Fox in the Road

by James Ulmer

I was distracted, working late as I often did in the months after Annie’s death, so night had already settled over the quiet Southern town when I finally put my task aside. I decided to go for a walk to clear my mind so I could sleep.

I stepped from the front porch and waded into a sea of moonlight. The thick shadows of pine trunks lay like solid black columns on the lawn. It was a cool, still autumn night with a trace of ice in the air and that peculiar excitement that comes at the change of season. At the mouth of the driveway, a few red oak leaves stirred at the roadside. The night was soundless and deserted, not a car or another person visible for a hundred yards or more in either direction on the hilly, moonlit ribbon of road that stretched in front of my house. Somewhere in the distance an owl hooted. I took to the middle of the street with a sense of ownership, as if the rest of the world had bequeathed the silent autumn night solely to me.

My steps made a sound that seemed too loud on the macadam roadway. Dark pines rose eighty feet or more on both sides of the road, clusters of white stars like salt tangled in their branches. The moon threw my shadow in front of me on the silvered pavement, and as I walked I began to imagine that I heard a second set of footsteps carefully keeping pace with my own. The more I listened, the more certain I became. As I quickened my pace, so did my pursuer, the steps carefully timed to fall as mine did.

Stopping abruptly, I wheeled around.

“Who’s there?” I called out, putting a tone of command in my voice.

No one. The great blind eye of the moon hung above the deserted road.

Berating myself for my nervousness, I resumed my walk, but as soon as I did, the second set of footsteps started again. They slowed as I did, quickened when I did, and stopped when I paused to listen. Again I turned and found myself alone.

I said aloud, “Is this some kind of joke?”

A row of cornstalks on the side of a neighbor’s bungalow rustled in a momentary breath of wind. Two fat pumpkins, their slick skins shining in the moonlight, nestled in the dark earth. I waited, listening intently, to see if my pursuer would reveal himself, but the breeze fell and the silence of the night flowed back, a spell that wouldn’t be broken. After a minute, maybe two, I decided I must’ve been mistaken. What I was hearing, I convinced myself, was an echo, a ringing—the effect of the extraordinary clarity of the autumn night, the sky stretching overhead like the tarnished dome of an enormous silver bell.

Turning again, I took a step and pulled up short.

A fox sat on it haunches in the road fifty feet in front of me, the brush tail wrapped around its thin front legs. Ears tipped forward, alert for any sudden movement, the animal regarded me with frank curiosity, its head tipped to one side. Tawny fur glowed in the moonlight. Thief, I thought. Trickster. What do you want with me? We exchanged a look for a stretch of nearly a minute, each of us apparently balked by the other’s unaccountable presence, until I believed, as in a fable, that the beast would stand on its hind legs and speak.

Instead, he turned fluidly and trotted toward the trees to my right. I watched him disappear around the thick trunk of an old maple. A breeze seemed to trail after him, stirring the yellow leaves until the tree looked like an enormous match struck in the shadows. Feeling visited, I retraced the path to my door, turning to look once more at the rows of black pines, the occasional oak or maple spilling a daub of paint on the darkness.


The alarm went off at six, jolting me form a sound sleep. I’d been dreaming about Annie. She’d been asking me something, pleading, and the sound of the gunshot had morphed into the rhythmic, intrusive beeping of the alarm. Shoving away the fragments of dream, I sat up and threw back the covers, quickly arranging in my mind the round of meetings, classes, and student conferences that would get me through the day. A watery, pre-dawn light swam around the room. I stood and stretched, absentmindedly stepping to the window and opening the blinds to look out.

To my surprise, a figure stood directly outside the window, a young man, his face an inch from the glass. Red hair, a long thin nose, a camp shirt with a thin black stripe running vertically through it, and strangely, his eyes were closed. Behind him, a few last rags of mist drifted eerily between the pines, adding the final suggestion of nightmare and unreality. I thought at first that I was still dreaming, that I would wake at any moment and find myself in bed, but the next instant his eyes snapped open—yellow, feral eyes—and he tipped his head to regard me, a grin breaking out across his face. I staggered back a step as if I’d been slapped.

