Trail Name : Pollock

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The sweat slid­ing into his eyes burned less than the sun beat­ing down over­head, but was a reminder, nonethe­less, of the harsh con­di­tions on the Appalachi­an Trail in the heat of sum­mer. It had been some time since he’d passed anoth­er hik­er, but soli­tude was half the rea­son for the aver­age per­son to hit the trails, and he was no dif­fer­ent. He found him­self out on one or anoth­er of the many expan­sive wilder­ness trails dot­ting the US for a few weeks each sum­mer, hoard­ing away his PTO and sick days for his two weeks of nat­ur­al solitude.

His cowork­ers shook their heads when he came in, even on the days he was half deliri­ous with fever to avoid dip­ping into those pre­cious sick days. Well-mean­ing fam­i­ly wor­ried when he start­ed pick­ing up over­time on every sin­gle hol­i­day, until enough time passed in that man­ner that they were more shocked when he did show up com­pared to when he didn’t. But Rudy Beachard didn’t care. He hadn’t con­cerned him­self with the opin­ions of oth­ers for some time.

With the back of a dirty hand, Rudy swiped at the sweat on his fore­head. He was four days into his trek back into the wilder­ness, and so far he felt more alive with each pass­ing moment. Each day spent toil­ing in his cramped city office and every hard-earned hour of time off he squir­reled away were long for­got­ten beneath the canopy of the ancient forests that dot­ted the Appalachi­an moun­tains. Out here, the trees were just as thick as the sea of peo­ple that pound­ed the side­walk back in his city as they lived their robot­ic, mun­dane lives.

Hoist­ing the straps of his hik­ing pack high­er and into place, Rudy cinched the appro­pri­ate straps around his mid­dle to even­ly dis­perse the weight of his trail belong­ings, each ounce metic­u­lous­ly planned for and packed with care. One could not afford to be greedy in these woods, every ounce of gear packed in, was an ounce of gear car­ried over miles and miles of rugged ter­rain. Trail hik­ing had taught him to slough off the unessen­tial. Indeed, he had trimmed away the fat of his very life in prepa­ra­tion for this annu­al pilgrimage. 

Behind him, the sound of approach­ing hik­ers car­ried up to his ears. Swal­low­ing, he trudged into the tree­line, squat­ting down behind a large trunk just as the duo came around the bend. They were young, as most of the thru hik­ers were on the AT. The girl he noticed first. Her perky, young body drew his eyes, even with the trail grime coat­ing her. She was laugh­ing, her smile so wide he could see the white of her teeth as the two hik­ers drew clos­er. She wore her blonde hair in two braids on either side of her head. Oh, he did like braids on a woman. Even then, he pic­tured rub­bing his fin­gers down the plaits, won­der­ing what they might feel like against his fingertips.

They passed so close to his hid­ing spot that he could reach out and grab her ankle. If he want­ed to, of course. Which he didn’t. She had a hefty sized com­pan­ion, larg­er even than Rudy. Rudy was in decent shape, even for a man with forty in the rearview mir­ror and one who labored behind a desk 75 hours a week. But he would be no match for a boy in the throes of his youth­ful 20s, right at the height of peak mas­cu­line form. 

Rudy was not a stu­pid man. He was many things, but not stupid.

He let them pass, his eyes lin­ger­ing on the small­ness of her ankles in com­par­i­son with the wide hik­ing boots they sprung from. They trod down the path, mere inch­es from where he slunk down behind a tree trunk and the sur­round­ing brush.

The sight of her leav­ing down the trail with her stal­wart male com­pan­ion, the sounds of their easy con­ver­sa­tion drift­ing back to him in pieces– it stirred some­thing inside of him. That heat that he kept tamped low. That heat inside Rudy could burn. And Rudy liked to play with that fire, but what he chose to feed his flames had to be done metic­u­lous­ly. Inhal­ing, he licked his lips, tast­ing the salt of his per­spi­ra­tion as his dark eyes tracked the pair until they were far enough away that his appear­ing from the brush would gar­ner no reac­tion from them.

