by Douglas Young
Dudley and Zillah DuBose had lived full-time in their old mountain cabin since retiring two years before. During their first year there, they renovated and expanded the place considerably, doing much of the work themselves. Pleased with the results, Zillah looked forward to a far more relaxing life defined by hikes through a lovely landscape, more time with children and grandchildren, getting more active at church, and just treasuring no more stress from her old job or his.
Their early “golden years” were most satisfying for Zillah DuBose. Grateful to be retired and free from the city and all its traffic, fear of crime, and often ugly environment, she relished their relaxed rural surroundings, winding dirt roads, and enchanting quiet. Whether teaching Sunday school, singing in the church choir, volunteering at the local animal shelter, visiting relatives and friends, or just nesting around the house, this new chapter of her life had proved to be quite pleasant.
But retirement had been rougher on Dudley DuBose. Always way more career-focused than his wife, it had been tough adjusting to the record amount of free time. The first year after moving to the mountains had gone well enough since he enjoyed playing such a big role repairing, refurbishing, and enlarging the old cabin. But after that work was done, he had found his increased leisure challenging. Never as socially adept as Zillah, he had only made a few friendly acquaintances in their mountain community and missed his friends back in the city. Nor had he gotten too involved at church. He had read more books than ever over the past two years but found his eyes glazing over ever more pages.
Seeing him watch still more television in the den while she prepared dinner in the kitchen, Zillah noted how bored her husband looked slumped in his reclining chair. He wore the same listless expression from earlier that day when she walked by him reading and ten minutes later walked by again to find him stuck on the same page. She had gently tried to get him to join her on more outings, but he had evinced all the enthusiasm of taking out the trash. As hard as he worked for fifty years, it troubled her to see him squander his well-earned retirement looking ever more lost, especially since for years she had implored him to retire because she knew his health could no longer tolerate all the pressures at the office. But now she dreaded he might deteriorate due to apathy.
“Dudley, I want you to get out more, dear,” she suddenly blurted out. “You seem to be really dragging lately. I think you’re spending far too much time at home. Why don’t you at least walk more – and take A.P. Hill with you? He’s looking more tired these days too.” At the mention of his name, the old dog lifted his head before lying back down by the recliner.
“Okay,” her husband answered with a voice from far away.
After a pause, she smiled. “You’re not ’fraid of Bigfoot, are you?”
That week’s Jefferson Reporter featured a front-page article on recent reports of residents claiming to have encountered the legendary giant ape-like creature in the local woods.
“That story in the paper ’bout all the recent sightings ’round here spook you?” She barely finished her sentence before giggling.
“Oh, yeah. I’m afeared something terrible,” he replied in a louder voice. “The key word in your last sentence is ‘story.’”
“When you go walking, just be sure to take the pistol and A.P. Hill and you got nothing to fret about.” She grinned.
Hearing his name again, the dog briefly looked at Zillah before closing his eyes. He had loved the move to the country the most due to getting to roam the big property and explore the mountains. But as Mr. DuBose had begun to hang around the house and take more naps, so had the dog.
“You don’t bit more b’leive any of that foolishness than I do,” Dudley said with slight irritation.
“I don’t know, darling. That piece in the paper said there’ve been sightings in these parts for centuries. The Cherokees have accepted Bigfoot as a fact for hundreds of years. And the recent witnesses include some mighty reputable folks like that real cute young deputy sheriff, Albert Johnston, and the hardware store owner, Rufus Barringer, who’s a deacon in our church.”
“Right,” Dudley said with a raised eyebrow, “And that’s a mighty young deputy who strikes me as more excitable than Barney Fife. As for the good deacon, in a discussion of the wheels of Ezekiel in our senior men’s Sunday school class, I recollect how Brother Rufus speculated that UFOs could well be ‘Lucifer’s Luftwaffe.’ Yeah, so in light of such an unimpeachable pair of witnesses, who could possibly question the existence of ‘Bigfoot’?”
