His eyes were red. That’s the first thing I saw. I had wandered off from camp to have a smoke; Janine hates that I still indulge. After the blow-up we had the week before, we came to an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ arrangement. So long as she couldn’t see it or smell it, I was in the clear to scratch my itch. So I wandered five minutes away from camp, leaned against against the bark of a ponderosa pine, lit up, and saw a pair of red eyes glaring at me in the evening gloom.
He was seven feet tall and covered in tangled, dirty fur that was the color of bricks. He had a baboon’s snout and yellow fangs that pushed up and over his thin black lips. His hands, huge and gnarled, hung to his sides. He stood there, between a pair of fir trees, bare feet nestled atop a pile of branches. He was far enough away that I could have bolted and he probably wouldn’t have caught up to me, but I was frozen in place.
A testament to the power of a lifelong habit: I didn’t stop smoking. Even though I knew that any sudden movement could be taken as a threat (because clearly whatever this was was more wild animal than man), I still kept raising it up to my lips to take deep drags. The smoke spilling out of my mouth seemed to hypnotize the thing: he cocked his head and raised it ever so slightly as the smoke rose up into the sky, as though he were trying to ascend along with it.
I don’t know how long we were out there together. It felt like an hour but it was probably closer to a few minutes. At some point, whatever novelty my smoke presented wore off; the hairy thing turned and walked off, bending its tall frame into a slouch. An awful stench hung in its wake: it reminded me of the fish-markets my uncle used to take me to in San Carlos. The bad catch of the day, left out in the sun for too long.
Minutes ticked away in the dark of the Mogollon Rim. I grew up watching horror movies; I knew how this was supposed to work. I was being lulled into a false sense of security. Surely the Mogollon Monster would leap out and tear me into raw bits of weeping flesh the moment I started walking back to camp. The trick was to not let the film continue; I would just stay in this moment and let the narrative grind to a halt. The cheerleader can’t die if you press pause before she goes downstairs.
I stayed by the pine, smoking everything I had on me, and wondered what I would say when I got back to camp. What would I tell Janine? How would I explain why I’ve been gone for so long? Would she believe me?
Janine and I have been together for five years. Good years, mostly. I should know the answers to these questions. “Does your significant other believe in Bigfoots?” seems like the kind of thing you’d figure out about your partner by year two.
I thought about the ring in my pocket, and the full moon overhead — Nature’s spotlight for the grand occasion I had brought her here for. Maybe I wouldn’t have to worry about the answers. I could get on one knee and let the moonlight glinting off crystallized carbon chase these shadows of doubt away.
I had been sitting in the dark, breathing in this dead fish smell, for long enough. Time to unpause the movie. I started walking back to camp, letting the flashlight carve out a path for me. The branches and underbrush crunching beneath my feet added sharp polyrhythms to the frenzied beating of my heart.
No ape hands reached out through the thickets to grab my arm.
As I got closer to camp, I thought about all the things I didn’t know about Janine. Her mysteries sprouted in front of me, hundreds of saplings that grew into towering spruces and pines. The entire forest had become a garden of my love’s secrets. Behind this bark, her favorite Beatle. Her childhood dreams of being a princess or an astronaut or dinosaur hunter, buried over there beneath those purple wildflowers. The answer to the question of whether or not she wants to raise our kids Catholic, wriggling in the beak of a mustard-breasted Grace’s warbler.
And beyond all these unknowns, hovering over our tent: a pair of red eyes.
Ashley Naftule is a writer & theater artist from Phoenix, AZ. He’s been published in Vice, The Outline, Phoenix New Times, Ghost City Press, The Hard Times, Rinky Dink Press, The Occulum, Under The Radar, Four Chambers Press, Invisible Oranges, and Aquarium Drunkard. He’s the Associate Artistic Director of Space55 theatre.
Image: Pablo García Saldaña