THIS IS A STORY I don’t share. I think everyone has a repertoire of stories that they like to tell again and again – over time, they get worn smooth with the telling, all the rough edges get knocked off, and, eventually, they bear no resemblance at all to the actual experiences that spawned them. They get worn smooth, like pebbles on the shore. Well, this story isn’t like that. Not like that at all.
I’m a distance runner. I’ve got a pretty stressful job and hectic home life, so in my spare time every chance I get I like to lose myself in distances. I’m not fast by any means, but I’ve been at it for years, so my endurance is pretty good. I can go for hours at a time even over the roughest terrain, and it’s a great way to leave everything else behind and just be alone with myself for a while.
This all happened on a weekend like any other. Work had been particularly rough that week, and things were bad at home, so I had a big run planned in the mountains – 20-odd miles out in the middle of nowhere, on a remote path I’d heard about but never actually explored before. Hard as it might be to believe, this was actually my idea of heaven.
Things started off smoothly enough. The day was bright but with a cooling breeze blowing over the mountain – perfect running conditions – and I was making good time for the first couple of hours. After that, things got a little precarious underfoot as the path sort of faded away, but I was confident I could find it again, and as far I was concerned this was a good thing, as it meant there would be a lot less people on the route.
Half an hour later, though, things weren’t looking quite so rosy. I hadn’t caught so much as a sniff of the path since it’d tapered off, and the breeze had brought with it a swirling mist that threatened to descend with a vengeance at any moment. I wasn’t worried exactly, but I was starting to become a little concerned.
So initially I was glad to see a splash of bright colour half-hidden in the scrub some way off in the distance. Colour like that out in the middle of nowhere usually means it’s a piece of garbage that someone has thrown away, and that means it’s in the general vicinity of a path, or at least a place that someone else has been to fairly recently. So I headed towards it, hoping that it would give me a chance to get my bearings again and get back on the right track.
I loped towards it at an easy jog, the mist growing thicker with each footfall. Mentally, I was cursing my own stupidity – I should have been more certain of the route beforehand, paid more attention to being sure of where I was. I wasn’t worried; just irritated that I’d gotten myself into a situation that was going to be a bit of a chore to get out of. What should have been a diverting, exhilarating run was now going to be a pain in the ass. And I had only myself to blame.
I kept on, step after step, stride after stride, my breath steady and regular like the ticking of a metronome. With each pace my target grew nearer, while the mist closed in at the same, steady rate. Although I was getting closer, the visibility seemed to be getting incrementally worse as well, which meant that whatever it was seemed to remain always indeterminate as I tried to fix my eyes upon it. At one point it looked like an abandoned backpack; at another like a spilled sack full of clothes. With so few visual cues around it, it was hard to give it any real sense of scale.
I think I knew something was wrong, even then. I kidded myself that it was the lowering mist that was causing the sick feeling in the pit of my stomach, the thought of how difficult it was going to be to get back, but I think that was just my head trying to rationalize away what my gut already knew.
Looking back now, the things that flashed through my mind as I ran towards that unknown shape seem absolutely ridiculous. In the time between one footfall and the next, I wondered if it might have been an animal carcass, or maybe even a discarded showroom dummy – anything but what it actually was.
I’d never seen a dead body before.
It took me a long time to consciously acknowledge that that was what it was. It was the one thing I really didn’t want it to be, so I think I projected as many different possibilities on it as I could before I was literally standing over it and couldn’t deny it to myself any longer. It was a corpse. Lying face down on the ground, with its cold white alabaster limbs folded underneath it as if it was simply sleeping.
By this time the mist was all but overwhelming. Visibility was only a few feet – it was like being in a whited-out bubble, or wrapped up in cotton wool. This only added to the sense of unreality around the whole situation. My own breathing sounded flat and hollow, as if the heaviness of the air deadened all sound that tried to pass through it.
I don’t know how long I stood there, just trying to take in what I was looking at. I didn’t even think to check for a pulse or any other vital signs – there was no point. The thing had an odd kind of weight to it that is utterly absent from anything living. Even a sleeping or an unconscious body is never entirely still, but this thing was purely an object, with as little life in it as a stone or lump or rock.
I shivered, suddenly realising that the heat I’d generated from running had dissipated, and that the cold was starting to bite into my bones. I knelt down over the body, not sure what I was going to do – in fact, there was very little at all in my head at that moment. Before I knew exactly what I was doing, I’d placed a shaking hand on the body’s shoulder and rolled it over on to it’s front, only for my heart to stop cold in my chest.
I found myself staring down into my own dead, unblinking eyes.
There was no mistaking it. The face was exactly the same as mine in every detail, only deathly white, twisted into a frozen grimace and streaked with dirt and plant matter. A single ant crawled across its lips. It even had the tiny scar on its chin that I’d picked up in a childhood accident.
It was me. My own body, lying there limp and lifeless like an empty husk. For a few weird seconds I wondered if this was one of those out-of-body experiences, if that was the real me and the me watching was just some kind of spirit or echo of myself, but that dizzying feeling only lasted for mere moments.
I was left with just the cold, hard reality of the situation. I tried to pull myself out of my daze by focussing on what do to next, on taking some sort of action, but what could I do? Leave it there, mouldering in the dirt while I ran off and ignored it? Report it to someone? To the police? Somehow, I couldn’t imagine that. That would make it all too real, having them comb the area and perform all their tests and forensic investigations on the corpse to try to determine its identity. The very thought of it made me sick to my stomach.
So, without really thinking about it and without any real plan in mind, I started digging. I had my pocketknife with me as I always do: I used it to break through the hard crust of the dry earth to the sandy soil beneath. Before long I was scraping out dirt by the handful, digging like a man possessed, like a wild animal scrabbling blindly in the dirt.
The frenzy left me as quickly as it came, and then I was just kneeling there, hands dusty and bleeding, with my breath coming in harsh, ragged gasps, sunk in a rough hole that was maybe a foot deep with dirt piled up on each side. I got up and took a moment to find my equilibrium again, then pushed the body unceremoniously into the makeshift grave with my foot. It provided little resistance as it slid noiselessly to the bottom of that crude, shallow grave.
I covered it over, surprised to find tears pricking my eyes as I pushed the piles of dirt and soil back in place. After I was finished, I just sat there for a while, staring at the raised mound of earth, sobbing silently to myself.
Eventually I collected myself together enough to start the run back. The mist was already starting to lift again, and by the time I got back to my car the evening sky was clear and bright. I poured a little water from a water bottle over my hands, and they were clean and fresh again in a matter of moments.
But I left a part of myself on that mountainside that day. Some stories are worn smooth by the telling, but this is like a stone that sticks in my craw, and its ragged, sharp edges wear away at me from the inside as I go over and over it in my head. I’ve grown more and more disconnected from the people around me since it happened – even my loved ones, my closest friends and family.
It’s as if there’s something missing from the very core of me now. These days I feel more and more like a ghost as I move through the world, barely able to engage with anything in any meaningful way. I still run, but I’ve never been back to that spot – I doubt I could find it again even if I tried. I run differently now. I run with a kind of hollow desperation in every stride, but I’m never sure if I’m trying to run away from something terrible or just running headlong into a fate I’ve already glimpsed.