There are monsters all around us—people who have to hide because the world can’t bear to see them for who they truly are. They’re good at keeping secrets, the monsters. Sometimes, too good.
Which is why I’ve always suspected that I am one of them.
A girl I once knew used to call me names: Egg Salad, Pizza Face, Fat Fuck. She claimed a family of cannibals wanted to adopt me and put me in their cellar, and that when they did, I would forget my name and who my mother was and become one of them. It was a cruel thing to say, but I saw the blackness of my own soul pretty clearly for a kid, so part of me believed her.
The strange thing was, when it came to predicting the future, she wasn’t that far off. Now I wonder if she hadn’t been, in fact, warning me.
Perched high on a lichen-crusted rock ledge, I look past the scuffed tips of my hiking boots at the waving branches of red and orange and russet below. I clutch an iPad to my chest, and the cold wind whips my hair, making my eyes water behind my glasses. The dampness is so thick it has a weight to it, even though it isn’t actually raining. It pierces through the too-big canvas coat I’m wearing, right through to my bones.
This day is nothing like the crisp blue night the name-calling girl—Chantal—died. That night was brilliant. The perfect night to lie under a canopy of stars.
I brush the thought away. It’s true I’m a bit of an oddball, and not just because of Chantal. I am what people call guarded. I don’t blog. I don’t post. I don’t share. I don’t love people in that beaming, open-armed way you’re supposed to, but there is a good reason for it. Dark things vein through me, the way precious metal shoots through the heart of a mountain. Dark things that should stay hidden, embedded deep within the rock. It is for the greater good that I stand guard over my mountain, over my past.
This particular mountain is only the dog tail of the Blue Ridge range, but standing here with the gorge dropping away beneath me makes it feel like the highest, loneliest point on earth. I’ve been staying in the crook of this mountain nearly a week, and I don’t even know the name of it. I do know, from my stellar Georgia education, circa fourth grade, that white men discovered gold in this area a century ago and took this mountain and all the rest of the northeastern part of the state from the Cherokee.
They ripped the gold out of the mountain, and after that came death and disaster.
I know another thing about this mountain, having seen it from the trail below. The cliff I’m standing on curves back under itself, creating a jutting shelf. I wouldn’t even have to jump out to fall. I could just take one small step, and it would all be over. I might crash straight down through branches and needles before I hit something solid, but eventually I would hit.
And it would hurt. Just like it must’ve hurt Chantal.
The cliff, the whipping wind, the thoughts of death—the whole scenario is so over-the-top gothic, it almost makes me laugh. But it is poetic justice. Full-circle closure. I am a runner, always have been, in different ways. And now, after all the years of running—in my head and heart and even physically, every dawn at the track down the street from my house—I’m finally being forced to stop. To decide what I really want.
Do I stay? Or do I throw myself off the cliff and end it, once and for all?
To my left, down the trail but still out of sight, I hear the rustle of leaves and breaking twigs. Someone is struggling up the path. Someone I know. My time is up. I have to decide. Quickly, before I go back down the trail to that house and everything gets confused again. Before I lose my way.
Suddenly, another sound. The cry of a bird, in the blue above me. A hawk is tracing figure eights. He’s relaxed, scanning the trees for dinner. Not a care in the world. No idea of the drama unfolding below him. And then, beside him, a darker form. A vulture? Can he have already smelled what’s happened here?
If I go over the cliff, he will find me too, eventually. That’s the way it works.
Suddenly, the reptilian section of my brain kicks into gear, and I realize with a jolt that I can feel my blood pulsing through my veins, infusing every inch of my body with life. My body is still working, still doing its job, even as my thoughts turn to death. I guess no matter what kind of person I might be, no matter what I’ve done up to this point, I am a person who wants to live.
I want to live.
And then I go—scrambling down the side of the mountain, stumbling over roots and rocks, barely managing to keep myself upright. I press the iPad against my chest, gasping in the thin, cold air, but I keep going. There’s no trail here, but right now getting lost is better than being found.
I will not die for anyone—not for Chantal, not even for the girl I was.
I am running. Again.
If that makes me a monster, so be it.