Sam discovers a mythical creature, Ash, who reveals that she has special powers. Ash must return to Paradise in three days or be stuck on Earth forever and forfeit his immortality. Can Sam control her newfound abilities and help her friend make it home?
Sam continued to wipe the hair from her face as it fell with every bump in the road. She was increasingly agitated with each bounce of her dad’s old Bronco. The Ponderosa forests of North Central Arizona were particularly stunning this time of year; the snowmelt made everything glisten, and small blooms pushed through the cracks of the pavement. With her head buried in her phone, the beauty of the surroundings passed by unnoticed.
Jack peeked at his daughter with a side-eye and shook his head. Kids these days and their technology, he thought. The irony didn’t escape him as he glanced in the rearview mirror at his own mound of gizmos and gadgets, stockpiled over the years in his hunt for the unknown.
Jack was a bit of a monster hunter. You might say it was his life’s work. In his world, there was no bigger prize than proof that Bigfoots existed. His unwilling accomplice on this venture was skeptical; a realist. Living in a digitized world where new conspiracy theories abounded daily, she chose to believe that the Bigfoot ‘myths’ were nothing more than folklore designed to scare kids like her into obeying their parents’ whims. Whims like her dad bringing her on this trip . . . hence her underwhelming attitude.
“Promise it’s only for one week this time?” she quipped.
“I promise, Princess. I just need to take some soil samples and grab the memory cards from the remote cameras, do a little scouting, and then we’ll be on our way.”
Sam sulked, knowing trips like this could go on for months, and one week could easily turn into two or three. This time was different, though. In the past, her mother had always kept her company once they went out of range of the cell phone towers. It had been eighteen months since Nan passed. Not unexpectedly, but that didn't make it any less painful. She had been sick for a long time, but Sam’s mom had been her best friend, the only person she felt understood her. Nan was missed and needed.
Oddly enough, Sam’s mother hadn’t been as skeptical as her daughter when it came to her husband’s obsession. The influence of the internet and instant access to every question and answer conceivable, had made the young lady a disbeliever of all things magical and special in the world. She could still hear her mother’s voice tell her, “It’s only make believe if you don’t believe.”
Sam wanted to believe, but years of endless trips into the wilderness in search of Bigfoot had jaded her. That she lost her mother at such a tender age only helped to confirm that there was nothing special about this big blue hunk of rock hurtling through space. We are all just a happy accident.
Twelve going on twenty. Sam had been forced to grow up too fast, and Jack missed his carefree little girl. Her brownish-red locks bouncing off her shoulders as she chased butterflies through the forests. So inquisitive. So naive and pure. He blamed himself and his never-ending search; a lack of any hard evidence only salting his daughter’s doubts. Time after time, he came up empty and left another trip disappointed. Each time, he saw that glimpse of something magical drain further from her eyes. Once his wife passed, there was no trace of his little rapscallion. He knew that if he could prove to her that Bigfoot was real, then maybe he’d see that spark again. Jack knew that if it didn’t happen soon, his search for the missing link would result in losing her to the world.
“Are we there yet, Dad?” The familiar moan of a road-weary child went in one ear and out the other as Jack drove on in silence. All he could think about was getting to his field cameras. Checking the footage from the auto-cued surveillance was Jack’s drug. He would sit in his study for hours, reviewing every little (or big) creature that showed up in the lens feed. Black-headed Grosbeak. Violet-green Swallow. Red-breasted Sapsucker. More often than not, it was birds tripping the camera’s sensors. He had become quite the avian aficionado and often joked with Nan that he should give up on Bigfoot and go to work at The Audubon Society. Of course, he also got hours of entertainment watching the squirrels and raccoons practicing their best selfie close-ups. Still, that elusive eight-foot-tall beast had yet to make an appearance.
Despite years of research and fieldwork that turned up mostly empty, Nan was always encouraging of her husband’s passion and his belief that something extraordinary resided in those woods. It was that unbound enthusiasm that had made her fall in love with the slender blonde fella who sat in front of her in a class she was auditing during freshman year at The University of Washington. Anthropology 113: Myths of America. Nan spent most of her first semester in college auditing classes, still unsure of what she wanted to be when she grew up. Little had she known then, that class was the spark that lit Jack’s intense fire. She allowed herself to get caught up in the adventure with him. Every weekend they would comb different areas of the local forests, following leads from years of research forged by his predecessors.
Jack’s passion led him straight to post-grad school and eventually, a doctorate in cryptozoology. Shortly after graduation, they married. For the next couple of years, Jack and Nan lived throughout the wilderness of Washington, Oregon, and Northern California. Based on his doctoral thesis, Jack earned a five-year grant to continue his research into the Bigfoot myth. Myth. Jack was never a fan of that word. It had a negative connotation in his line of work. Myths weren’t real; they were just folklore and fairy tales with no possible root in truth. It wasn't a matter of if he’d find a Sasquatch, but when.
