Cindy smoothed her skirt down for the tenth time, pressing her palms over her kneecaps and digging her fingernails into the flesh there.
"Thanks again for driving me home," she said with a small smile. Tom kept his eyes on the road and shrugged slightly.
"It's really no trouble, I'm headed back this way too."
"That's right, you mentioned you live near the library?"
"Yeah," he replied with another shrug. The car was as quiet as the restaurant had been, but at least then they'd had the chatter of other people around. Now, there was only the sound of Tom's squeaky brakes and the wind pushing insistently past the car. When they first got in, the radio had been turned so loud Cindy had jumped and Tom had sheepishly shut it off entirely. Now, she almost wished for the music back.
"The restaurant was pretty good," she offered. "Had you been before?"
"Yeah, yeah it was. Never been, mostly I stick to AJ's when I eat out. It was good though, different. I still don't really understand why the soup was cold?"
"I think it was supposed to be? It's a gazpacho." Tom shrugged again. Cindy pressed her fingers harder into her knees.
Heather had set them up. She worked with Cindy at the youth center and knew Tom from college. He was a 'great guy and really interesting, just like you!', but they didn't watch the same shows or read the same books. Cindy knew nothing about fishing and when she mentioned her crocheting Tom's face had gone entirely blank. "Do you have any other plans this week?" Cindy tried again.
"I'm going out with a few guys from work, we're going to set up some crab traps."
"That sounds nice."
"Yeah. Did you, I mean were you asking because you wanted to… you know, or were you hoping...."
"No!" Cindy cut him off loudly and then backtracked, "I mean not no to… wanting to… umm, well not that I don't want to see you again, but…", she trailed off.
"Yeah, me too," Tom said quietly. "Don't worry about it," he quirked his lip into a friendly half-smile while still staring at the road. Cindy chewed on her lip. "Really, it's okay.," Tom chuckled. "No hard feelings."
"Okay, thanks," Cindy laughed with him. She let her hands relax in her lap, still smoothing down the fabric repetitively.
Outside the car it was pitch dark. The road curved through the woods in two narrow lanes sided with tall, thick trees and the occasional slow zone for campsites. Tom drove fast but cautiously, allowing Cindy to relax until he turned around a bend and she caught something out of the corner of her eye standing in the tree line. The car lights had hit it, just for a moment, and then it was behind them as Tom whizzed along with the curved road.
"What was that?" she gasped.
"You didn't see it? There was something in the woods back there. It was standing up and huge like a bear!" The thing had been tall for sure, with a thick fur, or maybe skin, rough and dark like tree bark.
"Maybe it was a really big deer," Tom offered. "It's a little too early for bears, but I guess not impossible." He shrugged again as they sped through the woods, unfazed by whatever Cindy thought she saw.
"It didn't look quite like a bear."
"What? Are you telling me you saw Bigfoot?"
"Ha ha," Cindy rolled her eyes, "There was something actually there, I saw it!"
"Probably just the trees. Sometimes the car lights bounce off the woods here and it creates all kinds of wonky shadows. I can't tell you how many times I've been headed home and thought I saw something."
"And you never stop to get a closer look?" Tom's eyes never left the road, but his mouth turned back up. Cindy scrunched her fists in her lap.
"Yeah," Tom said, drawing out the word as he laughed. "I stop all the time, just like they do in those movies where people get brutally murdered."
"I told you I don't watch horror movies," Cindy replied curtly. Tom laughed again,
"Maybe you should start. They're filled with valuable life lessons."
Cindy kept her arms folded across her chest and eyes trained out the window. Eventually, they turned out of the woods and onto Cindy's street. Tom pulled into the parking lot of her apartment building and turned off the car. He turned to look at her fully and raised an eyebrow at whatever expression he found on her face.
"I don't mean to tease," he said.
"Yes, you do," Cindy huffed. Tom shrugged again. They said a short and polite goodnight. Cindy disappeared into her building and Tom began the familiar drive back home alone.
Celia had figured the day couldn't get any worse, but as usual she was mistaken. A whole week straight of no sleep at all, her insomnia worse than ever, and this was after the sleep specialist had given her the new pills. Now, she would have to go back to the place that charged $200 a session and asked her what she thought the root cause of her sleeping problems were.
To make things worse, her mother was the one who drove her here to get groceries since Celia wasn't allowed to drive until she figured out the whole medication thing. Her Mom had been all too happy to do it, anything for my baby, but Celia was thirty-five and too old to be driven around for errands.
