1 Shock and Disbelief
"Excuse me, sir," said the tender female voice.
Startled, I turned to my left to discover a woman with long black wavy hair, wearing a long simple white dress. "Sorry, I didn't see you sit down."
The stranger had joined me unnoticed on the bench in front of the hospital lobby's fish aquarium, where I had been waiting for a late afternoon rainstorm to pass before biking home from work.
Looking as if she wanted to speak, the woman stared at me as she gnawed her lip.
Since she remained silent, I quickly surveyed the lobby to find us alone except for a receptionist located across the room. Turning back to the stranger, I gave her a friendly smile.
The woman sat courteously with crossed ankles tucked beneath her seat and hands folded in her lap. Her solemn eyes continued to gaze at me as her voice spoke in a remorseful tone, "You may never forgive me, but I may have inadvertently taken your life."
A flash of lightening, followed immediately by teeth rattling thunder caused me to flinch. The winds and rain began to intensify as the trees seen through the large front windows began to sway briskly.
Returning my attention to the young woman, I cleared my throat. "Don't worry, I'm quite alive and well." I focused on the fish tank unsure if it would be rude of me to move since talking to strangers had never been easy for me.
The woman sat very still with her attention fixed on me. "I rushed here immediately upon receiving the news. It has been decided; there is nothing that I can do."
Trapped in an unwanted conversation with a stranger, my jaw muscles clenched involuntarily. I considered returning to the sanctuary of my office where I processed medical records in near blissful oblivion as a medical coder. On an average day, I rarely had to worry about meeting strangers.
The intense weather roared above us on the high, protruding ceiling of the hospital lobby with winds starting to howl at the windows, slamming the rain hard against the panes. Just outside the main sliding doors, the deluge of rain was beginning to pool on the concrete.
My brain frantically searched for a new topic. "It looks as if another major storm is about pummel Fargo."
"It's already here," said the woman.
"I suppose it is. North Dakota and northern Minnesota have had their share of storms this summer."
"I've been watching you," she said. "I knew that you would be here enjoying the fish since it's one of your favorite pastimes. I have a message from—"
"Excuse me." My xenophobia compelled me to leave. I bent forward to stand when her lack of shoes gave me pause. Studying her clothing, I contemplated that perhaps her long white dress was a nightgown indicating that she was a patient, perhaps from mental health.
As I stood, she raised a hand as to grab my wrist, but hesitated.
I walked across the wide lobby to speak to the woman at the reception desk. "I think there is a mental health patient in need of attention by the aquarium."
The receptionist looked towards the area from whence I came. "What woman?"
I turned to see the lounge area by the aquarium empty. "A woman had just sat down next to me by the fish."
"I'll call security. Maybe a patient has strayed on a free pass. Can you describe her?"
I ran a hand through my short blond hair. "Um, she was probably around my age, in her early thirties, with long black hair past her shoulders. She was wearing a long white dress or nightgown. I did not see any jewelry when I looked for her patient's identification bracelet, which she also lacked."
The receptionist picked up the phone to start dialing. "Is there anything else? Did she say anything specific?"
"No," I replied. "Nothing that made sense."
As the receptionist spoke to security on the phone, I paraded around the aquarium for my own benefit. The mysterious woman did strike a nerve, but I wished her no ill will, hoping she would get the help that she needed.
The rain eventually lessened to a drizzle, and the gusty winds reduced themselves to their normal blustery Fargo intensity. Unafraid to get a little wet, I decided that it was time to bicycle home.
The five-mile ride was surprisingly uneventful. No one yelled at me from their car; meandering old people with their foo-foo dogs did not scold me as I passed wide over the grass along the bike trail; and I experienced no near-death collisions with cars as they ran the lights or rolled through the stop signs. Normally, experiencing one of these stressful events would be considered a good day.
After hanging my bicycle on my garage wall next to my old rusty car, I fetched my mail and proceeded to enter my tiny one-bedroom apartment where I lived alone. Shedding my damp clothes, I jumped into a hot shower before tidying up the apartment on the way to the kitchen.
In Friday tradition, I began cooking my favorite cheap out of a box spaghetti before sitting down on my ratty couch with my dinner to enjoy a British television comedy. Afterwards, my exciting night would conclude by playing computer games on the internet until I became bored and crawled into bed.
I would be the first to admit that I am not normal. When many abused drugs and became pregnant during high school—having fun as they would say—I stayed home with history books and assorted games. As an adult, I never progressed to going out to bars since I was a teetotaler, and relationships were few and far between. I came to accept my quiet lifestyle—after years of constant rejections—and came to embrace my life of solitude. I did feel as if I was missing out, but I did not dwell on it, too much.
