All Nonfiction Bullying Books Academic Author Interviews Celebrity interviews College Articles College Essays Educator of the Year Heroes Interviews Memoir Personal Experience Sports Travel & CultureAll Opinions Bullying Current Events / Politics Discrimination Drugs / Alcohol / Smoking Entertainment / Celebrities Environment Love / Relationships Movies / Music / TV Pop Culture / Trends School / College Social Issues / Civics Spirituality / Religion Sports / Hobbies
- Summer Guide
- College Guide
- Author Interviews
- Celebrity interviews
- College Articles
- College Essays
- Educator of the Year
- Personal Experience
- Travel & Culture
- Current Events / Politics
- Drugs / Alcohol / Smoking
- Entertainment / Celebrities
- Love / Relationships
- Movies / Music / TV
- Pop Culture / Trends
- School / College
- Social Issues / Civics
- Spirituality / Religion
- Sports / Hobbies
- Community Service
- Letters to the Editor
- Pride & Prejudice
- What Matters
Nicole Harris hadn’t stepped foot in the woods behind her house since her sister was murdered there.
That had been three years ago, when Nicole was fifteen and her sister, Julie, was thirteen. The two sisters had been inseparable, “Like peanut butter and jelly!” their mom would say.
“Strawberry jelly!” Julie would cry, throwing her hands in the air, her fingernails painted baby blue.
If anyone asked, they’d claim to be twins, both sharing bouncy curls the color of daisies and eyes the same Easter green.
The girls would run down deer paths in summer, the tree’s muffling their laughter. Nicole had the longer legs and would always pull ahead of her slightly shorter sister. She would glance over her shoulder to make sure Julie was in sight. Her sister had the biggest smile when she ran, her hair snapping behind her like a flag.
Eventually, Nicole would slow when her sister started to fall behind and they would walk the rest of the way to their “secret place”.
It wasn’t entirely theirs, the little pond surrounded by oaks was shown to them by their neighbor, Chris. Chris was just out of college, twenty-one at the time, and his sandy hair looked like ruffled feathers. He had told them of the pond when the girls had asked why he would wander into the forest wearing his swim trunks. Now, every time the sisters had time, they would run to the pond and dangle their feet into the cool, blue water.
Then, one of those summer days, Julie went into the woods and never came out.
Nicole held onto the memory of the last time she saw her sister, on the last day of July. Julie had begged Nicole to go to the pond with her. Nicole, who was busy on the phone with one of her friends, waved Julie away. “Not today, I’m going to the mall later.” Nicole said, only looking up at her sister for a second before looking back at her drying finger nail polish.
“Please!” Julie moaned, clasping her hands together. “School will start soon, and I just want to go play for a little bit-”
“I said no!” Nicole hissed, covering the mouthpiece with her hand. “I’m going to be a sophomore Julie, and high schoolers don’t go play with their little sisters anymore. Geez, you can be so annoying!”
After Nicole turned away, Julie stood staring at the wall above her sister for several seconds, blinking away the tears threatening to spill over. “Sorry I disturbed you.” she whispered, spinning on her heels and trudging out the door and into the forest.
After her call, Nicole took off into the woods, calling her sister’s name. She hadn’t meant to snap on Julie, she just wanted to finish her call. Nicole hurried down the paths, feeling guilty for being angry at her sister. They had grown distant over the summer and past school year when Nicole went to high school. Nicole made new friends, friends who wanted to spend time with her, and not have her younger sister following them around.
As she drew closer to the pond, Nicole heard rustling and snapping twigs. Probably just some young foxes playing, she thought as the sounds got fainter then stopped altogether. Pushing aside some low hanging branches, Nicole stepped into the clearing where the pond was, its blue water sparkling in the sunlight. But no Julie dipping her legs in the water.
Nicole’s cell beeped, alerting her of the time, four o’clock. The time her friend said she’d be by to pick up Nicole and head to the mall. “Julie, I’ve got to go.” Nicole sighed, scanning the surrounding underbrush for her sister. “I’m sorry I got angry, and I promise once I get back I’ll play with you for a whole hour. Okay?” she waited for a reply, and only got the birds chirping.