Her mom had texted that she was back in the parking lot after a run to the fabric store and was waiting for her, but Celia had been stuck in the longest checkout line she had ever seen. There was only one lane open and the cashier working it just Wouldn't. Stop. Talking.
She seemed to be on a personal mission to drag the life story out of every single person in line. If Celia weren't next, she would have considered abandoning the task entirely. Finally, the man in front of her managed to escape the cashier's monolog, grabbed his hostage bags, and bid her a quick, clipped goodbye. He sped out of the store and Celia placed her basket on the conveyor belt, bracing herself.
"Good morning, Miss, pleased to see you on this lovely day," the woman chirped. She looked about her Mom's age but with bright orange dyed hair and blue eyeshadow smeared on her wrinkly eyelids almost all the way up to her eyebrows. Celia just nodded hello back and pulled out her reusable bags. She would not give in to the chatter. "Oh, somebody came prepared." the woman continued when Celia didn't respond. "That's the kind of thing we love to see. Now, Redwoods High, huh? Are you a student?" Celia looked down at the bag from her old high school.
"I was," she replied before she could stop herself. A long time ago. Saying anything was a mistake. The woman's eyes lit up and she clapped her hands which still hadn't even scanned a single item. Damn.
"How wonderful, my brother teaches math over there, has for about seven years now. He does the kind with all the shapes, you know, that kind of stuff. Oh, what is that called? I'm always forgetting the names of things. Oh well, I was never a math person myself." She finally picked the first items out of Celia's basket to scan as she continued to talk. "Anyways, he went out hunting a couple weeks ago with his wife's brother and his son but they went inland instead of north. I thought that was weird. You always go north for better hunting, that's what everyone says." She stopped to slowly type in the code for Celia's bag of plums and Celia fought against the urge to close her eyes and scream.
"There it is, I always get tripped up on produce. There's so many numbers to remember. Not a math person! Anyways, they went inland, I don't know why, but they were out just doing the small critters, racoons and stuff. They sent the dogs out and were walking behind when my brother's wife's brother's son noticed something strange down in the dirt."
Celia had never wished more fervently that she could fall asleep at will. She would drop dead on the floor right here if it was an option. The cashier was placing languidly scanned groceries into her bag and Celia stood there tapping her foot, just to do something with all the restless energy she was building up. She took a deep breath and let it out slowly through her nose as the cashier continued her tale. "The boy's about eleven, so when he stopped my brother they thought he was just playing a game, but sure enough there were these unusual tracks leading further into the woods. It's way too early in the season for bears and there was no way it was a cougar or anything else. My brother said the tracks were so big he was absolutely floored." Finally, the cashier was on the eggs, Celia's last item. She picked them up and hovered them over the scanner when the man in line behind her asked:
"Did they figure out what the tracks were?" The cashier set her eggs back down.
"No, they never did! They looked around to see where the tracks led off to, but couldn't find anything. Must be one big critter out there somewhere, I guess. You really never know what all is living up in those woods." The woman finally, finally scanned the eggs and set them next to the other full bags. Celia paid and ran out to the parking lot as fast as she could without turning to say goodbye.
Tom was taking the bus to work today. His car was in the shop to get his brakes repaired which meant he couldn't stop at his usual coffee place on the way in. He'd have to go to that new place next door to the office and they always burnt their coffee. At least he had thought ahead to bring a book for the commute. As he read, Tom registered someone sitting down in the seats behind him. He tilted his head up and saw a beautiful woman with red, curly hair and a tall man with a well-groomed mustache and glasses. Tom wondered if they were together. The man wasn't bad looking per se, but his hair had too much product in it. Maybe if he got off first he could go sit by the woman and introduce himself.
"How was the party Friday night?" the man asked. The woman brushed a stray curl behind her ear.
"It didn't happen," she replied. Her voice was nice, deep but not gruff or anything. Tom kept his eyes fixed on his book but wasn't paying much attention to the words on the page.
"What do you mean?" the man asked her.
"I mean I went but I never found it. I got ready, drove all the way out, and when I got there it was just an empty field. I knew it was an underground kind of thing, but I was expecting, like, a sign at least or something."
"Weird, were there other people around?" the man asked. Tom was thankful he was keeping her talking. Her voice was nice. Maybe they were just friends after all? Or work colleagues.
"That's the thing, there were cars parked and stuff. At first, I thought maybe I had gone to the wrong place, but then I saw some lights coming through the woods."
"Do not tell me you walked into the woods to find a mysterious party. That is how people get stabbed, Katie."
