Creature in the Woods

April 2021’s short story of the month (late but finally done)

He had hunted and hiked and led backpacking trips through these woods for twenty years, and he had never seen an animal track like that. At first glance, it resembled a bird. But it was too big. Way too big. He estimated its length to be close to eighteen inches from toe to heel. Did ostrich feet even get that big? And why would there be an ostrich in the woods? They didn’t even live on this continent. He took a picture of the track with his hand placed beside it for comparison. He would share it online. Someone would know.

After his daily hike checking to make sure the trail markers were still visible for others, he uploaded the photo online with the caption “What bird could this be?”. He asked anyone to comment.

He waited five minutes but nothing.

The next morning before school, he checked his post; no one had commented yet.

“Settle down everyone!” he said to his unruly fifth period students.

Most of them slumped into their desk chairs and stopped talking, but they still shifted their belongings around loudly. He waited while they tested his patience. It was always this way in fifth period; he suspected it was because they had just finished lunch and were hyped up on sugar.

“Ok, now that I have your attention. Let’s continue our discussion on our local flora and fauna.” This was his favorite unit to teach each year. The students actually seemed more enthused with things they could personally relate to.

The next forty-five minutes went by quickly as he showed them slides of the various trees found in the local forests. Class was coming to a close, and he wanted to keep them excited until the next meeting.

“Over the weekend, consider taking a hike on the marked trails. You never know what you’ll see in these woods.” He clicked the mouse, and the photo he’d taken yesterday appeared on the board.

Most of the students chuckled thinking it was his attempt at teacher humor.

“Nice one, Mr. Smith. What did you do, track Big Bird?” asked a student. His fellow classmates laughed along with him.

He let them laugh, and as he looked around at their smiling faces, he noticed one student wasn’t smiling. In fact, she had a look of terror on her face. She was noticeably pale, and her mouth hung slightly open.

He knew better than to call on her. Daisy was new this year, and she was painfully shy. But she was having a very strange reaction to the photo.

The rest of the school day was uneventful. As he was packing up his things, he couldn’t help but think back to the reaction Daisy had when she saw that photo. Maybe it was just shock. He knew she’d been home schooled; she just wasn’t as jaded as the rest of his students. They’d assumed it had been a fake, a product of photoshop or something.

He left the school and went to the trails. He usually enjoyed his afternoon hikes; the clean clear forest air melted the stress of being a high school teacher away. Today though, he kept searching the ground around him hoping to see another track like yesterday. By the end of his hike, he had a knot in his neck and shoulder muscles from looking down so much. When he got back to the car, he rode home feeling worse than when he’d left school.

Eating a microwave dinner while he booted up his computer was not helping his mood. He almost dropped the plastic tray when his email popped up. He had hundreds of emails relating to his post.

People from all over the world were contacting him. Some wanted to know how he’d faked such a realistic footprint. Others gave him suggestions for what it might be, none of which made any sense for where he lived. The discussion was rife with debate. He ignored all the comments except for one.

The poster’s name was DaisyChainIRL. She wrote, “Looks like a harpy track to me. LOL. Weird post dude?! Totally faked!”

He sat back in his chair and scratched his head. It couldn’t be Daisy from his class. But, if it was, and she had gone out of her way to find his picture online and comment on it…

He didn’t know what to think. He read her comment over and over again. He stopped reading the whole thing and just read her first sentence. Could that be why she had looked surprised in class? Did she think it was a harpy track?

This was crazy. Harpies weren’t real. But, who would have gone out of their way to fake a giant bird track on a trail that almost no one hiked but him? Either way it was crazy. It was fake or it wasn’t. If it wasn’t then it was a track of something living.

His mind was racing and racing and going places that made little sense. He stopped letting his wheels spin and researched harpies on the internet.

Most of what he found was written for fantasy novels and roleplaying tabletop games. He even found some very elaborate cosplayers in harpy costumes.

He tried searching for “real sightings of harpies” and it mostly brought up results for Loch Ness and Bigfoot sightings. That’s apparently the reality he was now looking at. Was he actually suggesting that a harpy was real? And not only that but there was one living in the woods near town?

And then something else occurred to him. If it was real, and it was a real harpy track, how had Daisy known that?

Something bigger was going on here than he could understand at this point. He needed to ask Daisy, but he didn’t want to message her. That was severely inappropriate for a teacher. He could ask her after class tomorrow, but he had a feeling she would claim she was just being a teen or something equally flippant. He knew she knew something, but how could he find out more?

Maybe he didn’t need to.

He’d lived in this town his whole life. He basically maintained the trails on his own, just like his parents had before retirement. He knew everything about these woods. He could find a harpy.

If it was out there somewhere, he would find it.

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