Nan never stopped believing in him, but three years into their search they received news that would change their world forever. Nan was pregnant. Although disappointed that he couldn’t finish what he started, Jack always put his wife first. She needed him more than ever with a baby on the way, and Jack nestled comfortably into family life. He would take a position as a professor at the university, and although not in the field anymore, he knew he could shape the minds of future believers from the classroom. His work would have to continue through his students and the assignments he would give them. Grad students researched various leads and collected artifacts from the field. Professor Owsian would use their field notes to update his research, giving full credit to his students and the work they accomplished in his name.
Although the pace of his efforts slowed considerably, he was thrilled to become a father. He couldn’t wait to share his life’s work with his baby girl. She was born into it. Her nursery overflowed with plush Bigfoot stuffed animals and a library dedicated to the subject that he had collected throughout the years. He wanted her to read every one, hoping she’d share his excitement for it all. He’d start slow, however, with his favorite children’s tale, Big Heart—the story of a little girl who found and saved a young Sasquatch from ill-willed opportunists looking to turn a profit and sensationalize her discovery. Jack and Nan named their daughter after the brave little girl in that book: Samantha.
After Nan passed, Jack understandably struggled to stay focused on his research. The forests he once loved to explore were now a painful reminder of his beloved. Trips without Nan became tedious and no longer joyful, and he refused to bring Sam since her mother’s death. It wasn’t until Sam started getting into trouble at school that Jack realized something had to change, not only in him, but for the benefit of his daughter. His presence, or lack thereof, meant that he was ignoring the needs of his little girl. He decided a change of scenery was needed, so they packed up and headed to Arizona.
Not considered a “hotbed” of Bigfoot activity by most standards, Arizona had its very own version of Sasquatch, known as the Mogollon Monster. Local legend was that the creature lived throughout the dense forests of the northern and central parts of the state. Sightings were reported as far north as the Grand Canyon, with most clustered around a large area of the Coconino and Tonto National Forests known as the Mogollon Rim. Jack was interested in exploring those areas and set up home in Sedona to be centrally located. Known for its beautiful red rock formations and magical properties, Jack hoped Sedona would help Sam break out of her funk and finally begin to heal.
As Jack pulled the old jalopy to a slow stop, rusty brakes screeched and caused a ruckus of wildlife to scatter. As Sam got out of the vehicle, she noticed the sunlight shining through the forest trees and the games the shadows played. Despite her reticence, she could feel the magic of this place, and it brought her comfort. The wind was whistling through the tall Ponderosas, the leaves dancing across the forest floor. She was at peace, taking in her surroundings and forgetting about the digital world, even leaving her phone behind in the truck without a second thought.
“Yeah, Dad?” Sam was already wandering and exploring.
“Stay within shouting distance, please. I shouldn’t be more than an hour; then I want to get camp set up, and I’ll need your help.” Jack didn’t hear a reply. “Sam?”
Her response was unintelligible, but it was enough to let Jack know she had heard and understood his request. Jack was growing used to the grunts, groans, and moans of the modern teenager. Was this what he had to look forward to for the next several years? Teenagers, he thought, shaking his head. He couldn’t help cracking a smile, knowing that she was still a great kid at heart, despite this rough patch.
Sam was in a world of her own exploring the dense forest. Every rock, every leaf, every little bug was a thing of wonder. Soon she had a pocketful of samples she could add to her ever-growing “heart” collection. Over the years, Sam had collected hundreds of heart-shaped items, all made by Mother Nature and serendipitously placed in her path, but none more special than the rock her mom had given her on their first trip together. Sam kept it on her, always. It was a hobby her mother had started with her, and every new item found was a reminder that helped keep Nan’s memory alive.
As she continued her hunt, Sam wandered much farther than her dad would have been comfortable with, and stumbled upon a clearing in the forest, flanked by enormous pine trees and what must have been a ten-ton boulder. Upon examining the rock, she noticed a heart-shaped divot. She traced it with her finger, wishing she could show her mom.
Suddenly, a heavy breeze picked up. Leaves began swirling on the forest floor, dancing with the ebb and flow of the winds; it was mesmerizing. Sam was in a trance, watching as streams of leaves twirled, rising through the trees. She was in disbelief as five separate funnels formed around her, spinning to the treetops almost two hundred feet high, her hair blowing in all directions. Sam wasn’t scared, though perhaps she should have been. It was magical! Then, as suddenly as it started, the winds stopped. Calm. Quiet. It was eerie after the chaos from moments before. Sam was uneasy now. What was that?
She gathered herself, fixed her tousled hair, and began looking around. Fear was setting in. She heard a loud snap from behind her and turned, but saw nothing except for the massive boulder which had been there all along. Not wanting to find out what had made the noise, Sam high-tailed it back to the campsite. She couldn’t wait to tell her dad what happened. Maybe he’d go back with her to investigate. Maybe he wouldn’t believe her. Perhaps she was just letting nature play games with her head.
