by Abigail Obenski
My music blared as I screamed my lungs out singing, coasting down the windy backroad leading to the little haven I created for myself. I sang along to the words that sat ingrained in my mind from time after time of repetitive listening. The words were a process, just like everything else in my life. I believed there was a process to everything. There was always order and it was always applicable.
I just moved from a small town in upstate New York to start my freshman year at the University of Boston’s School of Medicine. I was coming home from the wedding of a distant cousin, more of an obligatory function than a desired one. I was tired but driving meant time for myself, which so seldom arose. I was generally reserved, but I used driving as a form of unconventional therapy. A time to reflect, a great peacefulness to block out the sound in my not so peaceful mind. I leaned my head against my hand as my elbow laid propped up on the small ledge of window and I quieted my singing to a dull mumble, reaching forward to lower the volume as I neared the last bend before my little house on Hillside Street.
As I looked up from readjusting the knob, a child who appeared to be of grade school age simultaneously ran across the road, directly in my path. “Shit!” I screamed, as I slammed down the clutch and the break in synchronous unison. My car slid on the wet pavement, snow gently falling in large, wet, heavy flakes, enveloping me in a dark cloud of miserable weather and near darkness. I could feel my heart pounding against my chest and I struggled to remind myself to take a breath. I reached for the Ativan in my purse and looked around, flicking on my high beams. My hands were trembling, but I didn’t know if the cause was from shock, anxiety, or a combination of both.
It was getting dark and there was barely enough daylight to see unaided. I fumbled for my water bottle from the bottom of the passenger floor, where it flew from the momentum of the stop. I couldn’t comprehend what I saw, or where the girl materialized from in the first place. I couldn’t even remember the full details of the events preceding what happened. I could only muster the white blonde hair and neon pink rain jacket darting out of what appeared to be thin air, as she ran for what appeared to be her life.
Among the rest of my packed belongings, I grabbed my second North Face out of the backseat and engulfed myself in the warmth as I stepped outside. I could feel my hands shaking in response to both the freezing weather and my anxiety. The snow melted as it fell upon me.
“Hello?” I called. No response. “Are you okay?” I heard my voice echo off nothingness. I happened to look down and felt myself skid to a stop. A small amount of snow had begun to accumulate in a thin layer on the road, a thicker layer dusting the woods where it stuck immediately to the base of frozen dirt lying underneath. However, there were no tracks on the road. No footprints in the snow.
“Uh, okay Cal,” I said to myself. I talked out loud. I did often, in times where rationalization was a necessity and coherent thoughts needed to be formed with a more direct impact. I brought my hand to my head and rubbed my eyes, looking again in case some sort of self-induced error was inflicting my vision. I couldn’t help but think it was materialized by my own subconscious, as a result of sleep deprivation, or the long duration of driving I was just subjected to. Could I have manifested that bright pink? That flee of desperation? Of terror?
I slowly got back in my car but it felt like an unconscious move. My mind remained fixed in the set of actions I just found myself a part of. I tried to rationalize further, to make sense of what I saw.
I had a long and busy weekend, stress was continually looming over me, I had a headache from excess caffeine coupled with lack of caloric intake, and I was exhausted and just drove for what seemed like an eternity. Any combination of these factors could have lead me to believe I was seeing a girl running away from an imaginary unknown. A figment of my own imagination. I drove slowly, my brain clouded with a thick fog. I tried to force myself to remain conscious, looking around for any potential signs for the remaining two minutes I had left of my trip. However, I didn’t know what I was even searching for.
I left my bags in the car. That could be a problem for tomorrow, I was too tired anyway. My joyous mood from ten minutes prior had long evaporated. I set the thoughts of the incident aside and trudged to my bed, passing out before I could think of it further.
I sorted through the toppings of my salad with my fork. I hated cucumbers. “What’s up Cal?” I heard. I could hear the smile in his voice, and I didn’t even need to look up to know he was flashing the biggest smile at me. I felt mine brighten, as if his were contagious. “Hey, Jack! How was your lab practical?” I asked, looking up at him. “Eh, I got really confused on the one part, but I think I did okay. How was your exam?” he asked, as he plopped down next to me. He unwrapped his sandwich and applied mayonnaise with what appeared to be the most meticulous caution. His sandy brown hair flopped down in front of his face as he examined his sandwich once more before taking a bite. He turned to look at me with the greenest eyes I’ve ever seen. “Uh, I probably got a B, but I’m hoping for an A,” I said with a laugh. “Oh please,” he said, taking another bite of his sandwich. I watched as shredded lettuce tumbled over the edge of the bun and fell to the crumpled tinfoil lying below on the table. He continued, almost to himself, “as if Cal could ever get anything aside from an A.” I laughed to humor him, even though I was still preoccupied with the events of the preceding night and wasn’t much in the mood for conversation. I dumped my trash on top of my salad, realizing I wasn’t hungry and merely subconsciously destroying the cucumber at my fork’s whim.
