We met Sammy on a trip to Grand Teton National Park.
For those of you who do not know, it is one of the most beautiful places I have had the pleasure of visiting. Plus, the fact that it is merely about an hour drive from Yellowstone National Park, has its own advantages. For me, Yellowstone holds that warm, cozy beauty. The beauty that is comforting, inviting. On the other hand, Grand Teton is also beautiful, but in a haunted, beckoning, sharp kind of way. It entices you because you can never measure its mystery, never understand the pull those jagged peaks, those widespread forests have on you. Or maybe, it is now forever tainted with the experience Joy and I had there.
Let’s rewind back three years.
My cousin Joy and I, the fall break in our final year, decided to utilize that gap in our tight schedules, to take a road trip and hike the doable trails that spread around the Tetons like a web.
A little about us.
My cousin Joy and I have been raised together. Since childhood. We were merely a few months apart. Like I was born in March and him in May of the same year. As would everyone with cousins know, either they are part of the same vibe or snakes. Usually, there is no in-between. Luckily, for Joy and me, companionship and fondness came easily. My mom was his paternal aunt. We lived a few minutes away. And that gave our mothers a good many chances of planning playdates. We grew up like twins, not realizing that often, families aren’t as close as ours were. We went to the same school, were part of the same group, and later opted for the same major. Not because we wanted to be so around each other. But somehow, our hobbies and interests were alike. It came no surprise to anyone who knew us that we also opted to be roommates for our time through grad school. So…as you might have been able to make out, we were a pair of Siamese twins born to different parents. And if you are wondering, no we did not choose the same profession and the same city post-grad. Joy wanted to pursue Masters and he got accepted for a program of his choice at the same University we went to, so he stayed back. I came back home, choosing to work for my Dad in his farming business. If truth be told, the events unfolding below shook me to the core so much that I wanted the comfort and sanctity of familiar people and things around me. Joy was shook too, but he decided to stick it out there. We had refused to talk about it in detail until last night. And that brings me back to Sammy.
We saw Sammy in a dusty, disheveled state, standing at the side of the road on our way to the Tetons. His thumb was out, an indication for a hitchhiker. Joy, who was driving, slowed the vehicle we had rented, to stop beside him. Now, some of you might call us foolish but know that we were young and carefree, pumped full of that youthful confidence that borders on carelessness. Plus it was mid-day. He was tall and lanky, his yellow shirt and green shorts caked with dust. So was the backpack he carried. Dirty, shoulder-length hair hung from beneath his cap. He bent down and looked at us as Joy lowered the driver side glass.
“Oh thank God!” The careworn young man before us exclaimed, wiping off the sweat from his brows. “I thought I would have to wait for a long time for a ride!”
“You don’t have to now. Hop in!”
“I am Sammy.” He introduced himself from the back seat. We exchanged pleasantries. I asked him about himself. He said that he loved to hike and usually with a group. But sometimes, he did venture alone. This was one of those times. He had rented a car, which malfunctioned at the last gas station he stopped. The station had a car-repair shop where he left his car after they told him it wouldn’t be ready until next morning. He decided to walk the rest of the way, which might seem easy, but is not.
“It was a stupid decision!” he blurted out as he unscrewed his bottle cap.
“Yeah it was…” Joy and I laughed.
“So where are you both off to?” He asked. We told him of our plan to hike and camp and then return the next day. He shook his head. “No way you will be able to reach in time before sunset and put up a camp. It is not advisable to hike at night you know.”
Now, we were doubtful. And in all honesty, we were not hikers. All we had done in the name of hiking were small, 10-15 minutes of prodding around on well-worn trails in the city. Apart from doubt, now panic had started to set in. We assumed it would go exactly as planned and hadn’t bothered to book a place to stay. “It didn’t look that big a deal!” Joy said more to himself than to anyone else, referring to the videos we had seen.
“YouTube videos?” Sammy asked, smiling. “Yeah…those make it look like so much more easy than they actually are.”
“What do we do now?” I asked as panic, real panic started to emerge. As many of you might know, getting a last minute reservation in a hugely popular tourist area is next to impossible. Surprisingly, Sammy came to the rescue.
