The Ozark mountains were cold and clear that night, the moon bright. Jill sat quietly in a folding chair facing the campfire, watching the marshmallow turn brown on the end of a twig. Her husband, Bret, sat beside her, laughing at something one of their friends said. She didn’t catch the joke. She couldn’t even recall hearing the words.
She shivered, looking into the darkness. There was something familiar here, but she couldn’t put her finger on it. She hadn’t noticed in the daylight, but now, with darkness closing around the campfire… A woman’s scream pierced through the night, everyone suddenly still and quiet, searching the darkness around them.
Bret, an outdoors-man and familiar with the area, said, “Mountain lion. You don’t see them often, but they’re around. Sounds just like a woman screaming bloody murder.” She moved her chair closer to him, glad to have his presence to give her a sense of security.
“Cold, babe?” he asked, putting his arm around her, as the conversation resumed. She smiled at him, and snuggled into his arm, but still shivered uncontrollably. “Whoa, whoa! It’s catching fire!” He reached out, taking the twig and pulling her marshmallow from the fire. She had forgotten about it. The scream echoed in her ears. Lion or woman? How could he be so sure? There were echoes of screams in the chambers of her memory, but she couldn’t place them.
Angie, one of the friends, stood up and stretched. “It’s been a long day, guys. I’m gonna hit the sack.” Her husband took her hand and walked to their tent, just at the edge of the light. The other couple soon followed suit, leaving Bret and Jill sitting around the campfire alone.
She stood and picked up her warm Indian blanket and her camera. Turning to Bret, she said, “I want to see if I can get a shot of the moon shining down through the mist onto the other side of the gorge.” She picked her way carefully to the tree line overlooking the gorge and took the lens cap off her camera, the tripod secure in front of her. A suspension footbridge spanned the gorge in front of her, disappearing into the foggy night. As she focused the ridgeline on the other side of the gorge, she smiled. Photography was her element. She felt secure and confident when she held a camera. This could possibly be an award-winning shot. She watched the mist swirling around the deep gorge, looking for just the right combination. She set the shutter speed for 2 seconds.
Now! She clicked the shutter, then, stumbling backward, sat down hard on the rocks and dirt, her mouth and eyes wide. Across the gorge, someone fell, another teetered on the precipice. The shutter clicked closed. She scrambled up to grab the tripod and camera, a scream echoing along the canyon walls. Her own, or that of the person now captured in her camera, she couldn’t tell. She backed away, stumbling over brambles and brush, tripping and falling back against the hard, cold ground.
She heard Bret calling her name as he pushed through the brush toward her. “Are you okay?” He bent down, lifting her from the tangled brush. “What happened? Are you okay?” He wrapped his arms around her, but she was shaking, holding her temples, flashes of light slashing through her head. “Jill! Stop screaming! Look at me! Are you hurt? Tell me what’s wrong!” She just looked up at him, the scream dying in her throat, the fear still in her eyes. He bent over and scooped her into his arms, carrying her to the warmth of the campfire.
Her friends were waiting at the edge of the firelight, blankets around their shoulders. “Bret, what happened? Did she fall?”
Jill was still shaking, but said frantically, “Get my camera! Somebody get my camera!” One of the men picked his way through the brush, retrieving the camera and tripod. She quickly released the tripod and held the camera. “I think I just witnessed someone fall off the other side of the gorge.” She stopped and took a deep breath. “I heard the scream. I could see someone falling, screaming, tossing grotesquely over and over, then silence.” She sobbed. “It was so unreal.” She leaned on Bret’s shoulder, silently fumbling with the camera settings. She wiped a tear from her cheek, then continued, “There were two people standing there.” She replayed the scene in her mind. “Then one was gone.”
Bret squeezed her tightly, but she pulled away from him, looking at the last frame she had taken. The others gathered around, trying to see the tiny image. Most of it was the full moon, mist swirling through the canyon, a hauntingly beautiful scene. Except for the darker shadow streaking down the canyon wall, another shadow on the ledge. Were they real, or just shadows? She looked up at Bret, his face pale in the moonlight. “What should we do? I think I just want to go home.”
