There was a half a mile between the bus stop and my house. That half mile is still there, but I never walked it again, at least not in the dark.
The only thing I hated more than basketball practice in 8th grade was the Activity Bus. My reward for sweating through a 90-minute J.V. basketball practice was a bus filled with unpleasant jocks that hauled me across my small hometown to the road I lived on in the darkness of cold Fall nights.
I was usually able to pass the 30-minute ride with the headphones of my portable C.D. player on, cranking something to distract me from the sad, wet world of rural Washington state out the cold window. Not this night though. I grabbed my sister’s player by accident on my way out of the house in the early morning, making a heavily-scratched pressing of the Dixie Chicks’ Wide Open Spaces my only option.
Listening to the constantly-skipping heartache of Texas women and steel guitars was better than listening to the other guys on the bus talk about their weight lifting maxes. I just hoped they couldn’t hear the embarrassing tunes coming out of the headphones pressed up against my ears.
I was listening to how about how some woman could love some man better than another when the bus driver slammed the brakes and my C.D. player went flying out of my lap and onto the floor, where it skidded backwards. My entire body washed with unpleasant warmth.
I resigned to letting whoever the C.D. player belonged to be a mystery for whoever found it. Maybe it was already on the bus? Maybe it belonged to one of the three girls on the bus?
“Who’s the fag listening to the Chixie Dicks?” I heard the voice of Colby Larsen, a 17-year-old wrestler who already lost his license because of a D.U.I., ask from behind me.
I slunk down further in the hard leather seat, trying to calculate how many minutes I had until we reached my stop and I could sprint off the thing.
My name came out of Colby’s boorish lips and revealed what gave me away. My sister’s name was written in Sharpie on the surface of the disc. Damn’t Christina.
Colby trudged up to my seat and sat down next to me with Christina’s C.D. player in his grasp and headphones on his ears. He howled out some notes of the opening song on the album with mocking glee and put a sinewy arm coated with sweat around me.
I heard the rest of the bus erupt behind me in laughter.
“You’d have to be pretty gay to like this music,” Colby said and then spat on the ground by my feet before he gave me back the C.D. player and headed back to his cheering crowd of fellow burgeoning country alpha males.
My stop came soon enough. My face was still as red as a tomato when I rose up and did my walk of shame to the sliding door at the front of the bus to a chorus of guys mockingly singing Cowboy Take Me Away. I swore I could even hear the 40-year-old bus driver snickering before I stepped down onto the sloppy asphalt at the end of my street.
I started the dark half mile walk home in silence, my eyes on the taillights of the bus as it crested the hill above my street until it disappeared behind the endless lines of trees. I put the headphones back on and cranked the music. The tunes were better than I thought they’d be when I wandered into them, though I’d never admit this to any of my friends.
Cranking the tunes wasn’t just about deciding that I liked the twangy serenade of Natalie Maines. It had more to do with distracting myself from the world around me, for the darkness on East Lake Drive at night was far more scary than the muscular arms and the Paleolithic brain of Colby Larsen.
The half mile of asphalt that stretched between the bus stop at the end of my street and my house at the end of the dead end road was absent of a single light and lined by mostly dark woods. I had to walk the entire thing in darkness whenever I rode the activity bus home after practice and both of my parents were working late.
I kept trying to remember to bring a flashlight on the nights where I would have to walk in the dark, but almost never remembered to. I had to rely on the moonlight and the occasional lights from houses where people were home along the route to even see in front of me at all.
I regularly hit fast forward to keep the music from getting hung up on a skip. It was a choppy and ominous soundtrack, but I preferred it over the sound of the stiff wind pushing around the tops of the trees above me. It was enough to keep me from getting too scared for about the first quarter of my walk home.
The disc in my C.D. player hit its most-troublesome spot in the middle of what was quickly becoming my favorite song and screeched to a halt. I stopped in my tracks to take the disc out and wipe it against my sweatshirt to try and get it going again.
That’s when I heard the man’s voice coming from the woods to the right of the road. I let my eyes follow the voice over to a thick patch of woods just off the road I was on.
Standing a few yards inside the treeline was a man in a blood-stained white t-shirt with no pants on. No underwear, just naked from the the waist down, standing in the cold, wet wind, staring at me and muttering to himself.
I didn’t recognize the man. He was pudgy and sloppy with a shaggy head of curly black hair and a long beard.
I froze. The man moved.
He hurried through the brush between the trees and the road and headed right for me, talking nonsense to himself all the while.
I ran up the road as fast as I possibly could, pushing myself much harder than I had during any of my basketball practices, dropping my C.D. player in the process.