“The last time I came here, I discovered a small cottage a little off into the woods. Since it is so low-key, it usually stays up for grabs. Here…see if you can find this website. There is only one property listed on it, so it shouldn’t be confusing.” He spelled out the name of a website. I typed it in and soon it popped on my phone screen. Sure enough, there was just one property listed, a small cottage. And it was vacant. I pumped my fist in victory. Without wasting time, I booked it for the night. We would spend the night there and start our hike the next morning.
“Hey man…do you…do you need a place to stay the night? We could share the cottage…?” Joy offered. Sammy shook his head.
“Nah…I know of a group which is heading off for a hike. They plan on camping it out. I’ll go with them.”
The rest of the journey went in pleasant chit chat. The type with no real info and lots of common knowledge and interests. We dropped Sammy off at a convenience store. He thanked us and wished us luck. We waved at him and took off. The office from where we were supposed to collect the keys closed within the hour. Yet there were a good four-five hours left until sunset. We decided to first grab the keys, deposit our stuff and then maybe head out for a drive around town.
The office turned out to be located inside a ranch. The residence of a large man. A huge ranch with acres of land around it. The owner came smiling to us, a dog in tow. “Here you go!” He handed over a small key then pointed to an almost hidden path disappearing into the woods. “Follow this path, it would lead you straight to the cottage. If you choose to drive out, be in before 7. The gates are closed after that. Oh…and ignore any noises you might hear.”
Beside me, Joy visibly stiffened. “What noises?”
The man shrugged, smiling wide. I was immediately arrested by the stark whiteness of his teeth. They reminded me of something, I just couldn’t place what. “Oh just animal noises…a knock here, a chirp there, a growl around. Nothing to worry about!” He waved his arm cheerfully at us in dismissal, sprinting back into his house, his dog in tow. Joy stared after him for a moment then declared. “There’s something really off about him.”
I shrugged nonchalantly. “It doesn’t matter. We are only here for the night.”
Joy chose silence over an answer and started driving towards the path. Soon, we were engulfed by the thick growth. Even though the sun was in its full glory, it felt as if it had ceased to send its rays in the forest. I twisted in my seat to look at the fast disappearing sunlit patch behind us. It seemed as if these were two different worlds. A feeling of unease stirred in my stomach but I held my tongue. Joy already had a morbid expression on his face. The last thing I wanted to do was fan out his visibly uncomfortable behavior. He switched on the headlights. The rest of the drive we stayed silent. The cottage came into view shortly. It was a small log cabin, a quaint place. Weirdly located but still, would be an experience. We silently got off our vehicle and locked it. I unlocked the small door, stretching out my hand to flick on the light. It was a one room cottage. Two sets of bunk beds adjacent to each other. A small kitchenette with a tiny fridge. And a bathroom with a toilet. I locked the door behind me.
“There is a bolt outside the door, not inside of it.” Joy observed somberly.
“You are reading too much into things that don’t exist.” I shook my head, depositing my backpack into the lower bunk of the bed. “I’ll be back.” I made way to the toilet to relieve myself and freshen up. When I got back, Joy stood still like a statue in the same spot I had left him in. “Are you ok?” I asked, now alarmed at his erratic behavior. He raised a hand to silence me. I opened my mouth to ask him again when I heard it. Small, short knocks, coming from nowhere and everywhere.
“That was the noise he told us about”, I mumbled to myself.
“Shhh….” Joy hissed at me, urgency in his voice. We stood still, waiting. The sound came again. Short and precise.
“Let’s go.” Joy turned around grabbing his backpack.
“But…what…why…” I started to argue back but was startled into submission by the urgency and command in his voice.
I quickly followed him out the door, clambering into the car beside him. He took off, not even waiting for me to put on my seatbelt. As we drove out into sunlight, I saw the owner staring at us, petting his dog beside him. Turning to look at Joy, I opened my mouth to ask him about his strange behavior but shut it quickly. Knowing him as well as I did, further questioning would only be met with a resolute silence. He drove until he stopped in front of a convenience store. The same store in fact where we had dropped Sammy off a mere moments ago.
