It was a cool autumn evening. The sun had set, but the western sky was still orange from its passing. I was out for a walk, following the trail that runs along the river. With the onset of night, the trail was otherwise empty, leaving my dog and me to a quiet and peaceful trek.
Or so I thought. A man walked out of the woods about 50 yards ahead of us and looked around. I could barely see him, but he appeared to spot us right away and began walking in our direction. He raised his hand stiffly in greeting as he got closer.
I couldn’t place his accent, but it was clear he wasn’t from around here. My dog, who wanted to be friends with everyone, showed no interest in him. But he also didn’t growl, so I decided not to worry overly much. Not yet, anyway.
“Hello,” I replied. “Nice night, eh?”
He looked around, as if noticing for the first time that it was, indeed, night. “I suppose it is.” Then he turned back to look at me. I had stopped about ten feet from him and held the leash tightly. It was habit, as I’m used to my dog trying to jump on everyone, but I didn’t have to fight him this time. “Can you help me?” he asked.
This was expected. He probably wanted money. “Look, I would, but I don’t have my wallet. . .”
“I am trying to find my vehicle. I cannot locate it.”
“Oh.” That caught me by surprise. “There’s a parking lot at the end of the trail. Did you leave it there?”
The man cocked his head to the side, as if trying to decide how to answer me. I wondered if he might have some sort of dementia. He recovered quickly though. “Ah, yes. Parking lot. Could you take me there? I became lost in the woods.”
There was certainly something off, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. “What were you doing in the woods?”
Another pause. “Research. I was conducting research.”
I didn’t believe him. But if I took him to his car, I could take down his license plate and call the cops. Let them decide if something was wrong.
“Oh, a scientist. Well, we were about done with our walk anyway. I can show you to the parking lot. Come on.” I waved him to close the gap between us. Walking next to him was a little unnerving, but it was better than him walking behind me.
He said nothing else as we made our way back to the end of the trail, and I couldn’t think of anything to break the silence. Thus the ten minute walk felt like forever, but eventually we made it back. The lot, however, was empty.
I was about to say something when I noticed he had already started walking away. “Thank you,” he called back to me.
Before I could ask him for what, he had opened what seemed to be a door in space. He stepped through, pulling it shut behind him. He vanished. A low hum began and got very loud for a moment before it, too, disappeared.
I looked at my dog who was sitting quietly, waiting to go home it seemed. Having no better idea what to do, I tugged his leash and walked him home.