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The first time Sasha got high, she stood face-to-face with a black bear in the backyard of her friend’s house. She was giggling while her two best friends Jade and Colt stood behind her, absolutely terrified. She wasn’t sure why this was her reaction, or what other drug those edible gummy bears were laced with, but the bear looked adorable standing on its hind legs and raising its snout into the air.

“Don’t scream,” Sasha said, still giggling. “It will only provoke it. Where I grew up, we had bears in our woods all the time. If you don’t move, it will go away eventually.”

“You’re out of your fucking mind,” Colt snapped in a harsh whisper.

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“Honey, I don’t think that’s how it works,” Jade said, her voice trembling. She was frantically searching through her phone. “You’re really high right now. I think…you should do as this website says and back away slowly or…scream if it comes close, and throw things.”

“Scream and throw things at that?!” Colt snapped in an even harsher whisper. “We should call animal control, and you shouldn’t have come out here in the first place.”

“Colt, she’s super out of it. Be nice,” Jade tried to reason, still shaking. “Honey, try to back away slowly. Colt, call animal control and the police. Maybe pick up something to throw at it.”

Colt, shaking his head, muttered a string of swears under his breath. The bear looked absolutely massive compared to the five foot Sasha, especially on its hind legs. For some reason though, the furry, black beast didn’t seem threatening, as it wasn’t even looking at the threesome. It was more interested in an injured bat that was flopping around on the solar-tiled roof of Jade’s house.

Sasha remembered only bits and pieces of her father’s advice from long ago. “You guys need to calm down,” she insisted, not even trying to suppress the giggling. “You see something on the roof, boy? What is it?”

“It’s not a dog, Sasha,” Jade said. “Back away. Colt, you need to call animal control, now.”

Sasha turned around and crossed her arms, not bothering to read her friends’ expressions. “You guys act like you haven’t seen a bear before. Good god.”

“It’s going back. It’s-”

By the time Jade pointed in the direction of the bear, it had slipped into the narrow opening of the woods. As Colt and Jade breathed a sigh of relief, Sasha sat on the porch steps and reclined on them, her eyes fixed on the ever-blurring, starry sky. There wasn’t much she loved about Winsted, but she loved nights like this, even when she was drifting into a drug-induced sleep.

“That was way too fucking close,” Colt snapped. Sasha wasn’t sure whether either of them were looking at her, but Colt’s angry tone mixed with Jade’s concerned one weren’t enough to sway her from her sleep.

“Maybe we should just leave her there,” Colt remarked. “She loves the wilderness, apparently.”

“Colt, come on. She’s-”

“I don’t want to hear the excuse that she’s high again. She’s the one that ate ten of those gummies. I feel bad that she’s having trouble with Jordan again or whatever, but she made an ass out of herself tonight.”

“I can hear what you’re saying and I don’t care,” Sasha remarked. “You can leave me out here tonight.”

Jade laughed. “No way, honey. If the bear comes back, the trail cam will get it. There’s plenty of them in Winsted. You’re not missing much.”

“We’re lucky to be alive,” Colt said, ignoring Sasha’s head shaking. “Let’s go inside and go to bed. Maybe when you wake up, you’ll sound like the more rational one again, and stop sounding like your boyfriend.”

That remark particularly bothered Sasha, but she said nothing as Colt and Jade led her inside the dismal home Jade had rented out in the outskirts of Winsted, Connecticut. Even with the solar tiles the landlord had fixed on the roof, the place was still a dump in Sasha’s opinion, with mold stains all over the ceiling, boarded-up windows, and a total lack of air conditioning. It didn’t help that Colt was secretly living there and leaving garbage in every room. By the time Sasha stepped inside the dark guest room, the only room untouched by either of them, she was relieved.  She was happy to lay down on the single olive-colored couch that fit snugly between two stocked bookshelves.

Sasha took the night to sober up, tossing and turning on barren cushions with broken springs. She couldn’t stop thinking about how human the bear looked, standing on its hind legs. She found nothing to fear about the bear, but still thought about it in wonder. When she was little, she remembered her mom telling stories about the brown bears in the forests of Syria, that greeted her as she walked through the woods and rubbed against her dress. Her father, a lifelong New Englander, tried to explain with extreme caution that this wasn’t a typical experience. Sasha didn’t listen, nor did she fear bears. She always loved them, and still had the same sweatshirt of a brown bear from the time she was a teenager. High or not, she figured she probably would have approached the bear anyway.

“I didn’t know being high could make you the Crocodile Hunter. Jesus Christ,” she heard Colt say from the other room.

“Sasha’s always been good with animals,” Jade responded. With a tired laugh, she turned on the faucet in the kitchen. To Sasha, they sounded louder and closer than they actually were. She was starting to drift when Jade continued. “That bear was absolutely crazy, though.”

