On a scale of one to ten, what’s the surest you’ve ever been at any one moment that something absolutely sinister was looking straight at you?
I’d rate my experience earlier tonight at about an eight.
I was driving home from my parents’ house around 10 p.m. They only live about ten minutes’ drive from me, but what a difference ten minutes makes. They’re out in the country, no streetlights, it’s Michigan in the middle of winter, and I’d made the terrific decision to take a relatively unkept road home. The same road where I collided with a deer not two months ago, instantly vaporizing my Christmas fund. It’s deer central out there.
Well, I was headed down this road at about half the speed limit, eyes peeled for some of the four-legged white-tailed terrors, and my eyes were starting to get strained by the headlights of an oncoming vehicle. It was at least a half-mile away, but the high beams were on. I guessed it was a truck, though I didn’t want to look too closely and then be blinded to some furry wrecking machine sauntering out in front of me, so I kept my eyes off that side of the road as much as I dared.
As I got closer, I realized I was right — it was a pickup truck. But it wasn’t heading toward me; it was parked on the shoulder. And the emergency lights were blinking.
I slowed down even more, waiting to see the telltale signs of a deer collision: imploded grill, cracked windshield, missing side mirror — and, obviously, a deer corpse.
Once I was alongside the pickup, I still hadn’t seen any damage. Now that I was out of the lights’ glare, I could see that the truck was pulling a horse trailer. The trailer must have been wired in, because the red lights on the back were blinking on and off in time with the emergency lights on the truck.
I rolled down my window to talk to whoever was in the cab, but once I looked closer, I realized the truck was empty.
“Hello!” I called. No answer.
Then I heard the scraping. And thumping. It sounded like someone slamming an upside-down bowl onto a surface repeatedly. It was coming from behind the trailer. I looked out my windshield, and saw a loop of rough rope making up part of a knot around a handle on the back of the trailer. I couldn’t see the rest of the rope — but the knot seemed to be sliding up and down the handle a bit.
I inched forward in my car, peering around the corner of the trailer.
Sudden movement startled me. Then I realized what an idiot I was.
The rope led to a harness fastened to a horse. The large, brown creature was scraping and stomping its hooves on the ground, standing close to the ditch, stretching its rope across the back of the trailer. As I pulled up further, it glanced at me, snorted and went back to stomping. Thinking I was probably irritating it, and knowing there were no other cars for miles, I switched off my headlights.
It kept stomping.
I looked at the ground around its hooves. The snow was tossed up, and in some spots, the horse had chipped off bits of the dirt shoulder. He’d been out here awhile.
“Hello?” I called again, fully expecting a response from the dark field on the other side of the ditch. Nothing.
I looked at the horse again. Steam shot from its nostrils. Then I looked back at its hooves, and the ground around them.
I’m not a Boy Scout, but fresh snow makes it fairly easy to piece simple stories together. In the brief, flashing intervals of dim, red light afforded me by the trailer, I was easily able to make out boot prints alongside the trailer, obviously coming from the cab. They turned and led along the back of the trailer, then into the ditch, past the bubble of red light.
Then there were the same boot prints coming up from the ditch, accompanied by hoof prints. Presumably this guy’s horse had gotten out of his barn or pasture nearby, and he was out here to retrieve it. That was my Columbo moment.
Then there was the whole area in between the horse and the side of the trailer closest to me. I could see the boot prints, but they weren’t in a straight line. They seemed to be all over the place, pointing everywhere, like a person jumping around, or hopping from one foot to the next. And mixed in with them were … other prints.
The new prints looked a bit like the inside of a peace sign — a “Y” with an extra line between the forked lines, about twice their length. There was no real “sole” or pad, but each toe (if you could call it that) was thick — at least a couple inches wide. And at the end of each toeprint, including the long, rear protrusion (the handle of the fork, I suppose) the snow seemed to have another flaw in it. Not an imprint, really. More like a slit. Like, from a claw.