“Bye.” she muttered, running all the way home to not keep her friend waiting.
And three hours later, Nicole ran up to the front door, a smile on her face. Once she pushed open the door, she found her mother, tears streaming down her face while her father held her. A young police officer turned when she entered, the smile slipping from her face.
“Sweetie.” Nicole’s mother sobbed, covering her mouth, then sticking her arms out and pulled her eldest daughter against her shaking body. “Oh Nicole, something terrible has happened.”
Nicole pulled the zipper of her winter jacket all the way up to her chin, staring out her back door at the snow covered forest. Just faintly, she could see her reflection, but she didn’t recognize the person who looked back at her.
This girl had shadows under her eyes, dark semi-circles that made her pale eyes look set deep into her slim face. This girl looked unhealthy, her cheeks sunken and her hair flat and lifeless. Nicole always saw this person looking back at her in the mirror, and would flinch away from it whenever she saw that girl. But now, she looked deep into the girls empty eyes.
What have you seen? What was so terrible it took the light from your eyes? Nicole asked, slowly pulling her gloves on.
The girl stared back at her, copying her movements as she then pulled on a cherry red beanie. Nicole slid the door open, feeling the icy wind sting her face. As she stepped out onto her snow blanketed deck, she heard the girl replied softly.
I’ve seen my heart shatter into pieces. I’ve seen people change, they avoid me and pity me. I’ve seen my parents cry. I’ve seen a thirteen year old girl in a casket. I’ve seen things I will never forget. That is what took the light from my eyes.
Nicole pulled the beanie down over her ears, then set off toward the woods.
For the first time in three years, she will walk into the woods that took her sister. Many times Nicole had came close, but she could never get her foot beyond the boundary of her back yard. This was something her and her sister shared, would it be right to enter alone?
Julie entered alone, and now it was Nicole’s turn.
She didn’t know what she expected, for the tree limbs to reach for her and the trunks to change into evil sneering faces? But nothing happened when she entered the forest. These are still the trees she grew up with, the only thing that changed was her and the way she looked at the world.
Snow crunched under Nicole’s boots as she followed the paths she hasn’t ran for three years. It had snowed recently, but even the fresh snow didn’t cover the slight indentations of someones foot prints. Nicole wondered who would be out in the woods in the dead of winter, then same woods a little girl was murdered in. Then she remembered her neighbor, Chris. He had the courage to enter the woods.
She thought back to when Chris had came over to her house a day after she got the news. She had been staring at the woods, watching police come and go; looking for evidence and any trace of Julie’s killer. None was found. The killer got away.
Nicole had looked up when he came close, and she saw his eyes rimmed with red. He didn’t say anything, just pulled her into a bear hug. His feathery hair tickled the side of her face, and he whispered “I’m so sorry.” then sobbed into her shoulder.
They stood there for several minutes like that, he bending over to reach down to hug her. Nicole had dug her face into his shirt and let out the tears she hadn’t shed even when the police said where they found Julie’s body.
In a ditch. A goddamned ditch.
She was face down in dirty summer runoff when someone had pulled over to fix a flat and saw her. The police said the cause of death was suffocation.
One of the scariest ways to die. To be slowly smothered.
Nicole pushed frozen branches weighed down with snow out of her way. A clump of snow fell from the branch and landed right in the collar of her coat, but she didn’t brush it away. The cold burned into her skin. It’s better to feel pain, than nothing at all, Nicole thought as the melted snow trickled down her back.
Oh how Nicole wished to run through these woods again. There was something addictive about the constant rhythm of her feet hitting the ground, and the way her blood buzzed with adrenaline. Sometimes Nicole wondered if one day when she ran again, if she’d turn and see Julie’s smile behind her.
Nicole felt the pond before she saw it. A blanket seemed to cover this part of the forest, muffling the traffic from the highway in the distance. Maybe even the tree’s were mourning.