“You mean terrifying,” Colt interjected, pouring what sounded like a glass of water. “High or not, that girl has no common sense and is turning more and more into her boyfriend everyday.”

Sasha sighed. Ever since Jordan had come into the picture, neither Colt nor Jade were a fan of him, or his YouTube channel about abandoned and scary places. For the longest time, it was just Sasha, Colt and Jade, three friends who met in their freshman year at Northwestern Connecticut State University, a college not too far from the dump her friends now called home. Her relationship was driving a wedge between them. Being high tonight was a way to take the edge off their complaining. If she wasn’t so tired, she would have climbed out the window and gone looking for that unusual bear.

Hours later, when her friends were sound asleep and Sasha was still up and tormented by her thoughts, she saw a figure from the window. It looked tall like the bear, but much blurrier. It was just standing in the middle of the yard. Despite squinting, she couldn’t quite make out what it was. It was dark like the bear, but there weren’t any discernible features like fur or ears.

When she squinted harder, she saw a tall, gray-haired man just standing in the middle of the yard. He wore a long, open jean jacket over a flannel shirt and brown cargo jeans. When she saw his right hand gripping a metal shovel, she gulped and felt her heart sink deep into her chest.

Without thinking, she grabbed her cell phone and opened the window, shouting, “What are you doing here?!”

Those words startled the man. His big gray eyes widened, and he darted off into the forest. When he ran, his body looked dark and blurry for some reason. Sasha figured she must still be high, but was sober enough to go into the living room, where Colt and Jade were dozing on separate couches.

“Guys, wake up! I-I saw something.”

Colt and Jade were in their clothes from the night before, only Jade’s oversized hoodie and Colt’s cardigan had some sort of food stain on them. When they opened their eyes, Colt gave Sasha a grimace and for Jade, furrowed eyebrows.

“What is it, Sash?”

“I saw a man in the backyard, a tall man with long hair.” As she spoke, Sasha still had a sinking feeling in her chest. It took a moment for her two friends to process what she said, but once it hit them, they were both off the couch and at attention. “I called to him from the window and he ran away.”

“Colt, check the trail cam,” Jade said. He nodded. “That’s crazy, Sash. My neighbors saw a crazy man in their yard a couple weeks ago, but said the cops did nothing. The trail cam will definitely pick something up.”

From a brown knapsack next to the couch, Colt pulled out his laptop and opened up the trail cam application on the desktop screen. They sat back down on the couch and watched him fast forward through hours of nothing. When the image of the three of them and the bear came on the screen, Sasha felt the urge to giggle, but Colt’s look of exasperation convinced her otherwise.

“About what time was this?” Colt asked, scratching his chin. Before Sasha could answer, Colt paused on a frame of the bear on its hind legs. “Sash, I thought you said you saw a man.”

“I did!” she exclaimed. “This very tall man with ridiculously long hair in a jean jacket.”

“Maybe you need to fast forward a little more. Wait. Slow down.”

Colt nodded and pressed the gray button with the single black arrow. It was the same bear they saw, just standing on its hind legs for what clocked at a solid two minutes. Then, it appeared to look at the window for a split second before getting back down on all fours and darting into the woods.

Sasha’s mouth dropped open, and she took a step back. Jade sighed and Colt slapped his hand over his face.

“Well, that’s that, Sash,” Colt snarled. “You were so high you thought the bear was some mystical jean jacket dude. That’s a bad trip.”

“I know what I saw. Fast forward. Please fast forward.”

“Oh, Sash,” Jade said in a soft voice. “You had a really bad trip. I’m so sorry it scared you.”

“No!” Sasha was rapidly shaking her head. “I know what I saw. Fast forward.”

“Wasn’t this like five minutes ago? If I fast forward, there’s nothing, just a reminder that it’s four in the morning and you’re still really high. I’ve been high before, but not enough to hallucinate. It’s like these were peyote gummies or something, or maybe you’re just crazy.”

Jade smacked him on the ear.

“Ouch. What the fuck. I was kidding. Maybe we all just need to go to bed.”

Knowing that she couldn’t convince them otherwise, Sasha went to bed. She wasn’t having a bad trip, but a bad time. Now not only did her best friends disapprove of her relationship, but questioned her sanity. Unlike her boyfriend, Sasha wasn’t religious or spiritual, and didn’t really believe in the supernatural. She knew the difference between tripping and being sober, or at least, she thought she did. What she saw wasn’t caught on camera, but even without any evidence, she still believed. Being in the last year of her biology graduate program, the notion of “believing” was deeply unsettling for her.

Despite her better instincts, she called Jordan the next day and told her about this experience.

“So let’s review,” Jordan said in a familiar, most self-assured voice that made Sasha groan. She didn’t have to be there to know that he was grinning and pointing a finger in the air, as if he had some brilliant idea. “The three of you saw a bear in Jade’s backyard that was standing on its hind legs. Later on in the night, you saw a tall, long-haired man that looked like a sage or something, and…the trail camera caught footage of a bear.”

