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Samantha Donndelinger


Missing Signs and Signals

The crime known as Trespass. “A person is guilty of trespass when he knowingly enters

or remains unlawfully in or upon premises. Trespassing is a violation.”

New York Laws

*content warning for sexual violence


Last September, my dog caught a baby deer in broad daylight, when everyone was looking. She brought it back to our house and let it hang from her mouth like a wet rag.


“I’ll handle it,” I told my mom. I pulled the fawn from my dog’s grip, and my mom called her inside. I couldn’t stop thinking about the way she fell from my dog’s teeth. Quickly and easily, like nothing happened. The fawn was clearly upset, with her ears pulled back, her tail flicking back and forth, but besides her gentle bleats, she didn’t resist. Even as I carried her in a blanket to the forest floor, all she could muster was a soft hum in protest. She sounded like a sheep bahing if it couldn’t catch any air, breathless and broken. A polite hesitation to her circumstances, a delicate reasoning to retrieve independence.



The afternoon sun  feels hot on the back of my neck. Little slivers of sweat tingle on my skin like intuition. When I push past the no trespassing signs, I skim past some letters with my eyes to prove it’s not for me. No ass, trep ing, o sing.


Rohan hoists up the camera strap lapped across his shoulder and keeps walking across the field toward the sidewalk. He twitches his head back and forth, looking back to the stranded buildings we emerged from. “Are you sure we’re allowed to be here?” he asks again.


The abandoned psychiatric hospital sits neatly outside of the town limits. Crumbling brick buildings sewn with ivy are spread across the field randomly, as though someone placed them in a hurry. They are tall, at least four stories each, and loom against the clear blue sky. Some windows are boarded up on the ground floors, with giant no entry signs tacked to the wood, but the ones on the second and third floors hang wide open.


I usually come here alone. I tip-toe around the shattered glass and climb the busted windows, thinking about the stories of the people who lived inside each room years ago, who stayed and who never left, how it feels to be trapped by a room, strapped to a bed.


Sometimes, police cars would drive by, but they seemed amused by my curiosity. A small white girl wandering the fields alone, there weren’t many consequences to breaking the rules. They sent me on my way with a wave, a grin, and a politely turned eye.


“I come here all the time,” I say to my friend. “I’ve never gotten in trouble.”


I wave to the police officer in the car across the street from us to make a point.


The lights and sirens turn on immediately.


“Fuck,” I say.


“You said we’re allowed to be here!” Rohan hisses. He freezes in place, unsure whether to run or to trust me.


“Just follow my lead, okay?” I don’t break my stride. “Be normal.”


The officer flings open his door and leaves it taut on its hinges as he struts toward us on the sidewalk. “What are you doing here?” he calls.


I explain that we’re shooting footage for a project. I raise my hands instinctually. “We didn’t do anything wrong,” I tell him. “We didn’t touch anything.”


“We patrol every hour,” he says proudly, swelling his chest. He looks directly into the sun so I can’t tell if his scowl is natural.  “I know this area like the back of my hand.”


“I’ve never seen you here before,” I say, coolly.


“Well, I just started last week,” he explains. He kicks at the dirt on the edge of the sidewalk. “But I take patrolling very seriously.”

After he looks at our footage and our gear and glances around the area, knowing we didn’t cause any damage, he lets some of his authority dwindle.


“I’m going to let this slide,” he says slowly. “But if there is one new shard of glass, one mark of spray paint…” He spits when he talks. “I will take you in for questioning.”


“Go ahead and check,” I say, a little more contemptuously than I mean.



“Can you just check that it’s secured?” Julia asks me a few weeks later. She shifts her weight back and forth on the hiking path, staring at the hammock like it just spat her whole family into a ditch. “I don’t know about this,” she says warily. “I’m not a fan of hammocks.”


I lay between the trees in the woodsy state park by my house, swinging with the breeze, sticks of rose incense smoldering next to me. A car drives by, the tree branches diluting the lights in confusing shapes.


These woods are my favorite place to be alone, the oaks standing as silent strangers in the quiet part of the story. They don’t ask what book I’m reading or what’s for dinner or how school is going. Their roots twist into place and they still. Their leaves listen.


“It’s fine, it won’t hurt you,” I say. I pat the patch of hammock next to me to confirm it.


