It all started with those hoofprints on the grassy hillside. I wonder, even now, if I could have ignored the hoofprints—if I even had that option.
And if I had ignored them, would things have turned out differently?
I pulled into the empty parking lot of the Pantry Shelf, a family-run convenience mart in Clermont County, Ohio. It was the first Saturday of June 1976, about midway through the noon hour.
I brought my vehicle to a stop at the edge of the parking lot, where the blacktop met a rising, grass-covered slope. The sun was reflected on the white paint job of my 1968 Bonneville.
I had owned the Bonneville for less than a week. Although the car was used, it was the first car I had ever purchased with my own money. I sat there, listening to the engine for a few seconds before I shut it off. I already knew that there might be a problem beneath the hood…but that explanation can wait.
I stepped out of the Bonneville and onto the blacktop. I squinted against the glare. The smells of pollen and freshly cut grass filled the air. And, of course, the gasoline and oil smells of my car. The humidity of a southern Ohio summer prickled my skin.
The Pantry Shelf occupied a little squarish brick building. A big window, directly behind the cash register, faced the parking lot. From where I stood, I could see Leslie Griffin’s blonde hair, and the back of her pink shirt. She was leaning over the sales counter.
Leslie was probably reading a book. She was majoring in English Literature at Ohio State. She was home for the summer, and working at her parents’ convenience mart.
I was about to walk toward the store, when I noticed the hoofprints.
The hoofprints ascended the adjacent hillside. Although today was clear and sunny, we had had a soaker of an early summer rainstorm only a few days ago. (This accounted for the humidity.) As a result, the top layer of the hillside was still moist and easily disturbed. The hoofprints cut a rutty, muddy path up to the top of the hill.
At the top of the hill was a short plateau. And beyond that, a stand of woods.
From somewhere back in those woods, I heard a cicada chirr.
There were plenty of woods in Clermont County in 1976. The county is located about twenty miles east of downtown Cincinnati. Today western Clermont County has been absorbed into what is called Greater Cincinnati. But in those days, the entire county was rural or semirural, not far from Cincinnati, but basically a place unto itself.
But even here, the presence of the hoofprints was rather unusual. There were many farms in the vicinity; and it wouldn’t have been a huge surprise to find some horses among them. But the Pantry Shelf was located along Ohio Pike, the two-lane highway that ran directly into Cincinnati. This was no horse trail.
And why would anyone want to ride a horse up into those woods? There was nothing back there, after all…but even more woods.
I looked back at the Pantry Shelf. Leslie was still leaning over the counter, the very sight of her making my heart ache a little.
Nevertheless, I found myself drawn to the hoofprints. There was something—I couldn’t quite say exactly what—strange about them, besides their mere location.
I stepped over to the edge of the blacktop, knelt down, and looked at the hoofprints more closely. They were big.
Almost immediately, a nausea-inducing smell assaulted my nostrils. Then I identified another oddity: Each hoofprint was rimmed with a putrid black gunk. That was the obvious source of the odor.
The smell reminded me of rot and death, of small animals that had been struck by cars, and left to fester alongside the road. Along country roads, there was never any shortage of roadkill—
I asked myself why I was bothering to think about such things, on the first Saturday of the summer before my senior year of high school.
Come to think of it: Why had I bothered to examine the hoofprints at all?
Yes, they were a little unusual. Their presence was difficult to explain, and I had no guesses about the black goo around their edges.
But so what? What did those hoofprints have to do with anything? I asked myself.
Absolutely nothing, was the answer that came back.
I stood up, glad to be clear of the noxious smell. And then I saw the missing person’s flyer, and the grainy, black-and-white photos of the two young people who were probably already dead.
Copyright©Edward Trimnell, 2018