As a child, the urban legend terrified her
As an adult, she dismissed it
Now, she's running for her life...
The road is deserted. It’s 1955, and he’s driving an old, yellow Buick somewhere in Arizona, trying to make California before morning. Seeing movement out of the corner of his eye, he glances out the passenger side window. A man is running alongside the car, keeping pace with it. Shock jerks the driver backward in his seat. He checks his speed—sixty miles an hour.
“A mile a minute,” he whispers. Again, he glances out the window. The man is wearing buckskin, moccasins, and a feather. He turns and smiles revealing war paint, the top half of his face red, with vertical white and black lines extending downward. As the driver watches, the man’s head morphs into the head of a wolf his pointed canine teeth growing until they are four…six inches long.
The driver steps on the gas. The thing jumps—over the car—and lands on the driver’s side, still running, still keeping pace. Frantically, the driver floors it. It’s August, in Arizona, and ice crystals are growing on the windshield. The driver reaches down to turn on the defrost, but his fingers don’t work. They’re too numb from the cold. He blows on them. Still, they don’t work. He can’t see the road. He puts his index finger and his thumb in his mouth furiously sucking until his fingers thaw enough to turn on the defrost.
He peers through the thawing ice, searching for the lights of another car, praying that someone will come along in the opposing lane and kill the thing. He gets it up to eighty, and it’s still beside the car. The driver is violently shivering; the tips of his pinkies are black. Fear has him gripping the steering wheel so hard he almost breaks his own fingers. A high-pitched whine, like a dog in pain, is coming from the engine. The right front wheel is vibrating furiously. The needle creeps up to ninety. Still, the beast is beside the car running effortlessly.
The driver comes to a town, small, real small, but it has one of those Old West style saloons. It’s even got a long front porch and two rocking chairs out front. Suddenly, the heinous creature vanishes, so the man gets out and runs for the door, smashing it open.
Inside are some guys at the bar, two shooting pool, and some others sitting at tables. It's a rather peaceful place. The theme from Marlboro Country is playing in the background. The driver looks behind him, sighing with relief. He’s alone. No one followed him in. Everyone in the bar is staring at him. Still panting he smooths down his sweater-vest and tries to stop shivering. His fingers throb like they’ve been run over by a semi.
Relieved he goes to the bar, orders a beer, changes it to whiskey, then two whiskeys, "leave the bottle," he says. As he drinks, as his hands slowly stop shaking, when he's able to talk again without stuttering like an idiot, he tells the bartender the story about the wolf-thing running alongside his car. Maybe if he'd been less scared, or if the Navajo were given to more showy dress, he might have noticed that everyone in there is dark-skinned but him. As he talks—not loud mind you, just in a normal voice—the whole place goes quiet, and the dudes shooting pool come over and sit at the bar.
When the driver’s finished telling his tale, the bartender looks toward the end of the bar where a guy is pretty well drunk and says, "Better bring the boy in—Now." Then he pulls a shotgun out from behind the bar, hands it to another fellow, and says, "Go with him, DT."
"You think a gun's going to help?" DT asks.
"If you don't want it…”
DT takes it. He and the drunk, plus two more, go out and bring in a sleeping child. Seems the drunk had his four-year-old waiting for him in his car.
By this time, Buick-guy is losing it. Every man in the place is locking windows. Two go to check the windows in the kitchen and the back door. Behind the bar, the bartender calls his wife, tells her he won't be home until morning. Then he whispers a name into the phone.
"What's going on?" Buick-guy shouts.
Finally, the bartender tells him. "You were being hunted."
The drunk guy—someone’s given him a gun and he’s loading it—says, “In my grandfather’s day the tribe got a Catholic priest to hold an exorcism.”
“You believe that?” DT asks. He shakes his head; rolls his eyes. “The tribe never called a priest.”
The drunk guy finishes loading the gun.
“So what happened?” Buick-guy asks. “You know, with the priest?”
The drunk raises one hand in the air—half of a shrug. “Haven’t seen the priest.”
“Will locking the doors will keep him out?”
Now, DT shrugs. He glances over at the bartender and back at Buick-guy. “You rather we unlock them?”