“Come on, Dudley. Don’t you think it’s at least possible there’s something to it? A whole lot of folks who’ve lived up here their whole lives sure swear by it.”
“So where are the ‘Bigfoot’ bodies or bones?” Dudley asked in the tone of someone laying down four aces in a game of poker. “Hmm? And the film footage and pictures and any other concrete, you know, actual evidence?”
“But there are miles and miles of thick forests all over these parts that make for just an ideal environment for Bigfoots to hide in,” she replied and realized she was trying to convince herself too. “Besides, there’s nothing to be afraid of ’bout Bigfoot. In all the reported sightings and encounters over the centuries, that article said no one’s ever been hurt or attacked. The big fellow even comes across as downright playful.”
“Shug, rest assured, I ain’t any more scared of ‘Bigfoot’ than A.P. Hill.” Dudley chuckled as the dog opened one eye and quickly shut it.
The doorbell rang. “I’ll get it,” Zillah said as she wiped her hands and walked to the front door. When she opened it, a tall, black-jacketed, and smiling Benjamin Bunn, their retired next-door neighbor, stood with a large pair of clippers.
“Well, hey there, Ben. How are you, dear? Come on in. Dudley’s in the den.” Zillah beamed.
“Thank you, Miss Zillah,” Ben smiled and removed his cap as he came inside. “Here are the clippers Maryella borrowed. She says ‘Hey and mighty big thanks’ for letting her use ’em the other day. They sure did a jam-up fine job trimming the hedges and we sure do appreciate it. She couldn’t return ’em herself on account of her having to go sit with her momma a spell. Yeah, the old gal’s been feeling poorly lately. You know, she’ll be 97 come February.”
“Well, bless her heart. We’ll sure say a prayer for her. Miss Maryella is certainly keeping the Fifth Commandment,” Zillah pronounced. “Dudley, look who’s here.”
Her husband turned and gave a slow wave from his chair with a weak smile. “Hey, neighbor.”
As Zillah and Ben stood in the kitchen, she noted how uncharacteristic it was for her husband to remain seated and not even stand to shake a guest’s hand.
“Ben, Dudley and I were just discussing that article in the paper ’bout all the recent Bigfoot sightings in these parts. Now haven’t you told me you believe there really is something to it?” She asked eagerly.
“Yes, ma’am,” Ben replied. “My daddy and granddaddy sure swore by it, and I’ve just heard way too many folks tell ’bout some awful strange doings in these woods over the years. Way too many people have seen things with their own eyes that just can’t be explained otherwise, and I’m talking good church-going folk too,” he stated emphatically.
“You hear that, Dudley?” Zillah looked at her husband with a satisfied smile.
After a pause, all Mr. DuBose could muster was “How ’bout that?”
“As a matter of fact,” Ben volunteered enthusiastically, “A few Saturdays a year Ollie Semmes and I and several other local boys go hunting for Bigfoot. In fact, we’re due for another hunt soon and we’d be right proud for you to join us, Dudley. We have a big time, and the woods are extra pretty this time of year.”
“How exciting,” Zillah exclaimed. “What do you say, Dudley? Wouldn’t that be fun?”
“Maybe so,” came her husband’s slightly bored reply.
“Now there’s nothing to be ’fraid of,” Mr. Bunn assured him. “A couple of us’ll bring shotguns just for peace of mind. But Bigfoot never hurt nobody no how. It’s a good excuse just to get out with the fellows and see what we can find.” He smiled.
“Y’all ever see Mr. Bigfoot?” Dudley asked.
“Not yet,” Ben replied. “But we’ve sure heard some mighty strange doings out there. Leaves rustling that we couldn’t explain, and even rocks being thrown near us too.”
“Wow. How ’bout that?” Zillah’s face lit up excitedly as she looked at her husband.
“Got any pictures or recordings of the strange doings out there?” Dudley asked in a slightly bored tone as Zillah frowned at him.
