Ever since I was a little girl, I’ve loved nature. There’s something about the setting sun that cleanses my psyche and makes my problems melt away. My brother and I would spend hours exploring the woods behind our childhood home. Whenever we had the opportunity, we would be outside, playing in the yard or riding our bikes. I joined the Girl Scouts in middle school because I wanted to spend more time outdoors. Boy, was I wrong about that one. But my absolute favorite thing to do was take long walks in the park with my mother, just as the sun began to set.
The dwindling sunlight of a mid-May dusk basks the trees in a rainbow of gorgeous colors. My nose is overwhelmed by the smell of blooming rhododendrons and my eyes by the thriving cherry blossom trees. The sound of a gentle breeze rolls in and rustles the leaves of the gigantic red maple to my right. Below my sneakers, I can feel the crunching of small rocks and clumps of dried mud.
There are hundreds of trails here, all branching off from each other and back again. I haven’t even begun to explore every pathway in the park. Probably because I always find myself coming back to this one. It’s Rowan’s favorite path too. I wish she were here with me. I look around, wishing that she would be just around the corner, waiting for me. But she’s not there. No one is. The park is unusually quiet, especially for a Friday night. On a normal day, it would be bustling with the shrill screams of playing children and the occasional bark of a walking dog. There would be teenagers throwing a frisbee in the open field and couples holding hands while traversing the paths. But today, there isn’t a single person.
I have to be honest, it’s been a while since I’ve had the chance to get out of my apartment. I’ve been feeling a little depressed lately, what with all the nightmares. They’ve been plaguing my dreams and have made it impossible for me to sleep. Every night, the same black figure chases me. I run as fast as I can, but it’s as if I’m running in place. It doesn’t take long for him to catch up to me, wrapping his arms around my body, making it impossible to move. I struggle, trying to break free, but it’s no use. I’m weak. There’s nothing I can do to fight it.
I close my eyes, try to banish the thoughts of my nightmares, and open them again. The sun is almost set now. I pass one of my favorite spots along the walk. To my left is a small pond, riddled with algae and swimming with tadpoles. Sticking out from the land and over the water is a little dock with rotting wood boards. It looks as if it would crumble, even under the weight of a curious squirrel. On one of the nearby oak trees hangs a birdhouse, slathered in brightly-colored paints. I stop walking long enough to admire the gorgeous scenery. And that’s when I notice that someone is following me.
I quickly continue along my path, hoping that the person behind me is just another avid nature-lover. As I increase my walking speed, I hope that they’ll decide to take a different path or that it’ll be a runner who’s about to sprint past me. I find myself racing against the daylight and away from whoever is following me. I’m running now, my breath heavy and my chest tight. I can feel the strain on my ankles, but I can’t stop. I tell myself not to turn around, not to look, and to focus on getting the hell out of here. But I can’t help it.
My pursuer looks to be nothing but a black mass, an apparition. It has a strange, masculine energy and an ominous aura. It’s only a few feet behind me now but it isn’t running on the path anymore. It’s running through the thicket instead. The trees are cloaking its every move, making it harder for me to keep track of it. I glance behind me again. I no longer see it but my senses warn me that it’s there. I hear faint footsteps, twigs snapping and leaves whispering. I see it once more, but this time in my peripheral vision. It’s almost beside me now.
My heart races in unison with my feet thudding along the ground. A fire creeps through my toes, into my heels and up my ankles. A resonating vibration tickles my calves and pulses through my thighs. It’s not long before my entire body goes numb. I think I might die here. I think that these are my last breaths. I imagine myself standing at the entrance map, pondering all the different avenues, wondering how many paths there were. How long would it take to find a missing person? This fact hit me like a ton of bricks. It makes me stumble and struggle to find my footing. But there’s no time to reflect on what’s happening, only to run. It feels like I’ve been running for hours, but in reality, it’s been mere minutes. The fear has taken over my sensibility, my instincts.