And then the window was empty.

Determined to confront the intruder, I strode down the hall, turned into the kitchen, threw back the bolt on the French doors, and stepped out into the back yard.

No one in sight. Morning sunlight filtered palely through the pine boughs. A score of dark cones littered the grass, some with a piece of branch attached like muted half notes. From the peak of the roof, a mockingbird trilled noisily for day. I waited for a moment, shivering slightly in the cool, green-smelling morning air, but my intruder never showed himself.

By the time I was halfway through my second cup of coffee, I had decided that nothing unusual had occurred. I’d caught a nosy neighbor peering into my bedroom—some local version of Boo Radley, I told myself, or one of the Snopes clan. The uncertain morning light had conveyed that odd quality to his features, his eyes. There was nothing unearthly about what I’d seen.

Soon I was seated behind the wheel of my Camry. The garage door rolled up behind me, and I turned over the engine and put the car in gear. As I was about to ease off the brake, I glanced up into my rearview mirror.

The man stood in the driveway, ten feet from my rear bumper—the same shirt, cache pants, the same unnerving grin, a grin that seemed to suggest that he knew me. The light was up now, and there was no mistaking what I saw: red hair, a thin face, the ears slightly elongated. Instinctively, I swung around to confront the bizarre apparition, but the drive behind me was empty.

“Damn it!” I muttered.

Carefully, I backed out, k-turned, and pointed the car toward the road. I waited a few seconds until the garage door had rolled down securely into place, then pulled forward and idled at the mouth of the driveway. The front yard to my left, the neighbor’s yard to my right, and the road in both directions for as far as I could see were silent and empty that morning, only a row of steel mailboxes gleaming in the newly risen sun. Shaken, I clutched the wheel. Where the hell was he? No one could’ve run fast enough to get out of sight in those few seconds. I almost expected him to rise up, leering, at my side door.

A pair of turkey buzzards wheeled in a loose, widening circle above the tops of the pines as I turned into the empty road and made my way to campus.


A front moved in, and the day became dark and still. All of Arkansas is an enormous forest, or at least it seems like it to anyone from the city, and on sunless days, with the low-lying clouds drifting like smoke overhead and crows like ragged scraps of darkness calling out from the tops of pines, you could swear you were travelling, like Hansel, through some black, forbidding wood. Somehow, the day passed without incident, and on the afternoon of the next day, I returned to my office at around four-thirty.

I hadn’t slept well the night before—I’d been sure there was someone lurking in the yard and kept getting up to check—so I’d struggled to stay awake and focused through the ordeal of a two-hour meeting. Now, trying to gather myself, I stood behind my desk and looked out through the window to the brilliant, sunlit October campus. The weather had lifted and so, to some degree, had my mood. A few spent leaves drifted down from an enormous oak to the litter the still-green quad. About fifty yards away from my third-floor window, a concrete path crossed the green, leading from the art building on my left across the front of the library to a row of dark hedges on the right. On the other side of those hedges, hidden from sight, stood Anson Hall, the psychology building.

I gazed out, my mind empty of every thought except my own exhaustion. I was remembering a Sunday afternoon in spring before Annie and I left Houston three years before. We’d been leading a rich life then, though neither of us at the time had understood how privileged we were. We left the coffeehouse near our townhome and walked the two blocks to the art museum to see an exhibition of West African art. The redbuds were in bloom, weaving a border of scarlet lace around the tinted, cloud-reflecting skylights of the museum building. Entering the hall, we found the dark wooden idols, fetishes, squatting in rows of glass cases under spotlights, their torsos studded with nails, traces of smoke and incantations still clinging to them.

Lost in recall, I hardly noticed the figure that traversed the path across the green beyond my window, moving quickly with short, rapid steps toward the hedges. After all, students walked that path all the time, even at this relatively late hour—but then the shock of red hair registered, the tan shirt, the cache pants. And something else I hadn’t noticed before: a pair of high-topped black sneakers.

