“I’m so cold,” said the woman in white.
I didn’t have anything to offer her. No cozy sweater, wool coat, or scarf. Looking at her, though, I wondered if she’d want anything of mine. She had her own sense of style. Her clothes, all white, made my greys look grubby and drab.
“Aren’t you cold?” she said.
I shrugged. “I’m used to it.”
It was dusk. I’d been walking alongside the road out of town. The locals called it Bad Luck Bends, had for as long as I could remember. I looked up from my usual path and she was simply there, like she’d materialized from the fog in the forest that surrounded us.
“Where are you headed?” she asked.
I pointed ahead, at the blur of a farmhouse up on the hill that marked the end of this nasty stretch of highway.
“I need a ride.” She glanced over her shoulder, but there were no cars taking the steep, twisty route out of town.
“Sorry,” I said. “It’s a hard road.”
She looked at me and cocked her head.
“Lots of accidents,” I explained. “Cars have trouble staying on the road.”
“Men in cars,” she said with a sneer.
It was true: most of the accidents were single-car, single-fatality, a man behind the wheel. Maybe men drive more carelessly when they’re alone. Lord knows they make poor decisions when they’re in groups.
I guess we knew the same kinds of men.
We walked in silence for many minutes. I wondered if we’d reach my house before she managed to hitch a ride. Eventually, the sound of a car engine came up behind us, winding left and right around the bends. It was two women in a sedan, two boys bickering in the backseat. To my surprise, my companion backpedaled to the treeline. I followed her a few steps into the forest. The car switched on its headlights, and I thought for sure they’d spot her, all in white among the dark pines. But she stood beside a tree, still as a rabbit hearing hounds, and they did not see.
“Not my kind of ride,” she said.
We walked on, darting into the growing darkness when, first, a couple in a Jeep, then a beater packed full of rowdy teenagers drove past. The old car’s radio fizzed out for a few seconds, but the teens were singing along so loudly they didn’t notice. I imagined rust vibrating off the old car as they belted out their tune. There might be nothing left but wheels by the time they reached their destination.
Finally, a truck came along, a bearded silhouette in the driver’s seat.
“There’s my ride,” my companion said.
The truck slowed and stopped ahead of us. When we caught up to it, the man behind the wheel yelled out the passenger-side window: “Hey, do you need a ride?”
“How far you going?” She flashed a smile I hadn’t yet seen.
He opened the door and a yellow light came on in the cab. He looked her up and down. “For a cute thing like you? I’ll go as far as you do,” he said with a wink. “You got a few bucks for gas?”
“No, but I’m good company.”
He waved her in. “I could use some company. Damn radio just up and died on me.”
It wasn’t a line. Or not only a line. People say the forest blocks radio waves and phone signals. I don’t know. I’m not scientific.
She grabbed the door handle and turned to me, a question in her eyes.
“I’ll keep walking,” I said. “I live nearby.”
She stepped onto the running board and swung herself into the truck without another word. Soon even their taillights were a memory, and I half-wondered if I’d made up an imaginary friend.
I can’t always trust myself. Minds are shifty things.
• • • •
I saw her again at dusk on the night of the next new moon. She still wore all white, the flowy material almost as diaphanous as a slip, as if she’d gotten halfway dressed for a party.
“I remember you!” I said happily.
“I remember you,” she almost echoed.
We stood looking at one another. For a moment I felt like I was looking in a mirror, our different attire notwithstanding. But I was grinning and she didn’t smile. Smiling didn’t come natural to her, I’d learn. She only smiled for men.
“I’m so cold.” She hugged herself and continued walking. “Are you cold?”
Of course she was cold—her clothes were thin and didn’t cover enough of her. Her white blouse exposed bony shoulders, the sleeves barely reaching her elbows. Her short skirt showed off legs as hard and white as marble. Probably from walking when hitchhiking didn’t pan out. But it would’ve been impolite to comment on her clothing, and I wore nothing extra to offer her.
“I’m used to it,” I said, shrugging, already in step with her.
“You’re from around here?”
I pointed up at the farmhouse, and she nodded.
“Last time, did you get home all right?”
I couldn’t actually remember getting home that night, but I must have. Otherwise I wouldn’t be there talking to her, right? “I always walk home.”