He had to pick a few bram­bles from the laces of his hik­ing shoes. Just as he start­ed down the path, he felt the tick­le of some­thing on the back of his leg. It was a nasty lit­tle tick, fat and plump, either from his blood or another.

Pulling it close to his face, Rudy watched the glut­to­nous lit­tle beast wag­gle it’s near­ly micro­scop­ic legs in vain. With a sat­is­fy­ing lit­tle crunch, he pressed the ani­mal between his thumb and fore­fin­ger where it explod­ed imme­di­ate­ly, spray­ing dark red blood across his palm and fin­gers. He flung the remains of the tick to the ground, but his eyes lin­gered on the blood spat­ter, study­ing it like a paint­ing. It remind­ed him of the knock off Jack­son Pol­lock he kept so ador­ing­ly in his office, the soli­tary piece of dec­o­ra­tion adorn­ing his lit­tle cubicle. 


Rudy turned, sens­es prick­ling. He’d been so caught up in the blood spray that he’d allowed some­one to come down the trail with­out his notic­ing. Wip­ing his fin­gers on the seat of his pants, he turned.

“How close are we to Harper’s Fer­ry, do you know?” The voice came from a trio of boys, look­ing like fresh-faced col­lege stu­dents blow­ing daddy’s mon­ey on sum­mer break.

“Anoth­er twen­ty miles or so, by my esti­ma­tion.” Rudy’s voice was hoarse and he had to clear his throat to get the words out clear­ly. He scratched at his beard while he spoke, as if men­tal­ly cal­cu­lat­ing. Of course he knew they were exact­ly 17.3 miles from Harpers Fer­ry, pre­cise­ly far enough away from the pop­u­lar stop on the Appalachi­an Trail that folks like Rudy flew under the radar of the locals and the tourists. Far enough away that he rarely ran into day hik­ers and could inter­min­gle with the thru hik­ers as he pound­ed out his miles under­neath the green canopy.

“You head­ed that way, old man? Want some com­pa­ny?” The leader of the trio spoke up, shoot­ing Rudy a smile. It was a jovial remark, one made in mild jest. Rudy did not like it.

Rudy had to active­ly focus on not mak­ing his eyes nar­row at the moniker. His fin­gers itched to turn into a fist or reach into his pack for some of his favorite sup­plies hid­den inside. He sniffed, clear­ing his throat. That famil­iar heat burned low in his stom­ach, snaking its way up to his chest, quick­en­ing his pulse. Rudy ignored it.

“You boys don’t mind an old man slow­ing you down?” He tried to say it teasingly. 

“We won’t make Harp­er Fer­ry tonight. If you can keep up, you can make camp with us. I bet you got some great trail sto­ries, old timer.”

Rudy snort­ed out a laugh, pre­tend­ing that he didn’t want to squeeze his hands around the lit­tle punk’s throat. 

“I do have sto­ries,” Rudy said in response. He would love to tell these boys some of his most favorite sto­ries and see just how much of an old man they thought of him at the end of his tellings. Already, he could envi­sion the white of their wide eyes around the cir­cle of a camp­fire as they lis­tened. But of course, Rudy would not tell those sto­ries. Like his annu­al hik­ing trips each sum­mer, he kept those in solitude–solitude with himself. 

The four of them hiked togeth­er for the next sev­er­al hours. Rudy kept pace with the fastest, slow­ing his steps and appear­ing to lag behind at times. They thought him an old man, then he would be every bit the old man. 

“Is this your first time on the AT?” The appar­ent ring­leader asked as they passed the miles.

Rudy nod­ded. “Yes,” he lied. 

“Us too,” The boy respond­ed. Ryk­er was his name. What a stu­pid name for a grown adult. Though Rudy sup­posed Ryk­er would not be an adult even when he was 80, so per­haps the name fit. Even the tiny gap between the boy’s front teeth cast him in per­pet­u­al boy­hood, if the atti­tude and over­all demeanor was not a dead give­away. “I guess you fig­ured you want­ed to do your miles before you got too old, huh?”