“No,… not yet, anyways,” Ben answered slowly, now detecting his neighbor was distinctly skeptical. “But we always bring our phones just in case,” he added.
“Well, if y’all ever record anything interesting, I’d sure love to take a look.” Dudley smiled weakly.
“Will do. Indeed, I’ll make sure you and Miss Zillah are among the first to see it.” Mr. Bunn winked at a smiling Mrs. DuBose.
They all said their goodbyes and Zillah showed Ben to the door. Her smile disappeared returning to the kitchen.
“You know, you could have shown a little more common Christian courtesy to that sweet man,” she remarked. “He and Maryella are ’bout as ideal a pair of next-door neighbors as we’ve ever had. And why’d you have to rain on his parade ’bout looking for Bigfoot? Shoot, Hon, just think what a hoot it’d be to go out in the forest with Ben and Ollie and the rest of the fellows. It’s high time you started making some friends ’round here, Dudley. These are some fine folks.”
Her husband sighed but did not reply.
“You know, a lot of real smart folks are serious ’bout Bigfoot too,” Zillah pronounced. “Dorena Drunell said at the beauty parlor that she’s got a whole clipping file of Bigfoot stories, and she’s got a Ph. D.”
“Yeah, in highfalutin foolishness,” Dudley remarked. “You know what Ph. D really stands for, don’t you?”
“I know. ‘Piled higher and deeper.’” She could not help but chuckle, satisfied she had at least jumpstarted some life out of her man.
“How sad the widow Drunell spends her time chasing ‘Bigfoot,’” he stated. “I reckon she’s got files on ‘alien visitors’ and ‘the Loch Ness monster’ too. Poor thing. Perhaps we so desperately need to create meaning in our lives precisely because there is none.” He sighed as he got up and left the room. Zillah’s smile collapsed and she became more determined than ever to shake her husband out of his funk.
The next morning, she insisted he take a walk in the woods while she took the dog to the veterinarian’s office for a checkup. Sensing her growing concern about him, and appreciating her efforts to lift his spirits, Dudley readily agreed.
“You still want me to take the pistol?” he asked to her surprise before laughing.
“You still have the best straight face I’ve ever seen.” She smiled. “Which route you spec’ you’ll take?”
“I reckon I’ll head down to the lake and then circle back above that mess of peach trees.”
“A good long walk’ll do you good.” She kissed him goodbye.
After waving to her from the front porch as she pulled out the driveway with A.P. Hill happily leaning out the car window, Dudley walked around the front yard flower garden to head down the side of the mountain. He recognized that his wife was right to urge him to get out more. Besides, the woods were indeed prettiest this time of year when the fall turned most leaves red, yellow, or orange. Dudley also enjoyed the crunch of the dried brown leaves as he walked down the various paths through the forest. Occasionally, he wandered into a clearing where he would stop to admire the colorful foliage. When he reached Lake T.R.R. Cobb, he got excited seeing several bass gliding near the shore and figured he really ought to do more fishing before the weather got too cold.
It was such an auspicious autumn morning with the temperature so ideal that Dudley ended up walking more trails than usual. How he relished seeing so much woodsy terrain he had not traversed in a while. But not wanting the wife to worry, he at last decided to head home. While doing so, he became ensconced in that tranquil frame of mind where he was unaware of conscious thought but just content to enjoy the serene, colorfully kaleidoscopic surroundings. It felt a little cooler as the woods got extra thick, and this particular path up the mountain above some peach trees was not as well traveled as the others. He wished A.P. Hill was with him and, especially, Zillah to enjoy the experience even more.
That was when he heard a rustle of leaves he did not make. He turned to his right but saw only trees and loads of dried leaves starting to blanket the forest floor.
Carrying on, he tried coming up with an agenda to fill up the rest of the day when he heard leaves crunch to his left. This time he stopped with a slight start to look left. Again, he saw nothing unusual and heard nothing more. Standing still, he slowly turned to look in every direction but only saw lots of orange, red, and yellow leaves, shriveled brown ones on the ground, fallen limbs, bushes, grass, and sunbeams filtering through the bright leafy roof above.
