it was getting worse and worse, and if I wasn’t careful, it was going to turn into a serious problem.
I slapped at another mosquito on my bare arm and considered seeing a therapist after all. I sure wasn’t making headway on my own. Plus, it would certainly make Daniel and Mia happier, though that wasn’t exactly my top concern. But maybe, if they saw that I was listening to them and taking their advice, they might start taking me more seriously, as well.
I mopped the sweat off my forehead again. The path had been on an incline for a while, and even though it was gradual, I was breathing hard, and the muscles in my calves were beginning to burn. I considered turning around, but almost immediately decided against it. The pain in my legs gave me something else to focus on, especially since I wasn’t listening to anything. I had tried a podcast, but turned it off almost immediately. I had found it grating, and just couldn’t stomach listening to the happy banter. Admittedly, I was also uncomfortable walking through the woods without being able to hear. Even though I knew the chances of being attacked by a wild animal were low, it WAS Redemption, after all. There was no shortage of stories about strange things in the woods, especially near the lake. It just seemed prudent to keep all my senses on high alert for anything suspicious.
The path took a sharp turn to the right, and suddenly, I collided with a huge piece of paper and something hard and unyielding on the other side of it.
“What the …” I said as I heard it crinkle and tear, along with a discernable “oof.”
The map and I both fell backward, and I let out a yelp as I landed on a sharp rock. “Ow.”
A man was sprawled out on the ground and blinking owlishly at me. He looked like he was about my age, early thirties, with sandy brown hair and gray eyes. He wore a pair of beige cargo shorts and a white tee shirt with a streak of mud across it. “Hey,” he said, sounding slightly irritated. “You walked right into me!”
“You walked into me,” I said crossly, rubbing my bottom. “You were the one staring so hard at that map that you forgot to look where you were going.”
He glanced down at the crumpled paper on the ground. “I’m not sure how that happened. It was only a moment.”
“A moment is all it takes,” I threw back, checking my legs for injuries. My tailbone at least seemed unaffected, so that was a relief.
He turned his attention away from the map and toward me. “Are you okay?”
“I think I’ll live,” I answered, struggling to get to my feet. “What about you?”
“It startled me more than anything,” the man said, quickly hopping up to lend me a hand.
“Thanks,” I said, allowing him to help me up. My butt was sore, and I could practically feel the bruise forming, but otherwise, I was fine.
“I’m Aiden,” he said.
“Becca.” Now that I was closer to him, I noticed he was better looking than I had realized. His nose was crooked, like it had been broken at one point, and one eyebrow was longer than the other, but those flaws only added to his charm.
He flashed me a quick grin that made my breath stop. “I guess I owe you an apology.”
“It’s not necessary,” I said. “I think it was just bad timing. We both hit that curve in the path at the same time.”
He leaned over to look behind me. “You may be right, but still, I should have been looking where I was going and not at my map.” He reached down to pick it up, shaking his head at the tear on one side.
“Are you lost?” I asked. Not that I would be of much help; I had a horrid sense of direction. Still, I was willing to try.
He was looking down as he carefully folded the map. “No, I’m looking for something.”
“Looking for something?” I glanced around at the woods surrounding us, wondering what he could possibly be looking for. “What, like for the lake?”
He looked up at me and gave me a sheepish smile. “No. Nothing like that. It’s … well, it’s hard to explain. I probably should go … let you continue with your hike, as well.” He started backing away from me, like he suddenly couldn’t wait to get away.
“Yeah, I probably should get going myself.” While that was true, as I definitely wanted to make sure I was home before it started to get dark (not to mention in plenty of time for my pre-dinner cocktail or two), it also wouldn’t have been that big of a deal to spend a few more minutes chatting with Aiden or helping him find whatever he had lost. But something had shifted with him, and his relaxed, borderline flirtatious manner had disappeared. Now, he seemed almost nervous.
“Nice meeting you, Becca,” he said, continuing to move away from me. “And sorry again.”