Rudy was begin­ning to regret not pick­ing the orig­i­nal duo that had crossed his path this morn­ing, the one with the young, blonde and her dou­ble braids. As a mat­ter of per­son­al choice, Rudy didn’t dab­ble too much in men or boys. Too much room for error when it came to brute strength, but for Ryk­er, Rudy might have to make an excep­tion. In any case, he was vast­ly out­num­bered. And as much as it drove the heat inside him to the sur­face to admit it, out aged as well. 

“Well,” Rudy clapped the near­est boy on the shoul­der as they lin­gered on the trail to chug from their water bot­tles after putting in five miles. ”This is where I leave you boys. I’m going to make camp around the bend we just passed. Thanks for the company.”

Ryk­er took a big swig from his water, drink­ing far too fast from what lit­tle water sup­ply he had vis­i­ble in his clear can­teen. Stu­pid boy. “If you see that pret­ty red­head, let her know there’s room in our camp­site. Don’t go charm­ing her your­self, old fella.”

“Red head?” Rudy’s ears perked up. 

“Yea,” The youngest of the boys, a scrawny, already bald­ing boy named Bri­an replied. “She was at our camp last night, but she’s a trail tur­tle. Sus­pect you’ll run into her if you back track and make camp.”

Rudy sti­fled the grin he felt grow­ing in the mus­cles of his face. “I’ll send her your way. If she’s got a friend, you boys will be in for a treat.” He said it casu­al­ly, wait­ing eager­ly for a response. 

“Nope,” said baby-faced Bri­an. “She’s going solo. A real spunky girl. Real nice.”

“Yea. Nice to look at,” Ryk­er blurt­ed out, smack­ing the third boy, the one whose name Rudy had nev­er learned, on the shoul­der and throw­ing his head back in laughter.

“There’s a good flat spot two miles up the trail,” Rudy said to the boys, eager to be rid of them. “You could make camp there. Your red head wouldn’t be able to miss you there.”

Bri­an blinked. “Thought you said you’d nev­er hiked the AT before?”

Rudy’s stom­ach flipped. Shit. He opened his mouth to answer, but Ryk­er beat him to it.

“Obvi­ous­ly he reads, Bri­an. What else do old peo­ple do but study trail maps and read the dictionary?” 

Rudy felt a surge of grat­i­tude for the idi­ot­ic boy, which was a great deal bet­ter than any­thing else he’d felt for him in the hours they’d passed togeth­er. The boy had proven use­ful at least for one thing, unwit­ting­ly sav­ing Rudy from being caught in a lie.

“You caught me. I do love to read,” Rudy said. “You boys take care, now.” He already had his back turned, pound­ing down the path before he could hear their response. Ryk­er had too many attrib­ut­es that remind­ed Rudy of his father. Rudy hat­ed his father.

For 12 years, Rudy and his moth­er had lived with the bas­tard of a man. Rudy’s father pre­ferred his fists over his words. He’d also been high­ly para­noid of every­thing Rudy’s moth­er did. They lived a sol­id mid­dle-class life, but Rudy’s father behaved as if every pen­ny his moth­er spent was going to throw them into pover­ty. It was a gift when Rudy’s father died the year Rudy turned 12. 

He had to force him­self not to think of that insuf­fer­able man he called ‘father’ as he walked, lest the heat beneath his skin come to flame. 

Not yet, he told him­self. So he tamped the flame once more.

He found the red­head just as the frogs began to sing their nigh­t­ime tune. Rudy was whistling his own lit­tle tune when he came upon her encamp­ment. She was half sprawled out, her belong­ings scat­tered hap­haz­ard­ly. The fire though, she’d made it with what Rudy could see was expert skill. He admired that about her. Among oth­er things. 

“Ah, you’ve beat me to my favorite camp­site,” Rudy crooned, the whis­tle dying on his lips as he feigned dis­ap­point­ment. “You picked a good one. Most pre­fer to fin­ish fur­ther up the trail. Much qui­eter here.” As he said it, he thought of Ryk­er and Bri­an and their unnamed friend at the more crowd­ed flats sev­er­al miles ahead.

She didn’t seem the least bit star­tled by his pres­ence. Good, thought Rudy.