When he resumed walking, his pace was slower to focus on whatever he could hear. After a very short time, he noticed leaves rustling again to his left. This time he thought he may have also heard the thud of a rock. He stopped and whirled in the direction of the sound but again saw nothing strange. Standing still for a spell, slowing looking back and forth and all around, he finally noticed some birds chirping, but nothing more.
Not ten seconds after he resumed walking, he heard the distinct sound of a rock hitting a tree to his left. Indeed, he turned so fast that he saw a few leaves jump as the rock bounced off the ground. Dudley immediately looked all around.
Hesitating, at last he shouted, “Who’s there? You’re not the least bit cute or funny. No one’s amused. So come out now…. I promise I won’t hurt you.”
The woods were so still he thought he might even hear the wind. Suddenly he recalled the recent local article about Bigfoot sightings. Though he would not acknowledge to Zillah that he had read it, he remembered the story reported that witnesses claimed the huge, hairy giant liked to play with folks walking in the woods by throwing rocks near them, something reiterated by Benjamin Bunn. Though ashamed to admit, Mr. DuBose now regretted not bringing his pistol. How he wished A.P. Hill was with him too.
He resumed walking. As soon as he realized how fast he had quickened his pace, the unmistakable sound of another rock hitting a tree was heard. Now certain he was being toyed with, Dudley quickly turned this way and that. He also looked for a large stick or rock and realized he was sweating. For the first time in years, he felt the distinct sensation of butterflies fluttering in his stomach as his chest tightened. Relieved to find a big stick, he grabbed it and began to run.
The sound of crunching leaves got much louder and he felt his heart beat faster. He guesstimated how much longer it would take to get home and wished he was a lot younger. Then he heard a rock bounce off a nearby tree as other rocks tumbled among the leaves on the ground. With a speed that startled him, he swung the stick all around before almost falling and then running as fast as he could up the trail. Frequently turning left and right, every few seconds he glanced behind him as well. All he heard was his own loud crunching of leaves as he gripped the stick tightly. After several minutes he stopped to catch his breath, being careful to look and listen in every direction. Relieved to detect nothing, he resumed his journey. Too exhausted to run anymore, he walked as fast as his body permitted and comforted himself that he was almost home.
When he at last could make out the clearing that was his backyard, he finally dropped the stick to grab his knees and gasp for breath. But he was careful to look and listen behind him once more before picking up his weapon and soon emerging from the trees to be greeted by his and Zillah’s vegetable patch. For the first time in quite a while, he took special notice of the scarecrow and moved it to another part of the garden in hopes the crows would more readily believe it was alive.
What to tell Zillah? He mused seeing her car in the driveway. Did he confide what happened and confess how scared he was? There was no way he could hide his sweat stains and exhaustion. He threw the big stick on the ground before picking it up to lean against the scarecrow. Instead of making up a fib, he decided he would tell his wife everything. Sure, she would likely get a belly laugh out of it and he would have to endure joking reminders of it for the rest of his life, but he knew she would fully support him and never tell a soul if he asked her.
After taking a deep breath, he wiped his feet on the backdoor mat and went in the house where A.P. Hill ran to him with joy. Dudley felt extra good when the dog jumped on him, and this time even let him lick his face. The cold water from the refrigerator tasted awesome, and Mr. DuBose surprised himself by how much he drank. After refilling his water bottle and putting it back, he sat at the kitchen table and petted his dog’s head lying in his lap. He also noticed he could no longer feel his heart beat.
After sitting a good while trying to fathom what had just happened, he looked up to see Zillah walk through the front door, take off her flower garden gloves, and come into the kitchen with a smile that vanished upon seeing her husband. Stopping mid-stride, her eyes widened.
“What’s going on?” she asked. “You’re sweating, Dudley. You look exhausted. Are you all right? You got a fever?” She immediately put one hand on his head and the other on his shoulder. His silence alarmed her as she sat down and took his hand.