I pulled my North Face over my hoodie as I waited for him to conclude eating. I walked towards the trashcan with Jack trailing behind me. He pitched his trash from where he stood, several feet behind, laughing as he made it. I watched the ball of tinfoil wring around the rim of the trashcan like a basketball being thrown in for the win at a championship. He did everything with perfection. “Nice,” I said, as he caught up to me and laced his fingers through mine.
I led the way, halfway dragging him down the escalator. We had class in thirty minutes and a long way to walk. I was always cautious of time because running late gave me anxiety. I pulled the hood of my sweatshirt up with my free hand. God, it was always snowing. We walked out to the sidewalk and I became increasingly aware of my surroundings. I was a big proponent of mindfulness. I liked to live in the now, enjoying life as I came across it, and paying attention to every moment so I could access it later.
I saw the most beautiful courtyard among the buildings. We never came this way, but the snow led us on a detour through the clearest path. Huge oak trees lined the perimeter, the snow on the branches preserved with a layer of ice. Cement benches were woven through a vast expanse of flowerbeds and a tall cement waterfall stood at the center, but it looked more like a sculpted masterpiece than a functional item of reality. Everything was covered with snow, but it just furthered my amazement. An untouched, preserved beauty.
I felt entranced. I needed to get a closer view of the stretch of beauty that stood before me. “Hold on, I want to see that,” I said, letting go of Jack’s hand. It felt like my soul was being pulled towards that courtyard, a marionette on strings. I heard an audible sigh. “Cal, we’re going to be late,” I heard distantly behind me. I momentarily didn’t care. I walked faster, my duck boots trudging through the unplowed sidewalk, the snow piled grass. I was on a mission. I was nearing the outlet when I heard someone speak, seemingly to me.
I slowed briefly, not in the mood to be bothered. “Hello?” I heard again, as if it were a question. I stopped and looked. A man presumed to be in his late fifties stood before me, his white hair a nice complement to the snow that was enveloping us. He was wearing an old tan suit with a dark purple tie, and his smile radiated happiness despite the dreary weather.
“Uh, hi,” I said. I could hear the confusion in my voice and I felt the compulsive hold on me from the courtyard vanish. “Do you go here?” “Uh, yeah, School of Medicine,” I said, but it came out sounding like a question. What was he doing standing here in the cold and soliciting strangers? A professor, perhaps? A lonely old man looking for simple conversation? “Impressive, your name?” “Uh, Calista, Cal for short.” “Unique, nice to meet you Cal, names Reggie,” the man said. I felt a smile break across my face and I reached my hand out to meet his.
I jumped as Jack came up behind me, wrapping his arms around my waist as if I was under a surprise siege. He leaned down and kissed the side of my face, and with a slightly annoyed tone, “what the hell are you doing? It’s freezing and now we’re late.” “Oh, I just wanted to see this and the-,” my voice trailed off to nothing as I again regained consciousness of my surroundings and noticed the man gone from my peripheral. I whipped my head around. No one.
“Yeah, but who were you talking to?” he asked, a look of concern flashing briefly over his face. “Uh, the- there was just a man standing here. Uh, Reggie, his name was Reggie. Wh- where did he go?” I stammered to get the words out. I felt panic rising. Jack just stared at me and after a second, “Cal, are you okay? What are you talking about? No one was there.” I opened my mouth to speak but didn’t. What was happening to me? Was this the beginning of my mental deterioration? Or maybe just a severe stress-induced mental breakdown?
I tried to focus but it was hard with him looking at me as if I was one of his future patients in dire need of critical help. My mind reverted back to last night, driving home from the wedding, the neon pink jacket, the owner vanishing into nothing, and not even footprints left behind in her wake. I glanced down slowly, afraid of what I might see.
There were footprints, but they belonged to Jack and I, stretching back to the direction we came. Nothing else. Nothing.
I left Jack at the lab and I trudged home in the forever-falling snow. I couldn’t stop thinking about what happened earlier. I couldn’t be going crazy. I wasn’t losing it. But this couldn’t be chalked up to tiredness, not twice in a row. So what was the explanation? And yet at the same time, I couldn’t help but think Reggie was leading somewhere with the conversation.
