IT’S EASY TO remember the exact moment I stopped believing in my father. It happened right before I discovered that Bigfoot wasn’t real and right after I was nearly mauled in the woods by a full-grown black bear. So yeah, kind of hard to forget. I was ten years old and lying on my belly in the vast woods of the Upper Peninsula. A pair of toolarge binoculars were pressed up against my eye sockets, and through them I could make out the texture of the bark on some oak trees in the distance. Any time I moved the binoculars just a little, I saw only dark blurs and the magnified tips of my own eyelashes. Dried, yellowing leaves brushed up against my arms and legs, and I longed to scratch the skin there. But moving was not an option. My dad only let me come on his Bigfoot hunting trip on one condition: that I remain absolutely silent and completely still. Dad squatted in the dirt next to me, partially hidden behind a bush. I took shallow breaths, hoping not to distract him. Finding Bigfoot was an important mission for my dad—more important to him than almost anything else in the world, except for me. It was even more important than being home to celebrate his wedding anniversary with my mom. I knew, because I’d heard Mom saying that exact thing to my grandma on the phone a couple of days earlier. But I figured it was Mom who was being unreasonable.
Dad had adventure in his blood, and Bigfoot was on the move. How could a stupid anniversary compare with the chance to get a once-ina-lifetime sighting? One that could make his entire career? Knowing what a big deal this was, I’d begged to go with him, and he’d finally agreed. At that age, I believed in everything—Bigfoot, ghosts, alien abductions, werewolves, giant anacondas, boys who were really bats, bats that could turn into moths, moths that were really from Mars. I even still believed in—and you have no idea how much it pains me to admit this—Santa Claus. For as long as I could remember, Dad had told me stories about incredible beings. Through the bars of my crib, he whispered to me about the Fair Folk of Ireland. On car rides to visit my mom’s parents in Fort Lauderdale, he’d tell me about the time he almost saw the Loch Ness Monster in Scotland. He spoke about these creatures with a kind of hushed excitement, as though one could pop around the corner at any moment. That was the thing I wanted most in the whole world—for us to see one of his larger-than-life creatures, together. Even if it meant lying very still in a pile of scratchy leaves for hours on end.
“Penelope, stop fidgeting,” my dad said without turning around. I froze. “I wasn’t—” “Shh.” My dad put one hand up to quiet me. The other he ran absentmindedly over his short blond beard. “Do you hear that?” I cocked my ear, willing myself to hear. It was a windless day, almost completely silent. No rustle of leaves, no swaying trees . “There!” And that’s when I heard it: a soft crackling sound. I pressed my binoculars harder into my face, but all I could see through them was the orange, brown, yellow, green of the trees.
“Oh my God, Pen. That’s him, that’s him.” My heart raced as I swiveled the binoculars around. I was moving them too fast, and all I could see were blurs. A panic went through me. I couldn’t miss this. “Do you see it, Pen?” Everything in me wanted to say yes. But I couldn’t see it. I’d come all this way, and I was missing it. Tears sprang into the corners of my eyes, and I swallowed hard.
Dad leaned down and adjusted my binoculars. “Here. He’s by that oak; see him? Big and hairy and, oh man, I’ve got to get this.” Dad moved his hand away to reach for his backpack, but just before he did, my binoculars finally locked onto a spot in the distance. I saw a hulking, dark object partially obscured by a shaggy bush. The creature moved into the frame of my binoculars, and I could see the bulge of a hair-covered muscle. I inhaled sharply. “I see it! I see it!” “Shh,” my dad said. He took out his camera with the telephoto lens and started taking pictures. “I can’t believe I’m getting this.
” He spared a moment to grin down at me. “You must be my good-luck charm.” I couldn’t keep the grin from my face if I’d tried. Until the creature moved. “Umm . Dad?” The beast came out from behind the bush, slowly revealing its face. It had rounded, fuzzy ears, button-black eyes, a long snout . it wasn’t a Bigfoot at all. It was a black bear. The disappointment I felt was swift and crushing, but I didn’t feel it for me.
I felt it for Dad, who had come alive with a kind of contagious glee. Who had called me his good-luck charm. But Dad didn’t appear to see that his long-sought-after Bigfoot was really just a midsize bear. He kept snapping picture after picture. The bear swung its head toward us and sniffed the air. Without dropping the binoculars, I began scooting backward on my stomach. The bear took one step forward, then another, in our direction. I took the binoculars down from my face, and even with my naked eye, I could see it. Just a few hundred feet away. “Dad?” I asked.
I hated the shaky fear in my voice. Dad put his camera away and stood up slowly. He motioned for me to do the same. I got to my knees, but was too scared to do anything else. Too scared to brush the dry leaves from where they clung to my elbows. Too scared to run. The bear ambled forward, picking up speed as it moved toward us. “I need you to do exactly as I say,” my dad said in a low, stern voice. He kept his eyes on the bear. I nodded, then realized that he couldn’t see me.