“I’m okay, babe.” He assured her. “Honest, and I’ve certainly made up for my recent lack of exercise. In fact, I ’spect I did enough walking – and running – this morning to last me the better part of a week.” Seeing her wrinkle her brow and open her mouth slightly, he relayed the whole story, ready for her to burst out laughing and wag her finger at him at any moment. But Mrs. DuBose did not. Instead, she held his hand in both of hers and petted it, listening patiently, and never interrupted. When he finished, she hugged and held him a long time.
“Come on.” He smiled sheepishly. “I’m stunned you haven’t said it yet. ‘My, my. Just look who’s now scared of Bigfoot.’”
“No, no, darling,” his wife stated firmly. “I promise never to make fun of you about this. You’ve been through a mighty frightening experience and I’m so, so sorry, my love. I’m also right proud of my man for handling this so well.”
“Oh, yeah. Your man runs from danger real well – even when he can’t even see it,” he confessed with a sigh.
“Nonsense. You grabbed a big stick, warned whoever or whatever was throwing rocks, and did the responsible thing by getting out of there as fast as possible, especially since you were unarmed and didn’t have A.P. Hill with you. And I’m real sorry to have pushed you so hard to walk today.” She hugged, kissed, and held him. He was very grateful and relieved to have such a supportive spouse. They agreed not to tell anyone about the matter, at least not yet, and he pronounced how he would only return to the woods with the pistol and the dog.
They did not talk about the walk in the woods for the rest of the day, and Zillah was relieved to see Dudley spending hours reading at the computer instead of watching TV. Walking by him, she saw he was researching articles on Bigfoot sightings in the area. She smiled at how much better his posture was and how much more alert he seemed.
The next morning, after working in the vegetable garden and doing other yard chores before it got too warm, Dudley came back in the house to announce he was returning to the forest. This time Zillah saw him put on his holster and slip the pistol in it.
“You really think that’s necessary?” she asked.
He looked at her somewhat surprised. “Yes, ma’am. At least for peace of mind.”
“You don’t think A.P. Hill could provide that?” she asked.
“Oh, he’s coming too, but I’ll feel plenty better knowing I’m packing.”
“Can I come?”
“No, ma’am. I appreciate your wanting to join me, babe, but I don’t want you anywhere in those woods just yet, at least not ’til I find out who… or what was messing with me yesterday.”
“Why not ask Ben Bunn or Ollie Semmes or somebody to go with you? Ben and Ollie are both such fine fellows. They would totally support you, and they’d be just as happy as they could be to go with you too. You ought to spend more time with them anyway, Dudley. It’d be good for you, dear.”
“I appreciate your concern, babe, but I’m not entirely ready to tell anybody else ’bout yesterday. I’d just like to… be a whole lot more sure as to exactly what I encountered before going public with this thing.”
“Well, just please don’t dare shoot anybody.” She pleaded. “You know, it could have just been someone pulling a prank on you, Dudley.”
“Exactly.” He nodded. “I won’t fire unless I see the whites of Bigfoot’s eyes right on top of me.” They laughed and hugged.
Zillah was delighted he had a lot more pep in his step as he went outside, and A.P. Hill was thrilled to be at his side. Dudley decided to follow the previous day’s route and completely focus on his surroundings. When his dog got impatient with the slow pace, he would race ahead before soon returning. It was another beautiful day and the canopy of colorful tree leaves looked like stained glass lit by the mid-morning sun.
As they got closer to where Dudley had been spooked, he felt his heart beat faster and a growing urge to urinate. He also noted that he was walking ever slower, methodically scanning his entire horizon. The sound of the dried leaves crunching beneath him seemed louder, as did the tinnitus ringing in his ears. When A.P. Hill barked, Dudley turned with a jolt only to find the dog running toward him wagging his tail.
