Deep in my soul I knew that over the last seventy-two hours I’d lost significantly more that weight and inches. The shorts slipped past my hips much more easily than they should have. I settled into a squatting position and listened for the trickle splashing against the rock. The harder I concentrated the less likely a successful outcome appeared to be. I knew the process was taking too long. The confirmation came swiftly when he snatched my pony-tail and yanked me over backwards. Landing awkwardly on my tailbone, my first reaction was to reach for my shorts, but I froze when the warm breath hit the back of my neck.
“You see this knife, Princess. Take a good, hard look at how shiny and hungry the blade is. Do whatever you need to do so the image is engrained in your head, because if you don’t quit stalling I’m going to feed it right here! Now, pick up the backpack and move”, he snarled.
A desperate part of me wanted to scream and simply take my chances when he came at me, but previously failed attempts still haunted me. He said resistance would only make things uglier. Although I couldn’t image things being worse than what I had suffered over the last few days, I also didn’t want to expose myself to another layer of madness that lurked inside of his head. There was no question he was certifiably insane, but the scarier part was that he was also very intelligent and meticulous. From the dreadful moment I let him into my hotel room he had been two steps ahead of me.
I supposed it was natural that following a traumatic event the victim would dissect every detail, questioning whether one seemingly insignificant action could have changed the entire outcome. Certainly deciding to hike the Smoky Mountain trails alone was not a perfect plan from a security standpoint, but an experienced hiker and survivalist is much more concerned about hungry bears and inclimate weather than a psychopathic encounter. I knew plenty of women whom I considered of lesser or equal abilities who had done it successfully. After twelve hours in a vehicle all I wanted was some decent pizza, a warm shower, and a good night’s rest before striking out the next morning. Even though I was exhausted I still didn’t consider my actions careless. When the knock came at my door I saw a guy holding a pizza box through the peep hole, but didn’t accept the announcement of ‘delivery’ carte blanche. I insisted he verify the order and my name before I felt justified in unlatching the chain.
Life can turn on you so very quickly. One moment I was fumbling for cash and the next I was pinned on the bed with the cold steel of a knife-blade resting against my throat. It sounds stupid, but I was less concerned with the stranger plunging a knife into my carotid than the fact that the bath towel I was wearing had spilled open. I reasoned that if he saw me naked it was a foregone conclusion he would rape me. In retrospect I wasted several precious moments flip-flopping between compliance and resistance as there was compelling evidence supporting both. I hadn’t landed squarely on a decision when he demanded silence. I nodded repeatedly up and down, until he was satisfied with my level of sincerity and withdrew the knife. He reached for the pizza box, and after lifting the lid he retrieved a red colored rag. I assumed it would serve as make-shift gag so I took the opportunity to bluff.
“My boyfriend just went out for soda…he’ll be back any moment. If you leave right now, I swear I’ll never breathe a word about any of this.”
He laughed before lifting from over me and taking a standing position at the end of the bed. His knee-cap was out of striking distance of my foot, but I was formulating a plan to close the distance when he completely derailed my thought process.
“Put on a night shirt or something. You being completely naked makes me feel dirty.”
What type of killer/rapist was put off by seeing his victim naked? Maybe I had assumed the worst and all he wanted was cash or jewelry. After demanding clothing he turned away from me, and even stranger yet he turned again to avoid the reflection of my naked frame in the mirror. I scrambled to my suitcase and began to search. At this point my brain was swimming in a cesspool of emotions, while attempting to field and process a barrage of assumptions and possibilities. All of it was meant for internal consumption, but suddenly one of thoughts emerged out loud.
“How does holding a knife to someone’s throat not bother you, but seeing them nude makes you feel dirty? Is that even possible?”
Once I realized the mistake, I insisted again. “My boyfriend really is on his way. He has an awful temper and a ‘conceal and carry permit’!”
I knew my expression would reveal the threat as a lie, so I maintained eye-contact with the nightshirt I had selected and took my time pulling it over my head to provide camouflage.