“Okay,” I whispered. The bear was moving faster now. “Don’t make any sudden movements, and don’t run. As much as you may want to, do not run. Do you hear me, Penelope?” “Yes,” I said, my voice sticking in my throat. “Now, very slowly, start taking steps backward, moving behind me.” Working against the fear that wanted to lock my limbs to the ground, I forced my right leg to move backward, and then my left. The bear was close enough now that I could see its black eyes, could make out the claws on its massive paws. “Go into my backpack and take out the blue container,” Dad said, speaking almost too quickly for me to understand. My fingers fumbled with the zipper of the backpack.
I couldn’t help but look around, wildly, for some place to run or hide. There were bushes and trees, of course, but even I knew you weren’t supposed to try to climb a tree to get away from a black bear—we’d learned in school they could climb up after you. With shaking fingers, I pulled out the blue Tupperware container that held our lunch and handed it up to Dad, nearly dropping it as I did so. The bear was maybe twenty-five feet away from us now, its massive body picking up speed, its breath huffing out in short bursts. It made a frustrated noise halfway between a growl and a roar, and I could see the tops of its thick, yellowed teeth. Dad ripped open the Tupperware container, revealing the pieces of fried chicken that were supposed to be our lunch. He took a piece out and threw it, hard, over the bear’s head. I heard it land in a pile of leaves several feet away. The bear looked backward, following the noise. Dad pulled out another piece of chicken and threw that, too.
Then another, again and again. For a long moment, the bear continued to watch us. I clutched the strap of Dad’s backpack, wanting nothing more than to squeeze my eyes shut and pretend I was anywhere other than in these woods. But I kept them open. Slowly, the bear swung its massive body around with a heavy grunt. It sniffed the air and followed the scent of cold chicken to where Dad had thrown it. Dad leaned forward with a shaky sigh. When he turned to face me, he was grinning. “That was a close one, huh?” But fear was still squeezing my throat closed, and I could only nod. Dad wasn’t waiting for me to say something, anyway.
“Follow me.” Keeping our eyes on the bear, we slowly walked backward. Soon, the bear’s matted hair and snorting noises were yards away. Then we turned and ran toward the car. Once safely inside, Dad pulled the doors closed tight. His smile widened, and then he was laughing loud enough to fill the entire space of the small car. He banged one hand against the steering wheel and let out a whoop. I laughed, too, relief flooding through me. We’d made it. We were alive.
The tips of my fingers were shaking, and I could hear buzzing in my ears. Dad picked up the camera that hung from a strap around his neck. He started clicking through the images, his smile still big on his face. “Some of these will definitely work.” The buzzing stopped. I shook my head, confused. “Work for what?” “The column! Single Bigfoot Sighted. How does that sound?” I didn’t get it. “Some of these pictures are a bit blurry; that’s perfect,” he continued. The glee was creeping back into his voice.
“But, Dad,” I said, sure I was missing something, “those are pictures of a bear. It’s not really Bigfoot.” Dad didn’t look up but continued to scroll through the images. Then he angled the camera screen up to show me one of the pictures. I could just barely make out the blurred shape of the bear as it charged. But its head was angled away in the shot, its claws hidden. I saw its torso, its muscled shoulders. If you squinted, it really could be Bigfoot in the woods. “But . it’s just a fuzzy picture of a bear.
” Dad reached out and patted me absently on the head without removing his eyes from the camera screen. His finger tangled in my hair, pulling it a little. He didn’t seem to notice. “You gotta expand your mind, kiddo. Sometimes, reality can be a bit fuzzy.” I looked off in the direction of the bear, which I couldn’t even see anymore. Dad grinned again. “This trip worked out better than I thought.” In that second, my whole worldview shifted. It was like when I’d go to the eye doctor and he’d make me look through a machine with different lenses.
A new lens would click into place, and what I saw in the room changed. Click, and everything was blurry. Click, and a bright E would shine out from the poster across the room, its edges so clear and bold it was almost startling. In that moment with my dad, it was like a whole series of new lenses were dropping in front of my eyes, changing what I knew about everything. Click, Bigfoot wasn’t real. Had never been real. Click, my dad knew it. And he didn’t care. Click, I was an idiot. But I’d never be one again.
Seven years later, the lessons of that day were still with me. It’s painful to remember sometimes how much of a sucker I used to be, how I used to eat up every fantastical lie without question. I collected outlandish stories the way other kids collected comics or Barbie accessories. But I’m not that person anymore. I’ve known for a long time that reality isn’t fuzzy—something either is true or it isn’t—and it’s not that hard to get to the actual bottom of things if you just try. Which is actually how I found myself climbing over the dingy counter of a tiny snack kiosk at the Cherry Capital Airport in Traverse City, Michigan. To be fair, I’d been waiting in line in front of an empty counter for ten minutes, clutching the same quickly warming bottle of water in my hand. A line of people from my flight had already formed behind me, many of them tapping their feet and giving loud, exaggerated sighs as they looked in vain for a cashier who was nowhere to be found. The man right behind me uncrossed and then recrossed his arms for the eighth time. “Does anyone even work here?” The woman behind him shook her head and shrugged, her shoulders touching the bottom of her blond bob.