In an instant I was out of my office and racing down two flights of stairs. I emerged on the deserted green, a few red and yellow leaves blowing across the grass like flames. Rushing toward the hedges, I followed the path into shadows. It was empty. A solitary student came toward me around the bend, a blue backpack slung over one shoulder. I grabbed her arm to stop her as she passed.

“Did you see anyone?” I demanded.


Her eyes were wide, and I could feel her trying to pull away from me. I shook her, hard, making the brown hair fly around her face. “Did anyone pass you?”

“No,” she stuttered. “No one.”

I hurried on. The path spilled out in front of the brick and white-pillared façade of Anson Hall. In the distance, three students moved at a leisurely pace toward the nearly empty parking lot. There was no one else in sight. A single white cloud, high up, drifted through the faultless blue air, backlit with golden light.


By the time I got home from work that evening, I’d made an attempt to come to terms with what I’d seen. I thought of the gray eyes of the girl I’d accosted on the path, how they’d flicked around in panic, looking for rescue or a witness. I’d frightened her badly, and who could blame her? I must’ve looked like a crazy man. I thought back to my walk from two nights ago, the fox standing in the road like the statue of an Egyptian cat, a talisman, the brush tail wrapped around its front paws, red fur silvered with moonlight, ruffled by the wind. Remembering, I could feel the cold night air, smell the acrid scent of fallen leaves.

I remembered the footsteps, too, the way they echoed my own. Something had picked up my trail that night—for what purpose, I couldn’t say. Whoever or whatever it was, I hadn’t lost it, hadn’t managed to shake it off or break free.

I needed to talk to someone.

So, early the next morning, forty minutes before the first classes started at eight, I stood in the doorway of Dr. Sam Benson’s office on the third floor of the history building. Benson sat at his desk, his white head in one hand, intently pouring over the book open before him. A map of the Battle of Poison Springs, mounted and framed, hung on the wall behind him. I tapped lightly on the doorframe.

He looked up. “Well Jared,” he smiled, “I haven’t seen you in a while. What brings you over here at such an ungodly hour?”

“My suspicion that I’d find you here,” I told him. “Got a minute?”

“Of course.” He gestured to a leather armchair facing his desk. When I was settled in, he asked. “What’s on your mind?”

It was then that I realized that I hadn’t really considered how to explain myself. How does one tell a story like mine, when there’s so little chance that any sensible person will believe you? Waiting, Benson regarded me with his frank blue eyes from behind the lenses of a pair of tortoiseshell glasses.

“I’m being stalked,” I told him.

His brow creased. “Stalked by whom? A student?”

“No,” I shook my head. “I doubt it. I don’t know who he is. Christ, I don’t even know what he is.” I took an instant to get my frustration in hand. “He appears to be a young man with red hair, but there’s something wrong about him, Sam, something disturbing. He’s too thin, his face is too narrow, his ears are too long—all of his proportions are off somehow, distorted.” This wasn’t making any sense. I saw the surprise, the concern, pass like a shadow across Sam Benson’s face. “I saw him outside my bedroom window,” I added. “Right outside. He has yellow eyes.” In my mind, I saw the eyes blink open and the grin break out across his face. “They’re the strangest eyes I’ve ever seen.”

“He was outside your bedroom window?”

I nodded. “Two mornings ago. Not more than three inches from the glass.”

“Have you called the police?”

I looked up at him, surprised, though I shouldn’t have been. That would’ve been the obvious thing to do. Why hadn’t I called?

He must’ve seen the answer on my face.

“You’ve been under a lot of pressure since Annie died, haven’t you?”

Now I was angry. “What’s Annie got to do with this?”

He met my eye without speaking.

“Do you think I’m delusional?” I asked him. “Think I’m crazy?”

