This isn’t a new story, per se, but instead something I wrote up recently for a subreddit while I was waiting for some code to compile. This is, for most intents and purposes, a “true story”. Or rather, that’s what I said when I posted it there. There is one slight fabrication here, a keystone to hold this together as a narrative, as opposed to just a simple scene. But other than that, the rest is as I remember it, with all the unreliability that that implies. Enjoy.
I love horror, and I write scary stories, but I’m a skeptic, a strict rationalist through and through. I am not a believer. There have been, however, a couple of events in my life that I can’t properly explain.
When I was in college, a group of six friends and myself were on college campus, fresh from the disappointment of a failed attempt to score some hash. The college has a large arboretum, that edges a wide slow moving creek. It was a perfect California summer night, hot and muggy punctuated by gentle breaths of cool breeze.
We were walking along a long stretch of path, a wide paved trail with a steep drop into the water on the left, and a steep incline up a hill to the right. We’re talking too steep to go up without using your hands. On the incline to the right, a row of oak trees stood side by side with tall thin streetlights, casting the only light around, as it was a new moon. Ahead, we could see two hundred meters of trail, wide pools of orange light broken up by the deep black shadows under the limbs of the oak trees. But the path was flat and straight, so although the areas beneath the trees were inky dark, you could see there was no one else ahead of us on the path. The only sound was the gentle breeze and the frogs and insects in the creek.
We were walking in two rows of three, I was in the front, and during a lull in the conversation, was looking straight ahead when it happened. We were directly beneath a street lamp, and I was looking ahead to the next pool of light, maybe 20 meters ahead, and at the deep shadow beneath the old oak right ahead of us. I had the strange sensation that the shadow was swirling slightly, and I remember feeling equal parts confusion and vertigo.
In the space between a breath, the sensation passed, and there was now a man, directly in front of me, 5 or 10 meters away. He was wearing only a pair of white jogging shorts, and white running shoes. He was old, silver unkempt hair on his head and his chest, and his skin was pale. He was looking ahead, seeming not to see us at all. It was such a jarring sensation, the suddenness of his appearance, that it only registered after another moment that he was making a great deal of noise. Jogging towards us, panting and wheezing, his footfalls were heavy slaps on the pavement.
I was more confused than scared, still trying to sort out how I had failed to hear or see his approach, which could have only been down the trail ahead of us, as the sides were too steep, and there was nothing to hide behind; the trunks of the oaks were several meters up the hillside.
He didn’t acknowledge us, even as he approached us head on, and as I was wondering if perhaps I was hallucinating, the rest of my group parted to the sides and allowed him to pass right between us. He would have collided with us if we did not.
It had only been a second since I first saw him, but several strange things happened at once now. First, I remember wanting to turn around, to watch him go, but my neck refused to turn. At the same time, I could see in the corner of my eyes, my friends were all looking down, wide eyed, also not turning around, but visibly shaken.
Then, after another heartbeat, the sounds of his heavy steps ceased entirely. Every one of my hairs stood straight up on end.
I turned around first, but soon we all turned to look behind us. The path continued back from where we had come, straight and empty. A string of streetlights and oaks, casting shadows. And no runner.
No one spoke for nearly a minute. We turned and started walking again, all of us looking at our own feet.
When someone broke the silence, it was like a flood gate opened. We hollered at each other, talked excited and quick, comparing stories of what we had just seen. Only one other person was looking forward, but his story matched mine: He wasn’t there, then he was. But we all heard him, the sudden sound, and then the sudden cessation when he vanished, and then nothing behind us. One of us swore up and down that he had seen the man grab his chest, but no one else could confirm that.
I wanted to go back, to run after him. Maybe he fell into the creek, or collapsed on the hillside in the shadow, I argued. I was out-voted. We walked quickly for the car, and proceeded to go home to get good and drunk.
The next day, no one wanted to talk about. Half of us wanted to find a good explanation, to blame confirmation bias for our matching stories, to find a good rational answer. The other were plenty happy to leave it, unspoken, behind us.
I’m still a skeptic. But it stuck with me.
One of our friends later found work as a forensic investigator in the coroners office, in the same county. When going through a series of old files, he had found something interesting. He emailed me a photocopy of part of the report a few years later, the personal details blocked out with torn scratch paper.
In the late 70’s, a prominent professor had died of a heart attack in the arboretum, while jogging on a summer evening.