Pushed through the underbrush, Nicole finally saw the pond. A layer of sturdy looking ice covered it, but Nicole could see some cracks on the edge of the pond. And next to the cracks, sat Chris.
She blinked in surprise when she saw him. Nicole knew he came out here to collect firewood sometimes, but he had no axe, nor any collected wood. He had his back to her, and Nicole stared just stared at him. A part of her wanted to just watch, but Chris heard her coming and slowly turned towards her. A sad smile spread across his face when he saw Nicole.
“It just isn’t the same without her, isn’t it?” Chris whispered, his gaze sliding from her face, as if he didn’t have the energy to meet her gaze.
Nicole felt tears sting her eyes, but she blinked them away. She was done with crying.
Hesitantly, she walked towards Chris and lowered herself down next to him. They didn’t speak for several minutes, both enjoying the quiet that covered the forest. Nicole, even though she fought against it, began to tremble. Her chin quivered and she felt something build up in her chest. The pressure made it hurt to breathe. There was words hovering on her tongue, and she felt that if she didn’t speak them, then she’d burst.
She took a deep breath.
“It was my fault.” she gasped, biting her knuckle as hot tears spilt down her face. Chris lowered his head, shaking it slowly.
“I told her to leave me alone. That I practically didn’t want her around because I was in high school.” Nicole felt disgusted by the memory, she felt dirty having it in her mind. “The last thing I said to her -” her voice cracked, a sob tore through her, but she had to get the words out or they’d destroy her. “The last thing I ever said to Julie was that she was annoying. And now, now I’ll never have the chance to say sorry because...”
Nicole’s ragged breath was the only sound in the woods. Not even the birds chirped. The whole world had stopped to let her speak. Now that her words floated between her and Chris, Nicole found them even more revolting than before. She wouldn’t even care if he now saw her the way she felt - a terrible, heartless person.
“It wasn’t your fault.” Chris whispered, covering his face with his hands, then pulling them away and looked at them blankly.
“No, it is.” Nicole raged, ripping her beanie from her head and wringing it in her hands. “If I hadn’t said that to her, she wouldn’t have died. She would be here, with us, but because of me, she isn’t-”
Chris cut her off by grabbing her shoulders with frightening strength. He spun her towards him, his nose inches from hers. His eyes were full of pain, his gaze going from one of her eyes to the other. “No.” he breathed, his chest heaving. “None of this is your fault Nicole! Nothing!” Chris shook her while his face twisted with sadness.
Nicole stared at him, blinking slowly. His fingers were digging into her shoulders, but she didn’t tell him to let go. She waited. Waited for him to continue.
Chris turned away from her face, tearing running down his face. He took several deep breaths before he spoke. And when he did, his voice was barely above an utter.
“You know I would never want to hurt her, never. I loved her, Nicole.” he watched her, looking for a reaction.
“What are you talking about?” Nicole cried, trying to push him away, but it was like trying to push a tree over. “We all loved her, and none of us would ever want to-”
And suddenly, Nicole realized what he meant.
Nicole felt her blood turn to ice and he chest hurt. She tried to push him away, but her hands were like feathers, not bothering him at all. Panic make her heart squeeze. Was he going to kill her now? Admit to his crimes, then smother her like he did her sister? A ringing filled her ears, the sound a dying animal would make. She didn’t know where it was coming from, but it terrified her and she wanted it to stop.
“Nicole, please.” Chris tried to block her fist that was coming at his face, but at the same time hold her arms. “Please, stop. Stop screaming!” he yelled, holding her tighter.
“GET AWAY FROM ME!” she shrieked, putting all her energy in her arms as she shoved him.
He didn’t fall back like Nicole intended, but he released her. She sprawled on her back, her vision turning black on the edges. She crawled backwards as fast as she could until her hand gave way and she crashed into the snow. Rib breaking convulsions racked through her body, and Nicole’s lungs screamed for air she couldn’t get to them.
Chris watched her, his eyes blank. He ran his hands through his hair roughly, then scooped up the cherry colored beanie Nicole had dropped. He stared at it for a moment, turning it over and over in his hands. The hands that would pick me and Julie up and throw us into the pond during summer, that would carry chocolate bars for us on Halloween. Nicole thought, watching him turn up the edge to see Julie’s name sewn into it. The hands that took my sister from me.