“No, I don’t.” He managed a weak smile. “To be honest, I don’t even know what that word means anymore, Jared. At the most, it may simply mean that one fails to agree with some narrow sense of the norm.” He took his glasses off and held them in one hand, leaning forward and gesturing with them as he might have in the classroom. “A century after Freud,” he said, “and we still don’t have the slightest idea what dreams are or what they mean. We don’t know how the mind works or what perception or consciousness really is, and we aren’t even sure how to study them.”

“Are you telling me I’ve been dreaming?”

He slipped his glasses back on. They made his eyes larger, giving him a startled look.

“Not exactly. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that you’re experiencing some heightened level of perception, some visionary state that would’ve been brought on, in a more primitive culture, by the deliberate derangement of the senses—through hallucinogenic drugs, for example, or a sweat lodge.”

I started to object, but he raised a hand to silence me.

“A waking dream, if you prefer. If this were a dream, an analyst would tell you to confront this thing.”

I wanted to tell him that I’d tried to chase down my pursuer but had only managed to scare the hell out of an unsuspecting student. But I needed to hear where he was going with this.

“What do you mean, Sam?”

He settled back in his chair. “There was an anecdote I read somewhere about Carl Jung. A patient was having repeated dreams about a witch. Terrifying dreams. It got so bad that the man could hardly sleep. Jung suggested that the next time he had the dream, he should walk up to the witch and ask her what she wanted. He did, and the nightmares stopped.”


“So,” he smiled. “Ask your witch what he wants.”


Back in my office later that day, I watched the crowd of students milling on the open ground beyond my window. It was almost noon, and there must’ve been over two hundred students crossing the green in one direction or another, heading for the library or the student center or making their way to the path that lead to the south quadrant of campus. Amber-colored leaves clung to the boughs that partially shaded them from the brilliant October sun.

A flash of red in the crowd drew my eye. It was him.

Sonofabitch, I thought. I watched him dodging against the flow of walkers, never quite colliding with anyone, slipping through the solid crush of athletes, sorority girls, and blue-haired, disaffected art students as if he were a windblown leaf. His appearance was a taunt and a challenge: I felt at once that he wanted me to see him. The red hair flickered here and there through sun and shadow, then seemed to blink out—only to appear again, inexplicably, in a different quadrant of the green. He seemed to glow faintly like the light given off by rotting wood in the forest, burning through the crowd like a fuse, inexorably, threatening to set the October afternoon on fire. I wondered what the unsuspecting students thought of that grinning, shifting phantom. And then I wondered if they could see him as I could. Perhaps he moved invisibly among them.

Perhaps he wasn’t there at all.

I pushed the thought away.

I wanted to go down there, wanted to collar that yellow-eyed apparition, my tormentor, and force him to relent. But I had no idea what might happen if I did. There were too many witnesses on the green, and I suffered the sudden, humiliating vision of two hundred students watching as their professor angrily confronted thin air.

So I closed my blinds, tried to work, and waited for a better opportunity.


I didn’t have to wait long. That night, after the last light dropped into the pines in the west, I moved nervously through the empty house, going from room to room and looking out, certain I was being watched. The feeling of siege, of some imminent assault, was impossible to ignore. My steps creaked on the wooden floors as I circled from window to window—the front yard, the back yard, the side—expecting to see him at any moment peering at me from behind a tree. The overgrown bushes, draped in veils of pine needles, held up their ragged, ghostly arms.

At last, I left the house, stepping out on the front porch and turning to lock the door behind me. I thought he might be more willing to show himself in the open, and whether or not that would prove to be the case, I simply couldn’t continue endlessly pacing those narrow rooms. It was nearly midnight by then, the road out front deserted, the town long subsided into sleep and silence. The moon was on the wane now, but there was still enough light to see. Wind swirled in the enormous pines, the top boughs rocking and swaying, making a rushing sound that muted my steps and seemed to arrive from every direction at once. Pausing at the mouth of the driveway, I closed my eyes to listen.

