The Jane Doe
The first thing the woman knew was pain and darkness. The darkness was easily taken care of, she only had to open her eyes. But doing so only increased her confusion, and the prickly beginnings of fear.
The woman looked around. She was lying on a pile of leaves, or a small bush maybe, and a stick was digging into her back. A thin, rough spun nightgown covered her, and she lay on a folded, parka-like coat. Had she gone to sleep here in the middle of the woods? Her mouth was dry, and when she tried to swallow, her throat convulsed but no saliva went down, which just exacerbated the dry feeling in her throat.
What was she doing out here? She looked around; it was almost familiar to her but in a distant, disconnected way. She felt like a stranger here. A pain in her head made her wince, and she raised one hand, probing her forehead. A sticky substance was covering the side of her face, and when she pulled her hand away it was covered in a dried red residue. Was that blood? The woman didn’t know.
Getting up was painful; her legs felt rubbery and as she stood, she realized she wasn’t wearing shoes. The soil was cool on the soles of her feet, and she felt leaves and sticks under her toes. Her hands were scratched, and her stomach felt like an empty pit in her middle. The urge to move, to run, was seemingly ingrained in her, and she shivered, pulling the parka from the ground, and wrapping it around her thin shoulders. It did little to counter the feeling that she was exposed, out in the wilderness in a thin shift. She had to get out of here.
There was a bare line of soil that could have been a path, and the woman walked onto it. She’d been lying beside it, partially covered in leaves and dirt, and she didn’t know which way to go. It looked like a deer trail that someone had scuffed up so that it was easier for humans to see. There were no markings around her, so the woman chose a direction at random and started to walk.
Sunbeams filtered through the leaves, landing around her, and birds sang. The coolness told the woman that it was early morning. In the distance the sound of an engine echoed through the trunks of the trees. At least she was near civilization. She started walking in the direction of the faint roar.
Dizziness made the woman stumble, and her stomach growled. How long had she been out here? Was she like that Rip Van Winkle guy? But who was Rip Van Winkle? And how did she know his name? There was nothing that associated itself with the memory, but she somehow knew it was about a man that had slept for nearly a lifetime. But how did she know that, and not her own name?
Empty darkness where there should have been memory aside, the thirst was the worst part of her situation. She thought she would be fine if she could just get a drink of water, but she heard no streams near her and she didn’t want to get lost out here. If she didn’t get to the road, she’d probably die. That thought urged her forward faster, and even though it hurt to move quickly as sticks and stones were scratching the bottoms of her feet, she made her way on.
The engine noises were getting louder, and the woman felt hope rise in her chest. The person would know what to do. They’d sweep her up and she’d get to someplace warm and safe and have a drink of water.
She tried to summon some saliva to her dried tongue, but nothing came, and a cough escaped the woman’s throat. The woman tried to ignore it and keep going, but another dizzy spell had the ground lurching beneath her, nearly knocking her from her feet. Only force of will allowed her to straighten up and keep moving.
The engine noise was getting closer, but it still sounded far away. How close was she to the road? The path was fading, grass and detritus from the forest floor was stamping it out. What would she do?
Then she stumbled out of the trees and onto an asphalt strip, two yellow lines moving down the middle. The road stretched to a gentle curve that disappeared among the trees. The woman walked out to the middle of the road, the sound of a large engine growing louder. A brown truck appeared.
The woman stumbled forward, fighting the desire to fall back into the darkness she’d awoken from.
Nick Worth’s day started out well enough. It was a fine Saturday morning, warm for the season, and the Massachusetts air had been very pleasant on his morning run. Since he had the day to himself, a rare occurrence these days, he’d decided to get back to a hobby that had fallen by the wayside. He’d loaded his camera equipment into his old, beat-up Ford and started driving. An avid hiker, he’d decided to take advantage of the many back roads that Massachusetts boasted and was well on his way into the wilderness.
He sang along with the radio as he drove, putting pedal to the metal as he roared along Town Road Three the unnamed road he’d found at random to lead him into the woods. He tried to ignore the slightly ominous chugging noise his truck was starting to make when it exceeded speeds of thirty miles per hour. It had been years since he’d had the funds for a new one, and of the many reasons he wasn’t going to go back to his parents, a new car was near the bottom of the list.
Nick’s cell phone rang, and he felt his stomach tighten slightly in an involuntary reaction. He reached for it and hit the ‘accept call’ button.
“Hey Mandy, how’s it going?” Nick asked, smiling rigidly without thinking about it. Mandy was his fiancé, and they were very much in love. At least that’s what he kept telling himself. They were, really. She was very sure of it, at least.
It was just that he owed her so much. When he’d come to Keep’s Hill College, he’d been on scholarship, with nobody to go home to. He’d told his father that he wasn’t going into the family business, as had been the plan. He’d wanted to go to school for photography. His dad would only pay for pre-law classes. Nick had good enough grades to make that a non-issue. But he’d never been invited back home. Mandy and he had met in freshman year when he’d been taking gen-eds.
She’d been impressed with his name, and his father. She’d been even more impressed when he’d explained his situation. From there it’d been a courtship. She’d gotten closer to him, but there’d been a problem. Her father liked him, had even let him stay in the guest house. But he wanted Mandy taken care of. As Nick grew closer to the Wellingtons, he’d begun to feel that photography wouldn’t be enough. So, he’d begun taking business classes. Now his future was all planned out.