“Please understand Nicole,” he breathed, closing his eyes for a second, then opening them and locking eyes with her, “I never wanted to hurt Julie. I didn’t mean to, it was an accident.”
“An accident?” Nicole spat, rising to her feet. Now that the shock had worn off, anger bubbled in her.
Chris looked up at her, his broad shoulders slumping. “I cared for her, so much. Why would I want to- to-” he then stood, a full head taller than Nicole. He looked down at his hands, one of them still clutching Julie’s beanie, then clenched his teeth. Chris looked around, as if the answer to his problems was behind on of the snow covered oaks. Finally, he muttered “I loved her.”
“Stop saying that!” Nicole hissed, advancing towards him. Chris flinched and took a step back. “Stop saying that you loved her!”
“I can’t!” he roared suddenly, throwing his arms out. “She was the most wonderful person I’d ever met. She was pure, and innocent, and was like a gift from God! I loved your sister with my whole heart, and I would do anything, anything, the have her back.”
Nicole shook her head, but memories came filtering in. She remembered how Chris always looked to Julie when they came running into the clearing. How when Nicole would read in the shade of the trees, he would be laughing along with Julie in the water, wrapping his arms around her and splashing water in her face. She remembered him coming over every Fourth of July, and how he would weave Baby’s Breath into Julie’s daisy colored hair.
“I saw her run into the woods that day.” he said slowly, speaking to Nicole like she was a wild animal he was trying to lure to him. “I could read her like an open book, and I knew you and her argued. She was always so hurt when you two argued. I went after her, wanting to make her feel better.
“I found her by the pond, right here.” he motioned to the rock ledge that Nicole and Julie would always dangle their legs from on hot days. “She was crying her eyes out, and I told her it was okay. She told me that she just wanted everything to be like the old days - me, you, Julie, and no one else. Here in our secret place.
“She was so torn up about what you said, and I just wanted her to feel better. I hated to see her cry, I hated her not being happy. So I thought, if I told her how much I loved her, she would feel better -”
“Julie was thirteen!” Nicole snapped.
“- and I did, I told her.” Chris continued like Nicole never spoke. “And when I tired to kiss her, she pulled away. She told me she didn’t feel the same way, that I was her friend. That I wasn’t her age.” Chris clutched the beanie tightly, his eyes turning black with anger. “She had all these excuses, but I knew she felt the same. She was just surprised, and all those excuses meant nothing.”
He paused, his chest moving rapidly. Chris looked at the beanie, smashed in his fist. Julie’s name was written in baby blue thread, her favorite color. Slowly, he unclenched his fist and raised his eyes to Nicole. “And then,” he whispered, dropping the beanie into the snow. “You called out for her.”
Nicole felt her heart stop. She opened her mouth to say something, but he continued before she could speak.
“I knew she was going to run to you. She’d tell you what happened, and how you’d see my feeling as something sick and twisted. You’d run and tell your parents, I know, because you’re such a little tattle-tale.” Chris took to steps toward Nicole, his voice flat, but full of rage. “And then, your parents you take Julie away from me. And I couldn’t let that happen.”
Nicole didn’t have to hear him say it to know what happened then. Julie must have tried to call out, and he covered her mouth. He was twenty-one, way stronger than a little thirteen year old girl. She would have struggled, kicking up dirt and sticks. He must have accidentally covered her nose too, and she had no way to tell him she couldn't breathe.
He would have pulled her away from the clearing, trying to keep her quiet, but Nicole knew her sister fought like a bobcat. It felt like a sledge hammer slammed into her gut when she remembered hearing rustling close to the clearing. ‘Probably just some young foxes playing’ she had thought. But she was wrong.
She heard her sister fighting for her life.
Nicole felt sick, the world spun around her. Chris watched her silently, knowing Nicole had been a stones throw away from her sister the whole time.