“Yes…” Sasha said, uncertain of where this was going, but not wanting to know.

“And Jade lives in Winsted toward the woods.”

“You know this, Jordan. What’s your point?”

There was a brief pause before Jordan blurted out, “You had a visit from the Winsted Wildman.”

“Oh god…” Sasha groaned into the receiver. “Like their high sports team mascots.”

“Ah, no. That’s the 'Winsted Wild Men'. There’s a slight difference. See, they get their name from the local legend of the Winsted Wildman. It’s like Connecticut’s Bigfoot.”

As Sasha sank into the couch and let out another audible groan, she felt tempted to hang up and make an excuse about bad service.

Jordan continued. “Matt Drake did a video about this. You should watch it. Okay, so legend has it that sometime in the late 1800s, there was this real proper selectman named Riley Smith who was picking berries with his dog. For some reason, he, like all men back then, always wore a suit and a top hat, even on a walk in the woods, but that’s besides the point. Anyway…he saw a large creature that looked like a man, but with black fur all over its body and long hair draped over its shoulders. The selectman and his dog were paralyzed with fear, and stood motionless until the creature disappeared. He reported this story to the Winsted Herald. Over the next few weeks, many locals claimed sightings and the town panicked.”

“That’s…actually an interesting story,” Sasha said, scrunching her nose. “But I very much doubt that’s what I saw. You believe in all this supernatural…stuff. I respect that, I do. But-”

“But how else can you explain it? Look, Sash. I got to go, unfortunately. Be careful out there and maybe buy bear spray or something.”

Sasha sighed. She loved her boyfriend, but not the way he looked for the supernatural in everything. For a while, they had a YouTube channel where they explored abandoned places together. Ever since he met Matt Drake, however, he'd started dragging Sasha on ghost hunts and cryptozoology searches around the state for creatures with weird names like "the glawackus" and "the black dog of Hanging Hills". Something about the "Winsted Wildman" intrigued her though. At the very least, she found it strange that the camera footage picked up a bear and not the mystical-looking figure she saw. Maybe she was tripping. She’d accept that explanation before Jordan’s.

That morning, she considered searching The Winsted Wildman on her phone, but had no signal. Neither Colt nor Jade had paid for the internet that month. They left a note on the counter that they had gone off grocery shopping; a typical Sunday morning for them.

Sasha started her Sunday morning walk into town. She found herself peering into each neighbor’s backyard in search of the long-haired man or the bear. Every time she thought she saw something, it turned out to be just a shadow from the vast forest that surrounded the town, or another animal like a moose or deer.

She searched the town high and low for the man, until bells sounded from a church downtown. She felt her mind and eyes growing dreary as she aimlessly wandered, until she reached a part of town that she did not recognize, lined with old brick factory buildings.

The street was completely silent. The sound of passing traffic, birds, and the crunch of fallen leaves beneath her feet had completely dissipated. The silence made her drowsy. So drowsy that she sat on the curb in front of a large brick building that looked different from the rest of the factories, as if it was once a school or a town hall. The silence not only made her drowsy, but a mix of queasy and extremely sad.

It became so silent that she thought of screaming just to make sure she could still hear herself. When she was ready to open her mouth and do so, she heard the sound of something scraping against the earth.

she turned around, knowing what she would see before she saw it. Those feelings of queasiness and sadness turned to absolute dread when she saw the long-haired man with the open jean jacket digging into the earth.

“What are you doing? Who are you?” Sasha thought she whispered this, but the atmosphere was so quiet that the man not only turned around but brushed his hair out of his immense gray eyes and placed his shovel down.

“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to bother you.”

“I’m looking for my friends,” the man said in a sharp, raspy voice.

“Oh god,” Sasha whispered to herself. “I should go. I’m so sorry.”

Sasha couldn’t turn around, though. She was encapsulated by the deepness of the man’s gray eyes.

“I’ve been looking for them for so long…”

His voice morphed into an echo, an echo that went on as he picked up his shovel and continued to dig.

“What are you hoping to find?” Sasha felt her voice growing even smaller as she asked this, already knowing the answer.

“Where they buried my friends. I’ve been looking for so long,” his voice echoed once more against the quietness of the atmosphere. The man wasn’t looking at her. He was digging so intensely that she thought he would break the shovel’s blade. “I have to find them.”

“Who…buried them?” she almost couldn’t believe she asked this. She wasn’t sure she wanted to know. “What is this place?”

The man continued on as if he didn’t hear her, throwing dirt every which way, causing her to step back a few paces. She was still unable to scream or run away.

“Owískela É:lhal!” the man’s voice boomed. He dug more intensely, and the words echoed once more. “Owískela É:lhal!”

