Brian Gardner parked the BMW in the empty lot. He had never come to the park this late to run but Professor Davis insisted on seeing him before the break. “Focus seems off this term, Gardner. Is anything wrong?”
Of course nothing was wrong, just planning a wedding while attending Albany Law was enough to drive anyone to the breaking point. Not that Davis really cared.
The BMW was used, a gift from Steven, Brian’s older brother by seven years and a successful tax attorney in Manhattan. He pulled the emergency brake and got out of the car, smelling the scent of pine that brought him back to this spot more than the trail itself or any view it provided. He only now realized he was alone. There were plenty of other runners around noon, when he usually came, but at four thirty, with the sun already going down, he had the place to himself it seemed.
His phone rang. The screen read, JEN.
“Hi… It went ok… I don’t know he talks to everybody… It wasn’t anything bad, he just knows I’m a little distracted with the wedding coming… I’m not blaming you or the wedding… I know you’ve done everything… Yes, I love you… Look, I’m about to run and then I’ll be home in about forty-five minutes…Ok… Ok…Ok.
She hung up.
He looked up at the tips of the pines piercing the purple sky and saw the first star of the evening. He stared at it, wanting to ask it some profound question, or make a wish that would clarify exactly what it was he wanted in this life.
“Fuck,” was all he said.
He walked across the lot to the head of the trail. There was a large rock with an old brass plate fixed to it. It was in honor of a Scout Master that had died named Roger Blevins and, it read, Placed here by troop 233, September 1974. He had never stopped to read it before. Brian placed a hand on top of the rock and, reaching back, took his left foot in his hand and stretched his quads.
The forest was quickly getting dark. The remaining sunlight didn’t penetrate into these trees any better than it did in the deep ocean. Beyond a hundred yards, all was black. Brian took his right foot in his hand, stretching and bending over the Scout Master’s rock, when he heard a strange sound deep in the trees. Not a frightening sound, just strange.
It was like the whining of a dog or a sound a kid would make doing a bad imitation of an Indian call. It sounded once, a YOW-YA sound, and then it was gone. He didn’t give it another thought before he tightened his laces. He saw the shed skin of a small snake beside the memorial stone.
He jogged west, away from the rock along the short, half-mile path beside the creek. He had run cross country in high school, and on and off before coming to Albany for law, but he had given it up completely until Jen noticed extra pounds. At six-foot four, two-hundred-fifty pounds, the running was starting to wreak havoc on his knees. The path and creek turned slowly north bringing him deeper into the forest. There was still light here, for the moment, but he watched the trail closely for rocks that would break an ankle.
He ran on knowing he was not far from the half-mile mark where he would turn around and enjoy the slightly downhill grade back to the lot. The dark of the woods was inching closer to him as the minutes went by. The path was soon the border of light and dark, and he knew he would have to pour on the speed to get back before he was in the total black of a forest at night.
“Never again,” he said as he ran.
Should have waited until tomorrow. But he remembered Jen handing him his bag containing the sweatsuit as he left that morning. As far as exercise was concerned, she wasn’t any harder on him than she was on herself. She tortured herself at L.A. Fitness three times a week and clearly wanted the same commitment to look good in wedding attire. He ran here three times a week and hit the weights at the gym at least twice. The skin of his hands was calloused again for the first time in years.
A narrow wooden bridge went over the creek here and he crossed it in three strides of his long legs. He was wondering how he and Jen’s relationship would alter after the wedding when he became suddenly aware of a change in his surroundings. He felt he was being watched.
There was something else, a sound beyond his own footsteps against the wet mud-packed trail. It was a heavy, thumping noise to his right in the dark. He continued jogging as he listened, his ears straining to hear. Yes, it was definitely there, though he was deeply afraid to admit it to himself. There was a dull, weighted thump coming from the dark of the trees with every third stride he took. He didn’t so much hear it as feel it. The sweat on his back turned cold. Something huge was walking beside him in the dark.
He stopped. The heavy, lumbering steps continued for a few more paces, passing him, then stopped as well. Brian couldn’t force himself to turn and face the darkness. What would be there looking at him? Though he had been jogging at a good clip, his fear kept his breathing quiet and slow. Was it a deer? Several deer? He could have surprised them at this time of the evening. People were typically gone from the park as the sun set. But this sound was heavy. Or had he imagined it? Maybe there was construction at the edge of the park, machines pounding steel into the ground? The thought of a bear was just bordering his consciousness when he slowly turned and walked back in the direction of the parking lot.
