Sometimes the tiniest decision, made on a whim or almost by reflex, can impact how the end of a day will go. And in some cases, these seemingly inconsequential choices can lead to truly devastating events. Have you ever made such a decision? True crime podcasts, horror shorts, online series about serial killers. It’s no secret that the public as a whole is obsessed, or at the very least, intrigued by true and inspired-by tales of crime, murder, and tragedy. There are many overlapping theories about this obsession. Some experts explain this may be a way for us to explore our anxieties and fears. Fascination with serial killers can be attributed to our desire to understand the “why” behind these gruesome acts. And, of course, sometimes we just love a good scare. If I were to pinpoint where my fascination stems from, it’s likely from the first theory: exploring my own anxiety and fears, while also finding creators that honor the lives of the victims. My fiancé, Tim, in my opinion, is fascinated by these topics because of his own desire to explore his fears and anxieties, but would also like to understand the human nature behind the events. And, it provides him a set of rules to teach our children: always meet strangers in public, always share your planned location/route with loved ones, dress as if you’ll be out in the elements for hours, never ignore your gut if something feels weird, and so on. “How many times has someone walked out of their front door, planned to go about their normal day, before heading home to help with dinner…and then were never heard from before? It makes life feel so fragile.” It’s a musing he has expressed to me numerous times. Usually, I cut him with a look. “Why would you say that right before I drive to West Virginia by myself?” He shrugged. “I’m just saying! Don’t drive off a mountain.”
“I’ll try my best.” I usually tease him for being so hypervigilant about strangers and precautions. But, if these stories have taught me anything, he’s not wrong. And so, I want to share a story of when a weird interaction (coincidence?) occurred to me on a very lonely, very dark country road. An interaction that left me feeling as if my imagination had run away from me…and wondering if a split-second decision prevented a different ending. Saturday was a day with many overlapping events. Tim had to work the day, our daughter had a birthday party to attend at 5:30 p.m., and our oldest son had his homecoming dance at 7 p.m. As stated previously, we live in the country. His job is a 45-minute commute into the nearest city (not too shabby, I know), the birthday party was 30 minutes from our home, and the school (which was hosting the homecoming dance) is both 30 minutes from our home and about 25 minutes from the house hosting the birthday event. We had decided he would drop off our daughter. Once it was time for the homecoming dance to start, I would drop off our oldest at his dance, make my way to the birthday party, and pick up my daughter. Tim made it to the party and back without incident. Not too long afterward, I left our house with my son and noted that my cell phone was very low on battery, courtesy of my toddler. Not a problem, I’ll charge it on the way. I punched in the address of the birthday party, saved it, and then we were off. After dropping my oldest off, I waved goodbye, wished him a wonderful time with his friends, and hit ‘start’ on my phone’s GPS. I noted that Google maps offered an alternative, longer route. Normally, I ignore the suggestion, but this time I thought, You know what? This is perfect. This gives her extra time at the party and I don’t mind a slightly longer drive. The difference was less than ten minutes. After about 15 minutes, I (and the car behind me) took a right. I noted a Dollar General to my left and glanced at my phone. My next turn would be a left in 11 miles. A minute or two later, I heard a short buzz and glanced over at the source. My phone had died. I frowned and fiddled with the connection to both the car and the phone. The phone lit up as if it were about to charge, then turned to black. I fiddled again and the same thing happened. It wasn’t charging. I was out, driving without a map, in a section of the county that I had never navigated, in almost pitch black since the moon was a tiny sliver and there were no street lamps. My mind panicked and tried to think about how many turns I had made from the high school. Maybe I could drive to the birthday party house and ask to charge my phone for a bit. I remembered that the very last left was close to the end of the route. Would I be able to tell which house was the birthday house? Had they tied balloons to the mailbox? Would there be a multitude of cars? What if there were a succession of quick turns to the house? I glanced at my phone again, glanced at the clock, and the car behind me. The road was narrow and painted with double yellow lines. It wasn’t tailgating me but I could tell if I weren’t there it would probably be going faster. I disconnected and reconnected my phone. It illuminated and for a moment it began to charge. It reached 1% and then went black. YES. I attempted to start it. The start-up screen came on and relief washed over me until it died again. Frustrated, I decided to stop at the next gas station, church parking lot, or small store I spotted to troubleshoot the cord and see if I had a second one still in my car (my teens like to sneak them out to charge their own devices). Unfortunately, after a couple of miles, I didn’t spot such an area. I glanced at my rearview mirror and frowned at the car. I felt bad for delaying their time since I was going the exact speed limit to see if I could spot a crossroad