I felt a flash of embarrassment. I’d held my tongue about her outfit, why couldn’t she do the same for me?
“My shoes don’t fit. They’re hand-me-downs,” I admitted. I’d lost track of how many times they’d flown off as I ran through the woods. “Do you always need a ride?” I retorted.
She sighed, sounding tired. “That’s how it is.”
That’s how it is, all right. Men in cars, while we walk a million miles, half hoping, half dreading they’ll notice us. And then when they do pull up alongside us, they holler, “Hey, you need a ride?” Their grins always teetering on the edge of a leer. Despite my wounded pride, I felt sorry for her. And for me.
Sombre, we walked in silence.
After dusk had turned to dark, she said, “There’s a legend about this road.”
I nodded. Kids had told it around campfires for years. “I’m not scared,” I said.
“No. In fact, you kinda remind me of her. The clothes, you know.”
“I’m flattered,” she said. “Girls like us have to stick together.”
Was I a part of that “us?” I didn’t want to presume. Maybe she meant her and the Woman in White.
“Men are the ones who have to worry,” I said. “She doesn’t bother women.”
“Men are the bother.”
I blinked at her candor but couldn’t disagree. I changed the subject.
“I know a shortcut to the end of the Bends. There’s a path in the forest that follows Graham’s Creek. You have to hike a bit, but it’s quicker than taking all these turns.”
“I don’t mind time spent with you. Besides, the road’s been good to me.”
It took me a minute to understand what she’d said. I couldn’t recall the last time someone wanted to be my friend. I mean a real friend, not a few-minutes friend or a what-can-I-get-out-of-you friend. If it was all a dream, I didn’t want to know.
“Okay,” I said, smiling. Afraid to hope. Willing to play along.
• • • •
Stuff collects in the Bends. Empty Coke cans, little liquor bottles, single gloves, hubcaps. Occasionally underthings, which always bothers me. It feels weird hoping the owner willingly stripped down in the woods, but it’s worse to imagine otherwise.
I was hurrying to get home before the snow started, but I’m not lucky. Hard white specks started pelting the asphalt. Casting about for shelter, I noticed a scrap of newspaper fluttering in the ditch. The black-and-white picture looked like a hand-drawn illustration. I was intrigued. You don’t see that much in papers anymore; it’s all photos now.
With a hand to shield my eyes, I glanced at the sky. A grey blanket stretched overhead, from the west horizon all the way behind me to the east. I wouldn’t make it home before the real snow, even if I took the shortcut by Graham’s Creek—which I wasn’t eager to do this close to dark, not alone.
I walked into the ditch to examine the scrap. The drawing depicted our local legend—the Woman in White. But why was that news? Halloween was long past. Snowstorms had already flocked the trees around me.
Near the top of the ripped newsprint, a fragment read “. . . given the similarities, law enforcement should re-examine these so-called accidents,” Mr. Lopez said.
I didn’t recognize the last name as being local, but these days people come and go. And I don’t talk to all that many when they’re in between.
The crunch of tires on snow jolted me from my musing. Seconds later, headlights flared over me and the vehicle snapped to a stop. I squinted at the minivan through increasingly fat snowflakes. Its hazard lights flicked on, washing the snow a pastel orange. The driver’s door opened, and suddenly my chest ached with a familiar fear.
“Are you okay?” the man inside called. “Do you need help? A ride?”
“I’m walking home,” I said. I hated how my voice quavered. I sounded like a frightened child.
“Okay, but do you need a ride?” He got out of the minivan and approached the ditch, empty hands raised as if to say, I won’t hurt you. “Where’s home?”
I pointed to the house on the hill, now invisible through the snow-hastened dark.
“Okay.” He kept saying okay like if he said it enough, everything would be. “I know you’re probably not supposed to take rides from strangers, but this is a special case, right?”
“Can I ride in the back?” I asked.
He first looked confused, then nodded. “Sure, whatever makes you feel safe. You can use my phone. Tell your folks you’re on your way.”
I shook my head. “Phones don’t work around here.”
“Yeah, I guess I haven’t seen any cell towers in a while.” As I climbed out of the ditch, he gasped and clutched his temples. “Oh my god, you’re barefoot! Where are your shoes? Hurry, get in the van!”
