By Todd F. Cope
The evening started out fine. I had been asked to participate in a six mile run with the young men at church. They had the goal of completing the run in less than an hour – a reasonable goal for 16 and 17-year-old boys. I’m sure my participation was more out of necessity than anything else, since I am a runner and they knew I could show them a six-mile course. But I was happy to go along to share my love of the sport with others and help Jim, the boy’s adult leader, keep track of everyone.
We met at the church. I had already performed my 20 minute stretching routine. In anticipation of a cool evening, I was dressed in my long running pants, the long-sleeve shirt from my most recent marathon and my perfectly seasoned running shoes. My white sweatband was on my head, more for looks than anything else. The others were dressed in everything from cut-off sweats and canvas shoes to the latest in designer warm-ups and basketball shoes.
To me, six miles was little more than a warm-up, to everyone else, it was a significant run. Jim was already stretching, but the boys were just anxious to go. I suggested that they take the time to stretch, which some of them did for about two minutes, but then they were ready to get started.
“C’mon,” one of the boys shouted. “Let’s get this done.”
“Yeah,” the others joined in unison.
There were six boys in all. I knew from the start that the three oldest, Josh, Gordon and Steve, would probably complete the run within the prescribed hour. Rick had a pretty good chance of making it, and Jeff would probably struggle a little, but everyone knew Cody would be lucky to finish.
“So why are you guys doing this?” I asked.
“We’re doing it to prove that we can,” Gordon responded. “Why do you run?”
“I run for my life,” I replied. I hadn’t always been a runner, but three years earlier, when I found myself 50 pounds overweight and with borderline diabetes, I knew something had to change or I’d leave my wife a young widow and my children fatherless.
By the time we started, the clouds had rolled in. It was 7:21pm when I started my stopwatch. Lightening flashed in the distance, but was far enough away that no thunder was heard. A light rain had started to fall, but no one even considered calling off the run. It was typical weather for the last week in October. As we started down the road toward the center of town, we stayed together as a group and talked. I tried to explain the course to the others, knowing that we would probably soon separate. I planned to stay with those in the lead for the first half of the run, while Jim took up the rear to encourage the slower boys. Once we passed the fork in the road, just past mile three, the course would be simple enough for the faster boys to make it back to the church on their own, so I would then fall back with the others to make sure they didn’t get lost. It could be tricky where the road split.
The drizzle of rain was just enough to cool us down. As we reached the edge of town and turned left to head along the river, the clouded night seemed to be getting even darker.
Those in front began to pull away after the first mile and I was glad I was there to help them find their way. The narrow, paved road was seldom traveled by anyone except for the local farmers. A few small dirt roads joined it along the way, some from the fields immediately to the left and others from old wooden bridges that spanned the small river to the fields on the right.
I listened with intrigue as the boys talked about school and sports and girls. Josh and Gordon were in front and Steve and I ran side-by-side about ten yards behind them. The end of the third mile comes at the bottom of a hill and then rounds a bend where the area is suddenly thick with trees and the road, almost imperceptibly, forks. The “Y” is so subtle that one could easily take the wrong fork and continue in the trees along the river for miles – I think.
“Hey!” I yelled as Josh and Gordon veered to the right. “Take the left fork.” The two stunned boys stopped and looked around, before realizing that there was an option to the left. They walked back a few yard to where the road separates and waited for Steve and me to catch up.
“Where does that go?” Josh asked as we started along the left fork.
“Well, to be honest with you, I’m not sure,” I answered. “But it doesn’t go back to the church.”
“Looks kind of spooky down there,” Steve noted.
“Yeah, it probably leads to some black hole or something,” Gordon teased.
“Shut-up,” Steve said, as he threw his closed fist forward and slugged his friend in the shoulder.
I’d never been up the right fork and had to admit that even in the daytime, it did look “spooky.” The canopy of trees created a dark tunnel and I had no desire to see where it led.
“Just keep going along this road until you come to the curve,” I instructed. “After you make the turn, you’ll be able to see the church steeple ahead and to the left.”
“Got it,” Josh assured.
I looked at my watch. It was 7:45pm. “You’re on track to make it, so keep your pace,” I called over my shoulder as I turned and headed back toward Jim and the other three boys.
