THE SHOELESS MAN
ON TUESDAY, Jon and Emma left campus and drove to a hiking trail north of Santa Cruz. Emma wanted to do something nature-y before the weather got too cold, and Jon, although he didn’t have much wilderness experience, had worked out the details. The trail he found in the guidebook seemed ideal: It followed a creek (harder to get lost), was relatively short and flat (he wasn’t in great shape), and was described as ‘appropriate for children.’
When they reached the trailhead, Jon double-checked that the car doors were locked (parking lots around Santa Cruz were notorious for break-ins), and they started down the path marked Wood’s Creek. It meandered through oak and redwood trees, passing dozens of skinny offshoot trails along the way, but Emma had something very specific in mind for their outing: A sandy shore along the creek, a fallen log to use as a picnic bench, and a grove of oak trees for shade. After a few miles, they spotted it and stopped for lunch.
As usual, Emma wasted no time getting comfortable, and neither did Jon. Once as they sat down, she unlaced her boots, peeled off her socks, and wiggled her toes in the crisp air while Jon fished through his backpack for the white-papered deli sandwich labelled Jon and eagerly tore it open.
‘This is nice,’ he admitted. ‘I was worried we’d come all this way and there’d be, like, a family swimming in the creek or something.’
‘Mmhmm,’ Emma said serenely. She was staring into the creek with strange intensity.
‘I mean, what’s the point of walking five miles into the woods if it’s going to be crowded with random strangers? If I wanted to hang out with other people, I would’ve stayed in the quad.’
She wasn’t listening. When they first started dating, this kind of thing made Jon crazy, but after almost a year together, he’d adapted. You had to accept reality was his philosophy. Otherwise you’d lose your mind. He unhinged his jaw and bit into his sandwich. Turkey, swiss cheese, sprouts, tomato, and…
‘Damn,’ he mumbled. ‘I said no mayo. Hey, where are you going?’
‘There’s something in the water,’ Emma said, rolling up her pants.
A little yelp echoed out as she stepped into the creek. The water was probably freezing this time of year, but Emma was, like, a free spirit? Did people still say that? She was raised on a hippie commune up the coast with no electricity or running water and was constantly trying to get Jon more interested in nature stuff. Occasionally—like today—he indulged her, but overall, he was neutral on the idea. He preferred the comfort and reliability of the indoors. The outdoors could be so unpredictable.
He finished his sandwich with gusto while Emma, calf-deep, peered into the water with grave interest. After a minute, she called to Jon. They shouted back and forth a few times—Jon wasn’t a big fan of getting his boots wet and absolutely hated walking in his bare feet—until she convinced him to pry his butt off the log and come take a look.
Rock-hopping across the creek, he found Emma with her hand plunged into a swirl of muddy water. She fished around, looking solemn, until she got a hold of something and yanked it up. A frayed black shoelace surfaced, followed by a long, narrow object that looked like a brick of mud. She rinsed it with creek water and delicately balanced it on a rock. Then, rubbing her chin, she studied it thoughtfully, like it was a piece of modern art on display at a museum.
After all the brouhaha, Jon had expected something more exciting. A dinosaur fossil or precious gemstone or bloody knife. But it was just a regular low-top black sneaker that, judging by the length and width, had once belonged to a perfectly average man.
‘It’s old,’ she remarked.
‘It’s trash,’ Jon said.
‘It’s just a shoe.’
Although, he had to admit, there was something unusual about it. He’d seen plenty of old shoes in his day—in grassy medians, on the side of the highway, or, once, inexplicably, dangling from a fence in a cow pasture. But none had triggered the dark anxiety he now felt crawling up his spine.
‘It’s just a shoe,’ he said again, trying to reassure himself.
Emma shook her head slowly and whispered, ‘It’s freaking me out a little bit. Is it freaking you out a little bit?’
It was, but it took him a while to figure out why. Other types of clothing—a sweatshirt, a pair of jeans, even a hat—didn’t need anything to make them feel complete. But a single shoe was missing something. Another shoe, for example. Or—he shuddered—a foot. Otherwise, its presence was about as comforting as a decapitated head.
‘Wonder how it got here,’ Emma said.
‘I don’t know,’ he said, ‘but it’s giving me a bad feeling. Let’s go hang out somewhere else.’
