I live in a backwoods, crappy town in the Midwest. It’s a boring, medium sized city carved out of the dense Ozarks of Southeast Missouri. Growing up here had been difficult. I come from a large, violent family and it was no secret that the Cooper kids got beaten. Of course, lots of kids around here get beaten. That’s just the kind of town it is.
Since I wasn’t allowed to have any friends, I’d concentrated on my grades so that one day I could escape to a 4 year university on the other side of the state. I never thought that after graduating Magna Cum Laude from MSU I would end up back in Harrington, and I might have killed myself if I’d known it.
I often wondered about where I had slipped up along the way. I’d had a bright, exciting future in front of me, far away from Harrington and the drunken, redneck family I’d left behind. But it didn’t seem to be any one thing that brought me back. It was just a series of missteps and bad luck. There was no one thing to blame, which made it all the more frustrating.
Teaching English at a community college was a far cry from the literary agent I’d dreamed of being. Every day that I woke up in Harrington felt like a failure. The only thing I enjoyed about the town was the crisp nature that surrounded it. My small home backed right up to the Ozarks and every weekend I went hiking in the woods to clear my mind; always taking the same path by the river and always coming home refreshed and content. I considered them my mini-vacations and they kept me sane.
But it was this very practice of mine that lead to the single most horrific moment of my life. It could have been anyone in town who’d found her – hundreds of people go out into those woods- but it wasn’t just anyone, it was me.
I don’t know what came over me that Sunday, but for some reason I didn’t want to hike my usual trail. Maybe it was the difficult week I’d had, or the fact that my hand was feeling so very stiff (I’d broken it years before) or perhaps it was because my creepy stalker had been dancing on the fringes of his 100 yard legal restriction all week. Or maybe it was everything combined. For whatever reason, I decided on a change in my routine that day.
Since I had brought my GPS I decided to let my thoughts and body drift where they may. I wandered lazily and mindlessly, letting the fresh, cool air purify my soul, as it always did. I thought about the exam I was giving the following week. I thought about taking my dog Clara to puppy training classes. I thought about calling in another complaint about Doug the Stalker. I thought about everything for awhile and then I thought about nothing.
After about an hour I realized that I had stumbled onto a narrow, barely visible trail. The crisp, thin morning air was slowly giving way to it’s warmer, heavier brother. I decided to follow the trail for a quarter mile or so and then turn around and head back. According to my GPS, I was only about 2 miles from home, which wasn’t that far at all.
I lost the trail twice, but was able to pick it up again after a few moments both times. Just as I lost the trail for a third time, the tree line broke and I was suddenly standing in a small clearing. I could tell immediately that there was something not right about this place, something ailing. The grass was yellowed and dead and an old, gnarled Burr Oak tree sat in the middle of the glade under thin, weak sunlight.
This place was Creeps-town. I took out my phone and snapped a few photos hoping to somehow capture the eerie aura of the clearing. I walked around the burr oak, stepping over thick, low-hanging branches. I raised my camera to take another photo when something that shouldn’t be caught my eye. There was color between the leaves that had no place in the sickly yellows and sullen browns. It was a pink shoe.
I walked closer, curious, and wondering if maybe kids used this place to smoke weed or drink. But when I got closer, I saw the shoe was far too small for a teenager. It was the shoe of a young child – and there was a young child still in the shoe.
I’ve felt many horrible things in my life – failure, disappointment, pain – but I have never felt anything so horrible as I did when finding the bones of a small child shoved into the alcove of a tree. She was curled up in the fetal position, her broken body much too large for the tiny little alcove. It was a wonder that she had fit there at all when she was more than just bones. Her clothes were mostly gone, at least on the exposed side, and her skull had cracks and angry indentations. I vomited on the trunk of the tree and then I’m ashamed to say – I ran.
I ran all 2 miles home, the need to share the burden of this knowledge with someone, anyone, was urgent in me to the point of hysteria. When I finally broke the tree line into my own backyard I fell onto the grass in exhaustion. I stared up at sun, trying to blind myself of the memory. But I could still see that dead little girl.
When I could breathe again, I took my phone from my pocket and dialed the police. They came within minutes and I somehow found the strength to stand and meet them in the driveway. I explained everything that had happened in short, choked sentences and handed them my GPS to show them where the body was.
