I was riding shotgun and not paying attention to the road or the driver. Casey had just taken off her sunglasses, though it had been hours since she really needed them. I lazed against my window, occupying myself by looking at the pine trees scrolling by. Technically we were in a national forest. On the other side of the car, if I looked out past Casey, was a meadow maybe a hundred yards long holding off more pine trees. Both forests were dark already despite the sun lingering in the west. I had seen a herd of deer in the meadow, miles back. They lifted their heads from their grasses and watched us pass and some of them felt the need to run. The meadow stretched alongside the road for some time.
Officially the road was a highway, but by any colloquial understanding of the word it could not be called that. One lane each way, not recently paved, cracks and small potholes—it was built, originally, to connect two settlements in lower Montana. I only know that because Casey’s dad once told me. Other years there would have been snow on the ground by the time of our drive, but that year there was none. The sun from its low angle sent rays slanting into the world and set boughs of trees and the grass in the meadow alight. My mother used to call that time of evening the golden hour—it never seemed to last a full hour to me. Up until all this it was my favorite time of day.
Neither of us had said anything for some time. I was too busy looking out my window. She was lost in thoughts and at the time I supposed it was because of where we were headed. It fit the bill. And she’d been terse all day, as she sometimes was when facing something unpleasant. But in retrospect I find the theory less and less likely. Neither of us wanted to go but really the trip was a formality, keeping up appearances is how she described it, she hadn’t told her parents much of what happened between us and as far as they were concerned—hell, are concerned, still—we were officially together. In a way we were.
Anyway, like I said, I was not paying attention to Casey. This was a source of guilt for some time. That savior complex, maybe I could’ve done something if only I’d been ready, but really I don’t feel bad about not being ready as much as I feel like I should feel bad. The truth is the whole thing was a relief in a lot of ways. Not immediately, but in the wake of the event, I’d cry about it and everyone would commiserate and hug me and say it’s not my fault while secretly I was crying only because I wasn’t actually sad. When I am actually sad I go all stoic. That’s how you can tell—I nod at people and keep my mouth sealed and look at them with big dumb eyes that insist all the things I can’t vocalize. But I wasn’t upset those initial weeks, just relieved, so naturally I cried.
I’m getting off track. The point is, we were northbound, the only car on a long straight road. Every now and then I spotted fly-ridden animal carcasses heaped on the shoulder, which always put me in mind of those tragic highway memorials only more morbid in a way because there are no flowers to let you to know people cared. I wasn’t paying attention to Casey. She let out a noise, kind of a sharp eemh, I don’t really know how to spell it, and I turned away from my pine trees to look at her. She was driving while leaning against the window, with her right hand on the wheel at about five o’clock. Her left elbow was wedged between the bottom of the window and the little plastic shelf there and her left hand cradling her cheek. Her face read concentration. The steering wheel was black leather, hand-stitched—with her index finger, Casey was scratching vigorously along the stitching, so the thread was coming undone from the leather. I don’t know if she knew she was doing it but I’d never seen her do it before. She wasn’t one for nervous ticks. From the amount of thread wilting under her finger she’d been at it for some time. That part of the wheel was even a little bit discolored.
“You okay?” I asked, more curious than alarmed.
She flicked a glance toward me and stopped scratching, ran her hand up the wheel stopping at about two, trying to be casual about it. She swallowed. “Of course.”
“You want to pull over?”
She shook her head. “No.”
On a different day I might’ve pressed. But that day I didn’t. In fact I decided she probably wanted peace and quiet and told myself the best thing I could do was take a quick nap. So that when I woke up we’d be there and we could go through the whole charade and be done with it. I told her so—the nap part, not that second bit. Then I closed my eyes. As I was drifting into that top layer of sleep between consciousnesses the car lurched and swerved. I thought at first it was me falling in my dream, when you jolt awake and shake it off and close your eyes again. Really it was the car breaks seizing. I remember the rest in fragments. My seatbelt pinned me from slamming into the dashboard. The car was spinning and I might’ve hit the window. My eyes were open but I couldn’t get my bearings through the chaos. Probably I was screaming.
