It had been a long time since they had been out of the city. As they drove down the two-lane highway, Arthur could only think of comparing the towering heights of the pines to the city skyline. They seemed just as indomitable as those steel and glass constructions. This was what the trip was about wasn’t it? Arthur thought. Getting away and finding some perspective away from the grind of town?
A small hand touched his and he took it. He leaned over and kissed his wife, Jenna, on the cheek. She smiled at him. “What do you think so far? My coworkers aren’t driving you crazy yet?”
Arthur twisted in his seat to look at the rest of the passengers. There were twelve of them in total, six couples on this nature retreat. He and Jenna were behind the driver’s seat in the 15-passenger van. Some of the others dozed, they’d all been up before dawn to load their equipment and get on the road. He couldn’t remember all of their names, but he was sure he would figure it out by the end of the day when they were sitting around a fire making marshmallows. “The day is still young.” he said.
She elbowed him playfully and turned back to the conversation she’d been having with Cheryl who sat beside her. Cheryl’s husband was snoring slightly just behind her. In the driver’s seat sat Mark, his wife Beth beside him in the passenger seat. She had a map spread over her lap at Mark’s behest, but was trying to use the GPS function on her phone. Arthur checked his own. No service. Oh well.
The outskirts of a small town came into view and Mark directed the vehicle into a parking spot in the back of a small shopping center. “All right,” Mark said, turning around, “We’re going to split up and get some last minute supplies. People in the front we’re headed into the sporting goods store and the back half is going into the grocery store. I have lists.” He passed one to Mark and the other was handed back to... Dave, Arthur thought his name was. Everyone filed out and entered their respective stores.
Jenna and Cheryl seemed to have the list covered so he wandered the store. This tiny family-owned place was so different than the shining stores back home that hawked subzero sleeping bags and palatial tents. He was perusing the fishing gear near the back of the store when he noticed an old man sorting through flies. “You fish?”
“Not really. This is the first time I’ve been camping since I was a little kid.”
“Where are you headed?”
“Well, we’re renting horses from Elk Ranch and headed up Jim’s Peak.” The old man was silent and Arthur looked up from the expertly tied flies. The old man’s face had gone pale, his gray eyes wide.
“You don’t want to be doing that, son.” he said.
“People go camping on Jim’s Peak and never return. There’s a monster up there. They say it’s half-man and half-Grizzly.” The man said it with such serious that Arthur couldn’t even bring himself to laugh at the absurd idea. Did the old man take him for such a city slicker that he would believe a campfire tale like that?
“Uh, thanks for the warning.” he said, turning to leave the odd old man.
“It’s not worth the risk, boy!” The old man called after him as Arthur rounded up his companions at the cash register and out of the store. Arthur climbed back into his seat, half afraid that the crazy man from inside the store would pursue them into the parking lot. He could see him now, standing just inside the glass door. He watched them. Arthur looked away.
“What’s wrong with you?” Jenna asked, laying a hand on his arm, “You look like you saw a ghost or something.”
“It’s nothing. There was just this really weird guy in the store. He kind of freaked out when he heard where we were going.” Her brow furrowed, but before Arthur could tell her anything the rest of the group climbed noisily into the van laden with bags and the rest of the supplies from the grocery store.
“Hey,” said Beth, “While we were inside we asked for a recommendation on a good place for lunch. There’s a diner up the road a few miles. It’s on the way to the stables. I figure we can all eat and then head up for our weekend of roughing it!” Everyone agreed, followed by mutterings of how hungry they were and how tired they were of being in the car. Jenna got pulled into a conversation with Cheryl, the odd nature of Arthur’s statement apparently forgotten. Arthur looked out the window and tried to forget the strange man and his absurd words. There had been something though, a twitch in his face that told Arthur the man believed the story. Rural people were strange.
They pulled up outside of the little diner and walked in. They were the only customers aside from a pair of burly men at a table on the other side of the restaurant. They were dressed in hunting garb, their rifles propped next to their chairs.
“Do they think they are going to get attacked by Bigfoot in the restaurant or something?” Dave said to Arthur, tilting his head and rolling his eyes at the hunters. Arthur shrugged. They sat down and the waitress appeared within seconds. She was a middle-aged woman and she took their orders down without pen or paper. Arthur really hoped she was able to remember the orders of twelve people.
The food was moderately good, nothing spectacular, but hearty. Arthur was scraping his plate of the last of his french fries when the pair of hunters stood up and headed for the door. He was nearest to the cash register and heard the waitress speaking to them. “You going after it?” she asked.
“Someone’s got to take it down. We’re going up to the cabin to join the others, we haven’t heard from them in a few days.”
“Well, be safe.” she said. The look of worry stayed on her face as they went through the front door, setting the little bell tinkling. She smoothed her apron with her hands and came back to ask if anyone needed refills or more food. Arthur waved her over, leaning away so Jenna wouldn’t overhear him.
“I couldn’t help but see those gentlemen with their guns. A little late for deer season isn’t it?”
“They ain’t hunting deer. There’s a monster up there on Jim’s Peak.”
“A monster?” It was too weird that he’d talked to two people in this town and they both insisted there was something off.
“I don’t want to say much.” she said, hurrying away and into the kitchens so he couldn’t follow. A monster. A grizzly bear. Men who hadn’t been heard from in several days.
Arthur was getting a bad feeling about this trip. As they rode the last half an hour to the stables, he was unsure how to bring it up. Would they think he was crazy? Or just some city boy that was afraid of wildlife? He listened to the conversations of those around him trying to distract himself. He repeated their names over and over. Robert and Cheryl, his good friends. Mark and Beth, coworkers of Jenna’s. It was the same for Dave and Christine, Paul and Maria. Carl was Linda’s husband who worked at the office, but this was the first time Arthur had ever met him. He considered himself an outdoorsman and a hunter, something he was loudly proclaiming now from the seat in the far back. It’s just a normal trip. Arthur told himself over and over.