My feet smacked so hard against the asphalt it hurt my soft soles through my Nikes. I pushed through this all for a good minute before I ran out of breath and steadied myself in the road.
I turned around. No sight of the man. Just the wind whipping some dry dead leaves across the asphalt that almost seemed to welcome in a pair of tall headlights and the rumble of a truck engine.
A wave of sweet relief washed over me.
The truck was at me in an instant. I stepped to the side of the road and waved my arms in distress at the F-350 as it rumbled it up to me and I waited for it to stop.
It didn’t stop. It just kept on driving up the road. I watched it until it’s tail lights faded out of sight.
Then I looked back down the road. The pantless man from the woods was about 20 yards behind me down the road, still no pants on, still a rabid look in his eyes.
He sprinted up the road towards me. I started running again.
I was close enough now that the safest option was to just run to my house. There was only one house between where I was and my house and it belonged to a commercial fisherman who was rarely home.
I ran ask hard as I could up the road, never looking back, knowing that I could beat the naked crazy man behind me there as long as he wasn’t an Olympic sprinter.
There wasn’t a single light on at my parents’ house when I ran into the front yard. This wasn’t alarming or unexpected, but I had prayed that one of my parents had come home early and it appeared they hadn’t.
What was alarming and unexpected was the lights not coming on when I made it through the front door and tried to turn them on.
The wind had knocked out the power and the phones. This happened about four to five times each Fall when the wind storms would hit and would keep the power out for at least a few hours.
I ran upstairs toward my parents’ room and my dad’s gun closet.
A high-pitched scream greeted me as soon as I barged my way into my parents’ bedroom. I started to panic in the dark.
All my flailing punches did is make me look like an idiot in front of my sister Christina and her boyfriend Blake as they tried to covered up their half-naked bodies with my parents’ comforter in soft candlelight.
“Oh my God, what the fuck?” Christina yelled out after she was done screaming.
I spit out the details of the situation to Christina and Blake as they got dressed, too high on adrenaline, fear and life or death urgency to realize it was awkward. She was supposed to be at her friend’s house so I hadn’t been expecting her, but that was a lie to distract my parents so her and Blake could hang out at our house alone.
I finished explaining what happened by saying…
“We need to get guns out of dad’s gun locker.”
Christina slowed me down and had me explain. She didn’t believe me. She asked if I had taken my medication. I had not. Someone had stolen my thorazine out of my locker when I went into a bathroom stall to change after basketball practice.
I swore to Christina that I wasn’t just seeing things. My parents had suspected that I might have schizophrenia about a year before and put me on the medication just in case, but I swore that I never saw anything, hallucinations, nothing.
Christina informed me that she wouldn’t let me get into dad’s gun safe and instead broke out a few camping lanterns and led me downstairs. She had me lock myself in a bathroom in the middle of the house and her and Blake did a sweep inside the house while looking for any signs of the man I had seen.
Christina and Blake came back to the bathroom. There was no one out there. Our parents would be home within an hour and Blake had to leave.
They told me this in the living room as I looked out the biggest window in the house and to our backyard that stretched out behind the house. I swore I saw someone or something moving between the trees beyond the lawn, but maybe I was just seeing things – the wind pushing brush around?
“I gotta get home. It’s gonna take me forever,” Blake said and then made a move for the door to the back porch.
“I don’t think you should try to walk out of here,” I pleaded.
Blake finally broke through and laughed at me. I could tell he was trying to hold it back for a long time.
“I’m sorry dude, there’s no one out there and I gotta go. I’ll stand on the porch for a while to prove to you no boogeyman, or Jason, or Freddy, or those dudes from Scream, are out there,” Blake said and then gave Christina a long kiss that made me uncomfortable because of the amount of tongue, even in the situation.
Blake stepped out onto the deck. He turned around to us with his arms open wide and started yelling out into the night…
“Hey, anyone out there? Anyone?”
Blake waited for an answer for about 20 seconds. Nothing.
He shrugged at me, waved at Christina, and started to walk towards the back yard.
He stopped before he got off the wood of the back porch. It looked like he saw something in the woods behind the yard.
He started to say something out towards the woods then hurried towards the trees just to the left of the yard.
“Wha-wha-wha-what’s he doing?” Christina muttered next to me, sounding genuinely fearful for the first time since I got home.
We watched Blake disappear into the dark woods where I thought I had seen something moving earlier.
Christina rushed out onto the back porch.
“Don’t,” I said, but still followed her out there.
Christina got into the yard in a flash. I kept following until I was in the grass.
