Dark spaces on the mapon December 18, 2020 at 11:51 am

Once you entered the park, you hadn’t been very careful about where you were going. Your daytime familiarity with the place–picnics, sunbathing, Frisbee with your housemate and her dog–had inculcated a false sense of security. It seemed that all the trails wound down to the same soccer field eventually. And there was something enticing about the darkness, too, the depth of the shadows, occasional spears of moonlight lancing down between the leaves. You chose a trail little bigger than a deer path, followed its whims, thinking and thinking about what seemed important then, the boyfriend. You knew how to say “I think we should break up,” but he was sure to ask why, and why was harder to answer, at least if you didn’t want to hurt him. And you didn’t. Part of it, you knew, was tied up in the whole stale life you’d built with him: packing into the same crowded bars every weekend with the same friends you’d had since your first year of college, working retail while half-heartedly applying for brand manager positions and prodding him to do the same. All of that seemed somehow much more fixable if you were single, or with someone else.

You realized, eventually, that you’d been walking for a long time, that the soccer field was nowhere in sight, that you weren’t sure where you were. The forest was dense here, the trail overgrown, and you were about to reach reflexively for the phone you didn’t have, to shed some light on the path, when you first heard the crying.

The sound got louder, then quieter again, before it burst into sudden clarity. A woman, not far off, her sobs underpinned by lower voices. A moment later you saw the beams of flashlights coming toward you, and without even thinking about it stepped silently off the path, into a welter of tangled bushes, and crouched to the ground. Peeking between leaves you could see a man gripping the arm of a crying woman, another man trailing close behind, complaining about the steepness of the trail. Now and then the man who held the woman’s arm would tell her to shut up, or drag her forward, or say something quietly to his friend. The three of them were only 50 feet away, then 20, and then the second man swung his flashlight so that it caught the woman’s face. You could see her blackening eye, her lip swollen and split clear down to the tooth, a glaze of blood on her chin dripping onto her chest. The desperation in the way she cast her eyes about, as though looking for escape. In the second that the light brushed across her face she squeezed her eyes shut against the glare, and you did too, a moment later, though the light hadn’t touched you. You didn’t open them again. You imagined your eyes shining in the light of the flashlight beams, giving you away. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” the woman said, and the second man said, “Probably going to be a lot sorrier pretty soon.”

I should do something, you thought, but you shrank down even further into your own body and prayed, because how could they not see you already, how could they help but see you? Except, of course, that they didn’t even know to look for you. And then the crying got quieter, and the voices faded away into silence, and you finally unwound yourself. You stepped back onto the path and almost collapsed on your cramped legs, limped forward 10 feet and found that your path joined with another small trail, the one they had taken. You stood there for a moment, in a dark space on the map, thinking of the woman and her terrified eyes.

You knew the fastest way home was up, the way the men and the woman had gone, but you went downhill, turning onto one branch of the path and then another, always seeking the steepest route downward until at last you emerged from the trees, and there was the soccer field. From there you knew the way, could exit the park and go by lighted streets instead of up the main trail, the extra hour it would cost you worth every minute. You walked home on concrete, your body shuddering at every sound in the night.

When you got to your apartment, your housemate was asleep. You went straight to your room, unplugged your phone from the charger. You planned to dial 911. But what would you say? I saw a woman and two men, none of whom I could identify, in a place I couldn’t find again. I don’t know where they went. It was hours ago. She was injured. No, I don’t know how she got injured. No, I didn’t witness any crime. She just looked scared. You thought that if you really wanted to try to help you would have had to do it in the moment, back in the woods, when the light flashed across her face–though that, too, seemed impossible, because what could you have done? And so you put the phone back down, and brushed your teeth, and went to bed. In the morning you made a cup of coffee and called your boyfriend and said, “I think we should break up.”

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