"That is also why I carry a switchblade, Steven," the woman, Katie, replied pointedly. Tom bit his lip to keep from snorting. He could appreciate a woman who held her own. He turned his head a little to look out the window but focused his gaze on the people behind him. The guy didn't have his arm around her or anything at all. Katie licked her bottom lip and continued, "Anyways, I did walk through the woods, I figured there was a cabin or something where the party was and maybe I'd missed it on the flier or whatever."
"So was there?"
"I kept walking and I could see the lights, like strobe lights, and I heard music, even some people laughing, but I never actually reached them." Tom had turned back to his book and had been staring down at the same page while Katie told her story. He was starting to feel motion sick from the small print words jostling along with the bus.
"What do you mean?" the man asked.
"I mean, I kept walking and walking and walking and even though I could basically feel the music going I never got there. I'm not even sure where I was, but the lights never got any closer and when I called out to the people no one answered me. Eventually, I gave up and decided to head back. I turned around and it was like I had never left the parking lot. I walked for probably forty minutes, straight into the woods, but as soon as I turned, I was back at the edge by the field and the parking lot."
Tom closed his book and put it into his bag. He pulled the rope for the next stop, silently hoping maybe the red haired woman would be getting off too.
"Were you high?" the man laughed.
"Shut up, I was not," Katie replied, laughing too. "It was super-freaking-weird. Get this, there weren't even any footprints in the dirt. All those cars, all the people, so why were there no footprints?"
"It sounds like you had a bad trip," the man said laughing.
"Shut up, I told you I wasn't on anything. You are so not allowed to make fun of me!" Katie laughed and shoved his shoulder. "I totally thought I was going to get murdered." The bus came to a stop and Tom got up, stuffing his book into his bag. He cast one last look back at the two of them talking and laughing together before getting off the bus. It drove off while Tom waited for the light to change so he could go get coffee.
Kevin was out on his regular hike. He was glad to have remembered his waterproof jacket this time as wet ferns and coffeeberry plants dragged across his arms. His legs were going to be soaked, but he knew it would feel nice as it started to warm up later. The morning fog hadn't yet faded and Kevin wiped some condensation off his forehead. This time of year it was nice and quiet out here, no tourists out littering on the trails or loud families with their giant, flashy campers. He was hoping to head up-river and find some otters to get pictures of for the community center bulletin board. He hadn't been out all week, too busy with work and gearing up for the busy season.
As Kevin made his way along the familiar trail he heard some rustling coming up ahead. He turned and noticed a fork in the trail that he didn't remember being there before. To the left was his usual path that headed straight, alongside the river and up the mountain, but to the right was another path that headed east, deeper into the woods. He was sure there were no trails that headed East until you got further up the mountain. More rustling came from the new path and Kevin turned to follow it.
He came out here pretty often, living in a small house just at the base of the mountain, and found it hard to believe they had managed to get a whole new trail in without him noticing. It was too wide to be made by deer, with smooth, well packed dirt. Kevin bet if he dug a little he could find the same safety netting they used at the State Park. There was another bout of rustling and clanking from down the trail and Kevin recognized the sounds immediately.
Campers. He was hearing the sounds of a tent being disassembled and a family talking amongst themselves. He could hear children laughing and the sound of a bucket of water being poured out. Kevin might as well go say hello. It wasn't usual to get campers this early in the Spring and he wanted to make sure they knew it was too soon to get in the river. Most people came out over the summer for tubing or kayaking, but right now the water was too cold with a heavy current and dangerous undertows, especially for children. It couldn't hurt to say something, even if they already knew. Just last summer a girl had drowned in the waters a few miles up. They put signs up all over the place warning people not to swim, but every year accidents happened.
Kevin kept on the path, he was surprised how level it was, not many roots or rocks to step over. The wildflowers that grew along the river had faded into large, dense ferns and thick tree trunks. Wax Myrtle spread across the ground with patches of Ithuriel's Spear despite the dense tree cover. The small pops of blue flowers peered out over the rest of the shrubs, reminding Kevin of watchful eyes. It was colder and darker over here than even the base of the mountain had been when Kevin began his hike. He glanced up, trying to glimpse the sun through the trees but all he saw were criss-crossed branches weaved like a tunnel leading him further in. He could have sworn it was supposed to be sunny today.
The family should be set up somewhere close around here. He could still hear them, laughing and talking and rustling, but they didn't sound any closer than they had at the trail's start. Were they hiking too? It really sounded like people packing up, not moving down a trail. Kevin stopped walking and looked around. Something seemed off about the plants around him. Leaves swayed in a slight breeze a little too evenly, as if all the plants around were breathing and moving together in perfect time. The dirt below Kevin's feet was too smooth, the trees growing too perfectly straight. Why was it so cold here?