An officer wrapped a blanket around me and another brought me bottles of water. After that, everything happened pretty quickly. I sat in my kitchen and watched out the window as crowds gathered and media arrived. The sound of helicopters came and went from overhead, both police and news choppers alike, I’m sure. I stared out the window shade, praying that the crowds couldn’t see me inside.
As dusk began to settle, I found Doug in the gathered crowd of news correspondents and neighbors. He was at the very front of the police tape and he watched both the spectacle and my window, evenly. It was the first time he had ever actually broken the restraining order. I tried to find an officer but I found my bed instead.
The long, emotional day gave way to a deep and sound sleep. When I awoke the next morning, I saw that media vans from St. Louis had arrived and that the cops had set up roadblocks on my street. I called into work that day and the next and finally I told them I wouldn’t be coming in the rest of the week. I stayed home and worked on my novel, trying to ignore the circus our town had become.
Identifying the little girl took almost two weeks but someone in the media had named her “Sarah”. I saw the headline “Who put Sarah in the Burr Oak tree?” land on my front porch one day. It seemed the media was drawing comparisons between our case and the Who put Bella in the Wych Elm? case. I never retrieved the paper.
Finally, the coroner’s office released a statement that the 6 year old girl had been identified – name withheld while they notified the family – and that the likely, though not conclusive, cause of death was blunt force trauma.
Two days later I was asked to come in and give a recorded, official statement to the lead detective on the case. I went over everything I could remember from that day in extreme detail, even seeing Doug in the gathering crowd. The detective nodded his head throughout my testament and then, when I was finished, pressed stop on the recorder and left the room.
I drummed my fingers on the table and absentmindedly stared up at the camera in the corner until he returned ten minutes later.
The door opened and the lead detective walked back into the room with a stranger in tow. He was tall, tanned, and sported slicked back white hair. I instantly disliked him.
“Ms. Cooper, this is Dr. Watner. Do you remember Dr. Watner?”
“No. Should I?”
“Not necessarily.” The doctor replied.
“Why am I still here?”
“Because of Sarah.” The detective sat down across from me.
“Is Sarah the girl in the tree?”
“Sarah is your daughter.” The doctor answered.
“I don’t have a daughter.” I said shaking my head.
“Jessica,” the doctor began, “we met several years ago when your daughter first disappeared. You blamed a man named Doug Ozinga for taking her, you were hysterical about it. Do you remember that?”
“I know Doug Ozinga, I have a restraining order against him. But that’s where my part in this ends, I don’t have a daughter.” I repeated, slowly.
“Jessica, I’m going to show you some pictures now that might upset you.”
The doctor spread three large photos out in front of me. As soon as I saw their content my hands began to shake. But I wasn’t afraid. I was confused.
“I don’t remember these pictures. I don’t know who that is.”
The photos were of me with a young, blonde girl of about 5. We were both smiling and hugging.
“Do you agree that the person in this picture is you?”
I continued to stare at the photos. There was no denying it, I still had some of the clothes I was wearing in the photo.
“And does the child in this picture look at all familiar to you?”
The answer was no – and yes. She was a stranger but I felt like she was stranger who I’d seen before somewhere. Memories began to tug at the tips of my synapses and I tried to let them in but they were hazy and butted.
“Yes.” I murmured, my eyes never leaving the page.
The detective leaned forward in his chair. “I’m so sorry, Jessica. The body that was in the tree has been identified as your daughter, Sarah.”
“What…” I was lost, and suddenly feeling terribly alone. “What do I do?”
“I think you should take some more time talking to Dr. Watner, you’re going to need support now.”
“And what about the little girl? I saw Doug Ozinga on the day the body was found, he was at the crime scene!”
“Yes, I expected that.”
The detective stood up then, and Dr. Watner followed.
“We will return shortly. Here,” He handed me my phone. “You should research your case. It might help you remember anything else you may be repressing. Would you like me to call your family?”
But I had no family. “No. I’m just really scared and confused right now, I need to think.”
“I understand,” the detective said as he followed Dr Watner through the door.
“Wait!” I yelled suddenly, rising from my chair. The detective stopped and turned around. “When are you going to arrest Doug Ozinga? Do you have any evidence on him yet?”
“Jessica…Doug Ozinga doesn’t exist.”
He closed the door behind him and I fell back into my chair. It’s been almost two hours and they haven’t come back. And it makes me wonder why I’m still here.
But I kinda think I know. I had a daughter who disappeared. Doug Ozinga doesn’t exist. And I found a dead body in the woods.