They all bed down in the bar, loaded guns beside them. As Buick-guy tries and fails to fall asleep, DT whispers, "You were lucky, white man. Not many survive who have seen the Beast."
As I grew up, I tried to dismiss the tale. After all, I'd been a brownie at girl scout camp when I first hear it. Our counselor had gathered us around the campfire, put a flash light under her chin and said, “I swear this is true.” Then she’d scared the bejeebers out of me. I remember shivering in my sleeping bag in the middle of June. Trouble was, I couldn’t forget the tale, because I kept hearing it, and each time it was a little different.
When I was sixteen, Charlie Crabtree took me out for pizza and a movie. On the way home, he decided we should park. I guess he thought a scary story would have me clinging to him.
“I swear this is true,” he said. “My brother’s roommate in college knew the dude.”
It’s 1985 and two Olympic skier wannabes rent a helicopter to take them, at night, to the top of a mountain in Arizona. The pilot gives them a thumbs up; they jump. Landing flawlessly, they begin to race. Without light pollution, the milky way is dazzling above them, reflecting off the snow. They ski through the tree line, entering the sparse pines, swishing between the trunks effortlessly. Joy has them whooping and hollering.
As the forest thickens, they swerve away from the cliff face and onto the broad slope cleared of trees. Beside the skiers a man appears—running on the snow—wearing a buckskin loincloth. Covering his head, is the head of a wolf. It’s not a mask, it’s the head of a real wolf, like you might see hanging as a trophy on a wall. The skiers are easily pushing seventy miles an hour. One of the two is a real idiot. He thinks wolf-dude is super cool, so he smiles at him. The wolf turns, and his wolf mouth smiles back. Then his wolf head morphs. Now he’s not a man wearing a wolf head, he’s a man with a wolf head. Shock careens the Idiot sideways, he breaks a ski on an outcropping of rock and tumbles down the mountain, crashing into the trunk of a tree. When he can open his eyes through the pain, he sees his friend frantically racing the wolf. The wolf is literally running in circles around the skier. Using the side of a rock as a ramp, the wolf runs up it, and jumps over the skier rotating 360 degrees before landing on the other side, plunging into the snow. The skier seeing his chance to get away—the wolf is stuck in the snow—he points his skis directly downhill. His knees bent, his legs together, poles at his sides, he picks up dangerous speed. The wolf jumps out of his snow hole and howls. At first, as the wolf begins to run, he sinks into the snow with every step, but the faster he runs, the more he runs on top of the snow, the more the snow’s icy crust holds him up. He catches the skier. Again the wolf jumps, this time he crashes his feet into the skier. They somersault down the mountain, out of view of the Idiot.
Fumbling, the Idiot unzips his backpack, get out his radio and calls the helicopter for help. Rescuers search the mountain for three days. They use infra-red. They never find his friend.
Charlie Crabtree didn’t get any smoochies. He found it difficult to kiss me because my teeth were chattering.
The third time I heard the tale, I heard it from my undergraduate American Lit. prof. She had a grant to study urban legends. Her thesis: urban legends exist because they tell us something fundamentally true about ourselves or our world. Her version had the Beast going after a woman. I remember sitting in the class trying not to laugh. I was absolutely not shivering.
A waitress is coming home, on her Harley, from her job at the IHOP. It’s three in the morning. She lives just outside of Sedona. She’s known around town for her lip and her Harley, because although Sedona may appear to be full of nothing but liberal, do-gooder artists, she knows the men that come into the IHOP at two in the morning looking for a waffle. She’s wearing her light blue waitress dress, white snickers and her helmet. Tucked in her saddlebags is her purse filled with the night’s tips and a small revolver.