Something is there.
In situations like this, most people will frantically reason with themselves. Especially when hearing noises in the dark. After all, it could be so many things, including nothing to be alarmed about. Brian had never heard of a bear sighting, much less an attack, anywhere near here.
Something is there, and it’s much bigger than me.
His pace quickened, and he was about to start jogging again when another heavy stride sounded behind him from where they had stopped a moment ago.
He ran faster than he ever had in his life. Small branches slashed at his face and he leapt over rocks like an Olympic athlete. He crossed the wooden bridge over the creek in a single stride and thought only of his car that was still a quarter mile ahead of him. Though focused and sprinting and flying past the trees he could hear the THUMP, THUMP of enormous footsteps gaining beside him. Fallen branches snapped under the feet of whatever chased him on the trail.
Brian twisted and wound his way along the path, his legs burning from the effort. His arms were raised in front of him, reaching for the light of the clearing that was just now coming into view. The clearing held his car, his life, and safety. If he could reach it before whatever was in the woods reached him.
He sprinted past the memorial stone, across the parking lot, passing his car and burst into the public restroom building. He hit the door so hard that it bounced off the wall and struck his left arm, breaking his elbow. His back smacked the tiled wall behind him and he slid to the floor. Gasping, he leaned forward, pressing his weight against the door. His breathing was the only sound. He waited for the crash against the other side, but none came. A moth flapped his wings against the filthy light over the mirror. The door felt wet and cold against his shoulder, and he wouldn’t feel the pain in his elbow until this was over.
He kept time by the moth. It would fly in a loop around the naked bulb, land on the edge of the aluminum sconce, walk along and fly again. It did this six times before he had the courage to look outside.
There was nothing. The BMW was the only thing in the dim lot. The sun was gone from the sky, leaving a ribbon of yellow over the trees to the west. The tips of the pines gently swayed in the breeze and the darkness thickened around the little building where he hid. It was fifty feet from here to the car. The forest was black. If something was there waiting for him to come out, he would never see it until it was on him. If he stayed here another five minutes, Brian knew, he wouldn’t be able to see anything outside at all. He took the keys from his pocket and, without thinking about it for another second, ran for the car. He got within fifteen feet of it when he dropped his keys.
“Fuck!” he screamed, revealing himself to any monsters and whatever other woodland creatures were within a quarter-mile. Brian’s heavy frame didn’t allow him to stop on a dime, so he hit the car hard and pushed off with his hands, turned and looked frantically for the keys. His panic and gasping breaths came back as he searched the ground and scanned the darkness to his left. It was then he heard the strange sound again. The sound he had heard just before he started the trail, the YOW-YA like a cross between a dog and a child. It was close, a hundred feet away or less, but it was impossible to see now.
He forced himself to stop looking at the trees and focused on the lot, finding the keys by a patch of grass protruding from the black top. Swiping them off the ground, he spun and opened the door. Ramming the key into the ignition, he turned the engine over and floored it forward and over the cement parking barrier. He skidded onto Route 17 and by the time he was in third gear he was going seventy miles per hour on a twenty-five limit stretch of road. He wouldn’t slow down for two miles and when he did, he found that he was laughing. He was laughing harder than he had in any recent memory. Laughing into the face of whatever was in those woods, as well as at Jen, Professor Davis and whoever else on the staff of Albany Law that came to mind. And it felt good. It felt wonderful.
Then he realized his elbow was broken and vomited onto the dashboard.
Two days later Brian was back in the lot. He was on his cell phone, the screen read JEN.
“Yes it hurts… Because I wanted to get out of the house for a while… Well, I had wanted to run after seeing Professor Davis, even though it was late… I need to fit into my tux, right? No, I’m not blaming you… I’m not… I know the car smells bad, I couldn’t help it… Where am I? I’m…I’m back at the park… I just wanted to see something… No, I’m not running, my arm is in a sling… Just…something… I don’t think I’ll see a bear… Because it’s still light out… It was darker then, it probably didn’t know what I was… I know we have to go to your mom’s later… I won’t get muddy.”
