“Who’s next?” Miss March sounded bored as she peered over her classroom from behind her old- fashioned cat-eye glasses. Miss March had been teaching at Standish Middle School for thirty-five years. She had powdered pink skin, a cap of white curls sprayed tightly in place, and a chin that proceeded directly into her chest, with a collection of loose, pouchy flesh where her neck should have been.
Jeremy Bigelow thrust his hand into the air. The entire seventh grade groaned. Miss March’s glasses flashed as she glared at them.
“Let’s give Jeremy the respect he gave each of you. Jeremy?” She waited while Jeremy, dressed in jeans and his favorite “I Want to Believe” T-shirt, made his way to the front of the classroom with a remote-control clicker in his hand.
Normally, Jeremy hated school and rarely volunteered to be called on. His brother Noah had attended Standish Middle School six years ago at the age of eight. The teachers were still talking about him: the time that Noah had found an error in the algebra textbook that the publisher had been forced to correct, the time at the statewide Model UN that he’d brokered peace in the Middle East (this while representing Sierra Leone), how he’d blown through the entire middle-school curriculum in six months and had gone on to high school before he turned ten. Noah was back home now, doing a year of independent post-doctoral research before returning to MIT, which meant that Jeremy shared the house with him and their older brother, Ben, a senior at Standish High. Ben was captain of the football team, the baseball team, and the lacrosse team, an all-state player in all three sports. His bedroom wall was papered with letters from coaches from all over the country, begging him to play for them, and letters from professional
football, baseball, and lacrosse coaches, importuning him to skip college completely and go pro.
Jeremy had narrow shoulders and dark-brown hair that was always too long, because his mother usually for-got to bring him to get it cut. He was desperately uncoordinated, lacking both speed and endurance, and most sports bored him, whether he was a spectator or a participant. Academically speaking, he was absolutely average, equally uninterested in every subject.
After his brothers, it was understandable, Jeremy told himself, that his parents, Martin and Suzanne, didn’t have much time or energy left for their so far unremarkable third son. They went to Jeremy’s soccer games, where he was an adequate player, and signed his report cards, full of Bs and Cs, but Jeremy believed that if a stranger stopped either his mother or father on the streets of Standish and said, “Tell me about your son,” they’d launch into a lavish description of Noah’s research or how many goals or touchdowns or home runs Ben had scored, and it would be a long time before it occurred to either one of them to mention their youngest.
“May I have the lights off, please?” Jeremy said. Miss March nodded at Lucy Jones, whose desk was closest to the switch. Some teachers let the kids sit in a semicircle or even on beanbags or on the
floor. Not Miss March, who kept the desks in neat rows, with the trouble-makers right up front.
Lucy made a face at Jeremy and flicked the room into darkness, allowing Jeremy’s opening slide, red letters on a black background, to come into focus on the whiteboard.
“Bigfoots: They Walk among Us,” the letters read. The groans got louder.
“This is the exact same report he gave last year!” Lucy shouted.
Jeremy quickly clicked his remote, and the words “Now with Exciting New Research and Evidence” appeared as a subtitle. Before anyone else could complain, Jeremy began.
“As some of you may remember—”
“Yeah, from when he gave the same report last spring,” whispered Olivia Núñez to her best friend, Sophie Clematis. Jeremy ignored her. “The myth of the Bigfoot has persisted throughout time and across cultures, with sightings, illustrations, photographs, and even films contributing to the growing belief that the Bigfoot or Sasquatch, as Native Americans called them, are not merely folklore or legends but are actual beings whose existence is a closely guarded secret.”
He flexed his leg muscles, then locked them to keep his knees from shaking. “Civilizations and communities, starting with the cavemen, drew
pictures or told stories about gigantic, fur-covered forest dwellers. In China, they are known as the Wild Men or the Yeren. The Tlingit talk of the Kushtaka. Here in Standish, there have been reports of the Bigfoot.” He clicked to the next slide. “This is a still from a nineteen sixty-seven film by Patterson and Gimlin.”
He turned so that he could look at the picture of the gigantic, fur-covered, unmistakably female creature with thick arms and trunklike legs glancing shyly sideways in midstride. “This film was taken deep in the woods of Northern California by two investigators who devoted their lives to proving the Bigfoot was real.”
In the back row, Austin Riley made an armpit fart.
Jeremy continued. “When Europeans first arrived in the New World, evidence suggests that, in addition to finding Native American encampments, they also found villages of Bigfoots.”
Aisling Tolliver waved her hand in the air. “Excuse me, but shouldn’t that be Bigfeet?” She looked hopefully at Miss March, who sometimes gave extra credit during reports, but the teacher appeared to be cleaning her glasses.