They followed the sandy shore until it disappeared, leaving a mess of exposed tree roots and slimy rocks under their feet. Oak branches hung perilously low over the water. Half-crouched, they grabbed onto them for balance and pressed on. Neither spoke about the shoe or the man to whom it might have belonged—to Jon’s relief, there seemed to be a mutual desire to drop the subject—and eventually they found a small swimming hole nestled at the bottom of a sloping boulder.
They dropped their bags, grinning at each other with excitement, albeit for different reasons: Emma immediately undressed and got into the water while Jon settled into a comfortable spot on the boulder and took out a book.
‘Oooh… slimy,’ she said, squinching her face.
‘Careful. You don’t know what’s down there.’
‘At least dip your feet,’ she urged. ‘The water’s, like, perfect.’
‘You know I don’t like taking off my shoes.’
‘Square,’ she teased.
‘Hippie,’ he retorted.
This was loving banter, mostly—a way they blew off steam about their mismatched personalities or diffused tension after an argument. She’d accuse him of being a basement dweller; he’d call her semi-feral. Unorthodox, perhaps, but it usually worked.
Emma laughed. ‘You can’t come all this way and not even put your feet in the water. It’s criminal.’
‘It smells like rotten vegetables.’
‘Does not! Please? You won’t regret it.’
Jon ignored her and kept reading. It was best not to encourage her when she got into these moods. Eventually, she’d move onto something else and leave him alone. Then a big splash of water hit his legs. He tilted his book down—the jacket was wet, too.
‘Hey!’ he cried.
‘C’mon! We came all this way.’
‘Yeah, because you wouldn’t stop badgering me.’
She gave him a solemn look. ‘Jon.’
‘You have to admit you’re enjoying yourself.’
Jon put down his book. Emma had waded over to the boulder’s edge and was looking up at him with sultry eyes.
‘Besides,’ she said.
‘Besides,’ she said. ‘You owe me.’
‘Fine. Have it your way.’
Emma watched, dumbstruck, as he slowly loosened his laces from one eyelet, then another, all the way down to his toes. Normally, he was only barefooted in the shower. During daylight hours, his feet lived inside boots or sneakers; at night, he slept in socks.
But she was right. He owed her. A few weeks ago, he’d falsely accused her of sleeping with the hippie guy from her pottery class. What ensued was a long, ugly fight that ended with Emma threatening to break up with him, and he’d been skirting her good graces ever since. Agreeing to today’s hike was a small restitution, but he still had a long way to go before she’d fully forgive him.
‘You’re dragging it out on purpose,’ she complained.
He tugged on another eyelet and smiled. ‘Patience, my sweet.’
‘What’s the big deal about taking your shoes off, anyway? I mean, I know it makes you feel vulnerable and everything.’
He ignored her mocking tone. There was no point in arguing: she’d never understand.
‘I don’t want to stub my toe,’ he offered.
She laughed. ‘Fair enough.’
‘Or get anything sticky on my feet.’
‘Once, at my uncle’s house, my sister accidentally superglued her foot to the floor,’ she said.
‘See? Taking off your shoes is dangerous.’
‘How about getting sand between your toes at the beach? Don’t you miss that?’
He stuck out his tongue in disgust.
‘I guess there are some things I’ll just never understand about you,’ she said.
He popped off his boots, and—quickly, like a Band-Aid—ripped off his sweaty socks. The fresh air felt jarring on his skin. Where his socks usually met his calf, there was a dramatic suntan line: below it, his feet were wrinkled and freakishly white, like a waterlogged corpse.
‘Awwww,’ Emma cooed. ‘Ghost feet!’
‘You’re making fun,’ he complained.
‘I’m not! I just never see your feet in the daylight, that’s all. Try the water. It’s really nice.’
‘Don’t rush me.’
‘Okay, okay. Take your time.’
Emma paddled back across the pool while Jon carefully stood and found his footing on the boulder. As surfaces go, it wasn’t bad—smooth, hard, nothing sharp or sticky. And the cool air felt surprisingly refreshing. Originally, he’d been humouring Emma, but the water, he realized now, might actually feel nice. He was just getting into the idea when several peculiar things happened in rapid succession.
He looked down at his ghostly white toes; they wiggled. Then a sudden rush of energy swept through his limbs—not just his feet, but his hands, too—and he felt a powerful urge to run into the woods and climb a tree. He squeezed his arms to his sides, tucked his chin until it disappeared into his neck, and clenched his teeth. The resulting posture was stiff yet powerful, and felt completely involuntary, like he’d been possessed.