She hung up.
He tossed the phone onto the driver’s seat along with his jacket and, apprehensively, walked to the Scout Master’s memorial stone. There were two other cars in the lot today, but no one was in sight. It was one o’clock pm. He scanned the interior of the woods as far as he could see. All was quiet, brightly lit by the sun and tranquil. It was a decidedly different vibe from the last time he was here. Brian hadn’t told anyone about the encounter, aside from Jen, and he told her he thought it was a bear. He may not have told her at all were it not for the elbow. How on earth could he tell her what he thought it was? And what did he think it was?
He followed the path he’d jogged two days before. After a light storm that morning the creek was running high and fast over the flat slate stones. He crossed the little wooden bridge, his shoes squeaking as he went. When he knew he was at the place where he was first aware of the lumbering footsteps he stopped. Again he looked around, but he was alone on the trail. There wasn’t a sound either but the leaves rustling in the wind. It was strange to be able to see so well now considering how thick the darkness was at night. Brian’s fists clenched and unclenched as he realized how close whatever it was must have been to him that night. He could easily toss a stone and hit the spot where he thought the steps had come from. He left the path and walked through the short brush. There was low greenery covering the ground here, still wet from the light rain. The earth was loose and muddy. He saw no clues, though he wasn’t entirely sure what he was looking for.
He continued west, parallel to the running path. If something had followed him that night, he guessed it was for about fifty feet or so before he had stopped jogging. A thick, fallen branch blocked his way and when he stepped over it he realized his foot came to rest inside of a large indentation in the packed mud. He knew was he was looking at right away. Six inches beyond the end of his sneaker was the unmistakable impression of toes.
“Jesus Christ on a Ritz cracker,” Brian said.
Brian wore a size fifteen shoe. His shoe fit into this footprint like the foot of a newborn into the palm of a grown man’s hand. It was simply enormous. A size fifteen shoe was just over twelve inches long, and this imprint in the mud was at least five inches longer. Brian reached into his pocket for his phone to get a picture but forgot he’d left it in the car. It didn’t matter, he had a better idea anyway.
Not being the crafty sort, Brian wasn’t sure which aisle at Michael’s Arts and Crafts might have what he needed.
“Can I help you find anything, sir?” a red-headed, middle-aged woman asked. Her nametag read LITA.
“Where can I find plaster for, like, to get a cast of a footprint?”
“You mean like Bigfoot?”
“No! What? No, not Bigfoot.”
“A man’s then?”
“No, not a man’s. Well, yes, a man’s. Like a man’s.
Lita got on her walkie-talkie. “David?”
“What kind of plaster would you use to make a Bigfoot print?” Lita asked.
“It’s not Bigfoot.” Brian said.
Lita closed her eyes and nodded at him.
“Plaster of Paris. It dries hard and pretty quick. But you may want to ask the customer if the mud Bigfoot stepped in is still wet or is it dry.”
“Is the mud Bigfoot stepped in dry or wet?”
“It’s…It’s still kinda wet.” Brian said.
“Kinda wet,” Lita said.
“Tell him to cover it then, after. It’ll take longer to dry, too.”
“Aisle 7,” Lita said.
The folks at Michael’s knew their stuff. The plaster was setting fast despite the wet conditions. If Jen could see me now, Brian thought.
It was getting late, already quarter ‘till four according to his father’s old Omega. Jen would expect him back in an hour. He knew he would have to come up with an excuse for how he spent his day. The idea of having to make up stories in order to avoid an argument was something he hated doing, but, he had to admit, he was getting used to it.
Brian was packing the last of the plaster into the footprint when a nagging thought came back to him. It had been bothering him for a month now, which he thought was strange considering how long he and Jen had been together. It was this: He imagined himself putting on his tux before their wedding, buttoning the shirt and adjusting the bowtie. As he did this, Brian imagined what would be going through his mind. And there it was, what really bothered him. Am I doing the right thing?
