He pulled the gun from the waistband of his pants when we were close enough there was no escape.
There were few options: I could stare at my faithful dog running by my side, I could duck into the woods but by the time I would have dashed off the path and through the open weeds to eventually find a tree trunk large enough to take cover behind, he could have shot me any number of times, or I could look him in the eyes or right down the barrel of his handgun. I chose to put my head down and see the fur on my dog’s ears, I will call her Birdie, swept back and flowing from our jogging pace and her tongue hanging out the side of her mouth, pink and full of life. Birdie enjoyed many runs along this path. I wanted the last thing I saw to be something that I loved. I don’t know how I had time to think about that.
I tried to project an aura of happiness and somehow transfer some of mine to him. Before he ever pulled out the gun, from 30 yards back on the path, I could tell this man didn’t have any happiness in his life. He looked sick. I’ve never seen anyone look like him, like he wasn’t meant for the world because it had been beating him down. He wore too many clothes and a green rain jacket on a hot summer day, no clouds. His skin looked gray. He didn’t look right. All I could think was that this man needed to know that happiness existed in the world. I smiled, hoping he would recognize that life isn’t all bad. Maybe my smile could be infectious.
He pulled the gun from the waistband of his pants when we were close enough there was no escape. I didn’t believe what was happening. I still look back at this moment and don’t believe my own brain, worry that I’ve gone schizophrenic or developed some other disorder that allows memories to grow from invention. It’s so unbelievable, but at the same moment, I also know it’s true. I remember every detail. It replays sometimes. I wish it didn’t, but it just does it on its own.
There wasn’t much I could do but wait for it. Lights out. I wondered if he would shoot Birdie too. She looked up at me, checking in. I would like to think she picked up a bad vibe from this man—dogs seem to have a sense for these things—but she checked in whenever we approached all strangers. If I had shown fear or worry, I’m sure she would have reacted differently. Instead, I tried to act like nothing was happening and I imagined her escaping, her leash trailing behind her as she darted through the woods to find her own way back home. The truth is, she never would have left me alone, even if I lay dead on the asphalt. She looked ahead, past the man where the trail bends towards the coast, just happy to be outside and exercising.
I didn’t know what a bullet would feel like, so I expected it as being something like a hammer. I’ve hit my hands and fingers many times and understand the firm punch. A bullet, I thought, would be like an ultimate hammer. I kept jogging. Waiting for it. The metal hitting my temple. He actually pointed the gun at my chest, but for whatever reason, I knew he was going to shoot me in the temple. My skin crawled with anticipation of the hit, waiting for the unique sound of a gunshot. Guns sound so different from firecrackers and backfiring car exhausts. Gunpowder creates the crack but the bullet also makes the sound of a projectile traveling through space. I wondered if I would hear it? I kept waiting for it, surprised with each step that I was still alive.
Suddenly, the soft conversation of two voices carried down the path behind me. I looked up to see the man tuck the gun into his waistband. As I passed him, I looked back to see two young people; they must have entered the path from the same neighborhood trail I had used a few moments ago. They were probably teenagers or college age. They had no idea that their appearance, two people just going about their daily lives, had made such a profound impact on the life of another individual. I now realize I could create some kind of social media campaign to try to find them—it could become one of those feel-good, everyday hero stories—but I would prefer not to talk about it. If possible, I would like to put someone ahead of me, some other person, a shield if you will, to handle this story for me.
I was about two arm lengths from the man when I watched him put the gun away. I have no idea what he was waiting for; he had so much time to kill me. After passing him I felt such a heightened sense of relief my legs nearly gave out, but I kept jogging until I reached a bend in the path and could hide behind brush and forest and see the man from a long, safe distance. The teenagers passed by him with no noticeable changes in body language. He passed by them, I guess, without taking the gun from his pants. I tried to flag down an approaching bicyclist, but he raced past me and up the trail, sounding a little bell as he approached the man from behind. The man raised his arms, as if taken by surprise, and the bicyclist whizzed on by. When the teenagers reached me they looked like they were in love with one another. If they had been threatened, I was certain I would have been able to read it on their faces. Only my presence, waiting along the side of the trail, actually seemed to make them nervous. I could have explained what had happened, but I didn’t want to alarm them when they weren’t in danger, and besides, I was still trying to fathom that what had just occurred, had really occurred. Eventually the man crested a hill and disappeared from sight.
