Skull photographed at Artisan Resource Center, 24 January 2016, artist unknown.

I’ll state up front, she dies — eventually. I mean, we all do, right? Nothing any of us can do will make much of a difference. I don’t want people getting a false sense of hope that things work out between us in the end because they don’t. They almost never do, really.

I won’t use the name she gave me because that person doesn’t exist, alive or not. She made that as clear as she could, through both her music and things she told me. If she still has a name, I don’t know it. Even if I did, I wouldn’t tell. I owe her that much. The name people knew was Shayna, but that was an illusion she created that has served its purpose. It kept people from asking too many questions. She didn’t like questions and unlike some wasn’t very good at hiding her disdain. 

Perhaps I should start at the beginning, or as close as I can come to the beginning because I sort of came in halfway through her story. Imagine walking into a club and hearing a voice so enticing that it consumes every fabric of one’s being. That was her. She was standing at the mic, holding a guitar and pouring out her soul for the mostly indifferent crowd. Pool players, folks there to watch the game, drinkers, smokers, all contributing to the general din, with no idea what a miracle they were missing. I recognized it and wanted to be as close as possible.

I took a seat near the stage — there were a lot — and I gave her my undivided attention. I think she sensed someone was there to actually listen because her sound brightened a bit. I guess I came in just after she started, because she played for another twenty or thirty minutes. Afterward we talked for a while and I got on her contact list and bought a CD. Many artists sound different in the studio than live but I was pleased to hear as I listened to her CD in the car that recording her voice had not diminished its power. From that point on, I saw her wherever she played locally. On a whim, I once even drove all the way to Birmingham to see her, which surprised her to no end. In fact, it was the Birmingham show where I gained her trust, if not her friendship.

She rode up with some fellow musicians, including the driver who apparently wanted to get to know her on a more intimate level. When she made it clear to him after the show that it wasn’t going to happen, he drove off and left her at the venue. I was the only other person she knew who was headed back to Atlanta, so after several protests about the inconvenience, she agreed. At first, as we rode along, I tried to get some personal info out of her, but my inquiries were met with silence and I knew better than to press. Instead, we started talking about music and that’s where she opened up. She had eclectic influences, Blues, Jazz, sixties Rock, but also she mentioned Broadway musicals that her mother had introduced to her via soundtracks played around the house. We had a good talk, and as I dropped her off she told me to let her know when I was coming to a show so she could put me on “the list”.

Understand, we were never friends, as that would have required a level of openness on her part that she wasn’t willing to give, but after Birmingham she trusted me and her trust was more important than her friendship. Truth be told, she was linked to a lot of people, women, men, the evidence was never definitive on her preference, or if she even had one. She never told me, and I never asked. After she was gone, a number of people claimed to have been with her. I suppose it’s a game. If one can’t be special, then attach oneself to someone who is, regardless of whether it’s true or not. If there were no witnesses, who’s to say after the fact?

She was “successful” I suppose, at least by industry standards. She started selling some records, booking larger venues, touring. She never liked the attention, but she loved the connection, standing in front of the audience, hearing them sing along to one of her songs. She told me once that she missed the intimacy of smaller venues, where she could actually talk to people after shows. She recorded quite a bit and was always in the studio or at a concert. She didn’t quite make it to the status of headliner, during her brief time in the spotlight, but she was always an anticipated opening act, and always a big draw when she played occasional solo shows at favored local spots. 

I asked her about it once and she denied she was successful. She didn’t equate being well-known or selling records with success. “It’s the music,” she told me. “If it doesn’t mean anything, what else matters?” For every song she recorded, there were probably ten others she’d written that the label decided wasn’t commercial. If I had to speculate on what drove her to what she did, I’d have to guess it was the loss of her freedom. It’s what caused her to take a hiatus, just at the point where many felt she was about to have her big breakthrough. She just walked away, put the brakes on and retired to her cabin in the woods, “to reassess”.

No one is certain exactly what happened. The best guess based on the evidence collected is that she simply went for a hike in the woods near her house one day and never came back. There wasn’t anyone checking in on her, so several days passed before anyone even thought to miss her. Her behavior had not seemed out of the ordinary leading up to the last time anyone heard from her and it was normal for her to go several days, weeks even, without any communication as long as she had all her necessities nearby. She often remarked how much she liked getting lost in nature and how convenient it was living near a forest.

When she missed a show at one of her favorite venues the owner went to her place, and called the police when he couldn’t get anyone to come to the door. For several weeks after, there were searches and APBs and her photo was flashed across the country. She became more famous after her disappearance than she’d been before and the record company took full advantage of that by promoting her back catalog. Sales of her music tripled. No one knew her well enough to say what might have been on her mind so no one could speculate on what happened to her.

Some months later a couple of hikers stumbled over what turned out to be a human femur. A search of the area turned up additional bones, including a skull, that were scattered as though predatory animals had gotten at the body. The skull was missing about half its teeth, but enough bones were found to reveal they belonged to a female about her age and height. Nearby were fragments of clothes which matched items she’d typically wear. For most who followed the situation, that was all that was needed to close the books. 

She didn’t leave much behind beyond her household supplies. The most important item was what she called her goodie bag, the knapsack full of personal effects she took the pains to haul around with her everywhere she went. She said it contained her remains. Inside was a high school yearbook, a formal dress, two pairs of well-worn, lace-up checkerboard Vans, a pair of men’s jeans, and an old cigar box that contained these items:

  • Her class ring
  • A photo of her mother
  • A handwritten list of phone numbers most of which go to disconnected lines
  • A couple of napkins bearing the names of local bars, neither of which are there anymore 
  • A sheet containing lyrics to the first song she ever wrote — a note says at age ten
  • An invitation to her high school graduation
  • A flash drive containing her video diary entries, none of which reveal very much
  • An unsigned, undated note on lined paper that reads, “Why, Daddy, why?”

Did these represent the sum total of her life — items she felt she needed with her, right up to the point where she left them behind at the last place she lived? I do believe she deliberately left them there, because I think she knew she wasn’t coming back. 

See, here’s the thing. I saw the skull they found — I was counted as a close acquaintance which gained me access — but I examined it and while there were only a few teeth left in it, two of them had fillings. Authorities anxious to close the case missed that fact — but two teeth had fillings. I know for a fact she had never had any dental work done. She told me that herself, even showed me when I doubted her. So I don’t know who the poor soul was whose skull they found, but it wasn’t her. 

I don’t know why she left her stuff behind. Maybe she thought she wouldn’t need it anymore. Maybe there’s more to be found in the woods, since they cover a lot of acres. Maybe she just needed her disappearance to be convincing. I have it if she ever reappears though I doubt she ever will. Whether she’s alive or dead, she was done with this life. Still, I’ll hang on to it for her, just in case.

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