As she rushed through the trees back into the camp clearing, she shouted for Jack.
“Whoa, whoa, whoa. What’s going on? What’s wrong?”
Nearly out of breath, Sam tried spitting it out. “Dad, you won’t believe what . . .” Her words trailed off as she noticed they were no longer alone. Not wanting to embarrass herself in front of strangers, she quickly went silent. Peering around Jack, she saw a man and three boys. She recognized the man, but couldn’t place him.
“Honey, you remember Mr. Stevens, right?” Jack could see the puzzled look in her eyes. “Charlie is my good friend from university in Washington. It’s been a few years since you saw him last. It was at your mom’s 33rd birthday . . . party.” He realized too late that he might be bringing up a painful memory for his daughter. That party was the last birthday where Nan was in full health. Only weeks later, she’d gotten the grim diagnosis.
Holding back tears, Sam choked on her words. “Yeah, Dad, I remember Charlie. Sure. Sorry, I was just . . .” She looked back at the area from which she had just run screaming, ready to tell her dad what she’d experienced.
Thankfully, Jack interrupted her. “Sam, these are Charlie’s boys: Chris, Tommy, and Eli. Say hello.”
Sam raised her hand meekly and mumbled a barely audible greeting. “Hi.”
The boys were relatively close in age: Chris, the oldest, was 16; Tommy, 13; and Eli, 9. Not that Sam cared much. Boys . . . yuck! Although Tommy did have soft, brown eyes and a friendly smile. She was instantly disgusted with herself for even noticing those things about him.
Sam was fortuitously sidetracked from her fright by the presence of their new campmates. She gave her dad a disapproving glare; he had not been forthcoming that they’d be having company. She wasn’t fond of their presence, as she had been looking forward to spending time by herself.
Charlie and Jack had met during college. They shared the drive to uncover the unknown. Charlie’s vice was extraterrestrial, however. Every few years, the two would get together to help each other with their work, typically out in the field. The last time out, Jack was supposed to go to Peru with Charlie to study the massive Nazca geoglyphs thought to be created by an alien lifeform. It had been the topic of the day at Nan’s birthday party, but Charlie ultimately made that trip alone.
“Wow, this place is beautiful, Jack! I can see why you chose to make your way down south. Those Sedona rock formations are a sight to behold. I envy you, my friend. Much better than the cold, wet northwest.”
“Agreed, Charlie. I just hope we can start making headway on our research. I checked all the cameras before you arrived, and we have plenty of data to comb through.”
Sam glared at Jack. She agreed that Arizona was beautiful, but it wasn’t home. She hadn’t had a chance to make new friends yet. She was lonely, and still felt somewhat at arm’s length from Jack.
“Dad, can I go look for firewood?” All she wanted was to get away from everyone and continue exploring, perhaps go back to the boulder and resume her investigation. She was feeling a bit braver, realizing that maybe she’d overacted to what happened. It was just a windstorm. She was tired, and her eyes must have been playing tricks on her.
“There’s plenty of wood right here,” Jack quipped, pointing to several branches surrounding the campsite.
“But I saw some really good pieces just past a large rock over there.”
“We could use your help here, unloading and setting up the tents, Princess.”
“I think us boys can handle this, Jack.” Charlie locked eyes with Sam and nodded. He knew what she had gone through and was hoping to befriend her. He also knew that Jack was having a hell of a time trying to find his way as a single parent. Jack was exhausted. Charlie could see it in his face.
Sam wryly smiled at Charlie, appreciating his help. Perhaps this guy’s not too bad after all.
“Tommy can go with you and help,” Charlie added at the last second.
On second thought . . .
“But Dad, I . . .” Tommy chimed in his objection, but was quickly interrupted by Jack.
“Excellent idea. Besides, with two of you, you’ll be able to carry more wood. Take the wagons and try to be back before dusk.” Jack and Charlie had so much equipment that they would regularly bring heavy-duty wagons with large-tread tires to haul their load more easily.
Sam and Tommy stared disapproving daggers at their dads, but they each grabbed a wagon and set off. “It’s this way,” Sam said, motioning with her head. She was unhappy about her new companion, but undeterred from returning to her analysis of the boulder and what she’d experienced. Sam didn’t say anything to Tommy about it; she wouldn’t say anything to him at all. Her silence would speak volumes about her disinterest in him tagging along.
As they meandered through the trees and out of earshot of the rest of the group, Tommy spoke up. “So, your dad seems nice.” He tried making small talk to open up a line of communication, but could tell his presence was unwanted. Sam shrugged her silent response. Counting in his head along the way, Tommy waited another hundred steps before trying again. “Do you like Arizona?” More silence.
As they approached the area where the boulder was, Sam slowed, then stopped to look around before entering the clearing between the trees.