Instead of continuing on my planned route, I began jogging home but had to stop frequently and walk as I tried to gather my thoughts and process emerging doubts about the reality of the last few minutes. Some people have disembodied experiences when enduring a dangerous situation, where they feel like they float above and watch an actor experience it for them. Mine was so much different—I felt gaslighted by the man, in that somehow I didn’t believe that he had just pointed a gun at me. Like I must have misunderstood the situation. I was confused. I must have been in denial.
I sent an incoherent message to my girlfriend, who was at work, about a man with a gun on the trail and that I came home early from the run. She had grown up in Anchorage and better understood the extreme personalities found in the city. I was a transplant.
“People walk around with guns all the time,” she said later that night, trying to calm me down.
“I’m sure it’s fine,” she said.
During one of my first winters in Alaska, there was a newspaper article about a man standing along a trail holding an ax. I don’t believe he had struck anyone, but police wanted to speak with him. Since then, I feel like I’ve read the same article two more times during different winters. One of the years, I think, someone had been struck.
The next day I jogged the same route. As I approached the location where I had encountered the man, tension wrapped around my stomach. I tried to run off all the negative emotions and put the encounter behind me, Birdie by my side.
If possible, I would like to put someone ahead of me, some other person, a shield if you will, to handle this story for me.
I understand this essay is missing the necessary details that help to make it read as truthful, like I need to stop referring to the man as “the man” and add his name, which I’m sure is readily available online. By the time I encountered him, he had already killed a person one early weekend morning along the path near downtown and I don’t remember who else; there were a lot of murders that summer. I encountered him before an article in the Huffington Post declared that Anchorage had a serial killer on the trail system. The article said little else—no name, no sketch—basically it was a breaking news story that the local police had failed to admit publicly that several recent murders were all by the same person.
In the following months, there was plenty of news about him, but I don’t remember most of the articles specifically. I don’t believe we learned his name until after his death. Now, I would bet there is a Wikipedia page about him. I’m certain, when the man was a regular news story, his name became familiar to me, but it’s gone now. It’s better this way. Just thinking about his even having a name chokes me, not like a hand around my throat but like an elephant stepping on my chest. It presses all the air out and there isn’t even enough room to gasp. I have no idea why I feel this way, but his name has a power over me that I can’t explain. Perhaps it makes him human, in that it forces me to acknowledge his existence goes much beyond my four memories of him. I think five years have passed, I don’t know, I can’t look it up to find out for sure, but I do know I have four distinct memories. There’s the event itself, the Huff Post article, the police sketch released by the news several weeks after I had encountered him, and the breaking news story about the police officer shooting him when the man drew a gun. These memories aren’t going anywhere. They will be with me, as tangible as my trigger, middle, ring, and pinky fingers, for the rest of my life. If I could, I would find a way to lop off the memories as if they are unnecessary appendages. His name, however, seems to make him grow larger beyond those memories. I’m still overflowing with multitudes. I can’t contain any more.
I suppose you, the reader, also want my name. There’s something about the identification that lends to credibility—something so basic, everyone is aware of the authority a real name can give. The fact that this essay bears a pseudonym makes me appear distrustful, I’m sure. Without a name, it seems like it could all be bullshit. There’s nothing sticking it to anyone. Nothing. Like it is written by a ghost.
Under my real name, I never could write this experience. You see, this isn’t something that I want people to know about me. I’m not shopping for sympathy, and you know that’s the first thing you would give the writer if you knew him. I don’t want your cards, your hugs, any of that. It’s also not a hero story. No one will ever buy me a drink in a bar. It’s not a happy ending.
I was a fool. I look back and I have no way of explaining my irrational behavior. After the incident with the man, it never occurred to me to call the police. I somehow chalked the experience up to a crazy human-wildlife encounter. After seeing the police sketch, I didn’t think to call the authorities to share my experience. It wasn’t until the news report of the police officer shooting the man did I put everything together. It’s like I was delusional, like my brain had been on the spin cycle and it suddenly stopped. Many months passed between looking down the barrel of a gun and my realizing that I could have been murdered, which doesn’t make any sense. It’s as if the knowledge lived somewhere distant, like the far-off voice of someone calling from backstage, and it wasn’t until months later when the man was shot that the actor entered the stage and spoke clearly. If my wits had been with me, I could have gone to the police and maybe I could have provided evidence so they could have caught him sooner. Maybe fewer people would have died. I will live with these thoughts forever.
