It was all that girl’s fault, Tory thought to himself bitterly. He was standing at the crossroads between two bike trails in Sanctum Park, in his hometown of Sacramento. Tory had never been to Sanctum Park before today, even though he’d been living just across the river in midtown for a couple of years now. It was Sacramento’s largest and most extensive park featuring 1,200 acres of land and included a softball field, greenbelt, archery range and several miles of bike trails that snaked through the thick woods that ran parallel to the American river. And that was where Tory now stood, contemplating whether to go left or right at the fork.
He’d be in attendance at the Aftershock Festival nearly all day and was exhausted. Aftershock was the once-a-year metal festival held at Sanctum Park’s greenbelt and Tory had gone with a few of his friends and co-workers and be all accounts had a pretty awesome time, especially when he met the girl from the beer tent. She was short and blonde and had half-sleeve tattoos and even without the copious amounts of alcohol he’d ingested Tory probably would have fallen in love with her anyway. So when her ride home left without her, Tory declined his friends’ offer of a carpool and volunteered to keep the girl company while she waited for a cab. He was half expecting an offer to share the cab as well – and if he was really lucky, to share something else – and so was more than slightly crestfallen when she waved him goodbye, thanking him for the company and shut the cab door without him.
Oh well, nothing gained, nothing lost.
But now he was wishing even more than he’d been able to share that taxi after he checked his funds and discovered he couldn’t quite afford to get one of his own. He didn’t quite feel like calling up his friends after he’d already declined their offer with a wink and a nod and so at that point he made the fateful decision to venture into the forest to follow the bike trail through the park, across the river and into midtown.
How hard could it be?
Pretty freaking hard, he thought scowling. He’d only been walking for ten minutes before coming to his first fork and he had already noticed that there were no signs directing him. With the sun about to make a rapid exit behind the horizon he didn’t think it would have made much of a difference anyway.
“Well, don’t you look a little lost,” said a voice behind him.
Tory turned and saw a man leaning up against a rusty bike, parked about ten feet down the path. He instantly recognized that he was homeless; his hair was dirty and disheveled, his hands were dark with grime and his face had the lined appearance of someone who had spent too much time outdoors. Tory would have guessed his age to be about sixty, although with homeless people it was always hard to tell.
“I said you look a little lost, kid,” the man said again, shifting the sleeping bag he had tied to the handlebars.
“I guess you’re right,” Tory said. “Do you know how to get to midtown from here?”
“Introductions first,” the man replied and stepped forward with his hand extended. “I’m James but everyone calls me Jimmy.”
Tory cautiously took his hand and shook it. “I’m Tory,” he said, part of him wishing he had hand sanitizer.
“Midtown, huh?” Jimmy said, taking a step backwards. “I always liked midtown. Lotta good places to sleep.”
“Yeah, like my bed.”
Jimmy hooted and a couple of birds took flight from a nearby tree.
“So do you think you can give me directions?” Tory said again.
“Yeah,” Jimmy replied. “Go back the way you came and call your girlfriend. You don’t want to walk through Sanctum Park at night, kid. It’s not fun. Lotta bad characters in the park at night.”
Tory started getting impatient. “Look, I’m just through the park and right across the river. How long could it possibly take? Because I’m going to start walking in a minute whether you give me directions or not but it’d be a lot easier if you would.”
Jimmy’s brow furrowed and he spat on the ground. “You would, huh? Okay, then. Take the left trail. Then keep to it and follow as long as it runs next to the river. You should make it to a rest area; couple of benches and a BBQ, you know. There’ll be another fork there – take the right one and it’ll lead you to the Sanctum Park Bridge.”
He stared at Tory a moment and ran his tongue across his bottom lip. “And then you’re home free, kid.”
“Thanks,” Tory said gratefully and he turned down the left trail.
“And kid,” Jimmy called after him. “Keep to the trails, whatever you do. You might see a few people here and there. My advice is don’t talk to them – even if they talk to you. Just stay on the trail and keep walking.”
“It’s okay,” Tory said, backpedaling. “I’m from the Bay Area. I know how to handle homeless people.”
“We prefer ‘home-free’ but whatever you say, kid,” Jimmy called back. “Just keep to the trails and don’t talk to anyone.”
Tory didn’t reply. He was already hurrying down the trail and through the woods, his Converse All-Stars slapping against the pavement. In the distance, a roll of thunder clapped. As he emerged from the forest and reached the bike trail that ran lateral to the river, he glanced over his shoulder and through the trees he could see Jimmy the “home-free” man standing in the same spot, leaning up against his bike and watching him with a strange, sad expression on his face.
Thirty minutes later, Tory was silently cursing Jimmy and all “home-free” people and wondering if he’d been sent down the wrong trail on purpose. Surely he should have come to the rest area by now? He’d followed directions and was continuing down the trail parallel to the river but had come across nothing but forest to his left and a tall hedge on his right, shielding the water from view. Every few minutes he’d pass a break in the barrier and through the thick branches he could see glimpses of the river and midtown just across it.