I hadn’t gone far when I could see someone running toward me from the other direction. As I continued, I could see that it was Rick. I ran to him and then turned and ran alongside.
“How you feeling,” I asked.
“Pretty good, I guess.”
“You’ve made it nearly half way,” I said.
Rick smiled. “Really?”
“Yeah, and you’re only a few minutes behind the others.”
“Cool!” he replied.
I continued running at his side until we passed the fork in the road. I gave him the same direction as the others, sent him on his way and turned around once again.
About a half mile back, I met up with Jeff, Cody and Jim. It was obvious that Cody was struggling. I joined the group and it soon became clear that the only reason Jeff was running with the other two was that he didn’t want to run alone.
“Why don’t you and Jeff go ahead,” I suggested to Jim as we came to the bottom of the hill that marked the end of mile three. “I’ll stick with Cody.”
“Are you sure?” Jim asked.
“Yeah, you two go ahead.”
“I’m tired,” Cody complained as he stopped jogging and began to walk.
I pointed ahead to where the road forked. “Just veer left,” I said to Jim. “You’ll soon come to a curve, and then you’ll be able to see the church steeple to your left.
“How’s our time?” Cody asked.
I stopped and looked at my watch. It was 7:55pm. “Pick up your pace a little and you should make it,” I called ahead.
“Okay, we’ll see you at the finish line,” Jim yelled over his shoulder.
Cody was just standing at the side of the road. The rain had stopped and the full moon was beginning to peek through the clouds. The soft light illuminated his pale face.
“You can make it,” I assured.
“But not in time,” he moaned.
“It’s not about the time, it’s about finishing. Now come on, we’ll finish together.”
Cody sighed and started a slow jog up the road. I ran at his side and kept speaking words of encouragement.
We hadn’t gone far when I was surprised to see that one of my shoe laces was untied. I always tied my running shoes in double knots, but must have become sidetracked when I was putting them on earlier. I looked at my watch and it was 7:59pm. “You keep going,” I said. “I’ll catch up to you.”
Cody continued on without responding.
I knelt down under a tree at the side of the road. As I began to tie my shoe, I remembered the fork in the road. “Stay to the left!” I yelled as I looked up.
Cody approached the subtle division and moved to the right, almost as if drawn in that direction.
“Left, left!” I yelled.
He continued running into the dark.
I finished tying my shoe and started to sprint toward Cody as he slipped out of sight. I reached the edge of the trees and stopped suddenly as if I’d run into a wall. I looked ahead, but the wooded ceiling blocked out all of the moonlight.
“Cody!” I yelled into the dark.
* * *
Completely ignoring my aversion to the right fork, I forged ahead into the blackness, not knowing what to expect or find, but hoping it would be my running companion. There was a distinct change in the temperature and the chilled air gripped the exposed skin of my face, neck and hands.
I nearly stumbled as the pavement ended but thought I heard footsteps in the gravel ahead, so I stopped and listened.
“Cody,” I called, but there was no response. The sound of the approaching footsteps moved closer and I began to make out a black figure coming toward me. I felt somewhat relieved because I knew it must be Cody.
The black figure came closer and my heart sank when I realized that instead of sporting the white jacket Cody had been wearing, this person had on a black hooded sweatshirt.
“Did you pass a kid running ahead of me?” I enquired.
As he came near, he suddenly turned his head to the side as if to look directly into my eyes. I could see nothing but darkness under the hood. “Run for your life,” a deep voice said.
This dark stranger’s response to my question had so frightened me that I immediately ran from him. I had run about a hundred feet before I gained my composure and remembered that I was looking for Cody. I stopped and attempted to survey my surroundings, but it was so dark, that couldn’t see more than a few feet in any direction. “Cody,” I called into the distance. But there was no response.
It was too dark to see my watch, so I reached for my cell phone. I pushed the button on the side and the screen lit up. I was surprised by the fact that it read 7:59pm, since I always synchronized my watch by the electronic time on my phone. I used the illumination of the phone to light up the face of my watch. An icy chill ran down my spine as I viewed the numbers 7-5-9.
I knew the previous events had occurred quickly, but there was no way it had all happened inside of a single minute. “What’s going on?” I said aloud.