We came to rest by hitting a tree, hard enough to set off the airbags but not hard enough to cause major injuries. I bounced off the airbag and my head snapped forward a little, but really I was fine, just rattled. I sat there gulping air while the shock was still fresh. I pushed the air bag back away from me, breathing hard—some kind of powder coated my arms and hands. The car’s hood was bent around the tree and smoke was rising from the engine. For a split second the smoke seemed to be coming from the tree. My head hurt, my body ached. I remember mumbling, “Are you okay? What happened? Ice?”, and thinking as I said it, there’s no way there was ice, it’s not even freezing out. Though it was close to freezing.
I looked over when she didn’t respond. Her door was open and she was not there. Her airbag sagged out from within the steering wheel. The car’s windshield was cracked but not shattered. I could see plumes of my breath when I looked towards Casey’s open door as the outside cold advanced. The world was fuzzy and bright. Across the road, picking her way into the meadow and not looking back, was Casey. I shouted to her. She didn’t hear me. Maybe she did but she didn’t turn around.
I unbuckled my seatbelt and tried to push my door open. It wouldn’t budge. So I had to crawl across the center console and push my legs against the door to get to the other seat. I fought back Casey’s airbag with my forearm and swung out of the car. Its front end was crushed against the pine tree so the cabin was compressed. I turned and watched Casey work her way across the meadow with a new slight limp and I yelled to her before looking into the car again to see if there was anything I might need before I went after her. It was cold out even through my windbreaker. A cellphone was peeking out from under the brake and I grabbed it thinking it was mine but it was Casey’s. I found mine lodged under the driver’s seat. Its screen was cracked but it turned on. I still didn’t know what was going on—I jogged into the road after Casey and yelled her name again. Pain seared underneath my lungs as I did. In hindsight I should have been running harder but for the pain and the lack of understanding it didn’t seem necessary. Really I thought she’d come back. And she wasn’t running hard herself—moving with purpose, sure, but far from a flat out sprint. As such I didn’t grasp the gravity of the situation. She neared the halfway point of the meadow. I hadn’t had time to considered the why as to all this, what she was doing, what she had done. At this point I was thinking of the wreck as an accident. I called her name again and knew it was loud enough for her to hear and right then I understood she would not turn back. I was just about across the road before I remembered something and ran back to the smoking car and opened the trunk and rummaged around until I found her first aid kit. Her father made her put it there—I was there when they argued about it. Arguments to them were like stamps to notaries, nothing could be official until an argument formalized it. Her dad said it was common sense to have a first aid kit in the car. She told him to stop worrying so much, that she could take care of herself without his micromanaging. That was true but they got into it anyway. I stood there wishing I could leave unnoticed but didn’t and at last they both looked at me thinking I could break the tie and I said just to put the kit in the trunk because it couldn’t hurt and she said I never take her side and I said I’m not taking sides it’s just harmless common sense and she pouted and looked hurt but she put the thing in the trunk anyway. It came with a flashlight, too. I don’t know why she argued against it but then I don’t know why she did a lot of things so maybe I’m just not the right guy to understand.
I slid the flashlight into my pocket for quicker access and snapped the first aid kit shut and set back out after her. By the time I crossed the road again she was at the trees. She stopped and looked back. I stopped too, on the shoulder of the road. I wanted to drag out that moment, neither of us moving, just looking at each other from across the meadow and she wouldn’t go if I’d just stay motionless. Then she ducked into the forest.