Before the sanctuary of the computer and the internet, the library occupied most of my free time when I was younger. Whether after school or later after work, I lived in the library. Other than the smelly man who hung out in 'Woman Studies' and the angry man reading politics in periodicals, it was a peaceful home away from home. Today, since its replacement by the internet, I do occasionally miss the library ever and have been meaning to go back to visit; however, it was a given that I would not, for that would mean going out and traveling downtown, which I emotionally found more difficult as I aged.
So on this night, the mushy spaghetti noodles were tolerable, saved by overly garlicky sauce, and the predictable television comedy only made me smile out of nostalgia. But this night was set apart from the regular, for my thoughts were continuously and inexplicability interrupted by the memories of the strange woman that I had met in the hospital lobby.
In no rush, I woke well after sunrise, energized to experience my typical summer Saturday of mountain biking. Crawling out of bed around 10 am, I began with a light breakfast, some music, and browsing the internet. Just past noon, I devoured a cheap greasy burger for lunch and made sure my bicycle passed inspection.
With my morning routine completed, I began driving east out of Fargo, North Dakota. I would drive 60 miles to Tamarac National Refuge in northwestern Minnesota where some of the best—and least known—remote dirt trails for bike riding passed through a dense forest.
Thankfully on the weekends, the cars usually remained sparse on Highway 10 during these excursions. I did not mind the long drive since the trip itself soothed the past week's work stress as the highway crossed farmlands as far as the eye could see until it met the forest line and entered the region of lakes and trees. Today, the traffic was light as expected with only half a dozen cars passing me during the one-hour trip.
Nothing revitalized me more than riding my mountain bike. On good days, I could bike for a couple hours and not see another single living soul. Being my drug of choice, the endorphins from a long hard bike ride was enough to refuel me for the week ahead.
Sadly, my Saturday routine had changed recently as life would have it. No longer would there be a stop at my old family home after my bike ride. It had been a little over six months since my father's passing and the subsequent sale of the family home. I had no desire to see what the new owners had done to the house. As result, I immediately returned to Fargo after my rides as part of a new, more solemn routine.
In a small grass covered lot, I parked my rusty car at my usual spot behind a small wall of trees out of sight where the cross-country skiers would park in the winter. Parking here was legal, but if you did not want your car vandalized by the rare joy rider who passed by on the gravel road, you did not leave your car in clear view. In some ways, I would be grateful if they torched my car as they had others. But, I knew ultimately that it would not be worth the insurance paperwork to enjoy seeing it burn.
Even before I had entered the refuge, the smell of freshwater lakes filled the air since Becker County's 412 lakes peppered the woodland. In this part of the state, a lake could always be found close by, and when the southern summer winds churned the fresh water, nature at its finest overwhelmed all your senses.
After unloading my bicycle from the hatch, securing the tires, and reattaching the break cables, I fetched my two water bottles and secured them into their holders. Using my baseball cap as a defense against biting flies, I urinated into the bushes at the edge of the small grassy parking. Despite my bare legs, the flies managed to bit through my cotton shirt into my shoulder—the one holding the hat, of course.
Once sweaty on the trail, I would not stop until I had circled through the forest and had returned to my car. In these woods, the last thing a biker should do once covered in perspiration is to stop for urinating or—even worse, a flat tire—for the black flies enjoyed nothing more than feasting on a sweaty human. Ominously, when the sun was to your back, one would commonly see the shadow cast by the flies behind the rider's own outline as the insects gave unrelenting chase. These biting insects made for the ultimate personal trainer since human sweat was their aphrodisiac.
On this day in late August, the warm southern winds blew in gusts as they stirred nature. The dark green leaves gave the forest a healthy vibrant look as they collectively roared in tree song. The tallest trees moved slowly back and forth while the smaller, isolated trees danced more rapidly to and fro. The oldest trees creaked and cracked in rhythmic movements as their thick bark stretched with each gust of wind. Not to be forgotten, the pines and firs also had something to say, for they sang with whispers, hissing as the winds swiftly passed through their needles.
A medium-sized lake resided near the parking area where the trail followed the east shore. From an area of shoreline not shrouded by marsh, the quick rhythmic sounds of two-foot high, white-capped waves resonated as the water lapped the sand and rocks. All in all, the fresh water scent was strong and refreshing as it came off the lake.
Soon, the cold winds would come from the north, and the matured leaves would lose their green to evolve into bright autumn colors. For northern Minnesota, summer was nearing an end with only a couple weeks of jacketless weather remaining; moreover, the impending changes were beginning to creep into one's subconscious, unseen to the naked eye.