He shook his head. “No, we need to call the police. Let them take it from there.” He hugged her a little tighter. “I know it isn’t easy, but someone might have just lost their life.” She started to cry, quietly. Bret held out his hand. “Let me see the picture again.” He took the camera, studying the image, enlarging the shadows on the small screen. “This,” he said, looking up, “may be evidence, if what you say is true.” The camera was passed to each of the friends.
“Oh, honey,” Angie whispered softly. “I can’t imagine…” She turned back to the campfire, putting water on to boil for coffee.
Bret took out his cell phone to call the police. He mumbled incoherent words, then said, “No signal. Honey, I’m going to the road to call this in. Want to come with me?” She stood up, shakily, taking his hand. He put the camera in the cab of the pickup. She wished she had gone to the gorge just a few minutes earlier to snap that shot. This moment would haunt her forever. They stood, arm in arm, as he called. The moon was shining brighter out here, away from the heavy tree cover. She stood close to him, “What did they say?” But she knew the answer. They would wait. Returning to the campsite, they sat and Angie poured them a cup of coffee, adding plenty of sugar to Jill’s.
“They’ll be up here in about thirty minutes,” Bret said, taking his cup. No one tried to make small talk, they just sat and waited.
Suddenly Jill stood up and said, “Why do we have to be here? All I did was snap a picture, just like the hundreds before it. It isn’t even all that good.” She remembered thinking it might win a ribbon. Now she just wanted to delete it and pretend she hadn’t taken it. Everyone was looking at her. She sat down. Even if the picture were gone, the scene would be forever imprinted in her mind.
She saw lights approaching the campsite, and her stomach clenched. There was no reason for her to feel this way; none of this was her fault. She only snapped a picture.
Two officers approached. The first one held out his hand to Bret. “I’m Deputy Terrence. And this is Deputy Smith.” When everyone was introduced, he turned to Bret. “You’re the one who called in the incident?”
“Yes, sir.” Turning to Jill, he said, “And this is Jill, my wife. She took the photo.” She reached out her hand to the officer.
“Jill,” he said, shaking her hand. “May I see the camera?” Bret retrieved it from the pickup and handed it to the officer. He studied the image and asked her to enlarge portions of it. “Okay,” he said, handing it back to her. “Walk me through what happened.”
Her deep blue eyes were rimmed with tears. She shivered as she pointed toward the bluff. “I was over there, by that tree.” How dumb that sounded, she thought. The place was covered in trees. “We were about to turn in for the night,” she said softly, as they walked toward the spot where she took the picture, bright lights illuminating their path. “I wanted to get a shot of the moon shining through the mist over the gorge.”
She stopped further away from the edge than where she had stood earlier. She pointed to where she had set the tripod and said, “That’s where I was standing, looking across and a little further down the gorge.” The officer watched her, listening. She sighed and continued, reliving the scene. “I nearly missed seeing the two people, but just as I snapped the shutter, the one nearest the edge went tumbling backward.” In a daze she continued, “Over and over, I could see…them… falling, not with the camera, with my own eyes, until they vanished from sight. That’s when the horrible screaming stopped.” She looked at the officer and whispered, “There’s a body down there somewhere.” He watched her, not answering.
Bret held her hand as they joined the others. “Bret,” she whispered, “Who is that?” She froze in her footsteps, watching a young man walking across the footbridge out of the darkness, his eyes focused on her.
Deputy Terrence noticed him about the same time. “Is this guy with y’all?” he asked.
Bret shook his head, “No, sir.”
The young man walked within a few feet of Jill, staring. Quietly, he said, “You were screaming.” As he came closer, Bret stepped between them. He looked around Bret. “Why were you screaming?” He rubbed his eyes, and repeated, “You just kept on screaming!” The deputy walked over to him, and asked, “What’s your name young man?” He said nothing, continuing to stare at Jill, searching her face. The officer took his arm and repeated, “Who are you, what do you want?”
Not taking his eyes off Jill, he said, “My name’s Bobby.”
Jill caught her breath. “Bobby?” We shouldn’t be walking so close to the edge. She blinked and saw Bret looking intently into her eyes. Why wouldn’t you stop, Bobby? She saw Deputy Smith take the young man by the arm, walking toward the squad car. He tried to turn around, shouting back at her, “I just want to know why you kept screaming.”