‘Emma!’ he shouted.
The sudden noise startled her; she covered her chest with her hands. ‘What? Jesus. What’s wrong with you?’
‘Who am I?’
She frowned, studying him. ‘I don’t know.’
‘A zombie?’ she said, climbing out of the water. ‘No, wait—you’re that security guard from last year. The creepy one who got fired for skulking around the girls’ locker room.’
‘Fine. Then I give up.’
He grinned. ‘I’m the shoeless man.’
Emma was wrapping a towel around her hair. Looking at him sideways, she said, ‘Who?’
‘You know,’ he insisted. Her obliviousness was starting to irk him. ‘The guy. Whoever left that black Converse in the creek.’
A shiver went through her body. ‘Ew, gross. I don’t want to think about that.’
Deflated, Jon stared into the water. He was feeling like himself again: sensitive, irritable, and prone to childish fits.
‘Whatever,’ he said. ‘I thought he was cool. But whatever.’
Emma tugged her jeans over her damp legs. ‘There was a barefooted dude who lived in the woods behind our house when I was a kid. He’d show up out of nowhere and, just, like, stare at us. Trust me, it wasn’t cool.’
‘Did he ever kill anyone?’ he asked sullenly.
He was going for sarcasm, but once he heard himself say the words, he became suddenly curious to know the answer.
‘Jesus, I don’t know! I just told you: I try not to think about it.’
‘But did you ever hear anything?’
‘Hear anything? Like what?’
‘Like, Shoeless Killer Strikes Again? Or Shoeless Man Found Eating Own Foot? Or—’
‘Alright, alright,’ he said, showing his palms. ‘You brought it up.’
A long silence followed during which Jon, as promised, scooted to the edge of the boulder and dipped his feet into the water, and Emma alternated between inspecting a patch of lichen and staring off into the woods. It seemed like there was something else she wanted to say, and after a while, she did.
‘The freakiest thing,’ she whispered, ‘is that we’d never hear him coming. He was so quiet.’
When the sunlight drained out of the forest and the creek turned grey with shade, they packed up their things and scrabbled back along the mucky shore. Emma led the way, moving quickly in her sandals, while Jon lagged behind. After his foot bath, he’d laced his boots too tight and now his feet were killing him.
‘Found the trail!’ Emma called.
‘Hang on,’ Jon shouted back. ‘I need to re-tie my boots.’
‘Okay, but make it quick. We’re losing the light.’
When he finally caught up to her, Emma was standing on a generic-looking patch of dirt between two redwood trees.
‘You’re sure this is it?’ he asked.
‘Yup,’ she said confidently, gesturing to a big log on the opposite shore. ‘We ate lunch over there. And there,’ she shuddered, ‘is the shoe.’
Jon slowly turned in the direction of her pointed finger. In the last few hours, the shoe had seriously deteriorated. Its laces looked like they’d been through a meat shredder; its black tongue was protruding grotesquely from its cavernous mouth; and its rubber soles had peeled away from the canvas fabric, revealing a putrefied interior that evoked a rotting animal carcass. He wasn’t sure how but taking it out of the water seemed to have kickstarted an active state of decay. Every muscle in his body was screaming for him to look away, but he couldn’t.
‘C’mon.’ Emma was bouncing up and down, rubbing her hands together to keep herself warm. ‘We’ve gotta get moving. It’ll be dark soon.’
‘I can’t move my feet,’ he said.
‘They feel swollen or something.’
‘No,’ he said darkly. ‘It’s the shoe.’
She stopped bouncing. ‘What? You’ve had those shoes forever. Why would they be bothering you now?’
‘Not my shoe. The shoe. I don’t like how it’s looking at me.’
‘Stop trying to freak me out,’ she said.
‘I’m not!’ He gestured at the shoe, then himself, with urgent hands. ‘It’s freaking me out!’
‘Well, stop staring at it then!’
‘What’s your problem?’ he huffed. ‘I thought you, like, believed in things.’
‘Believed in things,’ she repeated flatly.
‘Yeah. Supernatural shit.’
Her eyebrows curled into two angry question marks. ‘Is this about Connor? Because I told you a thousand times there was nothing going on.’
‘No, it’s not about Connor, Emma. Not everything is about that pottery-throwing, quinoa-eating, incense-burning ragamuffin you supposedly never slept with.’