Mandy had kept him from being some near-homeless scholarship student. He owed her family a lot as well. There was a good job waiting for him at the end of his college career. It was so close to everything he’d grown to want. Mandy, a house, a job… the future stretched ahead of him. All because of her.
So could he begrudge her for being scared? No. Even if it was irrational, he couldn’t. But more often, it felt like her requests and compulsions were a noose tightening around his neck. He wanted to make her happy.
“How’s it going?” Mandy asked, and Nick could hear an alarming waver in his beloved’s voice. “I’ve been waiting here for nearly an hour, that’s how it’s going.” Mandy said into the phone before he could reply.
“Where exactly are you?” Nick asked, not even trying to wheedle the information out of her. She was nearly prescient about when he was trying to dodge a subject, or trying to cover a gap in knowledge, and was expert on either getting him to admit what he was hiding, or keeping him in the dark.
“So, you’ve completely forgotten then?” Mandy asked. Nick’s heart sped up and he desperately tried to think of what she’d said she was doing today. He’d asked, he knew he’d asked, but when he’d thought the answer didn’t have anything to do with him, he’d forgotten.
“I told you I was going to be out hiking, maybe taking some pictures today, right? I thought we talked about it,” Nick said, going on the defensive. He’d found himself doing that more often these days.
“I wanted to look at the flower arrangements today!” Mandy said into the phone. She was going from sad to angry very quickly. That was happening more often as well.
“I thought it was a girls’ day today,” Nick said, a spark jumping in his memory. “Besides, I don’t really care what kind of flowers we have.” He was starting to feel sick now but was still speaking calmly; he didn’t want to make her feel worse than she already did.
The further into their relationship they got, the more Nick felt like he was floundering. Hadn’t she said she was going out with the girls? Something that he’d thought would free up his Saturday, a luxury he hadn’t had in a while.
“What do you mean you don’t care about the flowers, Nick?” Mandy was no longer showing any hint of sadness, and Nick felt even worse. He’d really screwed up this time, and he had no idea what to do. “Does this mean you don’t care about our wedding either? How about our relationship?!” Mandy’s voice was rising, becoming shrill. Nick’s attention was entirely on her now, trying to fix his mistake.
He opened his mouth, and nearly got out a grunt before Mandy continued, “You need to get invested in this relationship if you’re serious about marrying me. Or don’t you love me anymore? Is that it? Do you really just want to end things like this? Don’t you care anymore, Nick?” To his alarm, he heard tears returning to her voice.
“Of course I care, Mandy, really. But I’m a guy, and you know how we are,” Nick said. He’d almost completely stopped paying attention to the road at this point. “You’re my girl, you know that. I’ll turn around as soon as I can and meet you at the florist and then we can do something together this afternoon.”
He was still babbling about all the ways he’d make things up to her when he caught a flash of white in his peripheral vision.
A woman in a pale dress was walking out onto the middle of the road, and adrenaline spiked through Nick’s system. He dropped his phone and stomped on the break. His tires squealed, and he desperately spun the wheel. The truck’s old brakes made a valiant effort to stop the rolling behemoth, but it was very clear that they wouldn’t be quick enough.
The truck slalomed to the side, sliding around her with the grace of a figure skater on an ice rink. It squealed to a halt, facing the side of the road, the bed straddling the double yellow line.
Nick sat in the cab, breathing heavily. His hands felt like they were glued to the wheel, and the only sound he heard was his own heartbeat thumping in his ears. Eventually, he heard the breaths he was taking, and the music still blaring over the radio.
As casually as if he was doing it on a normal day, Nick reached over and shut off the radio, then grabbed the wheel again in a death grip. After another moment he realized what he was doing and peeled his hands off the wheel, one finger releasing at a time until his shaking hands were piled in his lap.
He looked to the passenger window, which was facing the way he’d come, and he saw the girl standing in the middle of the pavement, staring at him. Her dirty blonde hair was blowing in the breeze, as was the thin dress she was wearing. Her bare feet slapped on the road as she began to walk toward the truck, and Nick sat and watched, completely in a world of his own, as she reached the vehicle and pulled at the door.
“Please, I need help,” the girl said, leaning against the truck as she spoke, looking at him with wide grey eyes.
Nick wanted to say something, but his mind was entirely blank. It was so strange. Why couldn’t he think of anything?
The girl, no, a young woman, who looked like she was anywhere between seventeen and twenty-five, stared at him. She was very dirty, leaves clinging to her hair, and there was a gash surrounded by a purple and green bruise on her forehead. The nightgown she was wearing looked roughly made, and it was spattered with mud, as was the parka she was wearing over it. The parka looked handmade, but not in the ‘costs thousands of dollars’ handmade, the ‘cured in a hut and the maker only knew the rudiments of sewing’ kind of handmade.
She was strikingly beautiful.
The woman stared at him a moment longer, then she groaned, and her eyes rolled up in her head as she fell, sliding along the door of his truck.
This served to break the spell over Nick, and he grabbed his phone. He could still hear Mandy talking on the phone, trying to get his attention. He absently clicked the ‘end call’ button, relaxing slightly as he did so. He got out of his truck and ran around the hood, stopping as he came upon the woman. He looked at her for a moment, lying there in the early morning light, and then opened the ‘call’ option, and began dialing nine-one-one.