But as the minutes quietly ticked by, Dudley began to doubt whether he had even had any company in the woods the previous day after all. Maybe age was starting to catch up with him. Indeed, perhaps he was even in the early stages of dementia. Could that be why Zillah did not make fun of him or seem worried about his returning to the woods? In fact, she appeared far more concerned about what he might do with the gun. Had her sympathetic understanding the day before actually been akin to comforting a confused child? He cringed. Face it, he thought. Could the preceding day’s experience have been entirely in his mind? That frightened him far more than any giant in the forest who, upon reflection, seemed more interested in just having fun with an old man than doing him any harm.
Staring at the ground as he was inclined when lost in thought, Mr. DuBose heard a rustling of leaves to his right and immediately turned to look. Seeing him jump, A.P. Hill barked and ran toward the sound. Before he got far, a squirrel leaped from the leaves up the nearest tree. The dog’s front paws scratched the tree while he barked excitedly. Dudley caught himself smiling.
“Come on, old boy. He’s not who we’re after.” He clapped and whistled and the dog returned. They continued walking, and the woods struck the older man as exceptionally placid while the fear of losing his mental faculties increasingly dwarfed any dread of facing “Bigfoot.” Maybe he should frankly ask Zillah if she had noticed any cognitive deterioration of late. Was his brain getting soft in retirement with too much free time and not enough stimulation? Perhaps he should help Zillah with the newspaper’s crossword puzzle or study a foreign language.
They reached the big clearing where A.P. Hill loved to race in circles and soon they walked around Lake T.R.R. Cobb. Seeing more bass and many bream swim near the shore at his favorite fishing spot made Dudley regret he had not brought his fishing gear. Next time, he resolved. Tomorrow.
On the final leg home, he caught his mind drifting and realized he was not being remotely as diligent in his search for any elusive creatures. What most struck him was how lovely the forest looked. The idea of some hairy monster infesting such an idyllic setting suddenly seemed absurd. It was then that he picked up a small stick and threw it for his dog to fetch. A.P. Hill was elated and raced after it.
Shortly before reaching home, Dudley heard something to his left. But when he turned to see, a small bird could be seen pecking the ground amidst the leaves. He chuckled and stopped looking around the rest of the way home. Now he felt humiliated having given his wife such a frank and full account of what happened yesterday – or what he thought happened. There was no need to alarm her. He should have just manned up and told her he got hot climbing up the mountain after such an extra-long walk. Now he could never erase her knowing how scared he was, and likely over nothing. Would she think less of him as a man and her protector? He resolved to do all he could to stay as strong as possible, physically and, especially, mentally.
“Set Mr. Bigfoot straight?” Zillah greeted him in the vegetable garden as he emerged from the woods.
“No, Mr. Big Scaredy Cat wouldn’t even show hisself,” he replied with some embarrassment as he looked at the ground.
“I’m proud of you facing your fear,” she replied with a smile. “It takes a mighty big man to do what you did today, and alone too. Color me plenty impressed.”
“Thanks for being so kind, but I don’t know if I would have even gone without General Hill by my side.” He smiled before quickly changing the subject.
Mr. DuBose made it a ritual to walk through the mountain woods each morning with A.P. Hill (and his pistol) in tow. He explored not just the trail where he had been so scared but every path he knew of in the mountains. Never did he experience anything unusual. He became much more relaxed and, after a few days – and to Zillah’s relief – stopped taking the pistol. Soon he let his wife join him (with A.P. Hill still tagging along and more often racing ahead of them), though he would not consent to her hitting any trails without him, at least not yet.
When asked if she thought his mental acuity was in decline, she fiercely denied it and reiterated that children or teenagers may have just been messing with him that frightening day in the forest. Still, he began helping her fill out an old book of crossword puzzles and opened his college Spanish textbook for the first time in decades.