She’s flying down Arizona State Route 89A when a man runs up beside her keeping pace with the Harley. He’s wearing a buckskin loincloth and a single feather. He’s barefoot. She leans forward, whispers to the Harley, “Come on, Chris,” and gives Chris the gas. The man increases his speed keeping abreast of her. He’s running along her right side, so she sneaks her left hand down her left side, pulls up her dress, pushes upward slightly with her feet, and slips the knife she has hidden against her inner thigh, into the palm of her left hand. Meanwhile Chris is doing 102mph. The waitress glances sideways. The thing running beside her now has canine teeth so long they extend below his face. Nights of watching men for signs of trouble, has her seeing his intent in his eyes, before he acts. She serves to her left as he punches out his fist intending to knock her from the bike. They pass a closed Circle K. She swerves towards him, he jumps over the bike. As he passes overhead she slices upward with the knife in her left hand. He yelps like a dog; she loses the knife in his gut. Both wheels burning rubber, she breaks and turns in wide arch, leaving the freeway, sliding on the rocks and the sand of the desert. Maneuvering back onto the road, she heads for the Circle K, flying Chris through the front window. She lands in the candy aisle, leaves Chris, somehow stumbles with four broken ribs into the restroom and locks herself inside.
The next morning the police find the unconscious waitress still locked in the bathroom. In the back of the store, in a cramped office, they find a computer, payroll receipts, and inventory rolls covering a small desk. They guess that the owner of the Circle K had been in the back office doing the taxes when someone crashed through the front window. Now she is dead, lying on the floor next to the soda coolers, with a knife plunged into her chest. She is wearing a light blue dress and white sneakers.
This urban legend, my prof said, had her baffled. Her question to the class—and our homework assignment—“What does this story teach the reader?”
I was twenty-two years old and I was done being scared. I wrote: This story tells me that American Lit. profs get paid for doing stupid stuff.
When I was twenty-six in graduate school at the University of Michigan the Beast decided to race me.
Andy sat down on the edge of my desk. "Did you comb your hair today?"
"Thanks, I needed that."
"Really, J. You look awful."
"Three of us are going climbing. Wanna come?"
I channeled my inner teenager and rolled my eyes. "I don't climb."
"J, you need a break."
"Because you haven't made a lick of progress in—let me guess—two weeks."
He was wrong. Two weeks was a cake walk. I'd been stuck for three months.
He put his hand over my screen. It didn't work. I had a 27" monitor. I could still see my graphs clearly showing that my equation in no way predicted my data. I wanted to scream. I'd retaken the data—four times. I’d checked and rechecked the entire system until I was convinced that nature was indeed operating correctly. It was my equation that was wrong, but why?
Andy leaned in. "Trust me," he whispered. "A little time in the great outdoors and you'll find the problem."
Three days later we set off for somewhere in Arizona. I spent thirty hours in a car (they slept and drove in shifts) with two physicists and an astronomer. I gave up trying to work. They had dedicated themselves to naming all the stars, comets, quasars, nebulas, galaxies, planets, moons, and other heavenly phenomena whose names contained all the letters found on passing license plates.
We arrived, exhausted, in the late afternoon. I found our small cabin, tucked away in a corner of the park, idyllic. I even enjoyed drifting off to sleep to the unfamiliar sounds of three guys snoring. The next morning Andy loaded me up with pancakes and bacon.
"You know,” he hesitated, “we didn’t charge you for gas.”
I stopped stuffing my mouth.
"The guys—” he ruffled his own hair and looked at the ground.
“Spill,” I said.
“The guys sort of expect you to video our climb."
I looked around at the morning, sans buildings, sans street noise, sans the bustle of students, and mostly sans my own inflated expectations of my worth to the scientific world, “I’d love to film you guys.”
“Did you bring your camera?”
I grinned. “Yes, Andy, I brought my ultra-cool camera.”
The next morning we drove to the mountain and took a seldom used trail to the starting point of a north side ascent. The fellows intended to climb until sunset, sleep suspended, and ascend to the peak the following day. There they'd camp. On day three, they'd rappel down.
"Rappelling goes quickly, we should be back here by noon," Andy said.
After some initial filming, I turned off my camera and settled down to work. I'd brought my equation, calculus books, papers, mechanical pencils, calculator, etc. I knew I couldn’t count on cell reception. Every hour, I'd find the fellows again with my binoculars and film about five or ten minutes of footage. Late in the afternoon I became engrossed in my work; I forgot about the promised videoing.
Night fell with a suddenness that surprised me until I realized it wasn't night, I was sitting in the shadow of the mountain. In front of me, it loomed dark, backlit by the setting sun. "What am I doing? I've let five hours go by." Quickly, I took out the camera. It was hopeless. They were in shadow.