Nothing. Yellow leaves from the tallow tree across the street fell in a cold fire.

When the wind dropped, I began to walk. My steps sounded on the road, and the familiar second set of steps kept pace behind me, stopping as I did, starting. But the wind in the pines, rising again, was like white noise, like the sea heard in the distance, and it was hard to be certain. At the border of the road, lush, top-heavy stalks of goldenrod whispered and nodded their approval, urging me on. Hurry, he’s coming. Slowly I walked forward, listening, watching for my stalker to appear.

And then he did. I had gone about two hundred yards from the house when he emerged from the trees on my left and stepped out into the road to confront me. The moon was behind him, so his face was in shadow, but there was no mistaking the luminous red hair. It seemed to shine with its own light in the darkness. The two of us stood in the road about thirty feet apart, each taking the other’s measure. The only sound was the wind in the trees.

I broke the silence.

“Who the hell are you? What do you want?”

He didn’t speak. One arm slowly rose and pointed at me. I could see his eyes gleaming in the dark. They seemed to flick, infinitesimally, to glance past my shoulder, and I swung around to look.

Annie stood in the road behind me, not a dozen paces away. I took a step in her direction and froze. The moonlight fell on her, painting her face a pale, bloodless blue. The left side of her head was mangled, her hair matted with black blood where the bullet had exited her skull. She stood unsteadily on her feet, still wearing the loose-fitting cotton hospital gown they’d draped on her in the emergency room, swaying slightly as if she would collapse at any moment and fall to the ground in a shapeless bundle. She was, to all appearances, solid, but she was not alive. I wanted to cry out, but I couldn’t move or breathe. Her eyes were fixed on the road at her feet, but they lifted then to regard me.

When those blank, lifeless eyes met mine, cold with accusation, my mind was sent hurtling into memory, the scene so vivid it was like watching a film. We were in the kitchen, arguing as we had been for hours, turning over again and again the same set of circumstances that we couldn’t change. My job at the college was the only thing keeping us afloat. There was nothing for Annie in that dying Southern town: no money, no work, no beauty or pleasure of any kind—just a post office, a third-rate beauty parlor, and sixteen protestant churches, all of them vaguely suspicious of each other. The crushing isolation of the place had taken its toll on Annie; the gleam had faded from her eyes, and she’d fallen into a black depression. I hadn’t been able to save her, to take her away, and it was more than I could stand. Frustration welled up in me, a hand at my throat, making the lighted kitchen flash and swim before my eyes.

“I feel as if I’m shackled to a corpse,” I told her.

Annie didn’t move or speak at first, but a change came over her as soon as I said those terrible words. She slumped as if I’d struck her, and the last bit of life drained from her and ran invisibly over the floor. She regarded me for a moment with her dark eyes, then turned and walked slowly away, her steps receding down the hall. I heard the bedroom door close behind her with a final click.

Two days later, she put the gun in her mouth and pulled the trigger.

I believed I could hear, distantly, that single shot.

Standing again in the moonlit road, I dropped my head in my hands, unable to meet that dead, unblinking stare any longer. So that’s what I am, I thought. It had been an unimaginably cruel thing to say to someone who was already suffering horribly, someone I loved. It didn’t matter that I’d been suffering, too. I might as well have pulled the trigger myself—no wonder I hadn’t allowed myself to remember or to think about it.

When I looked up again, the shadowy, moon-dusted road was deserted. The odd, feral presence that had trailed me for three days was gone as well, and I never saw him again after that. Winter was coming. I stood alone on the blank, windswept street, an empty house behind me in the icy darkness, with no hope for solace or redemption.

JAMES ULMER’s recent collection of ghost stories, The Fire Doll, won the George Garrett Fiction Prize from Texas Review Press. His fiction and poetry have appeared in The New YorkerThe Missouri ReviewstorySouthCrazyhorseNew Letters, and elsewhere. Ulmer is currently Professor of English and Chair of the Department of English and Foreign Languages at Southern Arkansas University.