I try to focus my mind, to sharpen my thinking. I need to call for help. I pull my phone from the pocket of my leggings and press the lock button. The screen instantly flashes on, blinding my eyes that have adjusted to the darkness of the night. My body run, but my mind is fixated on punching in my phone’s password. Before I can react, I trip over the root of a nearby tree, falling to my knees and sending my phone flying. I’m petrified that the black figure will catch up, that it’ll catch me. There’s no time to retrieve my phone, only to run.
I can feel its presence gaining on me. What I wouldn’t do to run into an innocent couple trying to picnic a late dinner. But no such luck. Looking for anyone or anything to save me, I scan the surrounding silva. Eastern Hemlock. Sugar Maple. Eastern Red cedar. Sumac. An absolute cornucopia of glorious trees and I don’t have time to take in their beauty. If you’re wondering, I really am a naturalist. Some would even say a dendrophile, but my love for trees and nature itself is not enough to keep me from running. I’m sure, to most people, the thought of pausing a murderous chase to think about trees is ludicrous but there is no place that I would rather be murdered.
Maybe my time has come. Maybe being a journalist was enough for one lifetime. I mean, having my art to occupy me on the weekends definitely compensates for the fact that I hate my job. Other than living in a small, one-bedroom apartment and not having had a boyfriend in years, I think I’ve achieved all that one can hope for in one's existence. If these are my last breaths, if whatever is chasing me finally catches up, will I be at peace with the way I lived my life? With my small apartment? With my unfulfilling job? With being alone? With dying?
Just as I’m about to answer all of my own questions, I see a glowing illumination over the hill in front of me. That must be the parking lot. I feel the earth change below my feet. The matted-down dirt turns into lush, green grass. The grass turns into a sea of white and grey pebbles. And the pebbles turn into twenty-or-so parking spots. Finally, I’ve made it out of the woods and onto the asphalt. The sun has set completely, but a buzzing spotlight casts a harsh glare onto a series of white-painted lines. I frantically survey my surroundings, the black figure nowhere in sight.
I run up to each of the cars, banging on their doors and windows and pulling at their handles, hoping that someone will be inside one of them. Of course not. Somewhere nearby, I hear the crunch of gravel. My heart leaps from my chest and I spin around, fully expecting the arms of my pursuer to wrap tightly around me. For it to drag me away, back into the infinite darkness of the woods. Instead, I spy a silver Tesla, creeping into the parking lot. If it wasn’t for the crunch of the gravel, I never would’ve known it was there.
I position myself under the hum of the spotlight and wave my arms desperately and uncontrollably. My chest heaves and my lungs wheeze. Sweat pours from every pore on my body. I can feel my hands shaking at the ends of my arms. My legs feel weak, like they’ll collapse at any moment. I feel so hot, like a radiator bursting with steam.
The car pulls into the spot closest to me and, from it, jumps a thirty-something man with a bewildered look on his face. Before he can even exit the car completely, I shout to him, “Please, help me! Someone was just chasing me! I need help!” The look on his face changes from bewilderment to worry. I can see a panicked look in his eye and he freezes, not sure what to do next. I stand, doubled over, my hands on my knees, still trying to catch my breath. With labored words, I call to him again, “Please, I need you to help me. Someone is after me.”
He finally works up something to say as he pulls his phone from his pocket. “Uhh - okay. I’ll call the cops. Do you want to get in the car? You’ll be safer in there than out here.” I think about it for a moment as I watch him pushing buttons on his phone. He does have a point, but how do I know that he isn’t some creep, just like whoever was chasing me? I hear the faint rustling of leaves in the distance and I instantly make my decision. Inside the car it is.
I climb inside the Tesla, locking the door behind me. He hangs up the phone, turns to me and says, “They’ll be here in a few minutes. Until then, I have a blanket in the trunk of my car. I’ll grab it for you.” I nod my head, not wanting to refuse his kind gesture. In all reality, I feel hotter than I’ve ever felt. Even hotter than when I went to Florida that one summer. I hear him open the trunk and begin to rifle around, searching for the blanket. I find myself staring at him through the side mirror, watching his every move.