Pine forests are dense. That’s the thing. Plus she had a head start on me, and worst of all, the golden hour was steadily sliding into dusk. I didn’t even know what to do if I found her. But logical considerations often pale against the caveman brain, when flailing instinct rushes to the forefront and you do without asking why. So I pushed on into the meadow after her. I couldn’t sprint on account of my injuries but I could run in a sort of hobbled dragging way so that’s what I did, faster than before, into the meadow and across it never taking my eyes of the spot where she disappeared behind the tree trunks. I didn’t need the flashlight in the road or the meadow but when I reached the trees I did. I called her name again. No answer, no use. I trudged forward yelling her name and sweeping the flashlight before me. I got in deep—in minutes I couldn’t see the treeline. I expected to see her crouching behind every tree I checked. I checked a lot of them. After a while I wondered about getting back to the car. I certainly did not want to be stranded in a forest with no food as night was approaching. Though it seemed Casey did.
Despite sensing it would be fruitless, I stopped and stood and shouted her name in a sort of last-ditch effort to get through to her. Any impression that she would respond had long since left me, but what was I supposed to do, not yell? I called her name until I was out of breath, something delirious to it, not unlike chanting in the end. In my memory I stood there yelling for half an hour. I’m sure in truth it was a minute or two. I’ve dreamed that moment many times since, not moving, not looking for her really, just shouting Casey!, Casey!, into the void, hoping she would hear me and come back. Now when I think back on the real thing it feels dreamlike, too. But in my dreams I’ll sometimes see her face in the black pockets between the trees, and I know in real life I did not.
Finally I decided to get back to the car and call someone. I had no service in the forest but thought maybe I would at the car. I turned to leave and jumped back—a deer was standing right in front of me, about ten feet away. Staring straight at me. It must’ve been there the whole time I was yelling. I said nothing. I mean, it was a deer. They’re not much for talking. But I did return its stare. It seemed brighter than anything else in the forest, in an otherworldly way, almost glowing. As if the moonlight had made it’s way through the lone spot in the trees it could penetrate and fell in the exact outline of this deer. Lined up like planets. I heard my breathing and saw my breath. Our eyes remained locked. The absurdity of the situation—in its entirety, not just the deer bit—was not lost on me. Nevertheless I was spellbound. The deer bowed its head as if it was going to eat but it kept its eyes on me and didn’t get its mouth to the floor before a crack somewhere else in the forest sent it scampering away. I remained still afterwards, listening for another sound. I thought that crack must’ve been her. At length I mustered one last futile call, her name, let it echo and die out before going back to find the car.
I jogged. In the forest everything was dark but when I emerged from the treeline the sky was still that deep transitory gray that contains some light. I saw the car as soon as I was in the meadow. Walking would’ve felt inappropriate for the level of urgency I thought I should feel so I kept jogging. Though it should be noted that it was urgency I thought I should feel, not urgency I felt. Any real urgency had left me, as the chase was over. None of it seemed real. At the time I told myself I was numb, that’s why I felt the things I felt and thought the things I thought. But either I wasn’t ever numb or I still am. I honestly can’t tell which.
I didn’t have a cell signal at the car. So I stood on the shoulder of the road with my hands on my hips and when a car finally drove by I waved like a madman and he went by me but slowed down and stopped and backed up to where I was, still in his lane in the highway. I went to the passenger side window.
The man’s vehicle was a white Ford truck. He was large and had a unkempt beard and wore a hat with the name of a bar I can’t remember on it. He seemed confused as I explained what happened but that was okay because I was confused too. At one point he raised his eyebrow.
“Where’s this patch of ice y’all hit?”, sticking his head out the window to look back down the stretch of road.
“Well I don’t know. I didn’t see it.”
“Then how do you know that’s what happened?”
“I guess I don’t,” I told him.
He paused. “I didn’t see much ice out today, son.”
Another pause. “Did she hit her head?”
“I don’t know.”
“She didn’t say nothing?”
“Not that I heard.”
The man swallowed and looked ahead. “You know, I heard about something kinda like this once, actually. An old guy. He just kinda wandered off, ‘cept there wasn’t no accident first or nothing. He was from up here but they couldn’t find him ’til he turned up in Arkansas. When it happened I figured he just got sick of everything and left, but then some doctors looked at him and said he had what’s called a mental break. There was some other name for it but I can’t remember—some kinda state. Maybe it coulda happened to your friend.”