Bret’s arms went around her. He looked at the deputy. “Sir, can we get him out of here?” Deputy Smith put him in the squad car. He turned in the back seat, still looking at Jill. Bret asked the question everyone was thinking. “Could he be the second person in the photo?”
Jill could hear them talking, but the words echoed, distant. Bobby. Her mind was searching; something was there, on the edge of recall. Thoughts were racing, going deeper into the recesses of memory. Why are we walking so close to the edge? We shouldn’t be walking in the dark, Bobby.
Her eyes closed in sudden realization, and she felt herself falling, her arms and legs limp. She hit the ground too soon, knocking the breath out of her. It shouldn’t have been that quick.
Bret was kneeling beside her, a look of surprise on his face. “Jill, what’s wrong!? You’re scaring me.”
Jill lay on the cold ground, sobbing. Bret lay down beside her, pulling her close to him. “Tell me what’s happening, Jill.”
She sobbed, “Bobby.”
Bret glanced at the officer. Then he asked softly, “What happened to Bobby?”
“We stepped too close. We walked too close.” She started sobbing uncontrollably, her stomach knotting.
“Who did? Jill — who?”
“Me and Bobby.”
Deputy Terrence was kneeling beside her, exchanging glances with Bret, encouraging Bret to keep her engaged.
“What happened to you and Bobby?”
“The ledge gave way and I fell.” She shuddered. “I screamed. I thought I would never stop falling. I landed hard on another ledge. My head was hurting.” She was shaking now. “I didn’t know what happened. I couldn’t remember.”
“You remember now?”
“Yes,” she whispered. She sat up slowly, cross-legged on the ground. “He left me there — alone.” She looked up at Bret. “I must have blocked it out. My parents said someone found me on the road early the next morning.”
The officer pointed to the car, “Is that the Bobby you knew?”
She searched her mind for memories of Bobby, his image. Slowly, she said, “I don’t think so, but it’s been about ten years ago.” She studied Bret’s face. “I never saw him again.”
Bret and the officer stood up. Deputy Terrence said, “I want to take the memory card and pull that picture off for further analysis, but…” He continued quietly, “I couldn’t make out any people on the image. I think…” He sighed. “But in the morning, we’ll check down at the bottom of the gorge just in case.”
Jill watched the officers drive away, her arms folded in her blanket, her mind swirling like the cold, dark mist. She shuddered, still seeing shadows falling, falling, through the mist of the gorge. Bret gathered their friends together and told them they were going back to town and spend the rest of the night in a motel. They drove silently down the mountain, each in their own thoughts.
Late the next morning, Officer Terrence called Bret, asking them to come down to the station. They checked out, climbed into the car, and sat looking at each other for a moment. Bret started the engine and said, “No matter how this turns out, you know none of this is your fault.” They drove the short distance to the police station, though it felt like a trip across the country. Jill’s stomach churned with anxiety.
Officer Terrence escorted them to a conference room. “We sent a team out this morning to search the gorge.” He looked at Jill, and said quietly, “There were some human remains at the bottom.” Jill lowered her head to the table and began weeping quietly. He continued, “We’ve brought them back to the lab for DNA testing. We don’t know Bobby’s last name, but…”
“Tucker,” Jill whispered.
“Tucker. That was his last name.”
Office Terrence pulled out his phone and began checking a database of missing persons. “Nothing here by that last name over the last 20 years or so, but we’ll still check the DNA, and see if we can match it to a missing person.” He sat down opposite Jill. “The Bobby from last night was just a young man camping on the other side of the ridge. We also had an expert examine the photograph. There was no one falling.” He studied her closely for a few minutes. “I’m not an expert in these things, but I think… the shadows, the images, the man named ‘Bobby.’ Maybe it triggered your memories.” Jill just looked at him blankly. “I would recommend seeing a counselor when you get back home.” He stood, and looked at Bret. “Y’all are free to go. There’s no evidence of any foul play. We have your address if we need to get in touch.”
They walked out into the hot afternoon sun. Jill looked up at the mountain ridge above the town, images flooding through her mind. She took Bret’s hand. “I just want to go home.”
Forgotten? Or buried deep in the sub-conscious? A memory of reality? Could it be just a dream? Has an event ever triggered a memory buried deep in your mind? Share it with us.
If you like the stories, please comment here on the blog, and share it on Facebook with your friends.