Last Spring, somewhere near Knoxville, Tennessee, my sister-in-law decided we should go biking. It was an overcast day and scattered snowstorms were forecast for overnight; but getting out of the house sounded fun. I helped to load all of the bicycles into the back of my brother’s truck, and we set off.
When we got to Milton Lake, the bikes were quickly unloaded, and Jamie set out down the path with the attached contraption that held my comfortably-seated niece, Liv, 2. Hallie, 7, took off after them on her newly acquired bicycle. She did her best to keep up with her mom. I trailed behind as slow as I could go, not wanting to leave Hallie behind on her own, as she swerved back and forth unsteadily.
We biked along the wind-swept lake, on a wonderfully paved trail that seemed like it could go on forever. We swooshed past ducks, geese, fields-for-play, and a still-wintry landscape. Hallie was quickly getting tired. Her mom decided to hang back, and told me to go on ahead and enjoy myself, full-throttle for awhile.
I was happy for permission to do so, and quickly biked ahead of the now-lagging group. As I continued on deeper into the woods, the scenery took on a surreal hue. Skeletal trees were caught up in each other’s arms on the banks of the lake, contorted into anguished-looking beings, as they stretched and competed years, for the sun’s light and warmth. The sky overhead was darkening ever so slightly towards dusk. Riding through a semi-clearing, I noticed what could have been the set for ‘Friday the 13th’, the movie. I chuckled to myself about my imagination, rolling on past the ramshackle cabin and open clearing. A rusty gate once securing the property, now hung slightly open. An invitation, I thought? I continued on.
I finally decided to stop and wait for my kin to catch up to me. I would enjoy some quiet repose before the group caught up.
I parked the bike off the path next to a bench, which faced away from the lake, and sat down. I faced a thicket of trees. I breathed deeply, enjoying the fresh air and view.
No sooner had I sat down though, that sure enough, someone came hiking up the path, using a tall walking stick to guide them surely and quickly my way. It seemed to be a man, seemingly with his full attention fixed upon me…and I begged silently for him to just keep walking past, hoping he would not stop to talk. All I wanted was a minute or two of alone-time. He stopped in the middle of the trail, facing me. I sighed inwardly.
Not wanting to ignore him, as this would seem rude, I said politely, “Hello.”
He looked me over, as if determining whether I was worthy of saying hello to…and then came closer, still not saying a word. My high-alert-readiness-mode kicked in just then, and I wondered why, oh why, I always had to meet strange people. He took another step in my direction. Finally, he deigned to speak.
“Look at me!” It wasn’t a question, it was an order. I acquiesced quickly, wanting to assure him he had my full attention. I already was taking him all in, looking him over thoroughly for tell-tale signs that I was hopefully dealing with just a regular ol’ hiker…and not the type of man he looked like – the guy on the bike who warns those kids in ‘Friday the 13th.’
“Can you see it?” he asked, still not giving even the most rudimentary of hello’s.
I had still been doing a check…khaki pants, hiking boots…oversized hat, huge sunglasses (even on a day with no sun) which still looked normal…and I was just beginning to breathe comfortably again when he said, “Well, do you see it?”
Just then my attention had been drawn to the end of his walking stick — and the huge spike embedded into the top end. Shit! Was this what he was referring to, did I see this? And was I to take that as a challenge, a threat?
Someone had warned me once to never run from strange animals…so I held stock-still as he leaned another step closer, now taking off his sunglasses. He had a huge black eye, which totally had been hidden by the large sunblockers, and as soon as he lowered these, I understood it was this he was referring to…so I answered quickly to break the tension.
“Wow, that’s a beauty…” I whistled appreciatively, as if genuinely both impressed and interested. He stood there, judging my sincerity. I decided I had to go all in. “How’d that happen?” I dutifully asked. He smiled crookedly a bit and stepped back, which I took to be reassuring…for a second, until I noticed it was just for him to be able to bring his walking stick, slash weapon, into nearer proximity to me.
I held my ground, and readied my muscles silently for a quick beat out of there…I was pretty sure I still had game over what appeared to be an old guy in his 70’s…but, you never know.
“O.K., so you see this here?”
I guess he had meant to wave it towards me, as he continued doing, brandishing the walking stick.
“Yes,” I responded simply, holding my breath.
“So,” he said, “I use this for reaching plastic bottles and glass. I stick them like this,” and here he made a jabbing motion towards the ground, after he had turned the walking stick around to have the spike fully on display. I nod, thinking to myself…and how does that work on glass?
“I went out on that dock right there,” he continued, “because they float up to that place and collect,” and he nods in the direction I’m supposed to look, just a bit past us up the path.
There is a dock on the lake, no boats tied up to it; no one sitting at the lone bench attached to it. Just a grey dock, on a grey day.
I look…and I nod for him to go on.
“Well I was reaching, trying to get one…and I slipped, fell, and hit my face right on that dock!”
“Oh, my!” I exclaimed, truly sympathizing.
“Yeah, it was bad! And look! Right here!” He motioned to the right side of his forehead, where I could still see a nasty cut, bruises, and stitches. “Seven stitches! Good thing my son was in town!”
“Oh, my…” I repeated, relaxing into the listening of just a lonely man’s tale.
“That is horrible…good thing your son was in town to take you to the doctor’s!” I was very relieved he wasn’t a complete kook, and listened for awhile as he talked about the lake, his son, and then the weather.
My clan was just cresting a small hill in the path, and I could see that they would be near us, in like, under a minute.
“So, you know all that rain we got last night?” he was saying as my attention drifted back to him. “Yes, that was a killer storm,” I answered.
“Well, guess what?” he asked, smiling a little wider now. I was happy for him that his story was no longer dwelling on his injury, so I asked innocently and politely, “what?”
My sister-in-law and her girls were rolling up to us now, and came to a stop.
He lowered his voice just a bit. “My blood is still all over that dock…the rain did not wash it all off yet!”
I took this in, shocked at the change that had come over the man, who now…that an innocent mom and two little girls had shown up, was regressing back into creeper land. Jamie probably thought I was just chatting up some harmless old hiker. I shot my sister-in-law a glance, a glance that I think only moms who have learned to read danger signs, as a result of protecting their brood, could interpret. She understood me immediately, and I was grateful for her intelligence, and quick wit.
Mr. Creeper spoke. “I’m going to go home and get clear pol-y-ur-e-thane…and I’m gonna paint that deck, so my blood is there forever…”
I was done listening and I motioned for everyone to just turn around and start pedalling.
“This is MY park,” he said loudly, not liking that he was losing his audience so quickly. “I want my blood to be a part of it!”
We were heading away from him now, me saying “go, just go!” And Jamie saying, “what was that all about?” She pedalled quickly, and I urged poor Hallie, who hadn’t got to rest at all, that she could do it. She could make that crest of a hill again. We all pumped our feet faster.
Over our shoulders he yelled now. “Hey,” he called, “Hey, look at this!”
I filled Jamie in on what the creeper had said, and we glanced over our shoulders, watching as he walked quickly after us, still yelling, and then ordering, “Hey! Come here!”
Soon we had a good distance between us, and he was left way behind. Night-time was closing in quickly, and we put the girls in the truck, loaded our bikes, and headed for home. We were all thankful to leave the lake, and the creeper, far behind.