“I’m just start­ing to make some din­ner,” she told him, con­vers­ing easily–not at all like a woman alone with a strange man. You didn’t meet too many dan­ger­ous peo­ple on the trail. Hik­ers tend­ed to have a sort of rap­port with one anoth­er. Most could spot a pho­ny from a well-sea­soned woods­man. And that was Rudy – well practiced.

“Care to share your fire?” He asked. “I won’t trou­ble you to share your camp­site. There’s plen­ty of flat spots up the trail. Any­way, I want­ed to do some stargaz­ing once the sun prop­er­ly sets, so I won’t both­er you long.” He pla­cat­ed and smooth talked, nev­er direct­ly look­ing her in the eye over­ly long. He smiled when she looked back at him, wip­ing at more of the day’s sweat on his brow. 

“That sounds fine with me. Stargaz­ing sounds beau­ti­ful. You know a good spot, then?” She asked, ges­tur­ing at Rudy to take a seat on one of the downed logs pre­vi­ous campers had obvi­ous­ly used for seating.

Rudy slid down onto the log, unbur­den­ing him­self from his pack. “Yea, absolute­ly. I’ve been on these trails for years. You’re wel­come to join me.”

Again, she smiled, pour­ing the con­tents of some pre­made meal into her tiny camp­fire pot. “Maybe we have din­ner first and I decide you aren’t going to slit my throat in my sleep. Then I’ll take you up on your offer.”

Rudy grinned and forced out an easy chuck­le. It was easy, after all. Rudy was not a mur­der­er. He’d nev­er tech­ni­cal­ly killed anybody.

He pulled out his own sup­ply of jerky from his dis­card­ed pack, swal­low­ing it down between drinks of his sun-warmed water. 

“You got a trail name?” She asked, sit­ting on her seat across the fire from him as she dug into her own meal. Trail names were ubiq­ui­tous in the back woods among long haul or thru hik­ers. Usu­al­ly they were some sil­ly nick­name giv­en by anoth­er hik­er. Many wore them like new personas. 

The red head fold­ed her­self into her seat. She was tall— tall enough that her knees came up near­ly to her chest when she set­tled into a sit­ting posi­tion on anoth­er of the stumps scat­tered around the crack­ling fire. 

“‘Old man’ seems to be a pop­u­lar one late­ly,” Rudy replied, grin­ning. Of course, when he recalled the words com­ing from the idi­ot­ic boy, Ryker’s, mouth, he real­ly had to focus on not being cha­grined by the nick­name. It wasn’t his real trail name, but he sup­posed it would do for this year’s long hike. 

The red­head snort­ed, cough­ing on a mouth full of her food from the burst of her unbri­dled laughter.

“I get that,” she agreed once she final­ly set­tled her­self, the cor­ners of her mouth still slight­ly upturned. She chewed on her food thought­ful­ly. “Some oth­er hik­ers tried to brand me ‘big red’. As if I haven’t heard that all my life. I told him if he was going to call me ‘big red’ then I was going to call him ‘hairy ass crack’. Need­less to say, he changed his tune real quick.”

Rudy laughed at that, a gen­uine one. But he couldn’t help his curios­i­ty when he asked, “So what did you end up being brand­ed as?”

She smiled, putting down her now emp­ty bowl. “Dop­pel­ganger. Every­one says I look like some­one they know. I guess that’s a good thing. Either way, It’s bet­ter than ‘big red’.”

Rudy agreed.

They chat­ted for a while, set­tling into one anoth­er as the sun low­ered beyond the tree­line. He scrubbed at his beard with some water and she brushed the tan­gles from her hair while they talked. When she fin­ished, he watched her braid her hair, shift­ing as sub­tly as he could on his seat to hide the grow­ing stiff­ness in his groin that the image of her deft­ly mov­ing fin­gers in her coop­er hair did to him.

“My moth­er always wore her hair in braids,” he com­ment­ed, rip­ping a piece of his jerky off with his teeth, try­ing not to appear too inter­est­ed. He’d almost for­got­ten he’d got­ten the jerky out to begin with, find­ing it clenched tight­ly in a fist he hadn’t known he’d made.

“Smart woman. They’re so prac­ti­cal. Espe­cial­ly out here.” She ges­tured wide, to the grow­ing dim­ness of night­time in the forest.