I'd hiked about half-way to the parking lot when the moon rose, full and bright. I looked back at the mountain. "Maybe." I turned around. By the time I got back to the base, my flashlight was superfluous. The moon and stars had the place lit up so bright I even saw a toad. "Better watch out little guy, predators come out at night."
The fellows were clearly visible in the moonlight hanging from their ropes near an outcropping of rock. "Yes!" I filmed them as they set up their suspended beds. When completed they looked like Chinese lanterns lit from the inside, bubbles of light. I was about to call it a night when, to their left, I saw something move. Wondering if it was big horned sheep, I continued filming hoping to surprise Andy with some footage of truly awesome climbers.
It wasn't sheep. Instead, I saw two men, climbing, the second moving at a furious pace. The first was dressed in typical fashion, khaki shorts, T-shirt, backpack, boots with spikes. The second, wore buckskin and a feather, no shirt, no shoes, no ropes. He crawled up the mountain like an arachnid. And he wasn’t simply climbing. He was toying with the first man, climbing around him and jumping over him, with amazing speed.
I froze, my breath reduced to tiny, trembling gasps. Around me the forest went quiet, even the frogs stopped their croaking.
"What are you doing, girl?” I whispered. “You're totally alone. If you scream, the fellows won't hear you. Even if they do, it’s not like they can help you."
Panic thawed my frozen legs. I ran for the car. On the road on the way down, I took one of the switchbacks so fast I almost became part of the breath-taking scenery. I locked myself in the cabin and didn't come out. Inside, I had running water and some food—three Twix candy bars, a Dr. Pepper, and an orange. The next morning, I remembered Andy's pop tarts. They were just outside the door on the backseat of the Land Rover, along with the charger for my phone. The fellows had taken the rest of the food with them. I was supposed to buy supplies for myself in town.
Flattening myself against the cabin wall, I reached to the side and opened the curtain. I tried to force myself to look out the window. "He's just a myth. He's just a myth." I couldn't do it, I couldn't even look out. I thought I'd see the Beast, and if I did, and if he saw me…
Two days later the fellows came back. They laughed at me. "You've been hiding in this cabin this whole time?"
"Hey," Andy held up a hand, "give her a break, guys."
He hustled me into the Land Rover, drove into town and treated me to a fancy vegetarian feast complete with a dessert that included five kinds of chocolate. Later, when the others were asleep, I whispered to him, "Would you sleep next to me. I mean…I'm not asking you to…"
He laid down beside me. "I get it, J. No one with a metabolism like yours, starves in a cabin for three days, with a full box of frosted strawberry pop tarts eight feet from the door, unless they’re scared witless. I'm so sorry. I wanted this to be fun for you."
The drive home to Michigan was blessedly uneventful. Andy wouldn't let the others tease me. I sat in the backseat of the Land Rover and tried to forget about what I’d seen by reading license plates…D Y R 3 9 7.
Hmmm…quasars that contain the letters D Y R…
D Y R…SPYDER. In my mind, I saw him again…crawling up the mountain.
We'd been home two days when Andy sought me out.
"So," he paused, looking kind of sick at his stomach, "you know that dude you saw on the mountain?"
A cold wind blew over me. We were inside, in the computer lab. I was in the process of creating an algorithm to run on Michigan's highly parallel computer.
"I got a call from the Ranger. I reported your sighting when I checked out. He wants to take a look at your video.”
"A man went missing on the mountain over a year ago."
"A year ago?"
Andy shuffled his feet. "There were some unusual circumstances."
He loaded the video onto my computer and sent the email. I couldn't stop shivering. Afterward, he gave me a ride back to my apartment. I locked the door, shut off the A/C, dug out my electric blanket, turned it on high, and tried to sleep. About 10 pm, I got a call.
I didn't want to answer the phone like I hadn't wanted to look out the window, but maybe, I thought, maybe it's Andy calling to check on me.
I picked up the phone. Unknown caller. I answered it anyway.
"This is Julie."