Why had I been pulled to the enclosure? Almost magnetically, as if I had no will of my own? Why had that compulsion vanished once that man began to speak to me?
I turned the volume up to my music, trying to blare out the noise and background thoughts that were beginning to consume me. It was a failed attempt. I tried to analyze and work out a rational explanation in my mind, but I couldn’t come up with one.
It was Wednesday. I was driving home from the library, exhausted, stressed, and once again preoccupied within my own head. I felt my eyes fluttering closed. My subconscious screamed at me to stay awake. I needed to focus. I was almost home, nearing the final bend, and that’s when I saw it. The bright shock of pink darting through the woods.
I immediately slammed on the breaks in an attempt to get ahead of the cycle. I was grasping desperately for any sort of clue as to what was happening to me, and if she was real she might have an answer.
My ancient tires skidded and slid, sweeping over the road in a counter-clockwise fashion down the path of the windy, snow covered, treacherous route. I felt my heart rate skyrocket, up to the 140’s….150’s… I forced my eyes shut, directing the last ounce of my strength to praying.
I didn’t believe in God. As the great Sigmund Freud said, religion is an infantile dependency, fulfilling something for someone as an individual. Of course that is the surface value, but I see a truth within. Just the thought of an all-being individual, dictating evolutionary ideals and overall whole world decisions is ridiculous, or at least I thought. The so-called mentally-dependent turn to this. But was I becoming mentally-dependent? It didn’t matter. In that instant, I prayed.
I was in control just as quickly as I had lost it. It had only been the span of a second or two but it had felt like years. I reached for my purse but I forgot it. I closed my eyes and tried to remind myself the solution to the terrible situation that has been routinely finding me could potentially be within that girl.
But what if it isn’t?
What if this is in your head?
What if this isn’t real?
I snapped myself out of it. I saw the pink coat. So familiar, yet so distant. I couldn’t think. It felt like my mind was in the gloomy haze we were standing in. This simply just couldn’t be real, how could this possibly be explained? What the fuck is happening to me? The same white blonde hair whipped in the vicious wind of the bitter cold Massachusetts evening as the manifestation ran past an unescapable horror into the vast woods beyond.
I struggled to open the door. Desperation battled panic, but desperation eventually won as I staggered out into the cold. “Hello?” I screamed. Nothing. She was too far by now to hear me, and I had no chance of chasing after her. I missed the opportunity, to no success, no avail.
I looked down at my feet. It was snowing harder than the last time I found myself in this situation. My dark hair was masked with white, and the front of my black jacket was matted with snow, the heavy, wet flakes meshing with the faux fur.
I felt my feet propelling me forward, but it was merely a mechanical motion. I was there, but I wasn’t there. I walked the remaining few feet back to my car, the door left open in the manic desperation that consumed me two minutes prior.
I watched in horror as a figure emerged from the woods, barreling down a path identical to hers. I froze. I was paralyzed by fear, although I couldn’t help but to tell myself that this was not real. He didn’t acknowledge my presence, too preoccupied with hunting his prey. Or was I simply no longer a product of reality? Was I a witness to some sort of secondary dimension? Or worse, was I horrifically mentally ill?
He bolted after her at full force, soon dissipating from my view. All I had left of the unreliable encounter was the vision of his red checkered jacket, worn and faded jeans, knife in one hand, and black boots leaving massive prints in the snow.
Prints in the snow.
I was enveloped with confusion, mystery, fear. I saw this three days ago, or at least a fragment of the horrible encounter that just played out before me. I felt my body carry me the rest of the way to my car, only then realizing the paralyzed state that previously took hold of me had evaporated. Simply the mechanical motions corresponding to my cerebellum’s control. I was still not yet present, not consciously there.
I was stunned. What I had thought was a figment of my imagination had been manifested once again, but with a more gruesome context. I was sick, in need professional intervention. A chemical imbalance in the brain can spontaneously appear, heightening especially between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five in psychotic disorders. This was the after-effects of some terrible disorder. Was I schizoaffective? Psychosis? I didn’t know, but there was no other explanation.
I was shaking so much I couldn’t even muster the coordination to start my car. On the third try I succeeded and drove slowly the rest of the way home. Once again, a mechanical motion.
I preheated the oven and sat in the cold, metal stool at my kitchen table as I watched the clock. I felt lost. I picked up a book but I couldn’t focus, my mind wandering to the potential sensibilities that were happening to me. It was debilitating. I left my books as they were and crawled to bed, forgetting about my food entirely. I shut off the light, as well as my phone, tapping out from reality. I’d wake up early and make up the work I missed out on tonight.