‘Ragamuffin? Seriously?’ She pursed her lips, releasing a long, slow breath from her nostrils. ‘Let’s not fight, okay? I just want to go home. It’s freezing out here.’
‘Put on your sweatshirt, then.’
Emma threw down her backpack, furiously unzipped it, and yanked out her sweatshirt. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen her so angry. Oh, wait. Yeah, he could.
‘Sorry,’ he mumbled. ‘It’s just—you know—because you’re such a granola and everything.’ He was trying to lighten the mood, but Emma’s expression was utterly humourless. ‘And, like, I’m such a Scully—’
‘Stop. Just stop. You’re making it worse.’
Sunset wasn’t for another hour, but it was already twilight in the forest. Instead of trees, towering black-green silhouettes swayed against the sky. The trail’s many forks, hairpin turns, and steep uphill sections all looked unfamiliar to Jon, and his terrible night vision wasn’t helping. After a while, the only thing he could make out was Emma’s yellow sweatshirt, but with her blistering pace, even that landmark was quickly receding into the darkness.
‘Wait up!’ he called.
Emma stopped at the corner of a sharp turn. ‘Can’t hear you!’
‘My feet are killing me!’ he shouted.
‘What? All I see are your stupid lips moving!’
He hobbled to a nearby rock. It felt like his boots were three sizes too small and his feet were going to burst through the leather.
‘What the hell, Jon?’
‘I’m taking them off,’ he shouted. ‘Goddamn it. Goddamn it.’
He fumbled with the knot on his laces, but his cold hands were about as dexterous as ten frozen sausages. At this rate, he thought, blowing on his fingers to warm them, he’d be lucky if he ever walked again. It was only when Emma came tramping down the trail to investigate that they were able to get the laces undone and wrestle his boots off together. Then he began laughing uncontrollably.
‘I thought I was going to die!’ he squeaked.
He massaged his left foot while Emma grabbed the right one and turned it side-to-side in her hand, frowning.
‘They don’t look swollen,’ she said. ‘And I don’t see any blisters. Where does it hurt?’
‘Oh, I don’t know,’ he said, wiping the drool off his lip. ‘Nowhere.’
‘Nowhere? Then what’s the problem?’
‘Maybe,’ he stammered. ‘Maybe—’
‘Goddamn it, Jon. Stop laughing.’
‘Maybe,’ he said, gasping for breath, ‘maybe this happened to him!’
‘Maybe what happened to who?’
He dried the hysterical tears from his eyes. ‘The shoeless man.’
She dropped his foot, letting it smack into the ground. ‘Put your boots back on.’
He shook his head adamantly, like a child who’d been told to take his medicine. He’d spent all day trying to curry her favour, but he didn’t care about upsetting her anymore. There was no way he was putting those torture devices back onto his beautiful, tender paws.
‘Jon,’ she said.
‘Emma,’ he said.
‘You never take off your shoes,’ she said. ‘Now you won’t put them back on? Why are you acting so weird?’
‘Once you’ve tasted freedom,’ he said sombrely, ‘you can’t go back.’
Emma turned and looked up the trail. It seemed like she was trying to calculate something. After a few seconds, she whipped her head around and said, ‘Give me the keys. I’m not going to freeze to death waiting for you to get your shit together. I’ll meet you at the car.’
Jon pulled the car keys from his pocket and dangled them just out of her reach. He’d moved past a mere indifference to her feelings. Now, he wanted to make her suffer.
‘Are you sure?’ he asked. ‘There are a lot of scary things in the dark. You’ll be all alone. I won’t be able to protect you.’
Quickly, like a snake striking, Emma snatched the keys out of his hand.
‘Go to hell, Jon,’ she snapped, and hightailed it up the trail.
As soon as Emma was out of sight, he was overcome with regret. What had come over him? As he sat shivering on the rock, he thought of all the headlines he’d read about stranded hikers—always underdressed in shorts and tank-tops, always tumbling into a crevasse in the dark—and began to panic.
Pull yourself together, Jon. He wasn’t that deep in the wilderness—was he? No. He couldn’t be further than a mile to the trailhead; another twenty minutes to Santa Cruz by car. Even if he suffered, say, a minor injury or a little frostbite on his toes, he could get to a hospital quickly enough. Couldn’t he?
He screamed Emma’s name. No response. Just tree trunks squeaking in the wind and the creek’s distant burble. She was either too far away to hear or too angry to care. He pulled his shirtsleeves over his fingers and immediately felt nauseous—it looked like his hands had been amputated.