Sometimes I imagine things going very differently. I often daydream about the soft legs I experienced just after passing him, but instead of continuing down the trail, I see myself tackling him. Birdie would sink her teeth into his soft hands. I would fight the gun away, kicking it far off the trail, and then I would beat him in the face. His nose would become bloody. The skin around his eyes would turn to meat and bone, yet I would keep going. Never would I stop. Not even after he was totally unconscious. Birdie would take joy chewing on his forearms. I would keep punching until someone dragged me off his body.
I’m sorry to present such a violent image, but these days I fantasize about beating a lot of people. Last year, our house was burglarized while we were out of town. I like to imagine being home when they broke in. Sometimes, I first assault them with the iron skillet, cracking skulls and flattening noses. Other times I’m filled with so much rage, I just start swinging. No mercy. The burglars grow bloodier and bloodier. If I were to catch someone breaking into the house, in real life, I worry I would beat them to death, unable to find the restraint to stop. I tell myself to chill out when my mind wanders astray. It’s doubtful whether it works.
Many years ago when I was new to Anchorage, I watched another person go through this same situation like a mirror of my current self. My job allowed me to work with members of the public over periods of time. One young woman regularly attended our meetings and then stopped, abruptly, in such a way that it seemed out of character. She rejoined us after a month and seemed distraught and distracted, but she offered no explanation and promptly disappeared again. Much later, when our paths crossed again, she divulged that her friend and coworker at a coffee stand had been abducted and murdered by Israel Keys, a serial killer with victims in Alaska and the Lower 48. If she hadn’t changed her shift schedule due to our meeting times, she would have been working the coffee stand the night her friend was abducted. I remember thinking that she had to feel lucky to be alive, may have even said the words aloud. However, she carried herself with a much different set of emotions, troubled, perhaps, and hopeless. Now, having had my own experience of a brush with a serial killer, I think she might have been feeling like Israel Keys did successfully murder her too, at least some metaphorical version of herself. I think a part of us goes quiet and we feel dead inside, which isn’t always a bad thing.
There are no hidden motivations in nature; at least, that was my impression until a black bear stalked and killed one of my wife’s friends.
Birdie died of cancer a year later. Dogs never live long enough. I fed her lamb, steak, or salmon every day for three months as her health declined. On the day we put her to sleep, she broke through a screen door and plunged from between the side railings of a deck, in such a hurry she didn’t take the steps, in order to run to the dock and dive into the boat as my wife and I headed out fishing. Her tongue hung out, pale. She looked so happy to be near me, but she had nothing left. I have no idea where I would be if she hadn’t been by my side that day.
Only two people know about my experience with the man. The woman I was dating at the time is now my wife. We don’t talk about it. She has no idea how often I think about him. The only time he came up in conversation was when we moved back to the house on that side of town after being away for a couple years. Just being in the house gave me anxiety and walking on the trail caused physical reactions with tensing muscles in my chest and internally, some sort of fit between anger and shutting down all together. You know when a toddler is in his mother’s arms, and the proximity to something he doesn’t like causes him to pull away from her, trying to flee but to no avail because she holds him too tightly? Any time I was on the trail in the area, I felt like that little child was in my chest, trying escape in the opposite direction. A few times, in recent years, I passed over the exact spot, but the emotional turmoil was always so great, I stopped going to the area altogether and purchased a gym membership. Since then, we moved to a different part of town. I feel less agitation on a daily basis.
Last year, I also told a friend from work, when, one afternoon, for no reason at all, anxiety from the incident began to bubble up. I couldn’t control it. It effervesced its way to the surface. I fought back tears. I tried to hide in my office and not speak to anyone. I couldn’t chill out. I should have gone home, but I had no way of explaining my sudden sickness. She saw me by the copy machine and could tell something was wrong, so I told her a short version. She said that I should feel lucky to be alive.
You have no idea how much I want to feel lucky or some other positive emotion. A religious person might say that I should feel blessed. Others might say the experience leads to Zen or something. At the very least, I feel like I should be able to revel in good fortune; however, I haven’t felt anything positive since the experience. In fact, if anything at all, I would say that I’ve tried to remain as even-keeled as possible, feeling neither happy nor sad. I worry that if I express any sort of emotion, it will manifest as grief or rage. Even happiness becomes an emotion that I wouldn’t want to exhibit around others because it will so quickly turn to something else.
Months after our elopement, at our wedding party full of friends and family, some whom I hadn’t seen in years, perhaps the happiest day of my life, I cried uncontrollably. I remained outside, except for the occasional visit to the bar for a beer, for an hour and half trying to get it together. A psychologist might say that I feel like I don’t deserve happiness. I think I used all of it up when I projected it to the man. I have no happiness left.