She looks skeptical but steps toward me. Another car creeps by. This one lingers when its driver sees our parked vehicles up the path, and the headlights intertwine with the shadows of the oak branches. I hear its engine stop and a door open. A ball of light emerges.


Julia is still whining at full volume. She leans toward me and swings her leg over the edge of the stretched fabric, grasping at the pillows. “Okay, but – geez – hold it still –”


“Wait,” I say, squeezing her shoulder to steady her. “Someone’s coming.”


A man’s voice carries the flashlight toward us. “Hello?” he calls tentatively. I hold up my hands to block the streaks of light from my eyes.


I sit up in the hammock. My stomach feels tight and hollow, but I’m not afraid so much as annoyed.


“Hi,” I say casually. “How are you?” Julia knows to let me handle it.


The flashlight pulls toward the ground, revealing a park ranger in full uniform.


“This park closes at sunset,” he calls to us. He eyes the smoke floating off our incense and relaxes when he sees it’s not weed. “You shouldn’t really be here.”


I feel the trees stiffen at his intensity. The river seems to sprint at his words. How that feels to them all, to have someone else decide who is allowed to surround you.


“Oh, we didn’t know that,” I lie.


He shifts his weight slightly. “You didn’t see the signs? It says no trespassing.”


“Sorry. We’ll pack up.”


He eyes my friend, standing like an upright plank, me hanging between the trees. “If you’re still here in an hour, I’ll have to call it in,” he says before turning around and winding up the path.


I unhook the hammock bitterly. “It’s just silly,” I say to Julia. “There are so many regulations for no reason. Why do the rules suddenly change when it’s dark out?”



But of course, I knew why they changed. At night, when things become strained under their new weight and the laws that seemed solid are suddenly submerged into new shapes, new stories, and new explanation.


I met him at a conference where I was interning over the summer of my senior year of high school. He takes off his wedding ring when he goes to bars. He says he doesn’t like the way it feels or how it looks. “It’s so old,” he brushes off, even though he’s 33 and has only been married only a few years. “It doesn’t match my style anymore.” 


He glances at me whenever he tells a joke. It’s like he wants confirmation that I can perceive him. He revels in the idea that I laugh at something he said, how a part of him enters me and lingers long enough to evoke a reaction.


Our rooms are on the same hotel floor, with one room between them. One night, I tell him I’m going to bed, but he follows me. On the walk upstairs, he swings me into an empty conference room. I think it’s strange but exciting.


“I want to show you something,” he says, grabbing my hand. We look out the window for a few short seconds. It was mostly other hotel buildings. It wasn’t that spectacular. I don’t know why he wanted to show it to me. I shiver because we’re so close to the windows. They don’t have curtains. I imagine our silhouettes projected across the sad skyline like the flying shadows in the old Peter Pan story.


“You’re cold,” he says. “Would you like me to warm you up?” 


I don’t remember saying yes. I don’t think I ever did. But it feels good when I bury my head into his shoulder. When he touches my face. It feels like a twisted version of home. Somewhere I was allowed to be.


When I pull back, our eyes are too close. I fall in. His lips part. He leans toward me.


“I don’t think that’s smart,” I say, bending away. “You’re a staff member, I’m an intern.”


“It’s okay,” he says. “It’s okay, it’s okay. We’ll go to bed.” He dropped me off at my room, and I shut the door quickly.


He is everywhere after that. I can’t get away.


“Let’s just take a nap,” he texts me the last afternoon of the conference after he has exhausted every other attempt at pursuing me. “Before you give your presentation, come to my room for a few hours. We can lay together and talk until we fall asleep.”


When I say no the first two times, he texts me again.


“I just want to get to know you better. Come on.”


I have an hour to fill somehow before I present. I plan on going back to my room but pass by it and stand in front of his door instead. My heart punches against my ribs. I’m holding all the power as he waits for my response, but as I raise my fist and knock quickly on the door, it seems to seep out of my knuckles. He answers immediately. I want to turn around.


“Hi.” He’s wearing sweatpants and a collared shirt. His hair is messy, and his eyes are puffy. His smile is slippery. “Come in.”


I sit next to him on the bed. He takes my jacket from me and tosses it on the desk.


“I like your room,” I say flatly.


