Short Story Sunday: Snow Mountain

Snow Mountain

I usually don’t answer my phone when I see a number I don’t recognize but I was expecting a call from a big potential client. If I got this contact it would pay for my daughter’s first year in graduate school with maybe some left over.

Me: Hello this is Astrid.

My caller: Hi Astrid, I met your son Sam the other day at the Disk Bay Observatory. He told me you’d painted the mural in the lobby. Your work is beautiful.

It wasn’t Louanne Freeman, the woman who wanted half a dozen insanely expensive and historic paintings restored. 

Me: Who is this?

My caller: Nevil Simon.

Me: Oh my goodness. goodness. Nev Simon.

He went on a bit about what he’d been doing for the past thirty five years. Just a bit. Astrophysics. Divorce. No kids. Two cats. He’d looked up my online portfolio. 

Nevil Simon wanted to see me. Let’s back up a bit. I’m a 60 year old widow with three kids who are all out of the house, but still in college. Nevil Simon, an old flame from my college days contacted me. Yes, that Nevil. The one I never talked about but never forgot. 

We met in at his cabin in Tahoe. The weather was perfect, but we still ended up spending most of our time inside.

On the last night there, over steaks and a nice bottle of Zinfandel, Nevil smiled and took my hand. I looked into his big brown eyes, with those long lashes, and thought he was going to tell me something horribly romantic. 

“Some friends of mine invited me to go with them to the Snow Mountain Wilderness to find Bigfoot. Come with us. It will be fun,” he said. “A real adventure.”

Maybe at my age I shouldn’t be thinking of romance.

“Are you serious? Bigfoot?”

He laughed. “I don’t want to go alone. I need another sane person there with me.”

“It will be in the 90’s and there will be a million rattle snakes,” I said.

“The nights cool down to the 50’s.”

But my heart fluttered a bit. More than a bit. Damn, at 61 Nevil was still hot. “Fine, I’ll wear my heavy boots,” I said.

It wasn’t that I didn’t want to go into the wilderness and sleep on the ground in a tent. The Snow Mountain Wilderness is beautiful. I didn’t want to go into the wilderness with a group of die hard cryptozoologists. I didn’t want to go out into the woods at night with night gear goggles and listen for the howls of giant hairy humanoid creatures who might or might not exist.

It all just seemed weird. 

But I was going anyway. I was going because of a boy. A sixty one year old boy.

Nevil told me not to worry about food but I’m a mom, so I packed a few things. Old habits die hard. I packed wine, and cheese, and chocolate. I read that Bigfoots, or Bigfeets, or Sasquatches, or Squatches, or whatever, I heard they liked apples and other gifts, so I brought apples. I like apples so they wouldn’t be wasted. I couldn’t’ believe I was packing apples for am eight foot tall mythical beast. 

I also packed stuff for smores, and Smokehouse almonds, because large hairy creatures in the wilderness might like something that wasn’t squirrel meat or acorns or whatever the hell they eat, if they do indeed exist and eat. I figured if the Bigfoots didn’t want to make smores I’d make them for the humans. Everyone loves smores.

I told my kids where I was going and what I’d be doing. They couldn’t stop laughing. They asked me to take lots of pictures, and told me to have fun and be careful. Sam told me to bring condoms. His siblings, Rachael and Chase laughed out loud. I love my kids.

The drive to the turn off for the Big Foot Camp was a three and a half hour drive. It gave Nevil and I an opportunity to catch up that didn’t involve alcohol or sex. 

“So, why’d you ask me to this Big Foot thing again?” I asked. 

“I thought you’d be up for it. You always liked weird things, so I decided to look you up.”

“Weird things?”

“Maybe weird wasn’t the right word. Fantasy things. Lord of the Rings, Maxfield Parrish posters, fairies, Dracula, gothic things, you know.”

“That was in college.  I liked the art. In fact, I’ve made a lucrative career out of it.”

“I know. Inert foot in mouth Nev. But you like camping.”

“Sure.”

“I don’t believe we’ll see anything but it will be fun. You know, kind of like an old fashioned snipe hunt.”

“Well, now that you put it that way…”

“I wanted to see you again Astrid.”

As I reached to take his hand the car bumped off of the paved road onto dirt and we came to a dusty stop behind a FedEx truck.

The driver waved. Nevil rolled down the window. “What are you doing way out here? Delivering to the ranger station?”

“I’m not sure who it is. I’ve never seen them. They have a bear proof box about a hundred feet up this drive. I drop off packages every few weeks. Sometimes I pick up. Living off the grid I guess. The names are always funny like Alba Tross, or Harry Balls. Hey, changing the subject, there’s been some trouble up the road. Missing college students or something like that. Be careful.”

He waved us on, and we continued for another half hour down the road. We made jokes about the Scooby-Doo Mystery Machine Van showing up any minute now.

The camp was set up when we arrived. 

A big guy with a round face named Bill greeted us with hugs. The other Bigfoot Hunters, Janice, Mike, and Drew welcomed us as well. We were told they’d heard a lot of howling the night before and heard something large in the woods. According to Bill we were in for the adventure of a lifetime. Oh boy.