As I mounted my bike and secured my fingerless biking gloves, I could see the clouds beginning to return; they were a common prelude for the evening storms produced by the humid summer heat. The pre-storm winds would make the return bike ride slower, but they would also help keep me cool, especially when they came off one of the many lakes found along the trail. Most importantly, the winds would help deflect the abundant flies.
My riding path followed a trail that I frequented every summer weekend. Normally beginning at the exit of Blackbird Trail, I would travel north to the formal entrance and then backtrack along the same path for an 11.2-mile roundtrip.
Even though I had traveled this path over a hundred times, the woods made my nerves tingle from the anticipation of the unknown. The forest was a living thing, and it often held surprises since living things often changed in unpredictable ways.
The start of the trail followed a straight and narrow passage under a dense tree canopy that stretched approximately four hundred yards. Passage through this shadowed canopy gave the illusion of one traveling through a special entrance back through time into a hallowed forest—which tickled my inner child as evident from my smile.
Once out of the shadows of the dense canopy, the trail curved back and forth, passing over occasional small hills that ran along a handful of lakes uncluttered by beach houses and boats. Here in the wildlife refuge, one saw lakes in their natural state, before cluttered by man.
Here also lived the critters who would scurry away when surprised by my relatively quiet bicycle. Porcupines, deer, eagles, swans, and owls were quite common to see. On very rare occurrences, a black bear or timber wolf made a brief appearance before scampering into the shadows.
I would be remiss if I did not mention the occasional poacher, bird-watcher, and car full of young joy riders that one could also encounter. Like everything else in the forest, leave them alone and they generally left you alone.
Moisture from the previous night's storm had left the ground soft. No record riding time would be set today with the increased rolling resistance, which would also make the hills feel a little steeper. Nevertheless, none of this truly mattered since I only had to beat the flies.
I had traveled about three miles when I reached a slight bend in the trail as it hugged the west edge of a two miles wide egg-shaped lake. Passing around the bend, I spotted a person dressed in white two hundred yards ahead of me next to a boat landing. I immediately recognized the person to be the woman from the hospital lobby.
Wearing the same long flowing white dress, she stood in the center of the trail. Windswept hair drifted across her face as the winds pressed her dress against one side of her body. She had been looking up at a large owl on a nearby branch, which took flight upon my arrival. Her eyes fell on me, and instinct brought my bike to a swift stop.
My already rapid beating heart began to beat differently. It now pulsed rapidly from the fear of the unknown. This fear did not pass quickly as it would with the initial presence of a black bear or timber wolf. With caution, a bear or wolf would quickly turn and disappear into the forest. This woman stood her ground.
Somehow, I did not expect her to turn and run, and my brain rationalized the danger. Siding with caution, I decided not to confront this woman of possibly poor mental health and to inquire with the hospital by cell phone once I returned to my car. As I pondered the idea that she might be following me, I began turning my bicycle around to flee.
As soon as my bicycle pointed in the opposite direction, the woman appeared out of nowhere. "Please, I must speak with you." The woman calmly stood before me and took hold of my handlebars with one hand, locking my mountain bike in place.
My bowels hinted at evacuating when adrenaline flooded my body. "Excuse me!" I turned back to find neither a person standing by the boat landing nor an automobile parked along the trail. I estimated that she had moved two hundred yards in a matter of seconds. To free my bike, I grabbed her wrist and discovered her arm to be hard and cool to the touch. My fear elevating, I let go of her arm and began pulling against my handlebars. The bars felt as if set in stone. "Let go!"
"It's my fault, and I can never express how sorry I am," she said.
"What is your fault?"
"The predicament that I have put you in." The woman's eyes appeared to well with impending tears. "I did not mean to take your…" Pausing, the woman focused on the ground. "A car is coming."
Looking back at the trail, I could not see or hear an approaching car.
"Steven, after they pass, I'll explain everything to you."
Remembering that I had worn gym clothes—with no name badge—in the hospital lobby, it shocked me that she knew my name. I began pulling harder on my handlebars and found them still frozen in place as she effortlessly stood before me, holding my bicycle with one hand.
"Relax, I will not hurt you," she said. "You may not believe me, but you have probably never been any safer than you are right now. Patience, please."
Even though the waves had become larger from a sudden increase in wind speed, I turned to the lake with the thought of a water escape.
"I can out swim you too. They're almost here. Stay calm."
I could now hear a car approaching with music blaring from the windows as it traveled approximately 15 miles per hour on the narrow winding dirt trail.