“Wait here”, he grabbed his phone and stepped out of the car. A few minutes later he stepped back in, locking the car doors. He let out a sigh and placed his head on the steering wheel. He was shaking uncontrollably. As bewildered as I was, I unscrewed the water bottle, handing it to him wordlessly. Joy spilled water all over himself as he attempted to drink. I neither stopped nor commented on this state of his. Basically, I let him mess himself up. Once he had recomposed himself considerably, I asked the obvious.
“Mind telling me about it…?”
He closed his eyes, taking deep shuddering breaths. Eyes still closed, he spoke. “The cops will be here any minute.”
“The cops? What? Why?” If his earlier behavior bewildered me, I was now alarmed.
Joy rubbed his face vigorously, muffling his voice in the process. “Remember the time I took lessons in Morse code?”
I nodded. One of the few things we hadn’t done together.
“The tapping started as soon as you went in the bathroom. I ignored it for the first time. The second time I couldn’t. The third time was when you joined me. The fourth time I knew I was right. It was too consistent, too precise, too insistent to have been anything but.”
“Anything but what?”
Joy looked at me, a haunted look in his eyes.
“It wasn’t random tapping. It spelled HELP in Morse.”
What happened next you ask?
Cops questioned us. Then asked us to wait with one of their while the other called backup to check the concerned property. We were brought to the department where we waited for further news. The news arrived with a senior officer around midnight. A body had been found wrapped and buried under the floorboards of the cottage. The body of a hiker. Where we had stood. Where I had stood. I threw up as soon as I heard the news. Joy looked ashen faced and shaken still managing to hold his own.
“We could have saved him…he had clearly tapped for help…” Joy struggled to speak. The officer shook his head.
“He had been dead for at least a week now.”
“But…but we heard the tapping…” Joy insisted, with me vigorously nodding my head in affirmative.
“I don’t know what you heard boys…it wasn’t from him. The dead don’t tap.” I held my head firmly in my hands to stop it from reeling. The officer continued, unzipping a bag labeled Evidence. “Long shot but let me still ask you. Do you know this man? It was found with the body.” He placed a driver’s license before us. We leaned forward to look at it. I threw up as soon as I recognized the face peeking back at us.
It was Sammy.
We were let go with our statements and contact information. The investigation expanded into a freaking spectacle as more and more bodies were found buried all over the property, mostly around the cottage. Victims were identified. Families were informed. The Ranch owner was arrested. Turned out there was a reason he purposely maintained a low trafficked website. His targets were those who traveled solo. Never the ones in pairs or groups. He claimed that these loners chose to come to him, for him to fulfill his destiny, whatever the hell he meant by it. Bottom-line: The man was a twisted minded murderer.
Joy and I managed to find the day and time of Sammy’s funeral. And yes, we did attend. In a weird way, we felt we owed it to him. We met his parents, who, on learning that we were the ones who called the cops, embraced us and thanked us with teary eyes and shaky voice. They insisted we tell them everything, no matter how strange it sounded. When we did, they nodded to each other.
“It was him. It was him you met.” His mother said, wiping away a fresh set of tears with her palms. “I don’t care what anybody says, it was him.”
His father clasped our hands in gratitude. “We told him constantly to not hike by himself. ‘What if something happened to you Sammy?‘ I used to tell him. ‘Don’t worry Pops! I will find someone to bring you to me!’ He would always say. And he found you…he found you…” He broke down before us as Joy and I looked at each other.
The lines between the real and the unreal had blurred forever for us.
So…here I am. Writing about this person who I don’t know was real or not. Did I meet a figment of his? A ghost? A shadow? I don’t know. I don’t care. Joy and I have tried to busy ourselves in our lives, yet we couldn’t help but relive that incident individually in our minds whenever we talk of other normal stuff. Which is often.
Over time, both of us have bonded with Sammy’s parents. Through them, we have come to know the fun, caring, adventurous soul that he was. In ways more than one, he has transformed into a friend we lost. In a strange and unexplained way, we felt we have known him and known him well. And we love him like a brother. Our brother.