In the back, there was a child seat and, tucked into a mesh pocket on the side, a package of Clean Bean Baby Wipes. Maybe that should’ve reassured me, but I know some dads are monsters. Not mine, but other people’s. Neighbours’. Classmates’.
“Just up the road, right? Tell me when we’re close,” he said. “I think there’s a baby blanket back there. Cover up those feet!”
We rode in silence, hot air blasting from the vents. My teeth chattered, though not from the cold.
He reached out and I flinched, but he was only taking something from the seat next to him. “I know this is a terrible time to ask, but have you seen this man?” He twisted his arm to show me a flyer.
Looking at it, seeing the picture, I felt an itch on the outskirts of my mind. Like a mental on-the-tip-of-my-tongue. “Maybe . . . I don’t know. I got hurt a while back and my memory isn’t so good now.”
“Ah, I see,” he said, as if I’d confirmed some suspicion. He put the flyer down.
I stopped being scared. I had a bad memory; I wasn’t stupid.
“Who was he?” I asked.
He tensed, squeezing the steering wheel. “Was? What makes you say was? He’s my brother.”
“But you’ve lost him,” I said, looking out the window.
He exhaled from his nostrils. “He was supposed to visit for Thanksgiving. He never showed up. That town back there’s the last place he was seen.”
“It’s a bad road. Lots of accidents.” I said it matter-of-factly, to needle him.
“So I’ve heard,” he muttered. Louder, he asked, “But have you seen any broken-down cars on the road? A blue Camaro? That’s a sporty kind of car.”
The addendum irritated me. I didn’t know makes of cars, but that wasn’t because I was addle-brained, only uninterested. Meanwhile, the itching in my mind grew worse. On the verge of remembering a swarm of things, bad things, I didn’t answer.
That didn’t stop his questions. “Or maybe signs of a crash? Broken trees near one of these bends? Broken glass? Tracks in the snow?”
He could’ve gone on forever, verbalizing his every fear. I was goddamn mad. What if I did remember a blue car? Lots of cars passed me when I walked home—no one gave me a second thought. Plenty of people died around here. What was so special about his brother?
I wanted so badly to reach forward and shake him. The urge burned as intense as the itching in my head. But I looked at the Clean Bean Baby Wipes. Somebody needed him, maybe a daughter. And his stupid brother was gone. Maybe that was enough suffering.
I bailed before I said or did something I’d regret.
Because memory works that way: it lets the things you want to remember fade away, but the bad stuff? That it holds on to. Tight.
• • • •
Next time I saw my hitchhiker friend, I told her about the dad in the minivan. She made a spitting sound.
“I hate them all.”
That made me feel better.
I got used to walking with her in the evenings. She broke the hypnotic monotony of all those bends in the road, and around every curve, the same vista of trees and snow, rising hills and deepening ravines. I thought of her as a friend, even though we didn’t know each other by name. Our conversations seldom went long before she caught a ride. Despite the hard road, we seemed to be good luck for one another.
Of course, I knew she wasn’t really hitchhiking. How would she keep showing up at the same place? She was probably “a working girl,” as my mom used to say, but that wasn’t any of my business. I always let her take the first ride a man offered, in case that was how she made a living. Besides, she was colder than me and the men were really stopping for her, not her dowdy friend. Flimsy as her white ensemble was for the weather, it worked for the road.
• • • •
Later—maybe months later; time’s been shifty since I got hurt—I found myself walking alone through the forest. I guess I’d decided to use the shortcut by Graham’s Creek, but I couldn’t find the trail. It was a new moon night and so dark; the night felt heavy, smothering.
I missed my hitchhiker friend; her up-front hate and spit-in-yer-eye confidence made me feel safe. I missed my dog, too. Dogs are about the here and now. Charlie would’ve kept me focused on the path, not my growing sense of dread.
Now that I was alone, the old feelings caught up with me. It was too dark to breathe. The night filled my nose and mouth, clogged my lungs. My head hurt. I’d lost my shoes, and walking through the packed, ice-crusted snow felt like stepping through glass.
Since Graham’s Creek was frozen over, I couldn’t orient myself by the sound of rushing water. I thought if I found a clearing, I could check the stars for direction. But when I stopped moving, I heard twig snaps behind me—like knuckles cracking.