“No problem,” I said. Aiden waved one more time before turning and disappearing around the corner. I stood motionless for a moment, taking a few moments to collect myself before continuing down the path.
Some people are just weird, I told myself. And I had enough on my plate without taking on yet another stranger’s issues. It’s not like that ever went all that well for me, after all.
The hike was getting more difficult as the path continued its upward ascent, so most of my focus was on putting one foot in front of the other. My legs were burning, and sweat was dripping into my eyes. Flies and mosquitos swarmed around me, and I paused to wipe my brow. Again, I considered turning back. It wasn’t like there was any reason I had to finish the hike. Why couldn’t I turn around now and go sit in a nice, air-conditioned booth at Aunt May’s Diner and enjoy a cool iced tea? Maybe a nice, air-conditioned booth at the Tipsy Cow with a cold glass of chardonnay would be even better.
Just then, I saw a flash from the corner of my eye. I turned to get a better look, but there was nothing there. Just my imagination playing tricks on me, I thought as I reached for my water bottle and went back to mulling whether I should continue or turn around. But then I saw it again—red and gold, almost like … fire?
No, it couldn’t be. I squinted through the trees, trying to find it again. The woods were way too wet for there to be a fire. Plus, Wisconsin didn’t have a lot of trouble with forest fires to begin with. It certainly wasn’t like out west.
I saw it again, just a quick glint, like something shiny had caught the reflection of the sun. I took a step forward, peering to see what it was. Was there something hanging from the tree? Like a … medal, or something?
I took another few steps forward, ducking under branches and trying to get a better look. I didn’t want to get too far away from the path, for fear of getting turned around and unable to find it again, but I was also really curious as to what seemed to be hanging from the tree. Could it have anything to do with whatever Aiden was looking for? And if it did, how could it have gotten so far off the beaten path? Was that why his nose had been buried in a map?
I continued slogging through the woods in a straight line, keeping my eyes on the tree while simultaneously protecting them from the branches in my path. I wasn’t sure why I felt so compelled to find whatever it was on the tree. It wasn’t like I knew how to get in touch with Aiden even if I found something interesting that may or may not even be his. But that didn’t stop me from soldiering on.
Suddenly, my foot slid away, and to my horror, I realized I was on the edge of a steep hill. All the rain had turned the dirt to mud, and it was now slippery and soft. I threw my weight backward as I tried to grab at the branches I was busily pushing away just a moment before. However, they snapped in my hands, and at that moment, the ground gave way beneath me, and I was sliding, tumbling, falling down the hill, dislodging rocks and logs as I went.
I had almost hit the bottom when my body skidded to a halt. I sat there, stunned and blinking, for a few moments before examining myself for damage. My butt really hurt, but that made sense, considering the bruise from earlier. My legs were sore, too, but that could have been from hiking. I was also covered with mud.
Gingerly, I stood up, bracing myself against a small tree. Testing both legs, nothing appeared broken or sprained, although the back of my thigh burned like a bad road rash. Trying to clean all the mud and little rocks out of that kind of wound would be painful, and I winced just thinking about it.
Well, all in all, I figured I was pretty lucky to be in one piece. I brushed my hands across my jean shorts, now caked in mud. I wondered if they were even salvageable, or if I was going to have to throw them away. Finally, I paused to look around.
I had slid into some sort of ravine. It wasn’t very big, but it was deep, especially with the recent rain. The putrid odors of rot and decay were even stronger, and my nose wrinkled in disgust. Water had pooled at the bottom, and I could see a variety of animal prints in the surrounding mud.
Well, if the animals were able to get in and out, then I could, too. I was just going to have to figure out the easiest path. I turned around to scan the direction from which I had come, thinking it likely easiest to find my way back to the path once I got out. And that’s when I spotted it … something poking out of the mud. It was so dirty I had a hard time figuring out what it was. I moved closer, to make it out.
It was a human skull.