About a week after “the incident in the woods,” and having carefully hiked every trail within miles many times over, Dudley became increasingly convinced he had suffered some kind of mental breakdown that memorable morning. Despite Zillah’s emphatically repeated assurances to the contrary, he scheduled an appointment with Doc Adams months ahead of his annual physical exam. He even broached with his wife the possibility of going to the city to see a psychiatrist since, no matter how ridiculous his scary encounter now struck him, he could not shake how vividly real its memory still felt.
Zillah could tell how much the whole experience preyed upon him and pleaded with him to stop worrying. It had startled her when he began having nightmares and even started to walk in his sleep. As much as she tried to comfort and reassure him that he was completely fine, she also sensed he suspected she was coddling him.
Nine days after “the incident,” Dudley walked in the woods alone since A.P. Hill was visiting the grandchildren. He no longer had any fear of the woods, only of what might be happening to his mind. When Zillah asked to join him, he said he might more likely get some closure by going alone along the same route that spooked him. So she only walked with him to the edge of the backyard where she kissed him goodbye to work in the vegetable garden.
He took the same path followed on that fateful morning a week before and noticed how many fewer leaves were left on the trees and how much louder the dried leaves on the forest floor now crunched since they increasingly carpeted the ground. It was another sunny day and he was grateful for how attractive everything remained, past the fall’s prime to be sure, but still well worth admiring.
Sick of replaying painful memories, as well as scaring himself about his mental status one minute and reassuring himself the next, Dudley just tried to appreciate all the Good Lord’s wonderful creation before him. He no longer jumped at sounds, nor carefully scanned his surroundings. Instead, he sought to relish how pleasant the whole environment was and how very blessed he and the wife were. Indeed, what a lucky man he was in so many ways, he thought. Why am I whipping myself into a fit over nothing? So I had a truly terrifying experience. And? It’s over. Nothing bad happened. I’m fine. Listen to Zillah. She wouldn’t lie to me and she knows me better than anyone. Why am I so set on tarnishing our golden years over absolutely nothing? Getting ever more bent out of shape about this is worrying not just me but her too. It ain’t fair to either of us. Maybe I’ve just got too much free time to fret, and Zillah’s right that I should get more involved at church and volunteer and just move on. What need is there to see Doc Adams about this? How awkward for both of us. I should cancel the appointment.
Leaves crunched about twenty feet from him. When he looked, he saw nothing unusual and did not even look around but instead just walked ahead.
Then he heard the unmistakable sound of a rock hitting a tree. His head jerked sharply in its direction and froze. Looking around, all he saw were trees, downed limbs, fallen leaves, and some moss. Refusing to give into fear and determined to discover who or what was harassing him, he stood still. The forest was so thick that visibility was limited, but he surprised himself that he was not more scared. This time there was more anger. You can’t hurt me unless I let you, he told himself. You’re either just a figment of my mind or someone or something playing with me. Well, I’m not going to let you humiliate me again. I’m done running away, fellow. Do what you will, but I’m doing my own thing and you ain’t polluting my life no more.
After a few minutes of standing still and only hearing an occasional bird, he started walking again, convinced that was the only way to invite another thrown rock. The ball’s in your corner, big boy, he mused. Your turn. I ain’t scared of you and you ain’t getting in my head again.
He walked slowly and methodically looked all around. Several branches and rocks stood out on the ground, but he refused to pick any up. Just when he began to wonder if no more rocks would be thrown, several hit the ground and a tree to his left. Though he jumped, this time he could tell the direction from which they came, as well as hear some leaves crunch in the distance. With his adrenaline pumping, he grabbed a good-sized stick and ran toward the sound, determined to confront whoever or whatever was taunting him. This thing ends here. Right now, he resolved. Not feeling nearly as frightened was exhilarating and liberated him to focus completely on finding the culprit. Some rocks sailed through the air to his right, but he refused to be distracted and quickened his pace.
He stopped to catch his breath and survey the trees ahead. There was only one large enough for someone to hide behind. It was a very big oak that towered over the rest. Gripping the stick, he walked deliberately toward it. As he got closer, for a split second he saw something black move behind it.