I staggered between trees, telling myself I was being ridiculous. Who else would be out here on a night like this? Only, when I sped up, so did the threatening snaps. Someone was following me. Several someones. I burst into a run, then they were chasing me. I heard them panting all around me.
Yards ahead, I spotted an eerie green gleam that quickly disappeared. I thought it was the gaze of a forest animal, maybe a wolf. I ran straight for it, more afraid of my invisible pursuers than any four-legged animal. A snowbank collapsed under me, and I fell on my hands and knees. As I crouched there, wheezing, I had a terrible intuition that what I’d seen was a masked flashlight, that somehow one of them had gotten in front of me, to cut off my escape.
The gleam came again, closer, and this time I recognized it: car headlights bouncing off a reflective road sign. The gleam winked as the car took the rising turns of Bad Luck Bends.
I ran to the side of the road and waved my arms at the oncoming lights. Brakes squealed and the car skidded on a patch of ice. Passing mere inches from me, the car pushed a breeze through my hair and ruffled my skirt. Fortunately, the driver knew to turn into the skid. The car stopped with its back end on the blacktop, front end on the shoulder of the road.
In seconds, I was at the passenger side. The driver opened the window a crack.
“Holy shit,” he said. “You scared the hell out of me! Are you okay?”
“Please.” I pressed my hands to the window. “I need a ride.”
“Is somebody chasing you?”
“Yes! I heard noises in the forest.” I looked over my shoulder. I didn’t see anyone, but I wasn’t taking any chances. As soon as he unlocked the door, I jumped in and slammed it shut behind me. Papers in the backseat rustled in the agitated air. “I’m scared. Please, let’s just go.”
He peered past me. When no one emerged from the forest, he seemed disappointed.
“Hurry!” I said.
“Right.” He released the brake. “Where are we going?”
I struggled for breath and pointed to the farmhouse, invisible in the inky, suffocating night. “I live nearby. Drive and we’ll come to a hill.”
“A hill.” He sounded amused as he drove off the shoulder, tightly turning to get us back on the road. “There’s a hundred hills around here.”
I nodded, not appreciating his sense of humour at the moment. “I’ll tell you where to turn.”
He flicked off the radio, and in the sudden silence, I realized we’d been listening to static.
“You’re local, no? You should know better than to be out here at night. I mean, it’s called Bad Luck Bends for a reason, right?”
I couldn’t tell if he was really asking me. He had an accent that turned up the ends of his sentences.
“It’s a hard road,” I said cautiously, hands trembling in my lap. “Lots of accidents.”
“It’s not just accidents anymore. People are going missing.” He paused as he took the next turn. “But we don’t want any stranger danger here, acuerdas? My name’s Ant. And you are?”
Confusion tamped down some of my fear. “Your name is Ant?”
“Well, Antonio Lopez. And you are . . .?”
I stared at him, feeling that itch at the back of my mind. “Why do I know that name?”
He started to smile. “I have a true crime podcast. Are you a fan?”
He made a sizzling sound with his mouth. “I’m gonna need some aloe vera for that burn. Maybe you seen me around town? I been here for a few weeks. I did an interview with the local paper?”
“Not impressed, I take it.” He rolled his eyes at himself. “Pos, what am I saying? You were running for your life a minute ago! What do you care about my thing?”
I only stared some more, trying to catch my breath.
“And you’re not gonna tell me your name? Okay, ‘s all right. I get it.”
I frowned. “What do you get?”
“You don’t know me. I’m brown, a stranger in town. Safer not to get too friendly, right? Especially after your scare in the woods. And all the trouble on this road.”
It wasn’t his skin colour that threw me off, but he didn’t seem offended by my presumed racism, so I only said, “Cars have a hard time holding onto the Bends.”
His breath hitched in a bitter, nearly silent chuckle. “You buying the party line? The cops in this town don’t have a clue. You know incidents on this road have doubled over the last year?”
“Incidents?” I repeated.
“Yeah, if you combine the men who’ve disappeared plus the accidents. Neither is enough to ping anyone’s radar, but taken together?”
I thought about my friend. How long had it been since I’d seen her? “It ‘pinged’ your radar?”