As I debated asking the strangers for help, I noticed that my shadow of black flies did not attack me. I did not have to swat the insects away with my baseball cap as I normally would during the briefest stop. Even the mosquitoes had dissipated.
Past the boat landing, from around a corner, an old beat up car appeared with four young joy riders. I debated frantically about asking for help, for it could be dangerous provoking joy riders in this remote part of Minnesota. They could end up attacking both of us and stealing my bike. I had been hoping for bird-watchers and now did not know what to do.
The woman's face remained calm as she forced smile for the approaching automobile. Despite the smile, her eyes were welled and strained. Slowly, her eyes drifted down to meet my stare, causing me to feel small in her shadow.
Some unexplainable thing stood before me, an unknown that could be the subject of a fairy tale. The gravity of my predicament struck me, for there were no fairy tales that encompassed her, which meant that she would probably remain an unknown with me inescapably silenced.
When I heard the sound of the car nearly upon us, I bent over to look at my pedals, peaking under my arm at the passengers. I could see the confused expression of the front passenger, probably surprised that we were not the typical bird-watching couple that they normally disrupted.
The strange woman broke her stoic pose and leaned over the handlebars to look at my face. As she leaned closer, a tear fell from her cheek onto my exposed right index finger, causing her to gasp. "You need to wipe that off."
As the car passed wide on the trail, I jerked on my handlebars and freed myself from the woman's iron grip. Whether she relaxed in the presence of the four strangers or planned something else for me, I did not care. I immediately began pedaling after the car.
"I have to talk to you. The events set in motion cannot be avoided." The woman turned, remaining where she stood. "And you need to wash your hand."
Pedaling the hardest in my life, I chased after the car, not so close to risk their anger but close enough to give the woman hesitation. As I kept a safe distance, the smells from their early entertainment emanated from their open windows. Fortunately, their brake lights served as a beacon as the car appeared and disappeared repeatedly around corners. Knowing this trail better than my own hand, I kept pace, timing the corners of the winding trail to remain out of their sight.
My lungs and legs burned as the long, straight section of trail covered by dense forest canopy approached. The car's speed would certainly increase on this last stretch as they approached the exit, which would leave me on my own until I reached my parked car just beyond the intersecting road. Running on fumes, I had to fight the urge to vomit as I prepared myself for the final sprint.
When I found the shadow cast by the large group of biting flies, I felt a peculiar relief for the first time in my life. I glanced over my shoulder to verify their existence and to see if the woman had followed me, only to find more flies.
The joy riders reached the end of the trail and turned right, disappearing from view. I pedaled the long straightaway through the dark canopy of trees and crossed the county road to the parking area. Popping open the back hatch to my car, I quickly removed my tires and tossed in my bicycle.
As I closed the driver's door, I observed a couple bleeding bites on my sweaty arms. Gripped in a panic while stowing my bike, I had not noticed the attacking fly swarm, some of which were now trapped in my car in search of their own escape. Scanning in all directions, I started the car and pulled out of the parking area without hesitance.
Considering the woman's strength and speed, the nagging thought of whether she could stop my car entered my mind. When I discovered my cell phone battery depleted, I began to drive faster than what would be judged safe for a gravel road.
During the entire trip home, I contemplated whom I should call, and what would I say. Perhaps, I've come down with a mental illness that would explain a lightning fast woman with superhuman strength with skin cool to the touch, I thought, feeling sick from the overwhelming fear. Most importantly, my primal instinct told me that she was dangerous and that I had not escaped: she had let me go.
My right index finger itched terribly as I drove. Carefully pulling off my fingerless biking gloves, I found my finger warm and bright red. My hand also shook uncontrollably, and after swapping hands on the steering wheel, I discovered that the other hand shook just as bad.
I returned to Fargo around 5 pm, parked in my garage, and unloaded my bicycle out of habit. There had to be an explanation, but I just wanted to lock myself inside my apartment to think calmly through the situation.
Upon entering my apartment, I found a sheet of paper lying on my kitchen floor before the door. In elegant cursive handwriting, it read:
I promise you no harm. Please forgive my lack of tact, for it has been a long time. Meet me tomorrow in the mall at the galleria at noon. All will be explained.
I did not eat. I did not sleep. I sat next to the toilet reading and rereading her note. She kept reminding me that she meant to cause me no harm, but I could only think of the woman's first words that she had said to me: "You may never forgive me, but I may have inadvertently taken your life."
As I tried to cope with the unexplainable fear, the seriousness of the situation embedded itself deep within me.