“Bigfoots,” said Jeremy.
“Let’s move along to the new evidence you mentioned,” said Miss March.
Jeremy clicked to the next slide, a woodcut of a Pilgrim village, where a man in kneesocks and knickers and a hat with a curled brim appeared to be trading a sack of marbles for a machete. The creature holding the machete was tall and bearded and broad-shouldered and, apparently, naked, except for a thick coat of fur.
“This woodcut,” he said, “which I found after extensive research in the archives of the Standish Historical Society, is thought to depict a scene from the village that became our town, Standish. For all we know, we could be attending classes on the bones of the Bigfoots.”
He paused, letting his words echo, which they did, until Austin armpit farted again. Olivia was braiding Sophie’s hair, and in the front row Hayden Morganthal was resting his melon-shaped head on his forearms and snoring softly.
Jeremy swiped his sweaty palms against his pants. He hoped nobody would ask for details about the Standish Historical Society, which was just a collection of liquor-store cardboard boxes in Mrs. Bradon’s garage. Mrs. Bradon lived downtown, and her great-grandfather Grayson Standish had been one of the town’s fathers. She kept old maps and newspapers, handbills, and town tax returns piled in boxes in her garage, and let Jeremy look at them, after he promised not to make a mess.
Jeremy pushed on, clicking to slides that explained Bigfoot biology. “Once thought to be descended from the great apes of Africa, scientists now believe that Bigfoots are simply hominids who evolved at the same time as Neanderthal man, with certain musculoskeletal differences including extreme height and broad musculature that allowed them to become efficient hunter-gatherers in the Northeast and Pacific Northwest. Most Bigfoots are believed to be omnivores, eating flesh as well as flora. They are said to stand between seven and eight feet tall, weighing anywhere from three to five hundred pounds, and are covered with coarse, curling dark fur.”
“Is that from The National Enquirer?” asked tattletale Meghan Carpenter, who sat next to Aisling in the back row.
“It’s been widely reprinted,” Jeremy said.
Miss March, who’d spent a lot of time instructing her class about what constituted reputable source material, made a mark in her notebook. Jeremy winced and went on.
“For hundreds of years, evidence suggests that Bigfoots and humans worked side by side to turn America from a nation of farms and homesteads to a land of towns, then cities. Bigfoots plowed the fields and cleared the forests.” He
showed a picture of what might have been two Bigfoots or just two extremely large men in overalls and wide-brimmed hats standing next to a wagon full of lumber.
“Bigfoots helped build the railroads.” Another slide, this one showing a crowd of men—one of whom towered head and shoulders above the others—posing proudly in front of a track.
“Evidence suggests that sometimes Bigfoots and humans would marry and have children.”
“Eww!” squealed Lucy Jones.
Jeremy clicked to a sepia-toned family photograph, another discovery from the depths of the Bradon collection. The husband was an enormous, hulking man, tall and wide and heavily whiskered. His wife was clearly human, with a hint of amusement in the tilted corners of her mouth. The husband’s free hand rested on the shoulder of a big, thick-necked boy who was staring at the ground so that most of his face was invisible to the camera. The wife was holding on to a freckle-faced girl with two long braided pigtails and the same smile as her mother.
“But as the march of progress continued, humans began to realize that their Bigfoot neighbors were different . . . and the Bigfoots began exploring means of controlling their fur and extreme size.”
Jeremy clicked, then wiped his hands again and stole a glance at the classroom. Hayden Morganthal was fast asleep. Sophie was now working on Olivia’s hair. Aisling had a textbook open in her lap and was reading ahead in science.
Jeremy sighed. Just wait, he thought. Wait until I find them. Wait until I show you they’re real.
The next slide showed a canvas-covered wagon with a poster on the side advertising “Snake Oil Scalp Tonic.” Other posters offered love potions, slimming belts, various liniments, and lotions including—Jeremy zoomed in until the class could see it—Dr. McLaughlin’s All- Natural Wild-root Hair Removing Crème. “Troubled by unwanted hair?” the text read. “Twice-a-day application of Dr. McLaughlin’s All-Natural Wildroot Hair Removing Crème will eliminate unsightly whiskers from any portion of the anatomy, small or large, and permanently prevent their return!”
“Wasn’t that just for, like, ladies’ mustaches?” asked Austin the Armpit Farter. Austin had red hair and freckles and a smirky grin that allowed teachers to identify him as a troublemaker before he’d actually made any trouble.
“That’s what they want you to believe,” said Jeremy.
“Who’s ‘they’?” Austin inquired.