I couldn’t sleep. I once again found myself thinking about the prospect of ghosts and the dimensions of the unreal. I gave in and let my thoughts carry me away.
Rationalization was a part of me. It was in my nature to question, and I mentally could not push the thoughts aside within the workings of my mind. Ghosts and alternative dimensions were the things of movies, imaginary things individuals fashioned as part of their darker subconscious. Except come to life, haunting, and associated with delusions. Part of me refused to allow myself to succumb to those ridiculous ideas, but I also would refuse to believe my questionable mental health unless I saw a brain scan proving my delirium. I was in medical school to become a psychiatrist, not because I needed one. I couldn’t decide which of the two outcomes was a worse fate so I forced my brain to shut off and drifted into sleep.
I hopped off the bus on the way to the lab. I looked down, trying to shield my face from the snow. I watched my feet slush through the murky grey mess, the previously white snow altered to a dark smog from the train of early morning traffic. I turned on the street of my destination and noticed a young girl. She looked out of place, her dark green dress whipping ferociously in the wind and her auburn hair following suit. Her one hand was preoccupied with trying to tame her hair into a bun, while the other was holding a stack of something.
Even though she looked out of place, there was no reason for me to doubt her presence as reality. However, I did not want to draw attention to myself in either case. I turned the volume of my music down and altered my positioning so the view of my headphones were in her direct line of sight. I realized my precautionary measure to avoid intermediate socialization was not heeded as I heard a faint “Excuse me?”
I walked quicker, my instincts screaming at me that I didn’t want to know what she had to offer. “Excuse me, miss?” I heard again, louder. It was beginning to sleet, the hard drops slashing against both my face and forearm as I tried to shield myself from the ice cold daggers. Almost against my will I slowed my pace and turned to look at her.
The wind was fierce. As I stopped the hood of my jacket whipped down off my face, leaving me exposed. My long hair flared around in the wind as I removed one of my headphones and got as close as I dared. “Please take this,” her voice echoed out against the empty street and was far more shrill than I expected, lashing against my ear drums in the otherwise deadly silence. “What?” I asked. My voice reflected back annoyance, although it wasn’t necessarily intentional. “Have you seen him?” She walked closer to me to distribute the unknown.
I prepared myself for some spew of religion, a conversion attempt, perhaps. I reached my hand out and simultaneously felt my heart stop after I realized what it was. I once again froze. It was as if my whole being fell unconscious, only to restart again. Except my body stayed locked in a robotic trance and my mind played witness.
“Is this a joke?” I asked, genuinely seriously. I remained frozen, aside from my fingers which mechanically let the piece of paper fall to the ground. The piece of paper that had Jack’s picture on it with missing inscribed at the top.
“I’m with the Church of the Brethren. We are trying to spread a search for this man, his mother is a member. He went missing about three days ago, proclaimed after two. His body is still undiscovered but pictures surfaced of his intestines ripped out of his body. The rest shoveled out with a spade. His limbs were hacked off, next. We don’t know why or who or where, but we need help to find the body so he can have the proper burial with Christ. Please, take this.”
I began trying to rationalize. I hypothesized with the idea of a potential experiment being conducted on psychological torture. I was left standing there, consumed within my own horrific thoughts of the worst. I tried to tell myself to walk away, that this wasn’t a reality, but my body wouldn’t correspond to my mental will. My head fell forward as I stared at my feet and the sullen grey snow we were standing in. My glasses fell to the bridge of my nose and I regained control as I slowly brought my hand to my face to wipe the moisture from my eyes.
When I looked at her again her eyes were brimming with tears, as if she genuinely cared. “Please, at least just take this,” she pleaded. “This isn’t real,” I felt my mouth move in conjunction with the words but it didn’t sound like me. “This isn’t real.”
I woke up shaking but my mind and body felt numb. My heartbeat was climbing in my chest and I couldn’t breathe. I tried to get up and reach for my purse but I couldn’t. I was in a shaking, paralyzed state. An oxymoron from Hell. Unable to coordinate, unable to move. A small will from the back of my mind screamed at me to get up, the epinephrine surge coursing through my bloodstream propelling me upright.
I scrambled for my purse, falling over myself. I got the Ativan and took two right before crumpling into an unproductive lump on the floor. I laid there and within a few minutes I felt a wave of calm wash over me. It felt like I lost every ounce of strength in my being. I couldn’t imagine moving at that moment, or ever again. My eyes drifted closed and I didn’t wake for a long time.