She could see the veins pulsating in his arms as he dug so deep into the earth that he created an opening big enough to be buried within. he groaned and staked the shovel into the ground, turning around fiercely to meet Sasha’s eyes.

“I’ve been looking for so long, ever since I came here.”

“Where’s…here?”

“Johnson Indian Reform School,” he said gruffly.

Those words cut like a knife as she felt a sharp pain in her head, followed by bright flashes. She was overwhelmed by images of bare, dark-skinned children walking in straight lines, and a dark-robed nun behind them with a whip. She saw images of the long-haired man as a young boy with the same shovel, digging into the earth and weeping loudly. She saw the black bear standing on his hind legs and roaring into the sky. Then, there was nothing but silence and complete darkness.

When the darkness was gone, she woke up on the curb of a completely different street that she now recognized. She rose and looked around frantically to see a street filled with Sunday morning drivers and church goers. The buildings were gone. The silence was gone. The long-haired man was gone, too. Now, even the slow sounds on Sunday morning in Winsted felt overwhelming. Just looking at the church made her queasy. Either she wasn’t well, or everyone around her was wilfully ignorant of the horrific history that lurked within the town. She wasn’t sure what was worse, so she went back to Jade and Colt’s house, too fright-stricken to look in any backyard or take any shortcuts.

“We tried calling you!” Jade exclaimed as a pale-faced Sasha stumbled into the house. She threw her arms around Sasha and pulled her in tightly. “You need to learn to charge your phone, Sash.”

“Yeah…” Sasha murmured. Even Colt looked concerned. He was reading something on his phone.

“Looks like you did see something last night, Sash,” he handed her his phone. It was a Silver Alert text about a man named Tayen Morgan, who had wandered from a retirement facility twenty four hours ago. It described him as six foot five with long, silver hair.” Sasha bit her lip, her hand shaking against her jeans. “I think you saw this guy. I’m not sure what he was doing in our backyard, but he’s exactly how you described him.”

“He is…” Those words were all Sasha could manage to say as she sat on the couch. Colt and Jade suggested reporting what she'd seen to the local authorities. All she could do was nod. She felt too frightened to express what she had just experienced or even rationalize it. Even to Jordan, who would believe her at the drop of the hat. It wasn’t until days later, when Sasha was back home, that she mustered the willpower to search for “Johnson Indian Reform School.”

To her surprise and disappointment, she found the "Foreign Mission School" in Cornwall, and the "Moor’s Indian Charity School" in Lebanon, but no combination of words matched Johnson Indian Reform School. Perhaps the man she saw attended one of those schools, or was just old and confused. Perhaps she felt such an intense connection to him that she imagined what he once saw. Perhaps it was just an old man with dementia who mixed up stories from other family members or legends. Sasha searched intensely, but no results rendered. Perhaps it was best to try and just take her mind off the disturbing things she'd seen and heard.

But no matter how hard she tried, Sasha couldn’t forget about Tayen Morgan, the Johnson Indian Reform School, or anything else. She stayed over at Colt and Jade’s place as an excuse to search the neighborhoods for the man, or the street with the old factory buildings. The trouble was, Winsted had many streets with old factory buildings, and none that were shaped like old schools or town halls.

Colt and Jade asked where she would go on her walks, but she never said. Every time she tried, she heard Tayen Morgan’s echoing words - “I’m looking for my friends.” Sometimes, she felt the urge to help him. One time, the urge was so strong that she wanted to call the retirement facility and ask for him by name, but something stopped her. His name, his story, his figure... they felt too real and unreal simultaneously to make any contact.

One night at Colt and Jade’s, many months after the first encounter, she sat on their back porch, chewing an inordinate amount of gummies to their chagrin. It was the first time Sasha was able to laugh and smile in a long time. But this time, Colt and Jade knew they couldn’t stop her, and just settled for the fact that she was happy and silly enough to joke around again. It was nice to join in on the silly conversations and make fun of Jordan and his crazy ghost adventures together. They were so busy sharing gummies and staring at the stars that they hadn't even noticed the black bear that had stumbled into their backyard, this time on all fours.

“Oh my god,” Colt said, tensing up and whispering sharply. “Sasha, be real quiet and don’t do anything.

“Yeah, Sash,” Jade said, grabbing onto her shoulders. “Please don’t do anything stupid. Hey…what’s that in its mouth?”

The bear had something white and pointy in its mouth that was rounded at the ends. Sasha’s jovial mood turned into one of complete silence as she stared at the pointy figure and into the bear’s gray eyes. She hadn’t looked into its eyes the first time she saw it. Now, she sat quietly until the bear seemed to nod at them and slipped into the narrow opening of the woods.

After it left, and after what seemed like an eternity of silence, Sasha said in a hushed tone, “I think he found his friends.”



Credited to Tristan Mason 

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