I blinked. “She’s not old.”
“Hell, I know. I’m just saying. It happens. Anyway, if you hop in I’ll drive you up ’til you got a signal so you can call the police.”
“I’d rather stay here, in case she comes back.” He looked at me and said nothing. I asked, “Is there any way you could just drive and then call in what happened when you can?”
He blew air through his nose. “You’re gonna freeze your ass off waiting here.”
“I’ll be fine.”
“Okay,” he said. “Fine.” He had a very expressive face and when that wasn’t enough he motioned with his hands. “I’ll head up the road and when I get a signal I’ll call the police and tell em what you said happened. They’ll come get ya. But son, I gotta tell ya—they’re gonna have a lot more questions than I did.”
Well, he was right about that last part. When the police finally came they asked all sorts of stuff, with suspicious tones and a few nasty implications. Nice guys overall, but I don’t think they believed what happened, looked sideways at each other with furrowed brows and pursed lips. To be honest I can’t blame them. I didn’t believe it either, and I was there.
I’m not sure what else to say, really. Eventually there was a search party. Eventually the search party abandoned the search. There were missing person posters, for a time. A couple people even called, saying they’d seen her. All dead ends, ultimately. The first few times you think it’s gonna be the one. But then you see the let-down coming long before it happens, and you stop bothering to care.
Like I said before, my prevailing feeling around that time was relief. I had to explain nothing, because suddenly there was nothing to explain. She just wasn’t there. That was the big story, and when it came it swept away a thousand little ones. That doesn’t mean I’m not curious about what she did. I’d still like to know what happened. And why it happened. Because the fact is I have no real guesses. She and I had our baggage but nothing close to a reason to disappear. If her parents gave her one, she never told me about it. The truck driver’s theory interests me only insofar as it gives her an out: she didn’t make a choice. I don’t know why but I want that out for her. Nevertheless I don’t believe it.
There was a moment, after the truck driver had gone but before the state police got there to interrogate me, when I was leaning against the driver’s side door looking at the moon. The golden hour was long gone; the police took nearly an hour to arrive. I was wondering if Casey thought about leaving her car to its fate. Not me, but the car. That’s where my mind was. I noticed just then that the moon looked like a skull, grinning down at me. Something evil about it and yet something appealing in there too. I had never seen the moon look like this. I felt compelled to grin back at it but I didn’t and I stared on. A crack in the forest like the snapping of a branch pulled my gaze from the heavens back down to reality. My flashlight was in my front left pocket and my hand flew to it to make sure it was there but I didn’t pull it out. I walked to the tree in front of the car—not the one the hood was bent around, but the next one down—and looked into the darkness. I saw nothing but tree trunks, though I could not see far. My hand rested on the trunk of the tree. I called out her name and for some reason expected I’d get a response. None came. Even though I had followed her into the forest on the other side of the road and meadow I felt like the crack I heard just then was probably her. I felt my flashlight in my pocket and called her name and heard nothing back. Eventually I stopped and walked back to lean against the driver’s side door. Then I looked back at the sky. My hands were freezing and I tucked each under the opposite armpit for warmth. My body ached. I searched for the skull in the moon but could no longer see it. Eventually I stopped searching. I looked around me and down the road in each direction and a few cars passed and one stopped and I thanked him for his concern but told him there was no cause for worry because help was on the way. I didn’t tell him the story. He drove away and I saw no more cars until the police came. They were friendly despite being skeptical of me, and I told them what happened as simply as I could and I left out some details that didn’t seem relevant. Then they ushered me into their car and told me not to worry, that they’d send people out to look for her. I looked through the window in the cruiser’s backseat at the moon. They told me they’d send people out to scour the forest and they thought she’d be found but that’s only because they didn’t understand the situation. Still, I was glad to hear them say they’d find her. Even if I figured they were wrong.