These prints were as mixed up as the boot prints were, but tended to stay closer to the road. Whatever made them, the guy wearing the boots would have to get past it to get back to the cab.
Out from that mess of prints, both human and … I guess “animal” will do … erupted a straight line of boot prints, with long strides, heading back along the road, away from the truck and trailer, past the edge of the red light. They continued into the darkness that I knew would be uninterrupted until the first streetlight a mile away. The other prints were mixed in with these ones, weaving in and out of the same line. In other words, following. Their strides were at least as long as the boot man’s.
I stole one more look at the horse, still clearly agitated, and at the prints right behind the trailer. Now, obviously, snow being white, and the trailer’s pulsing lights being red, all the snow in the range of the lights was going to be red. But I know it wasn’t my imagination that some patches, here and there, were a different shade of red than the rest. And with the dim light and the horse’s dark fur, it was hard to be sure, but I thought a few long lines were glistening down the animal’s side.
I like to think I’m not a stupid man. I saw no benefit in staying here to play detective. I decided to distance myself from the horse, trailer, truck and prints. I flipped my lights on and started rolling away. The horse never stopped staring at me. I swear — it had the closest thing I’ve ever seen on an animal to the expression of a homeless man who hasn’t gotten a penny all day.
But as I pulled forward, I just wasn’t able to take my eyes off the footprints and “whatever” prints on the side of the road. About ten feet past where the red light would have ended, there was another scuffle — both sets of prints mashed together, definitely a couple spots of dark pink snow, and then just the boot prints, continuing their journey. But off to one side, they’d left behind a much larger imprint, roughly human-sized. There were … shapes … on both sides of the body. They were wide, and somewhat wrinkled, like the imprint of a jacket a child would leave after laying in the snow. They fanned out from the main body, leaving drag marks — like something unfurling. They were also ribbed. I admit I was only viewing this in passing, but I swear I know what I saw. It’s hard to describe exactly. But thinking back, I’d say that comparing that shape to a “snow angel” would seem wrong in more ways than one.
I kept moving, picking up just a bit of speed, but I was still going fairly slowly so my tires wouldn’t burn out on the snow and ice. I could see the three-toed prints moving from the larger shape back to the chase, just for a few feet, and then — they just ended. The bootprints carried on for another forty feet or so. Then they ended, too.
At this point, I had to stop. I don’t mean that I really decided that I wanted to. It’s like my brain just needed to verify that I was seeing this right.
Two sets of prints, one human, one not, both just ending. No sign of a change of course, or a dive to the ground, or anything. Pure, untouched snow on all sides. Well … not totally undisturbed.
I think something in my brain was just misfiring at that point, trying to make it all fit, and so I looked back once at the trailer and truck, highlighted in a blinking red aura. I could see the horse, still watching me.
And then, in the road ahead of the truck, something shifted. It was the truck’s headlights. They bounced. The truck’s taillights also bounced — just a slight dip toward the ground, then back up, like a brief pressure on the suspension. The trailer shifted just a touch.
Now the horse wasn’t looking at me. It was looking at the black space above the truck and trailer, the spot on the roof of the trailer that no light could reach. And it was straining against its rope harder than I’ve ever seen anything fight in my life.
My tires burned out briefly before they found traction.
So, that was my “eight” moment. I really lost count of how many times on the way home I nearly slid into a ditch. I went sideways once. But I always kept control, using some combination of luck and sheer force of will to not get stranded on the road tonight.
Now I’m in my driveway. And I’m wishing my garage door was working. Because right now, I’m having my “ten” moment.
The porch light is illuminating a portion of the roof on one wing of my house. All around me, the freshly fallen snow is undisturbed. But in that one little corner of the roof, I can just make out a pair of imprints marring the scene. I probably don’t have to describe them to you.
My front door is maybe thirty feet away. Thirty feet.
I’m wondering if I should try sleeping in the car tonight.