“Hey, I may be an amateur gumshoe, but I been doing this a while. And not just regurgitating stuff from Crime Confidential dot com, like some of my ‘colleagues.’ I do a multi-episode investigative report for the ‘cast at least once a year. Es super padre.”
Between adrenaline from the forest and worries about my friend, I only grasped half of what he said. Oblivious, he kept talking, like most men do when a woman pretends to listen.
“Chief ‘Wiggum’ and them may think these guys ran off the road”—he gave me a look that suggested he’d made a joke—“and that come spring, hikers are gonna find some crashed cars and bodies in ravines, but please.”
I don’t like it when men laugh at things I don’t understand. Ant hadn’t exactly laughed, but his inside joke didn’t include me. And he was a very careful driver. At the rate he drove, I’d be in his car forever. I shivered.
“Sorry, kid, I don’t mean to scare you. You’re safe now. Hey, you sure you’re okay? You look a little pale. Even for a white girl.”
“My coat’s in the back.”
He eased off the gas, turning to grab it. I flinched, and he pulled back.
“Sorry,” he said. “No sudden movements, right?”
I held my silence while he took sidelong glances at me. Arriving at my feet, he exclaimed, “Madre Santa, no wonder you’re cold! You don’t have any shoes on. And your skirt is ripped.” He checked the road before looking at me again. “Is that dirt or blood on your legs?”
“I don’t know. I can’t feel it, I’m cold.”
“Yeah, let me get my coat.” This time he retrieved it despite my flinch. He dropped the coat in my lap and returned his attention to the road. “Are you hurt? You might be in shock. How long were you out there in the woods?”
“I don’t know. I was scared. I lost track of time.”
“Happens, I guess.”
I bristled. It did happen. To me, it happened a lot. But I didn’t have to explain my problems. Nor did I have to put on the smelly coat he’d dumped on me. I wished I’d asked to sit in the backseat.
Before he could question me further, I changed the subject. “Why are you in town? Why did the paper interview you?”
“Did you not actually read the article?” He blew a raspberry. “Nobody reads the papers anymore. I was investigating those murders across the state line.”
I craned to check the backseat, thinking maybe I could move. Hand-scribbled notes and typed, heavily annotated pages sprawled from manila folders. That must’ve been the rustle I’d heard earlier. On top of the folders lay a slim, zippered briefcase. Maybe it was meant to anchor the folders, but whatever was inside wasn’t heavy enough.
“. . . don’t want to say ‘serial killer’ because it’s a woman,” Ant was saying when I tuned back in. “But the MO.”
“The man’s always found naked, robbed, and shot in his vehicle. Perp’s clothes are left behind. The forensics lab is so backed up, they’re not getting DNA or fibres ‘fore hell freezes over. But my guess? Prostitute.”
I thought of my friend again and my chest tightened, my hands tingled.
“The way I see it?” he said. “This woman hitches a ride with a guy. She tells him to drive to a remote area. Once they’re both stripped, she shoots him and steals his clothes and wallet.”
Silent, wishing he would be too, I searched for a mile marker. How far had I run? Where in the Bends were we?
“So, when those murders stopped, I figured she was waiting for the heat to die down, y’know? Instead, what a coincidence, men start disappearing here.”
I felt him look at me, as if expecting some reaction, maybe astonishment at his intellectual prowess. But I’d never cared for the Hardy Boys. I was still waiting for a mile marker.
“There’s a curve coming up soon,” I said. “Turn off where the road goes left, take the trail on the right.”
Ant slowed the car even more. “I thought you said it was up a hill.”
“The trail goes up the hill. You can’t reach my house from the Bends, you have to go around back.”
From his tone, I knew he didn’t.
At the turnoff, perhaps worried that I was in shock or sending him on a snipe hunt, he asked, “Is there a bridge across Graham’s Creek? We’re getting closer to it, aren’t we?”
“Yes, thank goodness.” My hands no longer tingled; they burned.
“Yeah, you must be eager to put this night behind you.”
He suggested I use the phone in his coat pocket to call home or the police. Rather than tell him that was pointless, I managed a “No, thank you.”
The car bounced along the bumpy gravel trail, made even bumpier by a foot of snow and ice. Eventually, branches started scraping the sides of the car. Ant winced at a particularly nasty squeal of wood on metal. To distract him, I asked, “What makes you think the killer came here?”