He was losing it. He had to start walking before it got any darker or colder. He tried to cram his feet back inside his boots, but only his toes would fit, like Cinderella’s evil stepsister when she put on the glass slipper. A pathetic whimper escaped his clenched teeth. There was no way around it. He was hiking back to the car barefoot.
Idiot, he cursed himself. He could’ve been nice to Emma and benefitted from her sympathy, but nooooo. He had to press repeat on the whole Connor situation and bring out his vindictive side. He inched along with a babyish walk, wincing whenever his delicate soles landed on a pebble or twig. There was no way she’d stay with him now. He’d blown his last chance, and for what? A miserable walk in the dark, from which he’d probably emerge frostbitten, and the sinking feeling that he’d never see his favourite boots again.
Although, maybe losing Emma wouldn’t be such a bad thing. She was always criticizing him—for spending too much time indoors, for not wanting to get dirty, for playing too many video games, for refusing to sit on the grass. He stomped down a little hill, driving his heels into the ground. His feet actually felt pretty good. For a second, he wondered if they were going numb, but he could still feel the redwood needles, rocks, and tree roots underfoot. The difference was now they were pleasant instead of painful. He wiggled his toes, squishing into the damp earth, and then it happened again.
A dark chill spread through his body, and he felt his posture reshape into the same stiff, zombie-like character who had possessed him by the swimming hole: straight-down arms, straight-up spine, straight-forward eyes. He froze on the trail and stared into the woods. Everything glowed.
He took a few deep breaths, trying to calm himself. The episode had passed quickly the first time, but now he couldn’t shake it. After five minutes, he couldn’t see left or right without rotating his entire body and his stomach was throbbing horribly.
‘Emma!’ he screamed. ‘EMMA!’
He didn’t want her help, exactly. He just needed to know where she was. He stepped off the trail and agilely hoisted himself into a tree. On a low branch, he crouched for a moment, breathing heavily. Then the wind shifted, and he caught a whiff of Emma’s lavender deodorant. She was weaving through the woods at a snail’s pace about a half mile up the trail.
How was he so certain of her location? Didn’t know, didn’t care. Just needed to find her. He scurried down the trunk, landing without a sound on the forest floor. The plan was to run straight into the woods, shortcutting the trail and beating her to the parking lot. But his stomach felt miserably hollow—he was starving!—and he kept smelling mustard.
He stuck his nose into the air, following the sharp aroma in a tight circle. It was coming from inside his backpack. He clawed it off his back, tore the zipper open, and stuck his face inside, sniffing madly. There was a paper wrapper coated with food scraps—breadcrumbs, mayonnaise, turkey. He scarfed them down and ate some of the paper, too. Then he threw the bag on the ground, leapt over a fallen log, and sprinted into the woods.
He’d never felt so strong in his life. His legs were springy, and his arms felt rigid and muscular, like he could uproot a tree with his bare hands or flip a car upside down. Crazy, wasn’t it? After all these years, he finally understood what it meant to feel at one with nature. Emma would be so proud.
As he picked up speed on his quiet, nimble feet, he imagined the man who, tomorrow, might stumble upon his boots—laces undone, rubber soles overturned—and feel a dark shiver roll up his spine. Chuckling to himself, he tried to formulate a witty response, but all logical thought had ceased. Instead, a series of vivid images flashed through his mind, none of which sparked any human feeling.
A group of adolescent boys roasting marshmallows around a campfire; two lovers relaxing on a picnic blanket at the edge of the woods; a young girl feeding chickens outside her family’s cabin—all eyes wide, all frozen in fear, all opening their mouths to scream.
Blank-faced, he bounded over a little hill, veered into a cluster of redwood trees, and came to a halt at the trailhead parking lot. His empty car was glowing faintly in the moonlight, untouched by burglars. Funny, wasn’t it? How scared he’d been? The corners of his mouth foamed slightly as he concealed himself behind a tree.
A few moments later, Emma’s tired feet crunch-crunched across the gravel. She dug the keys out of her pocket, opened the car door, and turned the ignition. The engine rumbled. Two red taillights pierced through the darkness. She unlatched the glove box and took out her phone. Her luminous face was strangely blank as she scrolled. If she felt Jon watching her through the car window or heard him approaching, she gave no indication of it. At least, not until she heard a hard knock at the driver’s side window. Then, quite suddenly, she looked up and began to scream.