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It happened on the first day that felt like autumn. Overnight the air turned crisp and the trees burnished into orange. It was a relief after another Midwestern summer that, emboldened by climate change, seemed determined to stick around until winter. The long, narrow parking lot behind the nature center at Highbanks was still mostly empty when I pulled in; there was a school bus at one end, a gaggle of kids in Catholic school uniforms in an unruly line beside it.
I was wearing a new jacket, a plum-colored canvas anorak that I’d been looking forward to wearing for weeks. If not for the coat, I probably would’ve been more pissed off that my brother was standing me up.
“Andrew Joseph Weary,” I said into his voice mail. “It is nine forty-five in the morning and I am not in my bed right now, because of you. And yet, you’re nowhere to be seen. Giving you five more minutes and then I’m leaving.”
It wasn’t like either of us to engage in traipsing about in nature. But Andrew was trying to turn over a new leaf. A week in jail will do that to a person, and his particular new leaf involved aspirations of hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. After he told me that, and after laughing my head off and asking who in the hell had left a copy of Wild in his apartment, I decided I should probably be supportive. Turning over a new leaf wasn’t such a bad idea, not for anyone. So I’d agreed to join him in some practice hiking. Thus far, we’d actually managed to do it only once before.
Neither of us were morning people, new leaf or no.
I waited the five minutes and thought about leaving. But the crisp air convinced me otherwise. I was here already; why not take a walk anyway? I opened the car door just as a silver Chevrolet Equinox whipped into the spot next to me; I barely managed to close the door in time to avoid it getting ripped off.
The passenger window of the SUV went down. “Sorry, sorry,” Rebecca Newsome said. I didn’t know her as Rebecca Newsome at the time, just as a sixtyish woman with short, ashy-blond hair and a wide, thin-lipped smile. “I hate it when people do that.” She got out of the car and I saw she wore dusty hiking boots and ripstop cargo pants. She opened the back door and a brown dog jumped out, small and fox-like with pointed ears that looked comically large for its head. “It’s just so gosh darn beautiful out today that I couldn’t wait!”
I waved her off. “No harm done,” I said.
Still smiling, she tugged at an imaginary lapel. “Great coat. I like that color.”
I wasn’t prone to small talk with strangers either, but the weather had made me downright friendly.
I said, “I like the fact that it’s cool enough out to wear it.”
She grinned. The dog, antsy to get after something in the woods, strained at its woven leash. “Well, have a good one.”
“You too.” I gestured at my own car door. “And be careful.”
Rebecca gave me a thumbs-up and set off briskly toward the woods.
That “be careful” came back to haunt me less than a half an hour later. After wandering through the shrieking middle schoolers in the nature center, I went out onto the observation platform and looked into the trees growing from the steep embankment. Somewhere out there, a shale bluff towered over the Olentangy. But all I could see was sun-dappled gold and orange. The only sounds were foresty rustling noises and birds and the crunch of sneakers on the gravel trails and, somewhere far off, traffic.
Then I heard something that was distinctly unnatural.
A dusty scrambling, a startled gasp, followed by a series of snaps and the startled bark of a dog.
I pushed off the railing and started down the Ripple Rock Trail, calling out, “Hello? Everyone okay?”
I heard a voice but couldn’t quite make it out.
I scanned the sloping path for the dog, the woman from the parking lot, or a sign of what had caused the noise.
“I don’t think doggies are allowed on this trail,” a voice said, lilting. I rounded a corner and finally saw someone, a woman in lime-green running gear farther down the path. She crouched before the fox-like dog, which hunkered just off the trail, tail swishing like a metronome. “What are you doing out here all by yourself?”
“It was with someone,” I said.
The lady in green spun around to look at me, while the dog growled and let loose a tirade of barks that echoed through the trees around us.
“Did you see a woman? Silver hair, cargo pants?” I had to raise my voice to be heard over the dog’s barking.
“No, I just came around the corner and saw this little dude. He seems terrified.”
Over her shoulder, I saw a strange divot in the surface of the trail, an irregular-shaped hole where it looked like a rock had become dislodged.
“There,” I said, pointing. I took a few steps closer while the dog continued to snarl.
The woman in green grabbed ahold of the leash, which had caught on a branch. I headed for the divot. Everything on either side of the path was orange and golden and brown. Off to the right, the ground sloped gently; to the left, a much sharper drop-off to a creek at least fifty feet below.
The left side was where I saw the bottom of a hiking boot, the hem of ripstop cargo pants, midway between the trail and the ravine below.
“Oh, shit,” I said. “I see her down there.” I stepped off the path and nearly slipped on a pile of dewy leaves.
“The rangers’ station,” the other woman said. “I’ll go for help.”
I gingerly stepped over a moss-covered log, bracing myself against a tree trunk studded with mushrooms. “Can you hear me?” I called.
The lady from the parking lot didn’t make a sound. She didn’t move, either. I picked my way down the steep embankment. Now I could see signs of her fall—a patch of earth freshly exposed when another log was bumped aside, a swatch of nylon caught on a sharp root.
I nearly lost my footing twice more before I reached her. She was on her stomach, neck twisted harshly, the side of her face planted in the soft ground. I felt for a pulse at her throat—faint. She was bleeding from a gash at the right temple and her palms were scratched up, mud caked under her fingernails. As I leaned over her, I saw that her eyes were open, staring into the dirt.
I didn’t know what to do—she was at an angle, meaning the blood was rushing to her head, but I remembered something from a long-ago first-aid class about not moving someone with an injured neck. Fortunately, I heard shoes on the gravel above me. “Where are you?” the woman in green called.
“Down here. I’m down here. She’s really hurt.”
“Thank you, ma’am,” a new voice said, “please stay on the trail.” I looked up and saw a young woman in a park ranger’s uniform coming down the steep hill. She spoke into a walkie-talkie in urgent tones. Her dark eyes swept across the scene and her expression hardened.
The beautiful quiet morning suddenly felt anything but.
* * *
They took her to St. Ann’s. I followed in my car, unable to shake the sound of my own voice—be careful—from my head. Was I the last person who’d spoken to her before she fell? It seemed more than possible given how empty the trail had been, and it left me feeling responsible. If not for what had happened, then at least for making sure she wasn’t alone now.
Copyright © 2020 by Kristen Lepionka