It’s not really anything special. The afternoon light is pale and dull but it still crispens and harshens the grime of the place. He has clothes on the floor and half-drunk coffee cups on the nightstand. His bed is unmade. It feels cramped and empty at the same time. I wanted to say something to break the tension. I didn’t have any of my usual quips and snipped gestures. They all felt out of place.


He lays down next to me. I close my eyes, mostly because I don’t know what else to do.


This isn’t what I wanted. The whole room feels like it’s spinning with uncertainty. I liked it before. I liked tiptoeing around the bars and throwing sly glances in the dark, but I don’t like this.


He starts talking about his plans after the conference, that he wants to go back to Italy and work with his students. I calm myself down by slowing my breath, and I listen to him ramble. After a few minutes, my shoulders start to relax.


But what was suddenly up my shirt? His hand slips under my sweater and fiddles at the clasp of my bra. I push it away gently. “I’m sleeping,” I say, high-pitched, trying to cover my annoyance. 


I turn over, amused, to see what his expression is, and he thrusts his lips against my mouth. I wrench away. “What are you doing? I thought you just wanted to talk.” 


“It’s okay,” he says. He swings his leg over mine. “We are talking. Just follow my lead.” 


I misread everything. His touch is pins scraping my skin, and I don’t know where they are going to attack next. His hand drifts down to my inner thigh and marks its way closer to my underwear line. I swat it away. This time with more force. “Hey, I’m serious,” I say. 


He pushes it back again. He has more force too. He drives three fingers inside of me. It hurts. It is obvious that he shouldn’t do that, like he has to purposely avoid the signs.


“It’s fine,” he coos. “It’s fine, just relax.” 


I hold my hands up to try and guide him away, but he grabs them instead.  He pins me down with one hand and raises my wrists over my head. He is strong and firm enough that I know I can’t get out of this with force. I say his name smally. 


His dark eyes analyze me, scrutinizing my blank expression. I hold still. He bites his bottom lip and leans his forearm slowly into my throat. I can’t talk my way out of this if I can’t breathe.



When I put the fawn back in the woods, my mom told me to avoid touching her fur because if humans get their scent on it, her parents might not come back, and she will starve. My dog’s slobber and anticipatory drool were all over her already, though. The fawn must have thought, maybe even known, she was going to die that day. If not in my dog’s garden patch, then later that night, alone in the cold. Her beauty and charm weren’t enough to spare her. She was marked, confused in the dirty leaves in the woods, by the grip of my dog’s desire to have her. And I’m not sure what’s worse: dying from the attack or the punishment that follows.


I would have given anything to save her, to lead my dog down another trail, to another patch of grass, to miss her by one second, maybe two. To tell her, not here, not her.



Little spots of black start to flit around the corners of my eyes so his face is fuzzy. My fingers and toes tingle until they grow numb. I can’t feel my heartbeat anymore. I don’t try to find it. His cologne is the last thing I smelled, and its synthetic residue burns in my throat. He looks at my face for a long moment. Pity stretches across his wet lips, his brown eyes. I try to look innocent and young. I try to play as small as possible.


I close my eyes. I feel him pause. He slowly releases his grip.


I throw off the covers and grab my sweater. I put it on inside out, hurriedly and silently. I forget my hotel key card on his desk as I rush into the hallway. He doesn’t know why I was upset. My vision doesn’t return for a few hours. He texts me from the front row of my presentation, twenty minutes later. He tries to rub my elbow when I sat back down. I inch my chair away.



In summer, when the sidewalks are empty, I walk the backways of the psychiatric hospital. I wander more carefully, though, so no one sees me. The landscape has changed since I was last there. There are still the broken bottles that grind beneath my boots and the vast open windows I see shadows move through. But the brick is crumbling in more corners. There is yellow spray paint scraped across the glass and wood and dried ivy that wasn’t there before. I like going there at night when it feels like I’m not doing anything wrong, and I can pretend that it is too dark to read the no trespassing signs.

Missing Signs and SignalsSamantha Donndelinger
00:00 / 16:21

Sam’s head still lives in the woods in Maryland, where she grew up. She thinks animals are more interesting than people, and from loons to possums, when she’s not writing journalism, she writes about the human experience through strange moments they show her in the world. She prefers to be barefoot, and cemeteries are where she feels most alive. She is finishing her senior year in Journalism and Gender Studies at NYU, and she has works published in Cooper Squared and Yellow Arrow Magazine.

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