Just as we settled down for beer, chips, and salsa with the group a couple of vehicles drove up. One was a truck from the National Forest Service. The other was a Glenn County Sherriff’s SUV. The officer from Glenn County explained to us that three college students had gone missing. It wasn’t the first time this year. Foul play was expected. Blood had been found on their car along bullet holes. 

Two male suspects were at large and considered armed and dangerous. If we saw a couple of white men in their 40’s with shaved heads and racists neck tattoos we were told to call the sheriff’s office or 911 right away. They handed us flyers with pictures of the men. 

The two National Forest Service Rangers told us to stay off the trails at night, as if that was going to stop a group of seasoned Bigfoot hunters.

I asked Nevil about it. He said we’d be fine. That was small comfort to me. My husband had been murdered. When I heard of events like this it was never fine in my mind.

At dusk I walked to the nearby creek to watch the sunset and maybe see some wildlife. Nevil was catching up with his friends. Honestly, I had no idea what they were talking about and just needed a few minutes by myself.  By the water I met a couple of young men, who were out birdwatching. They were maybe in their early 20’s. The one who introduced himself as Josh was a ghostly pale skinny kid with blue eyes and blonde hair tied back in a ponytail. The other, Daniel, was dark with curly black hair and brown eyes behind round wire rimmed glasses. I thought about my kids, then I thought about the killers with swastikas tattooed on their necks. 

“Hey, guys,” I said. “Be careful out here.”

Daniel promised me they would. 

Then out of the blue Josh and Daniel said they knew where the Bigfoot camp was. Josh gave me directions that I wrote down in the small sketchbook I always carry with me. When I looked up from the paper and they were gone. Maybe it was the mosquitos, or they were bored of a gray haired woman old enough to be their mother.

Later that night I got up for my own call of nature. On the way back to the tent I saw Josh and Daniel again. They waved. I waved. Nevil came out to find me, and Daniel recognized him as one of their former professors. He recognized the kid and they talked for a bit. He’d gotten into graduate school at UCLA. They’d talk later. They were camping nearby. Then Josh reminded us of the map. Then the young friends started down the trail, but not before they turned off their lantern. I could hear them talking softly to each other, then Nevil and I headed back to our own tent.

Nevil stopped me before we entered our camp. “Look up. What do you see?”

“A zillion stars. Oh my god it is beautiful. I don’t remember that last time I saw this many stars.”

“Do you see it up there?” He pointed.

“The big dipper and little dipper.”

“Also known as the big and little bears. See that bright star below the big dipper? That is Arcartus. It is on the end of the constellations Boötes the Herdsman. The herdsman can be seen driving his great plow, in a great circle around Polaris, the north star.  With his two trusted hunting dogs, which are represented by the constellation Canes Venatici on his right. Asterion is the northern dog and Chara is the southern dog. I always imagined them to be huge wolfhounds or retrievers of some sort. Boötes also resides next to three constellations: Hercules and Corona Borealis are on his left. Below him, Virgo in all her glory shines bright, perhaps waiting for him to seduce her along their trip across the Milky Way.

As he spoke, he stood behind me with his arms around my waist, holding me tight. 

“Was Arcartus anyone?” I asked.

“It means Guardian of the Bear. It keeps the big and little bear safe. Arcartus would look orange if we had a telescope. I’ll bring one next time, or better yet you can come spend a weekend with me.” He turned me around and kissed me. “A weekend without Bigfoot.”

“That would be awesome.”

“Astrid,” he whispered. “Shining bright.”

“My name doesn’t mean star.” I said, then felt stupid.

“It means divinely beautiful.”

“How’d you know that?”

“I looked it up.”

If he’d been anyone else I would have called him out, but tonight I didn’t care.

The next morning over coffee and bacon we were called love birds by the other Bigfoot hunters who all made kissy noises. 

So the big foot hunt was on. 

We trooped around for hours covered in layers of sweat, sunscreen, and dirt. Then, after dinner, as it grew dark, we heard knocking.

The knocking could have been caused by people. I bet pot growers in the National Forests did it all the time to freak people out. There was a howl, but it could have been anything or anyone. Still, I had chills up my spine. I couldn’t stop thinking about the young people who were missing. It could have been my kids and their friends. It could have been Nevil and I if we’d taken the wrong turn or showed up a few days earlier. 

As it grew darker, Nevil and I went down the narrow trail. The knocking became louder with the knocks closer together, almost in a rough rhythm. Sort of like toddlers banging on pans.

I shrugged off my pack and dug out a couple of flashlights. When I turned towards Nevil he was gone. 

Knock knock knock, in front of me. Then knock knock knock, behind me. 

I called for Nevil. 

“Astrid. I’m here.”

I turned around.

In front of me stood my husband. Yes, the same husband who’d been dead for eighteen years. I suddenly realized, the same husband whose murder had never been solved.

“Phil.” I could barely get my voice to work.

“You’ll see two young men. You’ve met them before. You will also see third stranger. The stranger will be wearing a yellow neon hunting vest and a bandana. Follow them.”

“What?”

“Do as I say?”