“Who knows?” Something in her wide, pale eyes irked me. I wondered how long she’d just stand there and wait. “Someone knows,” I replied. Then, without waiting another second, I pulled myself up onto the counter and swung my legs over to the other side. I marched over to the door behind the counter labeled EMPLOYEES ONLY and opened it. Inside, a young woman with thick eye makeup and a name tag that read Dayna was sitting on an unopened box of Mountain Dew, playing on her iPhone. “Excuse me,” I said, trying to sound older than I knew I looked, “Did you know there’s a few people waiting out here?” She looked up at me and blinked. “No.” “Well . there are.
Could you please help us out, maybe?” Dayna stared at me, but then shrugged and walked over to the register. The woman with the bob smiled as I swung myself back over the counter. “Huh,” she said. “I never would have thought to do that.” I paid the surly cashier for my water and rolled my baggage away from the counter. On my way out of the store, a shelf of fresh newspapers caught my eye. I scanned the headlines, taking in the familiar, important-looking fonts of each major publication. Then a flash of bright yellow stopped me in my tracks. The font on this cheap newsprint was an even more familiar—if a less welcome—sight than the others. It had bold blue lettering against a neon yellow banner that read STRANGE WORLD in all caps, like it was shouting at me.
Down at the bottom of the page was smaller type, featuring the headline Tips for Believers, the popular column by Ike Hardjoy. Of course this airport would carry Strange World, the only print publication still in circulation that catered to the nation’s most hard-core conspiracy nuts and UFO seekers, as well as the only one that would still print my dad’s column. I could just barely make out the type under my father’s name —“Everything the government doesn’t want you to know about alien sightings in North America.” I shook my head and walked quickly away from the store, setting my stuff up next to the walllength picture windows in the baggage area and settling in to wait. I pulled up the Notes app on my phone and looked through everything I had written down on my own latest story idea—it wasn’t as flashy as “alien sightings in North America,” but at least it wasn’t a lie. I still had a few months before I had to apply to Northwestern’s undergraduate journalism program, and I wasn’t going to waste them. I wanted a story that would grab the attention of the college admissions office. Something important and true. My story notes were all on economic difficulties in the Midwest following the closure of plants in the auto and plastics industries. They contained statistics, reports, and previously written articles.
Lots of research, but all of it dry. My journalism teacher said I still had to find the human element from inside one of those towns that had suffered greatly after a plant closure. Bone Lake, Michigan, population 2,300, fit the bill exactly. And it just so happened to be the place where I was born. I looked out the giant window of the airport’s baggage area. Past the parking lot, I could see the basic signs of northern Michigan in early summer. Blue-gray sky, dense trees, two-way blacktop. That pretty much covered it. About an hour down that road was Bone Lake, where Ike Hardjoy still lived, wrote the occasional completely fabricated article for cash, and parented a few weeks a year. Though this time he was getting me for a whole summer.
I glanced back down at my phone, this time checking for missed calls or texts. Nothing. Dad was a half hour late. I dialed his number as I looked down to where my luggage sat in a pool of fading sunlight. His phone rang five times and then cut off with a beep. “Dad. Me again. I’m at the airport, waiting for you. I’d ask if there’s traffic, but”—I looked out over the completely empty roadway leading from the parking lot—“well, you know. Please call me.
Or better yet, please be on the way?” I hung up and rested my forehead against the cool window. Strands of thick black hair escaped from my ponytail and landed softly against the glass. My reflection stood out against the blankness of the airport behind me. The dark hair and eyes were all from Mom, but the freckles were a gift from Dad. Or really, from Dad’s own mom, who was also born and raised in Bone Lake. My family tree on both sides had roots that ran to the very foundation of the town. That’s partially why it made me uncomfortable to come back here, where so many people knew not just my story, but my parents’ and grandparents’ stories as well. It could be suffocating, having all those eyes on you. And after years of living in Chicago with my mom, I wasn’t used to it anymore. Which is why I usually spent my mandatory summer weeks in Bone Lake holed up in my dad’s house, watching TV and avoiding going into town.
But this year I’d have to change up that strategy if I wanted to get good quotes for my story. I’d have to suck it up and venture into the fishbowl again. Getting into Northwestern depended on it. Of course, before I could go interview the residents of Bone Lake, Dad had to actually show up and get me there. “Come on, Dad,” I whispered. “Come on.” But all the hoping in the world didn’t matter. He wasn’t coming.