This is the true story of what never happened.
David Sarris stopped when he heard a shout. The ferocity of the sound meant to be a powerful one, saved in the deep corners of a man’s lungs in times of rare desperation. The noise of it had been muffled, suddenly cut off by whomever or whatever did not want the victim to finish. The terror had not been an exaggeration. Unmoving, David stared straight ahead, lest he see a monster behind him, and waited for another sound to send him and his young son running.
The woods near Wells Park were dense and difficult to maneuver, seasoned hikers always eager for the challenge, but such enthusiasts were rare at the start of a cold spring. Locals didn’t bother with the forest, preferring clean sidewalks around town for a serene jog. The father looked down at Gabe, not surprised to find the boy quiet, unquestioning. Brittle leaves and fallen branches snapped and crumbled under a weight of two persons. David listened to the struggle, imagining a cougar attacking another on his morning hike, limbs colliding on the hard ground. The beast had pounced, the man tried to scream, deep, dirty claws muffling the sound. David felt as distraught as the victim. The closest payphone was outside the park. What the forest supplied were his only weapons, but branches wouldn’t do much good.
The man broke free of his fear, looking to his left at the large boulders blocking a view. He held a breath as he took a few steps beyond the obstruction, morality and morbid curiosity outweighing rational thought. He gestured for Gabe to stay, thinking it could be two hawks fighting over a rodent. Elk battling it out. Bears in heat.
It was a tall man instead, wearing a suit and tie in the depth of the forest, subduing another man into the dirt. The attacker was stoic, smothering stilted cries and thrashing limbs below him. He glanced up at his secret observer once, then looked up for a second time. A mix of surprise and frustration blended into the face.
David’s breath left him and, if he stayed there any longer, urine would too. The victim struggled for air, breathless cries of help escaping a dry mouth with his face pressed into broken leaves. David ushered his creeping son behind him and took a step back, and another. The attacker watched while pressing a knee into the man’s back. David continued to step back until his son stumbled. He grabbed Gabe and walked away. It was a normal pace, nothing faster than a brisk. He tried to breathe. He held his son against his chest, nearly smothering him, and only broke out into a run when a bird cooed.
He ran, ears ready for panting breath behind him, but the ambush never came. He ran for twenty minutes on the uneven dirt path, never looking behind him, fearing the man would be there, having matched his every step, waiting for him to turn around so he could snap his neck. He ran and his son dug his nails into his shoulders. He was sweating a cold sweat. A dreadful one, unlike the euphoric high of a hiker’s. He ran until they reached the park’s clearing.
In the parking lot, David rummaged for change in the cushions of his truck, but panic overtook him. The payphone would have to wait. He shook, grasping the steering wheel, letting Gabe loose in the back instead of maneuvering him into the car-seat. He put the truck in drive, radio off and thoughts static.
“Are we done walking?”
“Yes.” He said. “We’re done walking.”