He had slowed his pace down to a leisurely stroll when he heard a rustling to his left, coming from the forest. The sun had completely disappeared by now and only tepid rays of light remained casting long shadows across the path. He stopped and squinted into the brush.
It was a dog. At least, he thought it was a dog. Through a cluster of leaves and branches a head had emerged, hovering just over the edge of the trail. It was black and scraggly and Tory took a step back, wary. He wasn’t necessarily afraid of dogs but feral animals could be unpredictable and so he tensed, bracing himself to run. The dog wheezed, hanging its head low above the ground and Tory stared, unsure of what to do. Then without warning it raised itself up and Tory could see its face for the first time.
The first thing he noticed was that its eyes were glowing red. Not dull red that sometimes happens in bad light from a camera flash but a bright, blood red with jagged red veins shooting out from the iris. Tory froze in place as the dog gazed directly at him and drew its lips back, drool pouring out onto the ground. Then it growled a deep, dangerous growl and he stumbled backwards wildly, preparing himself for an attack but when he looked up again the dog had vanished. The silence was complete except for the gentle humming of cicadas and the only evidence the dog had left behind was a puddle of drool, reflecting in the moonlight. He took a few steps down the trail, keeping an eye on the forest then broke into a run.
It took the better part of a quarter hour before Tory thought that his heart rate might return to normal and his encounter with the dog began to seem like a distant memory. He had slowed back down to a walk but still hadn’t come to the rest area yet. Instead he only saw more canopy on his left and hedgerow on his right. As he walked on he began to grow increasingly frustrated. How long could this trail go for? It had to end sometime but with just the moon now guiding him he could only see the path directly in front of him.
Tory smelled the three men before he saw them. As he passed a small enclave in the woods the powerful stench of sour alcohol wafted out along with three figures that appeared so suddenly he didn’t have time to even react. They spread out in formation blocking the trail.
The middle one spoke first. “You’re pretty deep into no-man’s land.”
Tory took a nervous step backwards. The man was old and pasty white and bald except for a curtain of stringy hair protruding from the back of his head. His neck flesh hung loosely around a tattered shirt collar and when he spoke Tory could see his teeth were broken and rotten. The man took a step forward and extending his hand.
“C’mon now,” he said, breaking into a diseased smile. “Don’t be rude.”
Tory slowly took his hand. At once the man yanked Tory towards him and embraced him firmly in a greasy hug.
“We hug in the park,” he whispered, foul breath oozing out. Tory thought he could feel his hands edge down his torso and he lurched backwards. The other two men cackled. One was black and had yellow eyes, the other was white and his face was covered in weeping sores.
“I’m just trying to get home,” he said nervously, hoping they didn’t notice the crack in his voice.
“Let me guess,” the bald man leered. “Midtown?”
Tory didn’t say anything and the other two men started chuckling again. The white one tossed a beer can over the hedge and started picking at his sores.
“So can I get by?” Tory managed.
“Sure,” the bald man said. “We don’t want Mommy and Daddy to worry. The only problem is you’re going the wrong way.”
Tory felt the blood drain out of his face. “What?”
“Yeah, midtown is back the other way. You’re going the wrong direction.”
“But,” Tory sputtered. “I was told to go this way. There’s a rest stop – “
“Nope,” the bald man laughed.
“Now wait a second, Larry,” the black man said grinning. His teeth were yellow to match his eyes. “I think the kid is right. Midtown is this way.”
“Nah,” said the one covered in sores. “You got to cut through the forest. That’ll take you straight to the bridge.”
“Yeah,” Larry said, his face screwing up in feigned confusion. “Through the forest. That’s right. You just got to watch out for the dogs.”
Tory’s stomach lurched. “What dogs?”
“The dogs, kid,” the black man said. He stuck out his tongue. “You see any around here? They’re mostly friendly – mostly. But you got to feed them the right stuff. Like that pretty little face of yours.”
Tory started inching backwards.
“Where are you going?” the black man said. “It’s almost feeding time. Come see the dogs!”
He stuck his tongue out again and this time Tory saw his face change. The corners of his mouth elongated down towards his chin and his teeth began to sharpen before his eyes.
“Come see the pooches, kid,” it said in a deep, gravely voice. “You like dogs, right? They’re real friendly. I’m sure they’ll just eat you up.”
Tory turned to run but his foot caught on a rock and he tumbled face down onto the pavement. Shrieking laughter exploded from behind him and a bottle landed inches from his head, shattering. He clambered up wildly and bolted into the forest slapping away the stings of leaves and branches. Distantly, his mind flashed back to the warning he received earlier: keep to the trails, whatever you do. But he was too frightened to care and bolted deeper and deeper into the woods, trying to dodge what he could with what little moonlight he had. After a while, the laughter faded to silence and Tory stopped, doubling over to catch his breath. The air was crisp and cold and his shirt stuck to his chest, dripping with sweat. In the distance, he heard a dog howl.
Tory started running again.