“Let him go,” I yelled at her.
I heard a loud noise come from the woods as soon as my voice dropped. It sounded like a scream. A young man’s scream. A painful one.
Christina stopped at the edge of the yard. I’m not sure if she listened to me or just got too scared to go any further.
She hurried back to the back door with me. We got in and closed and locked the door behind us.
“Did you leave the door open when you ran out after me?” Christina asked.
“I don’t remember. I think so,” I answered, about 60 percent sure I left it open.
“It was closed when we got back,” she whispered.
My brain started to hurt, trying to 100 percent confirm if I left the door open or closed.
“Maybe it was the wind?”
“We can’t stay here,” she said.
Christina and I quickly outlined our choices:
- Our parents would probably be home in about 45 minutes. We could try and wait it out for them.
- Our neighbors, the O’Conner’s, were a sprint through the woods to the South. No guarantee they’d be home though and that was the direction where Blake disappeared.
- Our neighbors, the Bauer’s, were across and down the street, but I hadn’t seen their lights on when I ran by earlier.
- There was a lake behind the house, through about 30 yards of woods and we had a row boat there. We could get into the boat and row across to town.
I heard something move in the house upstairs, in our parents room, where the gun locker was. It sounded like breaking glass.
We decided to run for the lake. It had the lowest potential for a quick fix, but had the lowest potential for failure.
We made it across the yard as fast as we could, a fresh hard rain falling on us.
The run through the woods to the edge of the lake was a blur. Trying to keep up with my fleet of foot sister seemed to crank up the gears in my head.
We burst out onto the soggy grass beach of the lake. Christina got the row boat on the water before I got there.
I looked back into the woods before I joined Christina in the boat. I thought I saw something moving back up the trail from where we came.
Christina pulled me into the boat and pushed us off the shore.
I grabbed a paddle and joined Christina in trying to get us away from the shore. The rain was pounding so hard at that point that it shrunk the world around us. It seemed now like the boat was a little bubble and all I could focus on was paddling away from shore.
We were 20 yards away from the shore when Christina started to slow down. We were far enough out that anyone who could have been after us wouldn’t have any chance of reaching us and the water beneath us was November frigid.
It was hard to see in the rain, but it looked like something leaped out of the water, into the boat and grabbed hold of Christina. The two of us screamed at each other before Christina got pulled over the side and her weight leaving the vessel caused it to flip, throwing me into the water as well.
I swallowed a hearty gulp of lake water when I came up. I sucked it down and started swimming furiously toward the shore, no idea what direction I was going in.
I made the shore. I rushed up onto the beach and was comforted to find the lights of a small house I recognized waiting for me – the home of Milly Powell.
It might have been the delirium of the frigid water that had just marinated my mind that made me feel relief, because Milly Powell was a senile psycho who hated kids who I spotted watering her lawn at 10 p.m. the night before.
Yet, I hustled across her lawn of dead grass and knocked hard on her front door.
I tried the handle of Milly’s front door. Unlocked. I pushed my way in and found the entire place lit with candles like it was a romantic restaurant.
“Hello? Help,” I called out into the little house.
I didn’t get a verbal response. Just the business end of a shotgun in my face when I rounded a corner into a hallway.
Milly stood in her nightgown in her living room with a shotgun shaking in her grasp. She looked at me without the glasses I was accustomed to her wearing.
“It’s loaded,” she barked.
“Please Misses Powell, it’s Zach Fromm, from down the street, something really bad is happening and I need help. Is your phone working?”
“What’s happening? You’re breaking in.”
Milly probably didn’t know what planet she was on and she had a loaded gun pointed in my face. She might be a bigger problem than whoever was chasing me.
I squinted at her eyes and saw hers nearly closed and her arms out, touching the walls on each side of her. She must have been nearly blind without her glasses.
She looked scared, unsteady. I saw her finger wiggle on the trigger. The old woman was one misconception and bad decision away from ending it all for me.
“Please Misses Powell. We’re in danger!”
“What are you doing to me?” She screamed back.
I watched Misses Powell’s finger wiggle on that trigger a little harder.
I spun around and ran for the door. A shotgun blast blew out my ear drum, but I made it to the door without the shot hitting me.
The road wasn’t far from Mrs. Powell’s house. Town was a good mile away, but there had to be a house or two where someone was home that wasn’t senile with a hair trigger.
My body started to break down on the run from Mrs. Powell’s house to the road. I felt my calf tremble with a cramp, but I had to go on. The man who had chased me and possibly killed Blake and Christina could be right behind me.
