As the trail grew tricky, I was about to turn around. And that's when I saw it in the distance - a tiny patch of red deep in the thick dark woods. I could not tell how far away it was. No doubt it was just someone's barn, but from a distance it looked mysterious and full of promise. It could be anything. As the sun began its afternoon decline, instead of heading home I made my way toward the red shape flickering in the dappled light.
Back in junior high, we had this scary patch of woods behind the school yard. They said an abandoned shack stood there, where in the '60s a serial killer had taken his victims. Children would go missing from the neighbourhood, and it was not until decades later that their disappearances were solved. Only the killer's remains were found in the shack. An old man by then, he must have died of natural causes. Or did he? Everyone knew there were things in the woods where we lived. The kind of things that made ordinary mortal serial killers the least of our worries. This was what we 12 year olds thought about when a ball would fly over the chainlink fence at recess. We dared not go into those woods.
Cycling along the narrow trail, the memory of all this popped into my head, as did the horror flick Don't Look Now - where Donald Sutherland's character pursued what looked like a girl in a red coat only to find something dark and sinister. Did I really want to reach that red object deep in the woods? I laughed to myself, at myself. This was evidence of how unaccustomed I'd become to riding alone. I would not be having these thoughts with one of my cycling buddies around. It was the silence and the lack of any sign of human activity on the trail that lent itself to being shaped by my imagination.
Of course none of us had ever seen the abandoned shack. We knew there was a spot in the chainlink fence where you could lift it up and crawl under. My friend and I had been brave enough to do that - though once we did, we just stood there, too paralised with fear to venture further into the woods. But 12 is an age of dares, pacts, and acts of courage. And one day we decided to find the shack. After school let out, we waited for the yard to clear. Then we ducked under the fence and kept walking before the fear could get the best of us. It was hard to know where to go. The woods were unkept and there were no trails to follow. Eventually we spotted what looked like a narrow overgrown path. It was late September, and the dry leaves made crunching sounds under our shoes. We heard no other sounds, not even birds.
Now too the woods were quiet as I rode through them. Where were the birds, the squirrels, the dog walkers? There was only the soft sound of my tires rolling over roots covered with a blanket of pine needles. I kept the red object in sight, but somehow it was no closer after 15 minutes of cycling. In fact, now it began to seem as if I had passed it. It occurred to me that it wasn't along the main trail, but deeper in the woods. And then I saw a path that seemed to lead toward it. It was overgrown. Covered in roots. Barely a path. But I saw no private property signs, so I turned and followed it.
That day after school we walked for what seemed like forever, though judging by the actual size of the lot it could not have been more than 5 minutes. We gasped when we saw it through the trees: A dirty white wall, surrounded by a heap of bricks where the rest of the structure had once stood. And we gasped once again when we heard footsteps behind it. My friend grabbed my arm, and we began to tremble, not sure whether to run or hide. And then they came out: A middle aged woman in overalls carrying a rake, and a teenage girl, a few years older than us, following her with a large burlap sack. They said hello and warned us about the poison ivy. "It's all over the place, girls. Do you know how to identify the leaves?" They were from the land preservation society. Cleaning up woods, labeling trees. We would have to wait until 8th grade to join. And the white shack? I looked it up years later. It was once a shop selling European auto parts, built in 1982 and abandoned after a fire. It could not have possibly been the hideout of a serial killer in the 1960s.
I knew I was on the right path, because the patch of red grew closer. The path became muddy and difficult to ride through, which only made my journey feel more important. It was damp here. Mosquitos circled and I could see a small bog through the trees to my left. The vegetation was mostly moss, ferns, and poison ivy. The latter slapped my bare legs, but, knowing myself to be resistant to it, I paid no attention. Now and then I dodged low-hanging branches. The mud thickened. Churning through it, I felt like a determined explorer - until finally, there it stood in front of me: A small red tool shed. No more, no less. Seeing it up close - a generic, prefab thing - even my overactive imagination had to acknowledge the complete lack of anything mystical about the structure or the atmosphere surrounding it. I was at the back of someone's property. And now I had to hurry back before dark, cycling through all that mud again.
How funny we are, with our love of setting goals, solving mysteries, inventing worthy destinations - when in actuality what we are after is the experience of the pursuit itself, the goal being just an excuse.