“My dearest Katherine, you think I’m a fool don’t you? Let’s talk about your supposed boyfriend. As a matter of fact your only boyfriend, Jesse, died in a tragic motorcycle accident your junior year of high school. You haven’t as much as dated a single man in the last six years. Currently you make ends meet as a waitress at a small café—very much the classical loner. You finally manage to squirrel away enough cash for a vacation and intended upon coming to the Smoky Mountains to disappear into the wilderness for a month. Note to self Katherine: leaving your social media wide open can produce dangerous circumstances. But I can help you with that”, he laughed. “Disappearing I mean.”
My skin began to crawl as he revealed every detail correctly. I grabbed my cell phone from the night stand and attempted to make it around the corner to lock myself in the bathroom and call 911, but he launched himself at me and we both tumbled onto the carpet. In one fluid motion he swept the phone under the bed, rolled me onto my back and applied the gag. He pressed his full weight against me.
“I do rather enjoy the feisty ones; it brings out another side of me. There’s something absolutely spectacular about hungry nipples pressing against cotton—nibbling at one another. My dear Katherine, I must teach you that poor choices on your part often leave me no alternative but to counter your aggression.”
The sound of the zipper on his jeans triggered a shockwave of urgency. I summoned every bit of energy and began thrashing and bucking. Twice my size, he easily squashed the flailing when he zip tied my wrists to the furniture legs and my ankles to the bed frame.
“You have taken a piece of my trust, Katherine, and I must now take something of value from you—that’s how the game is played. But I promise to be very quick—before your ‘boyfriend’ gets back.”
He retrieved the hem of the tee, carefully pulled it away from my body, and sliced up the side. After tossing the tee open he stabbed a syringe into the fleshy part my hip. My field of vision narrowed to a small tunnel before everything faded to black.
“Wake up, princess.” Only hours old, his loathsome voice was emanating from behind me.
I blinked and stared at the floor where I last remembered lying. He had obviously moved me to the edge of the bed. I was positioned on my side with both wrists secured to a lamp that was in turn bolted to the night stand, but the gag had been removed.
“What did you do to me last night, you perverted bastard? Did you drug and rape me?”
He pressed his index finger firmly to the center of my lips, releasing the pressure as if flowed down over my chin, splitting the difference between my breasts and traveling the length of my belly.
“You really do take me for clod, don’t you Katherine? Decorating your private parts with my DNA strewn about would be pure foolishness. The mere suggestion of such a barbaric act produced the desired results. Rather uneventfully, we talked into the wee hours of the morning, but you did provide me with absolutely everything I needed.”
He reached into his rear pocket and flashed a fiendish smile before flipping an envelope down in front of me. The handwriting appeared to be mine and it was addressed to my parents.
“What’s in the envelope, you creep? If you’re asking for a ransom, they have nothing. I’m begging you not to involve my parents?”
“No ransom I promise, and quite the contrary, Princess. I am….rather you are, virtually assuring their non-involvement. The letter contains a heart-felt admission that you’ve struggled with depression since Jesse’s death. Through the years you became addicted to prescription anti-depressants, and eventually turned to whiskey and harder illegal drugs in an attempt to dull the pain. You eventually painted yourself into a corner by indulging in prostitution to support the habit. You then reveal how morbidly ashamed you are for dragging the family name through the mud, but now fear for your own, and more importantly, your parent’s safety as angry dealers and pimps have transitioned from debt collection to pure retaliation. You inform them that your debauchery has reached critical mass and you’re attempting a fresh start, but you fear many of the authorities are on the payroll of those looking to do you harm. You beg them to keep your whereabouts to themselves.”
The shock I experienced was surreal—my life was literally unraveling and dissolving into thin air, but the most frustrating aspect of it all was that this neurotic fiend would likely get away with it. Like a boiling pot of water overflows and licks at the flame, my response came in the form of a hiss.
“You’re a thoroughly disgusting human being! How can you possibly sleep at night?”
“I do pride myself on being thorough—disgusting is purely a matter of opinion and overrated. And last night I slept remarkably well, considering I shared a bed with a drug-addicted prostitute. It’s my civic duty—doing my part to clean up the streets, Princess.”