“She was that: smart,” Rudy agreed. But then he rose, stretch­ing the­atri­cal­ly. He shoved his uten­sils back in his pack, care­ful to pack things just as pre­cise­ly as he always did. “I’m going to a near­by cliff over­hang. Going to do a lit­tle star gaz­ing before I turn in. I’ll make camp down the trail, make sure no strangers sneak up on you in the night.”

“Thanks, Old man,” she said with a grin, the white of her teeth gleam­ing in the moonlight.

“Any time, Dop­pel­ganger,” He replied, slid­ing into the com­fort of famil­iar­i­ty with her. 

He was just turn­ing to leave, click­ing his pack into place, when he heard her rise. He’d been wor­ried for a moment that she wouldn’t join him–that he hadn’t done enough to make him­self look harm­less and her feel safe.

“Care for some com­pa­ny?” Her voice was just as warm as it had been before. Not a trace of fear.

“You’re not afraid of heights, are you?” Rudy teased. “If not, you’re more than wel­come to join. I don’t mind the company.”

She seemed pleased, at least as far as Rudy could tell. When she joined beside him, stomp­ing through the dark brush by the light of a flash­light he pulled from his pack, he was relieved he’d done well enough to snag her. 

She walked direct­ly behind him, so close he felt her body heat at times. She seemed to radi­ate it–heat. It came from out­side her body, but inside of his. Already, the famil­iar bub­ble and boil was tin­gling at his sens­es. The thrill of it near­ly made his heart­beat dou­ble, the sound of his pulse ring­ing in his ears. 

He was famil­iar enough with the area that the trek was quick. Less than ten min­utes of well-prac­ticed walk­ing on the trail, and they emerged out of the brush and onto a wide stone ledge. Above them, the sky opened. Admit­ted­ly, Rudy knew all the cliff van­tage points along about 100 or so miles of the Appalachi­an Trail. Rudy spent a year plan­ning each of his trail hik­ing excur­sions, care­ful­ly study­ing wher­ev­er he was going. He switched it up year to year. One could nev­er be too care­ful. He’d even spent a few years on the Pacif­ic Crest Trail. Still, this one was his favorite and he felt par­tic­u­lar­ly excit­ed about tonight’s reunion here.

Dop­pel­ganger gasped, her hand fly­ing to her throat as she looked up. Rudy admired the long curve of her tilt­ed neck, thin and dain­ty, as she looked up at the heav­ens. It was a clear night, not a speck of cloudi­ness to tar­nish the view.

“Wow,” She gasped, step­ping far­ther onto the rocky ter­rain. Rudy’s fin­gers itched. “You were keep­ing this a secret on me, huh, Old Man? This is…stunning.”

Rudy grinned, though she wouldn’t see it. Her eyes were glued to the star crest­ed sky above and its wide, glow­ing moon. He, on the oth­er hand, stepped clos­er to the edge, shin­ing his light down until he found the end of the cliff, the open air below swal­low­ing his light whole.

“Care­ful!” She chas­tised, rip­ping her eyes from the view above to land on Rudy.

“You think you are look­ing up at the sky,” Rudy said, ignor­ing her. “But if you look down there,” he swung his light over the edge of the rocky cliff, thou­sands and thou­sands of feet above the ground, “you real­ize we’re in the sky. It’s all about per­spec­tive. From down on that for­est floor, we’d be noth­ing. Up here, we are danc­ing in the stars.”

Rudy’s flash­light caught the tail end of her smile as he swung it back to look at her.

“Let me see,” she gushed. Her voice still held the traces of that smile when she stepped clos­er to Rudy, reach­ing out a hand to touch his shoul­der. Rudy’s skin burned, his whole body thrum­ming to life. This time, he did not tamp the flames.

When her grip land­ed on him to sta­bi­lize her­self, he placed his on top of hers so quick­ly that she whipped her head to look at him. There wasn’t fear in her eyes.

No, there was no fear at that moment. The fear didn’t come until he whirled back, grab­bing her by the nape of her neck with one hand, yank­ing her with his full force of strength.

