The Trail

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“..that were reduced to little more than rattling icy, barren branches once fall had relinquished itself to winter.”

DEAN would have been surprised to know that he was being watched as he hiked up the pleasant little trail winding through the woods behind his house. When he headed out that afternoon he would have said that it was unlikely that he would run into anyone at all, and until the moment when he caught a glimpse of black, silky fabric between the trees he’d have said that he’d been right.

He had, until that moment, believed himself to be walking along the path with no companions but his muddled thoughts, and even those had been few and far between. He loved the woods in the fall, and that had been enough to hold his interest without any of the usual clamoring that went on in his head. There was, he had often thought, a surreal quality to fall that no other season could ever match. The leaves would crisp and flush with brilliant color before being alighted on the cool gusts that were reduced to little more than rattling icy, barren branches once fall had relinquished itself to winter.

But that one flash of black fabric caught his eye, and he stopped there on the path to look at it. It was only a sliver of dark against an ocean of fluttering brown leaves and solid russet trunks; It was not so jarring in its contrast as was the occasional burning auburn leaf that would interrupt his view,  save for it being the only black to speak of. Staring intently Dean guessed it was little more than thirty yards away. He leaned to try to get a better view of whatever that black was attached to, or whatever was attached to that black, but there were so many trunks between where he stood and the black that it did no good.

Suddenly Dean felt inexplicably uncomfortable. He took a step forwards and squinted his eyes while his mind tried to find some way to excuse the pitch blemish it had deciphered from the woods, tried to place it as something natural. He was looking right at it; and then he wasn’t. In all the movement of the falling leaves, the rustling grass that carpeted this part of the woods, and the swaying tree trunks he could have just lost sight of that black spot, after all, it hadn’t been much wider than his arm. Or maybe it had been a garbage bag that had been hanging from a branch, and had been carried out of view by the same breeze that caused the rest of the motion, and he had just missed the movement of it against everything else. But that spot hadn’t moved. It had been there and then it hadn’t.

The rubber sole of Dean’s shoe left the hardpan of the well-traveled footpath and settled into the top layer of leaves to the right of it with a crackling sigh. I should go find that bag if it’s out there He thought. It shouldn’t be hard, and these woods could be so beautiful on a day like today, no use letting them get degraded by trash. And the woods did look beautiful that afternoon, but they didn’t feel beautiful, not to Dean Redger. To him they felt a bit like a ghost town, less like the vibrant living wilderness and more like an empty shell of a place where you can only hope you’re alone.

He ventured a second step, then another, and another. His footfalls made a reassuringly manufactured sound in the leaves and dry twigs on the forest floor as he walked towards the place where he had seen the bag

He sighed.

Their rhythmic consistency padding along made him feel ridiculous for feeling so skittish. He….

He stopped. There it was again, directly in front of him. He would have sworn that he was nearly to the place where the black splotch had been when he had first seen it, but there it was. Again, about thirty yards off, a sliver of black between the trees. From where he now stood he thought that he could see it a little better, it almost looked like… but that was crazy. Not that it couldn’t be, just why on earth would it be?

He called out, feeling a little ridiculous “Hello?” He paused for a response but didn’t get one “Hey man, you know this is private property?” He was only marginally surer that this was still his property than he was that he had seen a man out there. He didn’t really mind when other people came to use the footpath anyway. But this person (if there even was a person) wasn’t on the footpath. That was when he lost sight of the black spot again. He looked after it for a long moment, thoughts running through his head in every direction. Had he seen something out there at all?

He suddenly became aware of the emptiness in the woods, and how completely exposed he was. Just my nerves he thought, but it didn’t change the skittish feeling growing in his gut. Just my nerves, but damn it feels strange out here. He felt like he was being watched, and a sickening assurance started to creep into his mind. When he turned around someone would be there. Not thirty yards away this time, not twenty, not even ten, but rightbehind him. It was as illogical as it was paranoid (hadn’t he made enough noise walking through the leaves to wake the dead?) but it was also unshakeable. And was it just paranoia, or was his shadow too long, even for this late in the afternoon?

He whirled around as quickly as he could, his feet throwing up leaves from the ground and his windbreaker blowing out loudly around his elbows. There was no one behind him. He felt ridiculous. He laughed out loud, in part because of how silly he felt, but a part of him suspected that he also laughed because of how relieved he was at the vacant space to his back.

Maybe he wouldn’t finish his walk after all. He thought that he might just go home. It was getting late, and he had apparently psyched himself out instead of relaxing out here anyway. As he walked the short distance back to his house, Dean convinced himself, mostly, that he hadn’t seen anything in the woods, and he convinced himself completely that he hadn’t seen a person. It’s the human condition really — conquer the things that you understand, and choose to believe that everything else is fiction.