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The man in the blue jacket

Spooktacular Story 4

Well, I am definitely never going to be able to sell my car now. The crater-like holes carved into this old logging road are forcing me to slam into the ground, ruining my shocks, or undercarriage, or whatever it is potholes wreak havoc on. I glance at the dashboard clock: I'll only have an hour to run before the sun sinks behind the mountains.

My mother's voice creeps into my head, "Bear spray? Bells? A cell phone, at least?" I forgot all three. I was more worried about bears in the months leading up to my move to Whistler than I am now.

"There's just black bears," everyone says with a dismissive wave. "You'll see them everywhere. They're usually harmless."

I am pretty certain that, statistically, I am more likely to veer off this horrible road and over the cliff to my right than I am to be eaten by a black bear. Probably. Maybe. Either way, I'm not turning around now. I spot the parking lot at long last, pull in and dart out of my car, anxious to catch the last bits of daylight.

It's empty for such a warm Sunday. There are only two other cars in the lot. As I set off down the trail, past the last-chance outhouse and massive pile of boulders, I see two couples trudging back up. We smile at each other. I forgot what it was like to live somewhere where people say things like, "Good morning!" without some sort of ulterior motive, like convincing you to buy a handbag you don't really need.

But it's just the trail and me now. My treaded shoes make a satisfying "crunch, crunch, crunch" on the rocks and roots while the river rushes by. The trees are already casting dark shadows across the mountain. I am alone. I am a wild animal. A deer, maybe, jumping — no, skipping! — through my forest home. I spot a path that leads down to the noisy, impossibly beautiful river and, despite the setting sun, turn down it.

I marvel for a moment at the pale blue depths, winding through the valley. Meandering down the rocky shore my heart rate begins to slow, sweat dries and I remember the 10 km I still hope to traverse today. I turn around and look for the opening that snakes back up to the main trail, but I can't seem to spot it. It's as if the underbrush swallowed it up while I had my back turned. Maybe it was further down the river by that boulder — though I don't remember walking that far. I keep going, at a more frantic pace now, head darting up and down, scanning the steep bank. Suddenly, I spot a man in a blue windbreaker with long grey hair. He flashes a toothy grin that makes my stomach feel uneasy.

"Hiya," he says. "You look lost."

"Yeah. It's a little embarrassing, but I can't seem to find my way back up to the main trail. It's like it disappeared or something."

He laughs. It's a horrible cackle, hoarse and dry, like he just smoked a couple of packs. "Why, m'dear," he says, "it's right behind you."

I turn around and, sure enough, there's the thin path of trampled brush.

"Oh man," I reply. "That is so weird. I just walked by here twice and somehow missed it."

He shrugged, awful grin still plastered on his face.

"Thanks," I say, glancing sheepishly at my running shoes. When I look up again, he's gone.

Entirely creeped-out and facing nightfall, I decide just to head back to the parking lot. My mother, as always, was right. I shouldn't have come down here unprepared, alone. I won't tell her that, though. Next time, I'll bring running buddies. Strong ones, capable of fighting off a bear — or a wiry old man.

Legs pumping, arms swinging, I take short, stiff strides up the side of the bank, anxious to get back. It's as if it's never ending. "Of course the way up feels longer than the way down," I reason.

But after a few minutes propelling myself uphill I realize something isn't right. My stomach sinks. The main trail, too, has disappeared. It's dusk now, even darker in the forest with towering trees blocking the remaining streaks of sunlight. I can feel tears of frustration and fear forming at the corner of my eyes. What will I do if I can't find my way out in the dark? The thought makes me shudder and I push it out of my mind. "THIS IS RIDICULOUS!" I shout to myself out loud, painfully aware there is no one around to hear.

From the corner of my eye I see a flash of blue. I look to my right and spot the man perched on a tree stump, arms outstretched and eyes closed. Eighteen different expletives run through my head at once. I'm frozen in terror and confusion.

"Hello?" I say.

"Heeeelloooo," he replies, stretching out the vowels and sounding how I imagine a fairytale warlock might. "Didn't your mother ever tell you little girls shouldn't be alone in the woods at night?"

"I'm hardly a little girl," I say, annoyance momentarily displacing my fear.

"Little to me," he shoots back. "You are young, should I say, to someone who's been wandering this forest for a century or so."

He must be kidding. He's just one of those eccentric B.C. hippies people from Alberta, like me, make fun of. I let out a nervous laugh.

"Not funny," he tisks. "You follow me."

"Like hell I will," I think, but really, what are my options? I can continue to struggle up this ledge as night closes in, hoping to stumble upon a path or I can cross my fingers that this 100-year-old weirdo isn't a serial killer.

The headlines scroll through my head: "Alberta Girl Found Dismembered in the Cheakamus River," "Mother Mourns: 'I warned her!'" "Outrageously Stupid Whistler Newcomer Makes Horrible Mistake."

I look up at him and nod. He propels his rickety bones forward and I follow. Gingerly, he lifts a large, sagging branch and, suddenly, I can make out the main trail 10 feet away. He places a cold, bony hand on my shoulder, "There it is, dear," he says. "Now don't you come back to these trails alone again, you hear?"

I nod, my head bouncing furiously, but I doubt he sees. I'm already dashing fast enough to win the Boston Marathon down the worn path and back to my car. "I won't," I shout over my shoulder, full speed ahead.

But as I look back I realize there is no one there to hear my promise.