Dop­pel­ganger jolt­ed back­wards, her braids brush­ing against Rudy’s hand. His fin­gers tightened.

She let out a star­tled gasp, but man­aged to reach back, claw­ing at him with two hands. She was stronger than he’d expect­ed, but not strong enough.

Her eyes went wide, as bright and white as any of the stars above. Beautiful. 

Screech­ing a curse at him, her nails scratched into his skin. She flailed, fight­ing to break his grip. For some rea­son, he let her fight. Nor­mal­ly, he tend­ed to these things in the span of ten sec­onds or so. But he liked her.

You’ve lin­gered long enough, he rep­ri­mand­ed himself.

Rudy didn’t give her time to scream before he swept a boot­ed foot under­neath her, grunt­ing with the exer­tion. She land­ed on her knees, hard. He heard the grav­el bite into her, scrap­ing beneath her exposed flesh. He was struck by how much he fan­cied the view of her on her knees in front of him, wish­ing for a fleet­ing moment that it might last longer.

It was too easy, real­ly. All it took was one shove with both of his hands, and she was sail­ing over the edge, hurtling into the open skies. 

The fire burn­ing inside him roared.

The black­ness swal­lowed her up. 

Rudy could just catch the glint of her coop­er red hair as she plum­met­ed out of sight. 

She screamed. They always screamed. 

In the night, it could have been the call of a screech owl. 

He whis­tled as he clicked off his flashlight.

Each year anoth­er per­son went miss­ing, and Rudy found anoth­er piece of him­self in the process. He won­dered what it might be like to be the one falling into the open air, the thrill of plum­met­ing past the ancient green giants of the Appalachi­an Trail, or wher­ev­er he was. Usu­al­ly, he liked to go and vis­it his mas­ter­pieces, to study the way the body splat­tered into the earth and rocks, and pic­ture his next art piece. It was too dark for that tonight. Best to con­tin­ue on the trail and leave Dopple­ganger to her own devices. 

The heat bub­bling inside Rudy seemed to reach its crescen­do as she went sail­ing into the sky. Now it was worn out and tired and Rudy men­tal­ly tucked it into bed to let it sleep for anoth­er long year. The heat sati­at­ed, he felt nothing.

Rudy wasn’t a mur­der­er, after all. He didn’t kill them. The rocks on the ground below did that. Rudy was only a man on a precipice, with a keen sense of artistry and pref­er­ence for soli­tude. And, of course, won­der­ful mem­o­ries of his father on the same cliff.

He smiled at the sur­fac­ing mem­o­ry of his father falling over the rock canyon some three decades ago, recall­ing the look of shock on his father’s face as he fell to his death. See­ing the mem­o­ry in his mind now, the heat of his boil­ing blood gave him a fresh rush of adren­a­line. Per­haps he would do some extra miles on the trail tonight to fur­ther damp­en the heat he thought he’d sat­is­fied within.

So Rudy Beachard walked. He was a man ful­ly grown now, but at 12, Rudy hadn’t been a par­tic­u­lar­ly strong boy. But the rocks had been wet and his father had yelled at him for fum­bling and spilling the cof­fee beans at the camp­fire the pre­vi­ous night. So, Rudy had paint­ed the for­est floor with him. His first masterpiece.

It’s remark­able what a small amount of force can accom­plish under the right con­di­tions. Jack­son Pol­lock knew that and he’d died a very rich man, Rudy reasoned.

Rudy found anoth­er fat tick on him as he turned back toward the trail­head, fol­low­ing the glow of the near­ly dead fire where it shone through the stalks of the dark tree trunks, like sen­tient war­riors in the night. He would need to go douse those flames, as he had done to his own inside. As he did so, Rudy decid­ed to let the tick be. It would get its fill of Rudy’s blood and fall off some­where along the trail, fat and full and rich­er for his troubles. 

Just as Rudy was. 

What’s scarier than short horror fiction?

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Sarah Wil­son Gre­go­ry (she/her) writes from the foothills of Appalachia in her beloved state of Ken­tucky. She has three fer­al chil­dren and one most­ly domes­ti­cat­ed hus­band and spends all her free time writ­ing, read­ing, and dreaming.

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