"Ms. Raichart? My name is Hannah Wilcox. I'm calling you about my husband."
"I'm sorry, I don't know who you are."
"You filmed my husband on the mountain. Please, I need you to help me."
My finger hovered over the red hang-up button. All I had to do was touch it, and I could forget about her, about arachnid-guy, about everything.
"Please. I think you can save him."
"I don't know him, and I don't know you."
"But you saw him. Please. I think if you came back, you'd see him again."
"That doesn't make any sense."
"I know, but he's been missing over a year. Please, you saw him. No one else has seen him. I can't see him."
I shivered out the next words. "If your husband has been missing that long, I'm sorry, but he's probably dead."
"Not according to your camera."
I hung up on her. The next day Andy found me in my carrel in the library. "I'll go with you," he said.
Hannah paid for our airplane tickets. When she picked us up in her Jeep, she was already dressed in climbing gear. Andy changed at the ranger station, where three rangers, all armed, joined our team.
Marcus, the head ranger, pointed to a photo hanging on the station wall. “This was taken at a fundraiser Sean threw for the park about a month before he was lost on the mountain.” In the photo were five men. I quickly recognized Marcus. All the men were dressed in tuxes, all had their arms draped around each other’s shoulders. Marcus pointed to the man in the middle. “That’s Sean Wilcox.” He was about thirty-five, short, slender, bangs falling into his laughing eyes, a broad grin on his face. Just from that one picture, I liked him.
“Practical joker?” I asked.
Marcus grinned. “Oh, yeah.”
We took two Jeeps back to the place where, a week ago, Andy's Land Rover had been parked.
Marcus passed around canteens. "Better pack in some extra water; it's a scorcher."
"Julie, do you want something to eat before we start out?" Andy asked.
I shook my head no, trying not to shiver. I wasn’t cold, I told myself. I wasn’t cold.
"Look," he whispered, "I'll be right beside you the whole time. I'm not going anywhere, okay?”
"You're not going to climb?"
"I was, but I think I'll stick with you. I'm sure the four of them can find this guy."
The rangers, Hannah, Andy, and I hiked together to the base of the mountain. There Hannah handed me a pair of high-tech binoculars. Hannah’s plan revolved around me being able to, once again, find the two men scaling the peak. It was ludicrous of course. Why would they be on the mountain again today, exactly where they were a week ago? But…
At first, my hands trembled. I was barely able to hold the binoculars. After an hour of fruitless searching, I began to calm down. I had a sandwich and Cheetos, and an Almond Joy.
About five in the afternoon, Marcus, the head ranger, put a gentle hand on Hannah's arm, "Perhaps we should head back," he said, nudging her, like any friend would, to give up, to accept her husband's death.
She turned to me, her voice shaking, "You took that video after dark, right?"
"Well, maybe…" She was openly crying now. "We just need to wait…to wait a little longer. Please."
I didn't feel sorry for her. I felt respect, overwhelming respect. She'd gotten five people to follow her out into the middle of nowhere to search for a man who was probably dead. Surely, she'd only thought that was him on the video. I had no idea how far it was from here to the point on the mountain where I'd seen them—and there had clearly been two men, not one. The chances of the unknown man I'd recorded being her husband, were so remote, yet, here she was, still hoping. That's when everything changed for me, when the fear briefly faded. She loved him, and a love that rich called to me, compelled me to continue searching. I tried to remember, where had the fellows been, and where exactly had I seen the other two men?
Several hours passed and Marcus again said we should consider leaving. This time I objected. "No. We're here; we're staying." About seven, I saw movement. The sun was still up, but the side of the mountain was now coming into shadow. It was difficult, but I saw them again—two men.
Five pairs of binoculars followed the clues I gave. "About halfway up, find the large outcropping of rock. Go left along a line parallel to the top of that outcropping."
"SEAN! SEAN!" Hannah shouted. Somehow, he heard her, and turned. She wept. Then the other man, the one crawling like a spider, the Beast, also turned. Through the binoculars, I saw him look straight at me. He took a hand from the side of the mountain, like it was nothing to hang there holding on with only one hand, and pointed at me.
Instantly, the Rangers sprang into motion. "Somehow that guy has Sean trapped."