I recognized. And so, I made the decision to find a smaller road to turn into. Then, the car behind me would be able to pass me, I wouldn’t have any cars around, and I could possibly pull over into a grassy area or, worst case, I could turn around and go back to the Dollar General I had spotted earlier to buy a new charging cord. A long stretch passed until I finally saw a small white sign, barely visible, indicating a road that led to the left. I turned on my blinker, slowed down, and turned. The car behind me turned as well. “No. Freaking. Way!” Go figure I pick the only road this guy has to turn on. I glanced at the clock, impatient, inwardly cursing myself for not ensuring my phone had been fully charged before heading out with it as my only map to somewhere unfamiliar. It would be a curvy half-mile stretch, maybe more, before I spotted what looked like another — albeit, much smaller — road headed toward the left. Unfortunately, I saw it with little time to spare, so I quickly turned on my blinker, slowed down as fast and as safely as I could with someone tailing me, and began my turn. And then I saw that it was not a road. At least, not a public one. The tiny road was the width of a car and had a chain connected to two wooden posts, one on each side of the entrance. A sign hung from the chain and referenced a business. The space left between the road and the chain likely could fit one car, so the owner could park and undo the chain without impeding traffic. My assessment lasted long enough for me to turn my wheel and immediately correct it. Self-conscious of the error, I sped off, silently apologizing to the car behind me. I looked into my rearview mirror and, to my horror, saw that the car had turned into the small space between the road and the chain. It stopped almost as soon as it entered the space, and then the road curved again, forcing me out of its view, but also preventing me from seeing what it was doing. Nope, I thought. No way that’s a coincidence. An actual road appeared to my right and I made the quickest u-turn I was able to make. I had to pause for a second before turning back onto the road I had been on because a different car appeared from the opposite direction. I turned onto the road as soon as it passed and silently prayed that the car that had been behind me the entire time had actually meant to turn into the private road. I hoped I had guessed wrong; that it had been a wild coincidence, and perhaps the driver was wondering who the heck had been about to turn into their private road on a Saturday night. Instead, when I passed the private road, the car had turned itself around and was about to exit. My theory was incorrect. I wasn’t sure why the car had decided to erroneously turn into the private road like I almost had, but alarm bells were ringing, and at that point, I didn’t care if I was misreading the situation. I maintained my speed and hoped the car in front of me would be enough to confuse a driver who may or may not be following me. When the new car and I reached the stop sign, the new car turned left and I turned right toward Dollar General. I punched the accelerator and drove as fast as I could to the store, almost hoping a cop would pull me, and mostly worried a deer would make an appearance. I made it to the Dollar General without either showing up and bought a new charger. I celebrated when I plugged it in and saw my phone illuminate correctly. My other cord had been broken. Though I was on high alert for the rest of the night, both when collecting my daughter and my son, no other car was behind me for a significant amount of time. When I relayed the story to Tim, he agreed the situation seemed very suspicious. I knew the driver couldn’t have been following me to try and reach a highway or main road, as the roads I was selecting were more and more remote. “Maybe,” I had said, “someone was following someone else and mistook me for their friend’s car at some point. Maybe that’s why they blindly followed me before realizing I wasn’t their friend?” Tim paused. “The likelihood of that, out there, seems slim to none.” “That doesn’t make me feel better…” I sighed. “Maybe I cut them off? I don’t think I did. It’s not like there was tons of traffic I was trying to squeeze into. Um…maybe I was just going too slowly for them? Road rage?” “What if you had turned into the private road and they followed? What if you noticed it but decided to stop since you wanted to check the cord?” It was my turn to pause. “I can’t remember what the ditches were like, but I guess I would have had to hope they weren’t deep enough to get my little car stuck when I went around and mashed the accelerator. Or I would have died of fright. I don’t know.” “...Watch, we’re going to get news of some local county serial killer later that targets women who…” “That’s even worse! I feel even worse.” Tim laughed. “Sorry. I guess, maybe next time send me a screenshot of your route.” “You’d be way too late.” “At least we could find your body.” I sighed. “I want a divorce….” And that is the story of either something that almost happened or a story of nothing….but one that has left me wondering what would have happened if I had taken that left. What if I hadn’t corrected so quickly and sped forward? What if I had turned into the small space between the public road and the chained private road and been subsequently blocked by this car? At that point, another series of decisions would have had to be made. Regardless, I’m glad that the split-second, inconsequential decision of correcting my course forward negated any follow-up decisions that would exist on the small patch of private road between a stranger’s car and a sturdy chain.