I knew I hadn’t done anything to deserve this, but I also soon realized that my captor was an extreme opportunist. My natural O.C.D inclinations made his work much easier than it should have been, and I hated myself today much more than usual for being that way. I had paid for my fuel and the hotel room in cash, leaving literally no trail. I had also foolishly mapped out the trails I intended to travel, complete with timelines, so it was easy for us to avoid those locations completely. And beyond my control was his obsessive and calculating nature; he spent the remainder of the morning wiping down the hotel room for fingerprints, and pressed my fingers to the envelope before it was mailed. This stranger was as naturally occurring as a wicked whirlpool. I was an innocent leaf caught in the undertow. At every turn he squashed or erased any glimmer of hope and as he did so I experienced another grotesque degree of suffocation.
“As much as you’d like to, you can’t control my inner workings. I thought I needed to pee! You’re such a bad-ass—go ahead and stab me on this public trail. There are hikers less than a quarter a mile behind us!”
I purposely raised my voice just shy of a yell, but paid for my insolence on the backend when he pulled me close enough to drive his fist into my right kidney. My knees buckled and I crumpled onto the trail. In an act of defiance he stood over me, blocking out the sun long enough I had time to partially deflect the kick aimed at my ribs.
“The punch was for directly challenging me! The boot was for dropping your driver’s license in plain view about a mile back!”
He withheld my water ration for the next several miles to prove a point. My head was spinning so severely that I barely remember leaving the main trail that first night. He provided me with enough water to survive, but never to function at one-hundred percent or to even think clearly, but I suppose that was to maintain my weakened and submissive state. To my best recollection, we spent the night off the beaten path and traveled one additional full day into the wilderness. As the sun sank low in the sky he cleared a small area, pitched a tent, and presumably felt we were far enough from civilization to allow for a small fire.
While I couldn’t compose my thoughts in a completely coherent manner they came in colorful streaks and flashes of realism. I was positive the amount of time that I remained upright and breathing was dwindling. I felt as though I’d been poured into a funnel, traveling helplessly towards an inevitable choke-point. The look in his eyes changed decidedly that night. It was as though he believed we were far enough removed from a civilized society that he no longer needed to bridle his demon-like desires.
If I could clearly identify a low point during this dismal downward spin it was in that moment when I was lying on the ground in a fetal position, racked with pain, humiliated completely with my shorts around my ankles. But even then there was a sliver of me that refused to give him the benefit of tears. Something inside me changed in that moment.
I honestly believe there is a certain type of insanity that accompanies isolation; when thoughts and actions are subjected only to an audience of one. A single person can devolve in such ways to justify almost any heinous deed. I can’t say for certain that he was under the influence of such radical impulses when he came at me in the middle of the night, but I can say with distinction that I justified many unthinkable things following the moment when I countered his attack by striking him in the forehead with blunt end of the hatchet. In my natural state I would have immediately fled once the gate of opportunity had been thrown open, but instead I verified his pulse. Once I determined he was still breathing I bound and gagged him and sat silently until he came to. I waited until he was fully aware and could appreciate his predicament before I leaned and whispered his own words back into his ear.
“You must learn that when you take something from me, then I am forced to take something of value from you—that’s how the game is played.”
One per hour, I lopped off his fingers and toes before he bled out. By nightfall I had disassembled him completely and scattered his remains about the mountain. With my nightmare finally over I enjoyed the first peaceful night’s sleep in nearly a week. I awoke to finally witness the view that had called me to these mountains.
The valleys wandered in unison away from the rock face. Born of the same womb they were visibly troubled and anxious about traveling alone. A gentle, almost accidental separation appeared to embolden them as independent and mighty warriors, each carving a different path and direction, content to gather clusters of pines upon their backs and proudly display a diverse collection of green hues as they now sauntered along with confidence. Near the horizon one majestic peak leaned against his brother. The overarching theme of this place and the snapshot in time was seamless synchronicity—an eclectic cast of geological dancers, choreographed perfectly, gathered and scattered by a rising and setting sun.
For most of my life I’d dreamed of standing in this very magical place, but the whole experience had become tainted in a way that could never be fully repaired.