With quick words, "We'll take the eastern service road to the peak, and rappel down," the rangers left. Hannah went with them, over the rangers’ objections, but they knew as I knew, that nothing would stop her. She left Andy and me the keys to her Jeep.
As the shadow of the mountain covered us, cold dripped into my bones.
"Let's go back to Hannah's Jeep," I said.
Andy was watching the progress of the rangers now beginning to rappel. "I can see them."
"Please, Andy, let's go back."
He took a step forward, moving the binoculars left, then right. "I don't understand," he said. "Where's the second man?"
"Andy, let's go."
"Andy, please. Please, Andy. I want to go now."
"Where is he? He was there, and then…
He came upon us like wind rather than flesh. He blew in. He stood over Andy, grinning, while Andy looked through his binoculars. I couldn't move, couldn't speak, couldn't warn him. I was frozen. The Beast moved so swiftly. With two hands, one on the front of Andy's neck, one on the back, he picked up my friend, by the neck, strangling him in mid-air. Andy was dying in front of my eyes.
I trembled out the words, "You'll…never…catch me."
The Beast turned, still strangling my frantically twitching friend. I forced my ice-cold fingers to move. I reached for the Jeep keys in my pocket, held them up, and jingled the beast a challenge. The Beast dropped Andy.
Oh, please, God. Help me.
I ran full out through the undergrowth, navigating ruts, hurdling nature's garbage of fallen branches. The Beast ran beside me, un-winded, un-taxed, keeping pace. I threw myself into the Jeep and started her up as the Beast calmly sat down beside me. I could see his teeth, pointed, and growing longer like claws he extended as he prepared for a meal. I put a look of pity on my face. "Not fast enough to hoof it?" I asked.
He grinned, chilling my heart. I gasped as it skipped a beat. He got out; I floored it, he ran beside the car. My fingers ached from the cold, my hands turning purple as I clutched the steering wheel. With the switchbacks dead ahead, and the Beast on the cliff-side of the car, I downshifted and turned. Two wheels off the road, two wheels on. I'd hoped he go over the side, but the Beast jumped like a monkey, up onto the roll bar.
Another switchback; I was going way too fast; the Jeep's center of gravity shifted…
I made my decision in an instant. It was a no-brainer. I turned the steering wheel and headed her straight over the side, straight down the mountain, knowing the swerve would knock him off the roll bar and onto the hood. He hit the hood with a thump.
We fell: The Beast, the Jeep and me.
As he gathered himself to jump; I grabbed my backpack and threw it, high above the Jeep, into his path. Whack! It caught him, mid-jump, in the gut. His feet furiously scrambled, like he was some stupid Wile E. Coyote, but with nothing to push against, he fell with me.
The first time the Jeep hit solid ground I was thrown…I hadn't bothered with the seatbelt…
When I woke, Andy stood beside me, purple bruises ringing his neck. He held up a piece of paper. "Can't talk." Then another, "Push this button for pain medicine."
"Where's the Beast?" I whispered. "Is he dead?"
Andy warily glanced behind him, toward the open door. Through it, I could see the nurses' station. He scribbled and held up the paper, "I don't know."
"Maybe he thought I was dead," I said.
More scribbling. “I called 911. The police called in search and rescue. They found the Rangers and Hannah—dead. They also found Sean’s body. J, he’d been dead a while. I think we saw a dead man climbing up that mountain.”
The creeping cold returned. Andy, seeing me shiver, got a blanket from the closet and covered me.
"I want to go home," I said.
Andy scribbled some more, "You have to stay for a few days."
I couldn't stop the tears, "Andy," I asked, "Will you sleep here?"
He nodded and climbed in beside me.
Weeks later, when I could think about it without shivering, I sat down at my computer and sent an email to my undergraduate American Lit. prof.
“Have you ever considered that the story might be true? Maybe there really was a waitress and a Circle K and a man with fangs for teeth. Maybe there are Beasts in this world. Maybe most of the time, they stay hidden, hunting only the isolated person, so we never know to look for them. Maybe the reason we tell this tale is to warn each other. There’s something out there, something you can’t outrun, and it’s coming for you.”