“Are you sure this trail’s meant for cars? My paint job—”
“Was someone shot?” I insisted.
“Like I said”—he sounded peeved at having to repeat himself—“no one’s found the bodies yet.”
He swivelled his head to gauge the encroaching forest, probably wondering if there was still room enough to turn around. My friend would’ve flashed her smile to win him over, but I didn’t think it’d work for me. Not while my mind itched with inchoate memories. Not while my hands ached to touch him.
Instead, before he could slow down, I gave him the look my dog, Charlie, always gave me when he begged under the table. “I’m so sorry. The trail gets wider, I promise, and we’re almost to the bridge. I just want to go home. Please.”
He clamped his lips in a semblance of a smile. “I guess I’ll chalk it up to work expenses, give the IRS something to salivate over.”
“You were saying?” I prompted. “Why the killer chose to come here?”
Silence. Just when I thought he was going to stop and put the car in reverse, he cleared his throat. Relief flooded through me. It was true; no storyteller could resist an eager audience.
He began, voice deeper, accent under wraps. I imagined he’d rehearsed it in his hotel room.
“Believe it or not, the killer may have been attracted by the town’s urban legend. Locals say the ghost of a young woman haunts Bad Luck Bends. Dressed in old-fashioned clothes, she appears on the road to lure male drivers to their deaths. Those who succumb to her pleas for a ride home are killed when their car goes off the road, for no apparent reason and with no sign of a passenger. The few Good Samaritans who do survive insist that the girl simply vanished from the car. So, what is the connection between myth and murder?”
He paused for effect. “Clothes make the man—or in this case, the woman. The clothes the serial killer leaves behind with the dead johns are women’s clothes, and every last item is white . . . except for the blood.”
I nodded slowly, as if connecting the dots. “Like the Woman in White.”
“Exactly!” he exclaimed.
I touched his shoulder, and his triumph turned to screams. Men always scream when I touch them. It’s why they run off the road.
The dead aren’t supposed to touch the living. But men aren’t supposed to hurt girls, either.
Frostbitten by my touch, Ant spasmed. His feet slammed the gas and brake pedals. Of course, brakes don’t work much better than radios around me. We only ploughed through the forest faster.
I yanked the steering wheel, and the car raced toward a longleaf pine like they were long-lost lovers. In the headlights, the ice on Graham’s Creek flashed like a camera capturing the reunion. With my free hand, I unlatched his seatbelt. Ant was such a cautious driver—except when it came to picking his passenger.
He turned to me, eyes filled with pain, mouth agape. Perhaps he felt betrayed, but he was nothing to me, simply a man who knew too much. We stared at each other as the car smashed into the tree. He was still looking at me when the windshield peeled his scalp. Then he was free, of my touch and the glass. He hurtled through the air. Blood joined the cascade of snow and pine needles shaken loose by impact.
Moments later, at my own pace, I passed through the crumpled metal. The tree still shivered, gouges in its bark welling with sap. Ant’s briefcase had also flown through the windshield. Plastic and metal bits poked from the stretchy fabric, but they didn’t bother me as I carried the briefcase to the creek. Nor when I slammed it into the ice to make a crack.
Not wanting his bones beneath the forest floor like mine, I dragged Ant to the creek. I put my palm to the cracked ice, which shattered and sank. The current still rippled below; it eagerly accepted Ant and his briefcase. I dumped his paperwork, and the pages quickly went transparent, ink sucked away by greedy black water. The current swept it all under the ice and downstream, a secret for spring.
• • • •
A long time ago, my skirt and blouse were white. That was before three men in a truck stopped to offer me a ride home. Before their grins turned to leers and they chased me through the forest. Before they buried me under a new moon.
I remember now. I always remember after a kill.
Determined to warn my friend, I move through the forest as a blur. This time, I’m not afraid. No one can hurt me, and I can’t get lost. The Bends will always pull me back. I’m a bad memory they can’t let go.
But my friend, my unsmiling reflection, she’s alive. I think the Bends will release her, but first I have to find her. I’ll beg her to stop killing—not for the men’s sake but for her own. Not forever, just until she’s somewhere safe.
It won’t be easy; I’ll miss having a friend. But girls like us have to stick together.
Even if it means hunting apart.
Spread the word!