He had never faced it until now, packing plaster of paris into a print of Bigfoot in the dirt. He squatted motionless, over the ground, his hands covered in thick white paste. Am I doing the right thing? Do I really want to do this? Do I really want to marry Jen? He fell back into a sitting position on the forest floor. That question begat so many others. Why the fuck am I studying tax law? I hate it. My brother and father have planned so much of my life, and I let them do it. If mom was alive she would have told me to quit and do what I really want. She always believed in me, trusted me. Dad never has. That’s why all has been arranged. She believed in me and I believed in myself—once. But what do I really want?
“I don’t have any goddam idea.” Brian said, aloud.
A twig snapped behind him and Brian jumped and spun around. “Jesus Christ!”
“Whoa, relax,” said an old man wearing the green and gray uniform of the park employees. “Whatcha got there?”
Brian stood there with his plaster covered hands in the air. The sling on his arm made this look stranger still. “Oh, uh, it’s nothing. I mean, I know it looks weird, but I was just, uh…”
“You makin’ a footprint?” He said, seeing the small mound of plaster on the ground. Brian could tell looking at the man’s face that he wasn’t going to make up anything reasonable to explain himself. Nothing he would buy anyway.
“I’m not sure,” Brian said, truthfully.
“Looks pretty big. Like a big-foot, if you know what I mean.”
Brian stood there, his hands still up as if he were under arrest. He looked over his shoulder at the footprint.
“Yeah, yeah, it is pretty big. I, uh, wanted to make sure I got it all, so I used all the plaster I had. Is that against the rules?” Brian asked, holding out his good hand, concernedly.
The old man didn’t seem to hear the question but just stood there looking at the print, slowly shaking his head. Oddly enough, something in his manner reminded Brian of his father.
“I come from Arizona, originally.” he said. “My mother is Hopi. Out there the people tell a lot of strange tales.” The man spoke slowly and quietly, never taking his eyes off of the footprint.
“That right?” Brian asked, white hands still raised.
“You can put your hands down.”
“One story I remember the old people telling was of a giant being. A creature eight feet tall that would come in times of trouble. They called it the Messenger.”
They both stood there for a while saying nothing. A bird sang in the trees, and the wind brought a gentle groaning noise from the bending trunks of the pines. Brian couldn’t tell if the print stirred up some memory of home for the old man, or what he was thinking, if anything. Eventually, the old man looked at his watch, turned and walked down the path.
“Why did they call it the Messenger?” Brian called to him.
“I don’t know. I didn’t believe in him.”
Brian washed the plaster off of his hands at the familiar restroom in the parking lot. As he broke away the dried paste he noticed the callouses on his hands, from all the time at the gym, were beginning to peel as well. He picked at the palm of his left hand, the skin painlessly coming free and he dropped the translucent pieces into the sink. The skin beneath the callouses was pink and new. He stared at it, the skin like a newborn’s, as the water from the faucet fell gurgling into the drain. Whatever that hand touched next it would be a first for it.
He felt more than plaster and shed skin fall away as he washed. He wondered if he was too old to change, but something deep inside him felt pushed, shaken, and he knew he was seeing more clearly than he had in years.
As he left the restroom he stood on the threshold, looking at the horizon above the trees. The evening was just coming on and the clouds were turning pink. An airliner silently crossed the sky over Albany New York, leaving a contrail that stretched for miles. Brian wondered if they were beginning a journey or one was coming to an end. He crossed the lot to his car, carrying the cast of the footprint. His mind was troubled but his eyes and hands were new.
One year later, Brian sat on the Scout Master memorial rock after a long run. His phone rang. The screen read, VICKI.
“Hi… Just got done… It was good… Yeah, I’m starving… You know I love Alexander’s… Sure let’s go… I’m sure they have salads…You’re not fat… You’re not fat… I’ll be home soon, ok? I love you too.”
He hung up.
Vicki’s insecurity about her weight was one of his favorite things about her. Not only was it unfounded, but it gave him the opportunity of assuring her how perfect she was.
He was standing beside his car, removing his muddy shoes when he heard a strange sound from the woods, too far to identity. It could have been the YOW-YA he’d heard a year ago, but was more likely a dog running with its owner on a distant trail.
Something was there that night. He believed in it. Whatever its message was, it forced him to take a long look at himself and what he was doing. Brian wanted to be certain of all the changes he’d made in the past year but he wasn’t. In his closet at home was a seventeen-inch-long plaster cast of a footprint that he had taken in the woods. He always looked at it when in doubt.