The family continued to make sounds, but they never seemed to move farther or closer to where he was, despite Kevin having walked about a half mile already. Kevin looked beside the trail at a large spider web stretched between a bush and a tree, pristinely decorated with dew drops, but no spider. Peering down the trail, it only seemed to get darker. Well, it was probably okay. If that family was moving inland then there was no risk of them trying to swim. They'd be fine. Kevin was free to go back to the river and find his otters. He took in one last look at the unsettling trail and turned around to go back.
Tom sat at his desk, swiveling back and forth in his chair to try and stretch out his legs without standing up. Today had been pretty slow, but he was still biding time trying to clock in a couple extra hours before he left to pick his car up. His empty coffee cup sat precariously on the edge of his desk as he scrolled on the computer. Tom had heard a couple of the finance girls talking about a concert they were going to next week in the park and he was trying to look up if any tickets were left. He hoped to get two and try to find a date or something. He finally found a link to the community events calendar and clicked it.
The first thing to pop up wasn't a calendar, but a Missing Persons notice. A guy had gone out hiking near the river last week and had never returned home. The family stated he was an experienced hiker and unlikely to become lost or injured without notifying somebody. There was an expired link to sign up for a search party and no other updates since.
Geez, there was always something going on. It seemed like every month there was some new disappearance or dead hiker story. It's part of why Tom had always preferred fishing, no chance of falling off a cliff or getting dragged off by mountain lions. Poor guy. Tom scrolled past the notice to the calendar with concerts and shows listed, pushing the missing hiker to the back of his mind he pulled up the site to order tickets.
It was dark by the time Tom got his car back from the mechanic. Jerry had been nice as always, but the man sure could talk your ear off when he got going and his wife was even worse. He had managed to escape without agreeing to another cup of coffee and he still had time to stop at AJ's and grab something to eat. Tom turned into the familiar lot, its flickering lights highlighting parking spaces littered with potholes and torn up concrete. Last Fall, a rockslide had damaged the lot and they still hadn't gotten around to completely clearing all the rubble away.
Dorris' car was still parked out front, but the lights inside were off and the front door locked tight. Tom stood outside for a minute knocking, but no one was responding. It was strange for Dorris to leave her car here, even stranger for AJ's to be shut down an hour early. He hoped nothing serious had happened. Tom walked back to his car ready to admit defeat when he heard something coming from behind the store.
"Hello?" he called out. Tom squinted into the darkness but couldn't make out more than the shadows of dumpsters that melted into shadows of trees above. It was a steep climb around the diner and there weren't really any trails that came by here. Most likely, just some raccoons digging around in the trash. Tom stomped over ready to scare them off when he almost stepped on something.
Dorris' phone was laying on the ground, flipped open and out of battery. Now that was very strange. Could be she had to run off somewhere and dropped it without realizing. Tom picked it up. Least he could do was keep it safe overnight and run it back to her early tomorrow morning on the way to work. He slipped the phone into his pants pocket and turned away from the dumpsters. Last time he talked to Dorris, everything had been going fine. He knew her sister had been having some health issues, but assumed that had all been cleared up. Tom would definitely have to come by early tomorrow and make sure everything was okay.
Damn raccoons had certainly had their fill. The dumpster lid was tossed open with a spilt bag of trash littered around the base. Half-eaten garbage trailed back to the tree line like a trail and disappeared. Tom bent over, trying to scoop up the worst of it. Last thing Dorris needed was rats or some other vermin getting inside. As he was cleaning up around the dumpster, Tom found a footstep in the dirt underneath an old styrofoam container. It was punched deep into the ground and wider than his own foot, longer too. It must be some animal track then, probably some poor creature laying on the edge of a highway by now. Tom didn't know much about hunting, but he figured nothing came this far down the mountain anyways. He finished clearing as much trash as he could and closed the dumpster for Dorris.
Back in his car, Tom drove with his eyes fixed ahead on the road. The street lights faded behind him and he ramped up his brights to get through the stretch of dense woods. His high beams bounced off trees shrouded in darkness and reflected back. Tom yawned and drummed his fingers on the wheel along to the beat of the radio. He pointedly ignored how his headlights seemed to stare back and blink.
About the Author
A Chicago local, Eliza Marley has previously published in Camas Magazine, fresh.ink, The Bookends Review, and Chaotic Merge Magazine.