Realizing that I was losing time and my chances of finding Cody were decreasing every minute, I figured I’d better call Jim. I flipped up the earpiece on my cell phone and dialed his number. I put the phone to my ear and waited for it to begin ringing. After more than sufficient time for the call to go through, I pulled the phone down and looked at the display. The words ‘Call Failed,’ seemed to jump out at me. The signal strength was sufficient for service, so I tried the call again, but with the same result. I dialed my home telephone number, but once again, the call would not go through.
I knew I couldn’t be more than 100 yards from where the road forked and where I had run dozens of times before. I was sure I could get phone service there, so I turned around and began jogging back to familiar territory. I jogged and jogged and jogged. But I didn’t reach the main road. I began to run, but then thought that maybe I had lost my sense of direction in the darkness. So again, I turned around and ran in the opposite direction. I ran and ran and ran, but never came to the main road.
In frustration, I reached for my cell phone. I think my heart skipped a beat when I looked at the screen and it still displayed 7:59pm.
“This can’t be happening,” I yelled as I jammed the phone back into its holder. Again, I surveyed my surroundings. There was nothing in any direction, except darkness. I looked up into the gnarled tree branches that sealed out the sky. The fingers of twisted wood seemed to reach down as if to grab me. And something else was wrong. At first, I couldn’t decide what it was, but then it dawned on me. I could no longer hear the river. No wonder I was confused about my directions.
Though I was still worried about Cody, I was beginning to accept the fact that I should probably be somewhat concerned about my own safety. I figured my first priority should be to find my way out of this mess.
Relying on my best sense of direction, I determined which way should lead back to the main road and began jogging. I ran for what seemed like five or more minutes, then stopped to see if I was actually making any progress. I looked at my cell phone, but it still read 7:59pm and my watch also continued to suggest the same stoppage of time.
In desperation, I decided to walk a short distance off the road. Slowly, I ventured into the thick trees. I stomped my feet with each step to beat down the undergrowth, thus forming a path that I could follow if I needed to retrace my steps. I hadn’t gone far when I saw a glimmer of light in the distance. I began to move more quickly and was soon close enough to see what looked like the back of an old farmhouse. I began to run and suddenly found myself beyond the woods. Though somewhat obscured by the lingering clouds, the full moon provided enough light that I could finally see my surroundings. I was hopeful that something would look familiar as I was moved across a large open field. In the center of the field was the house and on every side, there was nothing but trees, just like the ones from which I had emerged. There was no sign of a road leading to the little cottage, but there was a light shining through a window, so I continued running toward it.
The small wooden structure was about 20 feet square and had a lean-to roof. The light was coming from a single window in the back wall. I knew it was doubtful, but still held out hope that I might look inside and see Cody. I crept to the window and wiped the fogged glass. Inside I could see that the only furniture in the room was an old sofa and a television. The TV was turned on, but there was nothing on the screen except static. It was the light of the television that illuminated the room and could be seen through the window.
There was a part of me wanted to walk around to the front and knock on the door. Maybe someone was asleep on the sofa. Another part of me wanted to turn and run. The rest of me just stood and stared through the window. Finally, I mustered enough courage knock on the cottage door. Perhaps someone was inside and they would have a telephone I could use. Slowly, I walked around to the other side of the building where I found the door and knocked. There was no answer, so I tried the latch, but it was locked. To the right of the door was another window, so I moved over and peered inside. My heart nearly jumped out of my chest when I saw someone in a white jacket lying on the couch with his back to me. I began to pound on the window and yell.
“Cody, can you hear me? Cody, are you alright? Hey, open the door.”
All my yelling and screaming seemed pointless, as he didn’t budge. I tried the door again, and began shaking the handle. “Cody!” I yelled again.
I returned to the window, determined that I would break it if necessary. I raised my fist to hit the glass, but stopped when I saw that the sofa was now uninhabited. I looked around at what I could see of the room and it appeared empty. I ran around to the window in the, but again, looked in at an unoccupied room.
I threw my hands on my forehead. “I cannot believe this is happening to me!” I yelled. Returning to the front, I looked through the window one more time. There was no one on the sofa. As my eyes slowly made their way upward, I spied on the wall a now unwelcome, but all too familiar sight. There was an old pendulum clock with the small hand sitting just before the eight and the large hand positioned on the minute-mark just before the twelve. I shook my head in disbelief. Just to be sure I wasn’t imagining things, I watched the pendulum swing. I counted as it moved back-and-forth sixty times, but the hands never moved. “Seven-fifty-nine,” I whispered as I stepped back a couple of paces.