I stepped towards Phil. I was going to turn on my flashlight, but I didn’t have to. He sort of glowed, kind of like one of those old fashioned Santas, or a jellyfish in an aquarium, or a million other ways my overly visual brain started to fill my head with.

“I’m not exactly a ghost Astrid. I can’t stay long.”

“Phil.”

“I’m here to help.”

“What? How? Why? Why haven’t I seen you before now?”

“I can’t say.”

“The kids…”

“You’ve done a great job rising them. I am so proud of them all grown up and in school, on their own.”

“You know?”

“Of course I do.”

I stepped forward. “Phil, I’ve missed you so much.”

“I love you baby, always and forever. On the other hand, I’m not here and you’re still in the world of the living. Follow the boys. Give Nevil a chance. He’s a good man. Tonight follow the boys.”

“I love you,” I said.

Then he smiled at me and vanished. 

I turned around and there stood Nevil.

“There you are,” he said. “I thought I’d lost you. Are you alright?”

“Why?”

“You look like you’re about to cry.”

“I’m fine.”

He took me in his arms and hugged me tight. I closed my eyes and hugged back. 

When I opened my eyes, I saw a strange pair of eyes over Nevil’s shoulder. The largest person I’d ever seen in my entire life stood there glaring at me with a bandana over his face, a cap on his head, and a neon yellow vest. His eyes were a weird yellowish brown that looked like uranium glass under an ultraviolet light. He must have been almost seven feet tall with the build of a professional offensive lineman. 

“Come. The camp is this way,” he said. I tried to catch his accent but couldn’t make it out. Scottish maybe? 

“Who are you?” Nevil asked.

“Doctor Nev, you know stars. Come with me.”

Daniel and Josh stood smiling behind the large stranger.

“There you are Astrid, Dr. Nev,” said Josh. “Come on. We gotta go.”

Nevil wasn’t so sure. He pulled me aside.

“We don’t know anything about these guys.”

“I trust them.”

“Are you nuts? Why?”

“Stop acting like I’m some stupid silly college girl. I have a successful business. I’ve raised three wonderful children, mostly on my own. My husband was murdered. The killer was never found. I’ve been dealing with shit for years…on my own, so don’t question me. I don’t have to explain anything. If you want to stay behind that is your choice, but I’m going with these guys.”

“That guy is huge, dressed like he’s out of some weird survivalist cult.”

“Says the man who too me to a Bigfoot hunting expedition. Trust me Nev. Trust me.”

We hiked for another twenty minutes down a narrow trail lit by a small flashlight carried by the big man up front. The two young men walking behind us talked about something we couldn’t hear and laughed the way only young men do, with that sort of joyful raspy kind of unapologetic way. 

Then, our large guide stopped. The boys were quiet. The clearing in front of us lit up with lanterns and torches.

There stood fifteen large extremely hairy people in various styles of clothing, or no clothing. Only they weren’t people. They were Bigfoots. Our guide took off his bandana.

“Welcome,” he said. “Take these children home. Do what you will with the other two.”

By a fire Josh and Daniel lay underneath sleeping bags. A young woman sat by them. She looked up. What the…they were just standing next to us.

“Oh my god, help us. My friends need to get to the hospital,” she said.

I looked just beyond them and saw two men hanging by their feet from a tree. They were alive and trying to wiggle. They were the killers.

“How?” asked Nevil looking at me, then at the girl, and on to the Bigfoot group.

“Their spirits sought you out,” said our guide in a gruff voice, taking off her hat. Reddish brown hair tumbled out in a complex mass of curls and braids. Yes, our guide was female. “If you take our your phone and call 911 someone will come help. We have coverage up here. Don’t look surprised. We have a lot of things. Remember the FedEx truck?”

“They saved us,” said the girl who was named Katie. “They hung up the men who shot Daniel and Josh.” Katie turned to the Bigfoot group. “I will never forget your kindness. You will always be in my heart.”

The group of large people, because they were people of their own kind, gave Katie hugs, then they turned and walked into the woods.

About an hour later a rescue helicopter came for the three missing college students. Law enforcement came for the killers. Nevil and I walked back to the camp in silence.

We never told anyone about the Bigfoot community. Katie told law enforcement that she wasn’t sure who hung up the men who’d shot her friends. It was dark, she told them.

Nevil and I talked about the weirdness a little, well, a lot. We saw it. We experienced it. We couldn’t explain any of it. We never told his Bigfoot seeking friends about our experiences. I never told Nevil about my visit from Phil.

Later I told my children about it, as they listened in awe and wonder. As an empty nester I can still make them think I’m the cool mom. 

A few months later Nevil and I traveled down to Death Valley to see the weird geology and amazing stargazing. He’d brought a telescope.

“Look to the empty spot. That is Fomalhaut. It is a bit isolated. Some call it the solitary one. Look down the length of Pegasus and you’ll see it.”

The solitary one, I thought. That could have been me a few months ago, before I’d gone on a Bigfoot hunt. 

Nevil put his arm around my shoulder and we watched the shooting stars, just the two of us. Then again, I never knew, after the weekend in the Snow Mountain Wilderness if we’d ever really be alone again.

~ end

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