“If you cared so much,” Nicole whispered, swallowing the bile in her throat, “why did you leave her in a ditch!”
Chris flinched like she had struck him. His eyes grew distant and blank. Nicole knew she struck a nerve, but she no longer cared if she hurt him. She trusted him, he was her friend, and all he did was rip her heart out. Chris open and closed his mouth like a fish out of water.
“Nicole!” a faint voice called in the distance.
Both Nicole’s and Chris’s head snapped up at the sound. Mom, Nicole flinched at her mother’s distant voice.
Chris glanced at Nicole, there was panic in his eyes. A buzzing filled Nicole’s head. Everything around her seemed to change. No longer was the world blanket in white, but green’s and browns. It was summer again, and Nicole was no longer herself. She was Julie, and she was seeing the world the way her sister saw it.
Unlike her sister, she didn’t try to yell out.
She did what her sister should have done. Run.
Nicole spun around, adrenaline pumping through her veins. Her legs woke up, ready to do something they were deprived of for three years.
But Chris had longer legs, and he wrapped his arms around her waist before she reached the edge of the clearing.
Nicole screamed, her shrill voice echoing through the forest. Chris swung Nicole away from the tree’s, trying to fling her to the ground. She held onto the front of his coat, and when he tried to throw her, she dragged him with her. The two were airborne for a second before they crashed onto the iced over pond.
Chris’s head smacked the surface of the ice with a sickening thud. Nicole landed on her shoulder and slid to the middle of the pond. She tried to crawl back to land, but Chris had an iron grip on her arm. Turning back to pry his hand off her, she gasped when she saw the snow on the ice turning red.
Blood poured from the cut on Chris’s head. Nicole saw the faint gleam of white, and she knew he was hurt. Badly. Chris sat up on his knees, dazed. He reached up and felt his face, then stared in horror at his crimson covered fingers. “Nicole-” he started, but he was cut off from the cracking beneath him.
The ice beneath Chris was starting to buckle down, water flowing through the cracks that were beginning to spread. Nicole pushed herself into a crouch, digging at Chris’s fingers that were still holding her arm. He tried to stand too, but with a whoosh, the ice buckled more, his left leg disappearing beneath the ice.
“Help me.” he wheezed, blood covering his face and chest.
Nicole yelped when the ice beneath her started to give way. Chris clawed at the front of her coat like she was the only rock in a stormy sea. She tried to push him away, but that only made him grip her tighter. Nicole knew the ice was going to give way, and just as it did, she managed to scream out before cold darkness wrapped her in it’s embrace.
The shock of the cold water drove the air from Nicole’s lungs almost immediately. Inky Black water filled her nose, ears, and eyes. Nicole struggled to kick herself to the surface, but Chris’s grip and all her layers of winter clothes weighed her down. Looking up, the crack in the ice was the only light in a world of dark.
Suddenly, Chris grabbed Nicole by the shoulders, trying to push her down. She kicked out at him, landing a few in his gut and knees. The water around started to turn a dark red and Nicole thought that was more frightening then the darkness.
Nicole’s lungs screamed for air as Chris pushed her deeper and deeper in the water. He lifted up his legs, trying to press them against her chest. Nicole knew what he was trying to do, he had taught her and Julie the very same thing four years prior, in case they ever started drowning.
“Find the closest solid object,” he had said, showing them on the edge of the pond how to draw up your legs, “and pull your legs real close. Like this, see? Then you-” he launched his legs out, straight as a board, “-push off.”
Julie giggled, trying to copy him exactly. When she drew her slim legs to her chest, she rolled onto her back like a rollie-pollie. Chris smiled as her, then leaned over to help her correct herself. Nicole had made a face at her sister’s clumsiness, then turned back to the book she was reading.
“Nicole!” Julie moaned, practicing pushing off an invisible object. “You should practice too, this could save your life someday.”
Nicole pulled from the memory, her hands grasping Chris’s legs. Her vision had already grown dark at the edges, and she knew she didn’t have much time. She shoved his legs away from her, I will not be the object you push off, she thought angrily.