If I could do anything, I would drink heavily. I have no interest in drugs. I stopped taking pain killers after a recent surgery because I didn’t like how they made me feel. Weed is legal here but it’s not for me. I’m sure there are other drugs that people in my shoes would prefer, but if anything, I would drink all evening.
If I lived the way I could dream, I would get shithoused every night at a little cabin far off in the woods. In the backyard I would have a junk pile where I could throw empty bottles against things for no other reason than to hear the crash. I would shoot bottles with a handgun. I would sit by a fire, sometimes holding a beer in one hand and shooting a revolver with the other. For whatever reason I imagine being alone for the best of times.
I should probably say that I haven’t had a drink of alcohol in weeks. My little fridge in the basement has several different brands of beer in it. There’s a whole shelf full of liquor in a cabinet. I don’t believe I have a drinking problem, it’s something I do during some weekends. I have too many responsibilities to drink often.
You should also know that I haven’t shot a gun in years. Most of the population are either pro- or anti-gun. I guess I would say that I’m somewhere in the middle and prefer not to think about it too much. I own several weapons, a rifle for moose and caribou hunting, a shotgun for bird hunting, and a handgun for bear protection while I’m in the woods.
Until recently, I didn’t carry a firearm for bear protection; instead, I used my voice and body as a deterrent and, occasionally, strapped a can of bear spray to my belt. Once, I charged two sub-adult grizzly bears that were encroaching on my fishing hole. They darted into the woods, terrified. As strange as it may sound, I felt comfortable around bears, or for that matter, anything outside. You know what you get when you look at a tree. A rock is always a rock. There are no hidden motivations in nature; at least, that was my impression until a black bear stalked and killed one of my wife’s friends while she was completing a biological survey at a mining operation near Fairbanks. Bear spray wasn’t enough to save her life. Shortly thereafter, to appease my wife, I bought a gun and now carry it when fishing or spending other times in the wilderness. This last summer, far from any town, a black bear emerged from the brush of a narrow stream, taking in the smells of salmon carcasses, while a friend and I fished. It looked into the clear water and at me as I shouted aggressively. I could have touched it with my fly rod. My friend held a can of bear spray. I aimed my gun at the animal’s torso, seven rounds of bear bullets in the magazine. If it had slipped on a rock or made an unexpected splash, it could have died.
I didn’t tell my wife about the bear. Even though I’m more afraid of people than I am wildlife, I can’t imagine carrying a gun to feel safe in public, let alone a popular trail in the state’s largest city, even after being in a situation where having a gun for self-defense might have saved my life. Incongruous, I know; even impossible to determine because I did survive without a gun, but all this is why I try to avoid self-analysis and would prefer to be quiet enough to prevent other people from dissecting me too.
Perhaps my biggest fear about sharing the experience with friends, family, the general public is that looking closely at my actions reveals that I didn’t try to defend myself. Instead of eking out every last bit of fight I had in me, I passively waited for death. I might as well wear a robe and slippers and call myself a pacifist. There was no courage in my actions. There was no heroism. If people get past the believability of the story, they will no doubt call me a pussy. I will hear it for the rest of my life. Will my wife worry that I won’t be able to defend her if she is ever in need?
I could try to be defensive about my actions and point out the distance between us, him steadying the handgun on my torso. When he took aim, he was so far away, he might have pumped several rounds into me before I could have reached him. In close proximity, the slightest odd movement could have caused him to twitch his trigger finger. I can only think of two scenarios in which I could have assailed him head-on: if somehow I had possessed superhuman powers, descending on him like a rabid animal while absorbing shot after shot, or, despite evidence otherwise, the man actually couldn’t have hit a target and I tackled him to the asphalt. Many times I’ve imagined charging the man like a desperate bear only to be grounded with a pool of blood forming around me, dead at his feet. Birdie dead too. I never could have reached him.
I now know, after the two young people joined us on the trail and I passed by the man and developed weak knees, I should have gone back and tackled him. I remember enough from high school wrestling to have contained his arms and prevented him from reaching for his weapon. The two others could have helped further disable him. Eventually the police would have arrived and straightened everything out. I probably would have been ticketed or arrested for assault or fighting or some other offense for attacking him, but it would have been worthwhile.
I hate to say that I desire a life portrayed in a Marvel movie, but I daydream about the pastoral paradise Thanos lived in after the Snap.