I could see fear in my own eyes as I recognized my reflection in the glass. I looked down at my soaked and muddy running shoes. Again I looked up into the glass, but this time, my reflection wasn’t alone. I froze in place as the dark figure behind me moved closer. I could hear my own heart beating faster and faster. Quickly, I turned and found myself staring at the same black hooded man I had seen as this whole ordeal began. He reached out to grab me by the throat, but I ducked. He grabbed for my head, but to my good fortune, he got hold of my sweatband instead of my hair.
I took advantage of the escape opportunity and ran to the back of the shack and in the direction I had come from, toward the dark forest.
“Run for you life,” the booming voice called from behind.
As I neared the woods, I began looking for the path I had created, but it wasn’t there. I ran a short distance along the edge of the field, looking for the smashed undergrowth, but finally ventured into uncharted territory among the trees.
My strides were long, and I was nearly jumping with each step, but I could still hear my pursuer behind me. I looked over my shoulder and could see that he was gaining on me. As I directed my gaze in front of me again, I spotted a low hanging bough, but not soon enough to avoid it. I ran right into the branch and was knocked backward. As I went down, I grabbed another branch and pulled it down on top of me. I struggled to crawl from under the tangled mess, but soon felt two strong hands on my shoulders. I yelled and thrashed my arms, getting them even more tangled in the branches, but I could not free myself from them, or from him. I closed my eyes and prayed that my fate would be quick and painless. He began to shake me.
“Hey, are you alright?”
The voice was familiar, but not one that I was able to immediately identify. I remained motionless for a few moments before realizing who it was that was speaking to me. I opened my eyes and saw Jim staring down at me.
“We thought we’d lost you,” he said.
“Where am I?” I asked.
“You’re at the fork in the road, down by the river,” Jim answered.
“What happened?” I questioned.
“Well,” Jim started, “Jeff and I got back to the church and waited for you and Cody…”
“Where’s Cody. We’ve got to find Cody,” I interrupted.
“Calm down. Cody’s fine.”
“Where is he?” I asked.
“He’s at the church with the others.”
“I don’t understand,” I said.
“Well, as I was saying, when you and Cody didn’t show up, I decided to drive out here and check on you. Cody was only about a block from the church, so I sent him to wait with the others and came on out here. He said he’d last seen you at the fork when you stopped to tie your shoelace.”
“Then he didn’t take the right fork?”
Jim chuckled. “If he had, we’d probably still be looking for him.”
I found little humor in his comment. “What time is it? And don’t say 7:59.”
“Huh?” Jim asked.
“Just tell me what time it is.”
“It’s just before nine,” he said.
“Thank goodness,” I sighed.
“Why?” Jim asked.
“It doesn’t matter,” I muttered. “So what do you think happened?”
“It appears that this branch fell on you when you stopped to tie your shoe. It must have knocked you out”
“I guess that make sense,” I said, though I wasn’t convinced. How was it possible that I could have been hit hard enough to be rendered unconscious for three quarters of an hour and not even have a headache?
Jim helped me to my feet. “I think we’d better get you to a doctor.”
I brushed off the leaves and sticks and headed for Jim’s truck. “I’m fine,” I said.
“I think you need to be checked over,” Jim insisted.
“Look, I’ll be fine, just take me home.”
“Okay,” Jim said reluctantly. “Maybe your wife can talk some sense into you.”
As I reached to open the truck door, I caught my reflection in the large mirror.
“Just a minute,” I said. “I’ve lost my headband.” I walked back to the pile of branches and began searching.
Jim joined in the hunt, but neither of us could find it.
“It’s not that important,” I finally said. “Let’s go home.”
We returned to the truck and I climbed into the passenger’s seat. I rested my head on the back window and began to ponder on everything that had happened – or that I thought had happened. As Jim started the truck and pulled onto the road, I turned and looked out the side window at the dark tunnel formed by the canopy of trees over the right fork. There on the edge of the road was the black hooded man, and in his hand was a white sweatband.