Startled, and now certain some creature stood on the other side of the tree, he stopped, gripped the stick tighter, and said a prayer. After a minute, he slowly resumed walking toward the tree. A few feet from it, he noticed he was sweating and his heart was pounding harder than he could ever recall, but he would not leave without confronting his nemesis. Pausing a few seconds, he then lunged past the tree to turn and see what was behind it.
Zillah DuBose jumped and shouted as Dudley dropped the stick and almost fell. She was wearing a black jacket, black pants, and black tennis shoes. Neither said anything and looked at the other with an expression neither had ever seen. Dudley blinked as his mind raced and his heart continued to pound. He felt a strange mix of fear and confusion heretofore unknown to him.
Zillah was crying with her hands to her face looking at him with a pleading expression. He found it difficult to say anything and instead merely stared at her.
“This was all your doings?” he finally asked between deep breaths.
Unable to talk, she nodded tearfully.
“And that other time too?” He looked at her incredulously.
Between sobs, she nodded again. For the first time, he looked away. The woods had never appeared more harmless, but a hollow aura now haunted them. He looked at the ground and saw a pile of rocks at his wife’s feet. He slowly lifted his gaze to her.
“I’m so, so, so sorry, Dudley,” she managed to get out as she wiped her face. “It’s all my fault and I feel terrible about it, as I should.” He saw she was shaking and felt very sorry for her, but his body was firmly planted where it stood.
“It’s not an excuse,” she said between sobs. “To have upset you so is inexcusable, I know. But I just felt I was losing you, Dudley. You were becoming so bored, ever more distant, and just sad. Honey, I was scared you were falling into some kind of depression, and when I couldn’t get you to get out more and do things and see folks, I seized on the idea of at least getting you to go out in the woods.” She caught her breath between more sobs. “I hoped that maybe if you got convinced there was a ‘Bigfoot’ out there that that would compel you to keep going and maybe get closer to your neighbors searching for it. But I never meant to frighten you, Dudley, and then, Lord knows, I never meant for you to even question your own sanity.
“So, when I knew you weren’t armed and A.P. Hill was away, I figured this would be an ideal time to try to convince you that you weren’t losing your mind, that this thing is really real. But I never should have started the whole lie in the first place and I feel plum terrible – as I should. I hope you can forgive me, Love, but I totally understand if you can’t. I’m sorry, Dudley. Whatever it means to you, I do love you, babe. More than anything. Please at least know that.”
As she began to cry again, his heart ached for her. Though stunned and reeling, her pain was undeniable and deep, and in over forty years of marriage, he was unaware of her ever having intentionally hurt or lied to him. He no longer felt any fear but instead a strange emptiness. Part of him thought he should be angry at her, and he was definitely hurt. But another part of him desperately sought to believe she had acted with only good intentions and had suffered perhaps even much more than him over the last nine days.
Regardless of who was right or wrong or what was the right thing to do, he simply reached out his arms and, after a look of shock, she raced into them and quietly wept. They held each other for a long time without words. He stroked her hair as he always had whenever she cried, and she clung to him tightly. When the flow of tears ceased, they continued their embrace as neither wanted to be the first to speak. Feeling it was his turn, he finally did.
“Who knew ‘Bigfoot’ was such a big crybaby,” he observed with the slightest smile.
She burst out with a laugh that was more immense relief than a response to humor, and he mustered a faint smile. It comforted him to see her face transformed from a wreck of tears and tension into a bona file smile. He thought of the pretty girl he courted in college and felt so lucky to marry. He still did. She kissed him on the cheek and they hugged again. After a minute they let go and he breathed a long, full sigh. He looked at her with a tired smile and she put her hand on his shoulder.
He reached for her hand, she eagerly gave it, and they began walking together toward home. The only sounds they heard were the dried leaves crunching underfoot and her blowing her nose with her free hand. Both stared at the ground in front of them.
A rock bounced off a tree ten feet left of them and fell into the leaves. Both looked toward the noise and then locked eyes on each other.