Autumn drew in a lungful of California air. Although it was thick, it was somehow refreshing. She looked to her side at the sun glistening off small choppy waves on the oceanfront. It sparkled in bright flashes across the horizon. She was really going to miss this stunning morning view. A thin lilac tank-top dampened with sweat in the center of her back. Her feet were growing heavy, but she pushed herself and quickened her stride. Autumn had been running along the beach every day, sometimes a few times a day, for the past three years. She found that running helped to clear her mind, and tiring her body helped her sleep at night.
Every day during this run the thought of Maylee’s disappearance raced through Autumn’s mind on a loop. Every intricate detail was recalled, in order, exactly as it happened. She remembered what Maylee had eaten for breakfast, and dropping her off at school that morning. Even the first conversation they had haunts her.
“Don’t you want some eggs?” Maylee chirped in her perky morning voice.
“Nah, I’ll just grab a coffee.”
“Whatever Aunt Autumn, you’re going to sneak one of those disgusting greasy processed breakfast muffins after you drop me off, aren’t you?”
Accusing eyes pierced Autumn’s embarrassed face, forcing her to blush. Strange, how such a young woman could find so much fault over an innocent guilty pleasure no bigger than a thin slice of cheese and sausage.
These memories continuously float in and out of Autumn’s mind, circling her like a consuming shadow, just waiting for the right moment to swallow her whole. After reliving the worst day of her life, Autumn would clear her mind, steady her breath, and convince herself to focus on the present. It felt like an impossible task to stop living in the past. Maylee was Autumn’s niece, and she was seventeen years old when she was taken. Maylee was a high school senior with two weeks left until her graduation. She had her entire life ahead of her.
Now, three years later, Autumn was convinced that if she could just remember any tiny detail, something she may have skipped over, the police would be forced to pry Maylee’s case back open. Autumn was more of a mother to Maylee than her junkie sister could ever dream of being — even on a sober day.
It had been nearly an hour since today’s run commenced. Time seemed to escape Autumn as the worn out sneakers laced to her feet moved further down the beach. Her legs were starting to tingle and burn. They weakened and felt like noodles under her wearying body. The intake of air burned her chest, leaving her throat to feel like a charred tree- still intact and alive, but the edges burnt to a crisp. She could feel the color of her face darken as fresh oxygenated blood sped through her veins.
Over the course of the last few days, she had pushed herself even further than her usual run. She would be leaving her beautiful home in Northern California, and moving to a small cramped one bedroom apartment right in the center of Denver Colorado. Every detail of her life would change once again, and it was terrifying.
Autumn fell into a deep depression when Maylee went missing, and she became obsessed with the case. The only time she would leave the house was to go to the grocery store or police station. Her life’s purpose became nothing more than to pester Detective Chance, or just Chance, as everyone called him. His full name and title was Detective Chance Rupert Lizhalia III. Clearly, the comfort of being referred to so casually by his first name was developed very early on in his career. The details and progress of Maylee’s case were poked and prodded at by Autumn daily. It was a repetitive process until about five months after Maylee had disappeared. At this point, Chance put Maylee’s folder on an overstuffed shelf to collect dust.
“We have done everything we can,” he told Autumn on that bizarrely hot fall afternoon as he slowly wiped the sweat from his full, perfectly squared hairline.
“So you’re going to throw her away? Just like that, you’re done?” Autumn demanded, tears welling.
“Every police station in the country has Maylee’s picture.” Chance reminded her. “If anyone finds her or comes across anything that we can link to the case, then I assure you, Autumn, you’ll be the first to know.”
The short conversation had rendered Autumn mute. She stood frozen in shock as he told her to move on with her life. Chance apologized for the loss in such a way that it was clear — Maylee would never be found. Then he brushed past her in the hallway of an over-lit police station, and went about his day as if nothing had changed.
Autumn recalled it now as she ran, remembering the cold emptiness in Chance’s expression. The excruciating heat of that day hadn’t even touched the icy daggers he sent jabbing into her chest. Even his outfit was seared into her memory. He wore a dark gray suit, complementing his tan, and an orange tie.
There was no denying it, Chance was a very attractive man for his age. The stress of the job was surely the culprit of a cluster of wrinkles at the corners of his eyes, although they only added to his enticing façade. Chance was the kind of man that you could take one look at and just know, without a doubt, he could defend himself. His build was strong enough to be noticed, with broad shoulders and a flat stomach, but his eyes were key. They gazed sharply, were light gray, and deeply piercing — like an eagle ready to swoop.
The afternoon Maylee’s case was practically declared unsolvable and doomed for a cold shelf life, all hope drained from Autumn. Her car was left in the parking lot, and slow dragging feet carried her home, she moved in a blurry haze. Amidst the draining three mile walk to her front porch, the heat transformed into gloom, and before Autumn knew it she was engulfed in rain. The weather as unforgettably odd.
The door swung open, and she collapsed onto the floor ,unable to take in air. Anxiety was surging through her body in waves, and salty tears streamed down her face. God only knows how long she lay paralyzed on the floor before she got up and ran out the door. Pushing herself through the stinging oversized drops of rain, she rounded a corner and made her way to the beach. Giant deadly ocean swells had never looked so inviting, but she refused stop, continuing to run faster. Step after painful step in the sand, she pushed forward.
Oxygen eventually stopped reaching her lungs, and her legs gave out. Several times Autumn collapsed to her knees and stared into the water while she wheezed and struggled for breath. Each time the slosh of wet sand sounded beneath her fallen body, she would pick herself back up and continue to run. By the time she returned home the sky had turned black, and there were no stars to be found against the darkness. Autumn was completely surrounded by darkness, a perfect match to the way she felt inside.
A haunting recollection of her own swollen, bloodshot eyes staring back at her from the hallway mirror now left an imprint in Autumn’s mind. On that traumatizing day she become a ghost – an empty shell of her once prominent self. Maylee’s absence was officially real, there was a sense of finality, a permanence that made Autumn sick.
That night after her first run, the world went completely black. As soon as her head hit the pillow, exhaustion and grief took over, blocking out whatever was left of her subconscious. For the first time in those five miserable months, her body gave up. She had slept an entire night through, deep and dreamless. It was the first night without nightmares and cold sweats since Maylee went missing.
Since that painful day, Autumn had been repeating the run. Slowly over time, she has made an effort to put her life back together. So far that effort has proven unsuccessful.