Lights. Lights. Lights. I saw and felt the burn of automobile lights rolling down the hill towards me from the direction of my house.
I stopped in the road and waved my arms like I was doing jumping jacks.
The vehicle got closer. It was a truck. It was the truck that passed me on the road earlier and just kept driving.
It slowed up to me this time and stopped at my feet.
I looked up to the cab of the truck and saw the window roll down. A man with a strong jaw, a flesh-colored beard, and dark eyes peered down at me, not a drop of emotion or concern on his face.
“Please let me in the truck!” I blurted out at the man.
“Get in the other side,” the man muttered so quietly I could barely hear him.
I ran around the front of the truck and climbed up into the cab. I eased into the seat and locked the door as fast as I could. The man behind the wheel didn’t even look over at me.
“We need to go to the police,” I started in as he put the truck in gear.
The man didn’t respond, just put the truck in reverse.
I looked over at him and took in his image again. I started to get a horrible feeling in the pit of my stomach.
“Someone attacked my sister and her boyfriend. She’s out in the lake,” I went on.
“Okay,” he said, still eerily flat.
He maneuvered the car so it would head back up the road, to my house.
“I think we should go to town,” I reasoned.
He just kept driving up the road.
“Your parents home?” He asked.
“I don’t know.”
“You ever watch your sister?”
“What do you mean?”
“Do you ever watch her in her room?”
I didn’t answer. I just put my hand on the door handle.
“Do you ever watch her in the bathroom?”
I tried the door. It wouldn’t open.
We kept winding up the dark road towards the end, where my house rested.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
I saw police lights up the street. I let out a huge breath. The man started to cough. He slowed the truck.
The wind had knocked down a tree onto a house just down the road from mine. Police. The fire department. Electricity company. They were all there.
I saw my mom’s car parked next to the squad car.
“Nevermind,” he muttered.
I tried the door again. Success. I was able to jump out and run up to the police car and my mom, who waited for me with tears and Christina wrapped up in a blanket.
I looked back and saw the tail lights of the truck driving away.
I told my parents and the police everything that happened. I don’t think they believed me. I think they thought it had something to do with me not taking my medication.
I still remembered everything exactly when I calmed down and cleared my head. I still had the vivid image of the man, naked from the waist down, blood-stained shirt, standing in the woods and chasing me up the street. I remember seeing something knock Christina out of the boat.
Blake was found in the woods not far from our house. He was walking through the trees and fell into a hole and broke his ankle, explaining the scream we heard.
But why did Blake walk out there in the first place?
He explained he thought he saw someone out in the woods waving at him, but he wasn’t sure. It could have just been the rain and an old painted-white barrel my dad used for target practice that was out there.
Christina told her story to the police and my parents, but she said she never saw a person. She just remembered the boat tipping over and her ended up in the water. She swam to shore and was able to get to the house of the commercial fisherman (he was home), who had a cell phone, and called the authorities.
I told the police all about the truck and the weird things the driver asked me and how he saw me on the road the first time asking for help and just drove on up the road and then reappeared again later.
The problem was I didn’t have a name for the guy, a license plate number. I couldn’t even remember what color the truck was. All I had was a hazy description of a guy who looked like every guy in rural Washington and of a big truck, which is what every guy who looked like that in rural Washington drove.
My report went nowhere. The police, and my parents, said they believed me, but there was only so much they could do. The police said they would keep looking out for men driving trucks that fit the description I gave and the man I saw in the woods who chased me. They’d also look out for similar incidents.
Months later – no updates from police. At least basketball season was over, the thaw of Spring was on the way, and my parents weren’t going to make me turn out for baseball again.
Not having an athletic practice after school meant I got to take the regular bus home in the daylight with a couple other kids who lived on my street who would walk with me and chat until they got to their houses.
A truck came down the road from the direction of my house as soon as the last of my companions went home and I was alone. My head raised the instant I heard its rumbling engine approach.
It wasn’t just the sound of the engine that caught my ear though. It was an all-too-familiar tune I could hear leaking out its blown-out speakers.
It got louder as it got closer…
A twangy violin melody first and a female voice singing….
…Wide Open Spaces…Dixie Chicks…
I watched the truck from that night rumble by me and keep driving down the road. I didn’t breathe until the the thing was out of sight, and then didn’t breathe for another 30 seconds.
I didn’t see the man behind the wheel this time. I didn’t tell anyone what I saw or heard. I just let it go.
I’ve never seen that truck again, but I’ve heard that song a hundred times and it’s never failed to send shivers down my spine.
I hope I never hear it again.