There is no easy explanation as to my motivations for writing this essay. Quite simply, it seems like the type of story that needs to be shared, yet any context where it could be shared seems next to impossible. Imagine sitting around a campfire with friends and neighbors telling stories, and there is that guy who would prefer not to say anything and is happy to just listen. Or there might be other times when he tells a story about what happened not to himself, he says, but to a friend. My motivations exist somewhere in that area. I need the guise of anonymity and the distance it creates. Maybe several years from now I will feel differently. Maybe not. Right now, for whatever reason, people knowing this about me fills me with fear and dread.
I hate to say that I desire a life portrayed in a Marvel movie, but I daydream about the pastoral paradise Thanos lived in after the Snap. The land provided for his basic needs. Distant views and pastel sunscapes were visible from his shelter. He had the perfect life until the Avengers found him and, deservedly, killed him; however, the quiet life in the country, free from people who might do you harm, seems like the best place to be.
I’m embarrassed to admit that, in recent years, I’ve found the superhero film genre as a great escape. I’m constantly surprised by the way they create such a light and pleasant atmosphere all the while so much death surrounds the films. How do they get away with glorifying so much violence and why do I enjoy it? It’s not that those films don’t contain somber and reflective moments, but it’s the grandeur of it all. It’s so big and they relish in being oversized.
In most cases I have a preference for gritty, realist films, maybe what some people would refer to as traditional cinema. I wouldn’t call myself a film buff but other people might. I can appreciate the writing and cinematography and everything else as one of those people who is something like an outsider peeking into the industry. A friend snuck me on set during the production of The Frozen Ground. Locally, we referred to it as the Butcher Baker Murders, about Robert Hanson, the serial killer who took women to remote Alaska and, as they tried to escape, hunted them down and disposed of their bodies. There is such good energy when being on set; a bunch of people working towards the goal of suspension of disbelief. When the film rolls, the audience goes along for the ride, hopefully engulfed in the story and not stung by too much logic and the realization that the actor is walking on a set with others behind large cameras recording it. The Butcher Baker Murders is especially interesting because the audience needs the cinematic suspension of disbelief and must also buy into the recreation of a true story.
This essay, in all actuality, is a recreation of a true story or more accurately, it is an adaptation of my experience into written form. We typically think of adaptations as book to film, and argue about which one is better, like those long, tired conversations about The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Sometimes the adaptation is a work of art in and of itself, like the adaptation of Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief to the film entitled Adaptation. But memoirs are the written testimonies of the good and the bad experiences in life. In all adaptations, we know something is lost and something is gained. Oddly, in science, we only think of adaptation as a positive, a change that helps the animal or its progeny to survive while the others die, slowly or suddenly in a changing environment.
It’s probably narcissistic on my part, but I would say a great deal is lost from my experience in the words of this essay. Particularly, there’s no way to write the long stretches of staring out the window where absolutely nothing is going on in my head. There might be people walking the street and cars driving by, but I don’t see any of it. It’s just nothing. Time doesn’t exist. And then there is something. Maybe it’s the man. Maybe it’s hunger pains. It just goes from nothing to something. Just like that. And then there’s the lying awake in bed at night with rabbit mind or tree mind. Nobody can write lying awake in bed. Film adaptations are even worse. Sometimes the end of the day is also the beginning.
The books and films that I keep mentioning, the essays you probably read, they all have an ending. The whole point of beginning is to lead to a climax and conclusion. The Butcher Baker Murders wraps up like you would expect a film about a serial killer to wrap up. Everything wraps up. That’s how stories work. Unfortunately, I don’t have the same resolution for this essay, if there is any resolution at all. Whenever I look back, which occurs all too often, I wish I had done things differently, whether it be providing information to the police or fighting the man. I’m full of regrets as to how I handled the situation. The path forward, some would say, is to not look back, but the problem is that I want to go there. I want to change reality so desperately, that I’m hyper focused on looking back and imagining becoming the hero of the story and beating the man to death. Call it the superhero ending, but I think that’s the resolution everyone would want.
The real ending of this essay doesn’t work at all. It’s trying to achieve the opposite of communication—you know, an explanation of life from the wordless people who return from a war or from a parking garage or from a dysfunctional childhood and have nothing to say. When they look back at certain times in life, it’s painful and muddled. It’s reality but blurry for some reason. The show is stuck on repeat or the channel doesn’t come in clearly. Instead of fixing the antenna, it’s easier to leave it alone and allow other people to tell similar stories and make the movies. It’s an adaptation for survival, it’s better for us, and we don’t know how or where it ends.
Rune Kolbeck is a pseudonym.
Header photo by Alex Linch, courtesy Shutterstock.