As children there were always inherent fears that came with travel, from the esoteric and rather innocuous "step on a crack and break your mother's back", (which has yet to happen) to the more unnamable fears that accompany new places themselves. Some of these fears have even been mutated into children's stories, designed to promote xenophobia and a desire to stay home and consume domestic goods, and some of those stories can be quite scary. There was one story, however, that never really served to properly scare me: the story of the troll under the bridge.
Little could I have ever predicted that, for me, that particular story would come true.
I had just started college and was still getting into the norms of life on campus. It was a brisk Friday night in October when I stepped from my dorm and began to make my way, alone, towards a late dinner meeting with friends. We were eating off campus and my route of choice happened to involve a shortcut over a small rail bridge just beside the campus gates.
The sun was long set as I meandered my way through quads and parking lots, eventually leaving the bright lights of the more pedestrian friendly areas until, suddenly, I found myself quite alone. Though I was barely 100 feet from lively human habitation I felt a gulf grow between the peopled world and myself.
There was a sense of foreboding as I made my way slowly towards the rail bridge. Pushing through the thick bushes that line each side of the now defunct railroad tracks I found my heart was suddenly hammering in my chest and my very soul knew that something was amiss. I could swear that ahead of me, by about 15 feet, there was a presence.
But I shrugged this feeling off and, barely breaking stride, continued on towards the promise of a hot meal.
When LO! From out the hushed, crepuscular bushes a form arose. Wreathed in shadow this aery mass slouched towards me. The very light of evening seemed diminished as I gazed at this figure, trying hard to find its shape in the maw of darkness.
"By the light of the silvery moon!" I thought. "What foul demon is this that looms up in my path!?"
(I'm pretty sure, in retrospect, that was the thought that ran through my head. Although it may have been more like: "Holy Balls! Who the fuck is this!?" We won't argue semantics though… Now, back to the action!)
I stopped and waited as this creature stepped towards me. He was holding something in both hands, a large object whose identity still eluded me, though the person himself was coming into sharper focus. Wearing a baseball hat tilted slightly to the side, not quite achieving the "rakish" look, and a football jersey, this creature from the void walked casually in my direction.
The oddest thing about him at this point was that there was nothing odd about him. For someone who had just emerged… from behind a bush… beside the railroad tracks… at NIGHT, he appeared completely normal. There was no foul stench wafting off of him, no smear of insanity drawn across his face; this was a normal college student, much like myself, (although clad in clothes in which I would never be caught dead).
"Hey," he smiled. "What's up?"
"Nothing much," I wavered.
"Do you know where the Bradford building is?" he asked with all the calm certainty you would expect from someone asking as benign a question as that, or at least the amount of certainty you would expect from someone who was asking it DURING DAYLIGHT HOURS! The odd occurrence of me finding him hunched beside the railroad tracks at night was apparently a subject he deemed too unimportant to broach.
"Yeah," I replied. "Its the class building behind that dorm there," I pointed, looking back over my shoulder.
"Awesome! Thanks so much." He smiled and began to move off. I watched him go, still hovering in a cloud of fear before, suddenly, he stopped and turned again to face me. It was only now my eyes were able to discern what was held in his hands: a single cardboard pizza box. He looked at me for a moment, and then he spoke.
"Hey man. I've got some pizza, you want to split it?"
It was as though the heavenly world of rationality had crashed around my shoulders. Climbing from the bushes on the side of the train tracks this stranger came across me, a lone traveler, asked directions and then INVITED ME TO SHARE HIS PIZZA! Readers, I ask you to remember we were still in the middle of nowhere, still isolated in darkness and yet, with a nonchalant certainty normally reserved for asking a stoned guy if he "wants fries with that", this man asked me if I wanted to share his pizza.
I mean… sure I love pizza, but I prefer pizza on my own terms! No creepy-nighttime-railroad-tracks-pizza here, that is not a thing that would EVER be appealing to me. I would like to think that this man, as I have been calling him, was actually some demon sent to tempt me in my own version of the wasteland, but what is (unfortunately) more likely is that this person was some normal, albeit crazy guy. Why is that the more unfortunate option, you ask? Because it proves that I am right, my friendship is like crack for CRAZIES!
Back to the story: I quietly responded in the negative to his pizza offer and forced a smile. He smiled as well and turned, receding into the darkness from whence I had walked, eventually disappearing. I stood silent for a moment, lost in thought, before turning myself and continuing my quest for dinner with friends.
Sometimes, though, I wonder about that encounter. Perhaps like Brigadoon this man rises every hundred years when he senses someone like me is nearby, someone with whom he can share a deep, spiritual connection. Perhaps I shall meet him again in my travels, somewhere else along the road, maybe even in some different form. All I know for sure is that, when the night is dark and a chill air blows, I can still hear a fel voice on the wind asking, "Do you want to split this pizza?"
And I shudder, my friends. I shudder.