I try to get a sense of who he is. He’s quite tall, at least compared to me, and has light honey skin. His head is topped with a mop of jet black hair and his ears protrude slightly from underneath it. He’s wearing a white t-shirt that looks to be a bit too big and a pair of grey basketball shorts with two green stripes up both sides. His sneakers are bright white and I secretly wonder how he keeps them so clean. I look down at my burgundy Nikes, which are caked in dirt.
He slams the lid of the trunk, startling me, but he doesn’t seem to notice. He approaches the door, blanket in hand, and I get a chance to observe his face. He boasts thick, black eyebrows above roundish-almond eyes. His button nose is slightly upturned and his full lips are a light blush pink. His face is round in shape but he has a square jawline and a narrow chin. He really is quite attractive. If not for the circumstances, I might’ve asked for his number.
He opens the door and hands me the blanket. He mumbles something to me, but I can’t quite make it out. I just hold it in my hands, running my fingers along its rough, woven texture. It boasts bright pink and blue colors, not conforming to any specific design. I drape it across my shoulders, thinking about its resemblance to something my grandmother once knitted. As it brushes past my nose, I can smell a mixture of a pine-scented air freshener and something musty or moldy, which I can only assume is what his trunk smells like. Nevertheless, I’m extremely grateful.
He climbs into the driver seat, closing the door behind him. The car makes a clicking noise, probably the locks, and I can feel his gaze on me. From under the blanket, I can feel my hands starting to sweat. Did he just lock me in the car or does the car do that automatically? Is he trying to keep someone out or keep me in? I can feel my heart start to race and my breathing comes more rapidly. He must’ve seen my discomfort because he addresses it in a worried voice, “Are you okay? I mean...I know you’re not okay, but you’re safe in here.”
It takes me a moment to steady my breathing and I’m still not sure that I can trust him. But I would much rather be in this car with this strange man, than be chased all around the woods by someone that might want to kill me. I think over what to say next, wanting to thank him, but not wanting to say anything at all.
“Thank you for the blanket. And for helping me.”
“It’s really no problem,” he replies.
We both sit there, in silence, not sure what to say to one another. I think for a moment that he might try to say something, but he’s interrupted the echoing sound of the police sirens in the distance. Just over the horizon, we can see the flashing blue and red lights speeding towards us, illuminating the darkness. I feel a wave of relief wash over me and I turn to him, wanting to ask his name. I know it might sound crazy that I would want to know this man’s name, but he saved me. If he hadn’t pulled into the parking lot at that exact moment, I might be dead right now. And he didn’t have to help me or give me this scratchy trunk blanket, but he did. And if he was really a bad person, then maybe he would’ve tried something while I was sitting in his car. But he didn’t and now I’m going to go home without even learning his name.
“I -”, I stutter.
“Can I -”, he interrupts.
He meets my eyes and, in that moment, I find out everything that I need to know about him. That he is kind. His facial expression changes suddenly as he asks, “May I know your name?”
His question hits me like a sucker punch to the stomach. I didn’t expect him to ask exactly what I was thinking.
“Harper. What’s yours?”, I reply.
We exchange smiles as two police cars pull into the parking lot. When they see Jake and I, they turn off their flashy lights and exit the vehicles. Three cops approach us, flashlights in their hands. The burliest one speaks first, addressing Jake specifically.
“Good evening, sir. Are you Jake Cortez?”
“I’m Officer Trent Williams with the Bellevue Police Department. You said that someone was being chased?”
“Yes.” he looks at me and continues, “This is Harper. Someone was chasing her through the woods. I looked around but I didn’t see anyone. He must’ve run off when he saw my car.”
“Okay. Well, Officer McNally will get your statement and then you can head home. Thank you for calling it in.”
Officer Williams nods towards the other two policemen and the skinniest one steps forward. That must be Officer McNally. I hear the beginning of their conversation before Officer Trent turns his attention to me. He starts by jotting down all of my information: my date of birth, my address, etc. Then comes my story. It doesn’t take long for me to explain what happened. It’s not some in-depth piece. I was walking, someone chased me, I ended up here, Jake came along and helped me, the cops showed up. Simple. But the look on his face is eerily similar to the one Jake had when I told him. They both probably think I’m crazy. But I know what happened. I know what I saw.