I woke up disoriented and confused, my back aching and stiff from the cold wooden floor. I had no gauge of the time and it was freezing. I slowly pulled myself upright and sat there for a minute staring at nothing. I crawled to a hoodie lying on the floor and pulled it over my head. As I waited for warmth to envelop me I walked slowly to the nightstand where I left my phone, and flicked the power on.
It was two in the afternoon. I missed class and I knew I probably wouldn’t be able to come back from the amount of work I’ve been putting off, that I probably wouldn’t find success in trying. However, part of me didn’t care anymore. What was happening to me? I was so focused, so driven, or at least I used to be. I felt myself getting embedded within my thoughts as my phone loaded and a flow of texts came in. Various numbers with various forms of “Where are you?” Where were you Cal? I asked myself as I scrolled further. My heart stopped. I slept through the 9 A.M. biomedical application exam.
I sat there staring at the wall. Desperation coursed through me. I was going to have to forge a family emergency or something. I felt like I was going to wither away in the pit of despair that all other failed doctors felt when they realized they weren’t cut out for it.
I thought about praying in that moment, to beg for a second chance and pledge my supposed being for the supposed knowledge of God. Since when have I turned to religion? I felt pathetic doing it. I thought this might be the lowest point in my life. The point where I simply didn’t know what to do anymore. The point that I turn to ‘God.’
I pushed myself up and went to my desk. I opened my laptop and slowly typed my professor’s name under compose. I didn’t even try to lie, just a simple, “I’m so sorry, Sir. Please give me another chance.” I’d do anything and I meant it. I just stared, my pointer finger refreshing the page every five seconds.
I had to remind myself that hysteria wasn’t doing anyone any favors. I opened a new browser and went on Facebook, trying to occupy myself with triviality for a few minutes. The second the page loaded I regretted my choice.
“ELEVEN YEAR OLD ADDISON PARKER FOUND DEAD IN BOSTON WOODS.”
No. No. No. This wasn’t happening. I frantically clicked the link, skimming over the fragments. “Never returned home from school…bright pink rain jacket… Light blonde hair…. Found by Hillside Street in woods…. Multiple stab wounds… pneumothorax…. Blood loss…. Killer not yet found…”
I slammed my laptop closed. I got up and started pacing. No way was this real. I was going to wake up at any moment. I was there. I saw that chase. I thought it was in my head. But it wasn’t.
I couldn’t get the idea out of my head that I could have had some kind of agency. I could have done something. I could have chased after him and stopped the brutal act of useless murder.
Reason soon followed as I got lost in my thoughts. I liked to think of myself as an embodiment of reason, always my priority. I was constantly thinking, trying to rationalize, which might play a prominent role as to why I was left so bothered by what was materializing, literally, right before my eyes. There was nothing I could have done in that situation. I didn’t have a weapon. I didn’t have anything. If I would have tried I would only have gained my name right next to hers in the article. Gone from the world. Nothing. But it didn’t stop me from the guilt, the shock, the despair.
After about twenty minutes I found that I was able to breathe again without effort. I refreshed my email and discovered a rare reply. I could retake the exam only under the conditions that I take a harder version, and by the time he left his office at 4 P.M.
It was 2:48. I got up and ran.
I’ve never excelled in the athletic department, but somehow I found myself nearing the turn of the last street before my destination. My heart was hammering against my chest to an almost unbearable degree. I felt like I was going to collapse, my central nervous system kicking in and putting me to an end before I reached fatigue.
I forced myself to slow as I neared the building. Without hindering my pace, I reached behind me in the pouch of my backpack and retrieved my water bottle, downing the remnants. An epinephrine surge propelled me up the stairs at the quickest pace I could manage. I slipped my way up the ice coated concrete which was haphazardly coated with salt.
I was half-running through the hall, my hair matted to my face with sweat and snow as I collided into Alyssa. We both fell, tumbling to the ground. “Shit!” I screamed. “I- I’m so sorry, I h- I have to get to Dr. Robert’s. Dude, I miss- missed the exam this morning!” I was panting so hard I couldn’t even manage to get the words out. She had a look of shock and concern on her face both at once.
She opened her mouth to speak and then said nothing. “What? Why are you looking at me like that? I have to go and take this, I’ll catch up with you later!” I once again struggled to speak as I simultaneously pulled myself up. “Wait,” she said. “You don’t know what happened, do you? I know you missed the exam. We all though Jack was with you but he was just proclaimed missing.”