Grabbing the front of his coat, she kicked up to him, coming face to face with the man who took her sister from her. They looked at each other, eye to eye. Chris’s cut looked even worse under water, the blood washed away revealing the shining white of bone underneath. Nicole looked into his eyes, wanted so badly to see the Chris with the feathery hair and shining eyes; but the one looking back at her was dark and twisted.
This one wouldn’t hesitate a moment to kill her.
Nicole pushed away from him, kicking up to the surface. Her face barely broke free of the icy water before Chris pulled her back down. She tried to kick at him, but her kicks were slowed by the water and thumped against him harmlessly. Chris pumped his legs, still holding her jacket, propelling them both to the hole.
They both broke the surface at the same time, gasping for air. Nicole reached for the edge to pull herself out, but Chris shoved her beneath the water again. He tried to use her shoulders as a step to push himself out of the water, but Nicole grabbed his leg and twisted. She heard him shout out above the water, lashing out and connecting his foot with her chin. Nicole, using Chris’s leg, pulled herself back into the air.
Chris was clawing at the ice when Nicole surfaced, trying to pull himself out of the water. Every time he would get his upper body onto the ice, it would break and send him back into the pond. When Nicole emerged, sputtering water everywhere, he spun on her with a growl. He wrapped his hands around her slim neck and squeezed.
Nicole choked and gasped, trying to loosen his grasp. “I’m done with you messing things up for me.” he snarled, digging his thumbs into Nicole windpipe.
I wondered if this was how Julie felt in her last moments, Nicole thought suddenly, alone and helpless.
Nicole abandoned her attempts to loosen Chris’s hands from her neck, resorting to splashing his face with water in vain. Just as she thought her attacks were hopeless, her fingers brushed something solid. Nicole’s hand wrapped around the object instantly and drew back her arm. For Julie, she prayed silently, driving the object at Chris’s head.
So many things happened in one moment that Nicole couldn’t process all at once. First, she saw the object in her hand as a lump of broken ice. Second, the ice had broken off with a point.
Third, she drove the shard of ice right into Chris’s wounded forehead.
The ice shattered under her hand as soon as she connected with his head, but Nicole knew it had done it’s job. Chris’s head whipped back from the force of the blow, a loud CRACK filling the still forest. His hands slid from her neck, and didn’t try to grab her as he sank.
Coughs racked Nicole’s body, her breath rattling out of her injured windpipe as she pressed her feet to Chris’s sinking body and pushed her upper body into the ice.
Once Nicole pulled the rest of herself from water, all she wanted was to lay down, but the soft sound of cracking ice beneath her motivated Nicole’s tired body. She crawled across the ice as quickly as she could and onto solid ground. When her knees got off the ice, her shaking arms gave way and she collapsed onto the snow. Her breath plumed out of her mouth like clouds of smoke. Every part of her hurt, but for the first time in three years, her heart wasn’t the focal point of the pain.
Nicole let herself catch her breath before she pushed herself up into sitting position, her back to the pond. She knew that she should hurry home, her parents must have heard her scream and will be worried. Also the fact that she was soaking wet in below freezing temperature nagged in the back of her mind. But even with her conscience telling her to, Nicole didn’t move. Slowly, she turned her head, watching the hole in the ice.
Faintly, Nicole could hear her mother’s voice again, calling to her. She rose to her feet stiffly. Shiver’s raced up and down her spine as she stood quietly in the clearing. A bright dot of color drew her eyes away from the ice and to the object laying at her feet. Julie’s beanie. It contrasted greatly with the pure white of the snow around her. Nicole reached down to grab it just as small flakes of white began to fall from the sky.
Nicole watched the pond for a few more minutes, the snow slowly growing in size as they fell. “Nicole, are you out here?!” this time her father’s voice yelled, closer than her mothers. Nicole considered calling out to them, to tell them she was alright, but she didn’t know if she was, in fact, alright.
It took a lot for her to turn her back on the pond. Deep down, Nicole knew she would never come back here again. Now all she had of her and Julie’s secret place was the image of Chris’s blood on the ice.