Jeremy clicked to the next slide, ignoring his classmate’s questions. “Sadly, humans turned on their former friends and neighbors, labeling them freaks and abominations, forcing Bigfoots into hiding. The unfortunate Bigfoots who had the misfortune to be captured by hostile humans were displayed in circuses and traveling sideshows.”
The worst slide, the one that always made him feel sick, came next. “BEHOLD LUCILLE, the FAMED and ORIGI-NAL BEARDED LADY!” blared a poster nailed to the wall above a cringing, fur-covered human-size creature in a cage. “IS SHE HUMAN? IS SHE BEAST? BORN with a FULL HEAD OF HAIR, her BEARD was APPARENT AT BIRTH and now she is COVERED WITH A PELT OF THICK FUR FROM HEAD TO TOE. Experts consider her ONE of the WONDERS OF THE MODERN AGE.”
“My Nanna’s got a mustache,” volunteered Lucy Jones. “Maybe she’s a Bigfoot!”
Jeremy, who thought Lucy had a bit of a mustache herself, hurried through the slides, eager to get away from the image of the furred but unmistakably female Bigfoot cowering behind the bars of her cage. If he found a Bigfoot, he’d make sure it was treated better than that—not locked up, not shown off for money. He’d be kind; he’d figure out its language (or teach it English) and make sure it had a comfortable place to live, with lots of space.
He’d never keep a Bigfoot locked up . . . at least, he’d only lock one up until he figured out how to make it understand that he was its friend, not its enemy.
Jeremy showed his classmates pictures of footprints with rulers set beside them, proof that they hadn’t been made by bears. He clicked through news paper reports of campers who’d been awakened by strange noises and seen gigantic, hairy creatures running away—upright, on two legs—with their coolers and supplies. He lingered on a newspaper clipping with a picture of Milford Carruthers, a Standish resident, identified in the caption as “Famed Bigfoot Hunter,” and his quote, which Jeremy knew by heart: “Given the preponderance of evidence, of sightings and reports down through the years, we must come to the obvious conclusion that Bigfoots are real, and that they live among us.”
In the back row, Anthony Palmore, one of the smart kids who always turned in his homework on time, raised his hand. Anthony’s button-down blue shirt was neatly ironed, his blue jeans had creases, and his sneakers were pristine. Anthony’s mother, Jeremy thought, would never forget to take Anthony for his haircuts. Jeremy curled his toes inside his shoes. “Yes?”
“If they’re real,” said Anthony, “then why hasn’t any-one found one? That picture you showed us was taken in the nineteen sixties, right?”
“Nineteen sixty-seven,” said Jeremy, and jerked his neck to flip his long hair out of his eyes.
“And that’s the most recent one?”
“They’ve gotten better at hiding,” Jeremy said. “They’ve probably figured out how to grow their own food and tap into the power system without anyone knowing.” He thought of the news reports of bears raiding a campsite in California two years ago. The campers had said they’d seen bears, but the footprints hadn’t looked like bear prints, the police had said, but feet. Big feet. Jeremy was sure those weren’t bears the campers had seen, but the investigators had never confirmed anything, and Jeremy knew his classmates would be brutal if he brought it up.
“While we’re looking for them, I bet they’re paying attention to us. They’re probably online,” he said instead.
“Try www.bigfoot.com,” said Lucy Jones with a smirk. “If they’ve gotten better at hiding, shouldn’t we have gotten better at seeking?” asked Anthony. “Don’t we have infrared sensors?”
“Bigfoots wouldn’t show up on sensors any differently than humans,” Jeremy said.
“What about drones or something?”
The back of Jeremy’s neck prickled underneath his collar. He flicked his hair off his face again. “If you were a Bigfoot,” he said, keeping his
voice level, “don’t you think you’d be smart enough to figure out how to not be spot-ted by a drone?”
“The one in the picture doesn’t look too smart,” said Austin, hunching over, imitating the Bigfoot’s pose and expression. Everyone laughed.
With his face burning, Jeremy dropped the remote on Miss March’s desk—although “threw” might have been a more accurate word. “I’m done,” he said, and stalked back to his seat. He knew how his afternoon would proceed: the call to the principal’s office; the recess spent with the school counselor, Mrs. Dannicker, who had a sloping shelf of a bosom and whose sweaters were usually dotted with dabs of egg or tuna salad from her lunch. Mrs. Dannicker would ask him to discuss his interest in Bigfoots, and the difference between a “hobby” and an “obsession,” and how was he getting along with his classmates, which would eventually lead to the question she always asked him, the one Jeremy thought was the only one she actually cared about: “How are things at home?”
At his desk Jeremy stared down at his textbooks and imagined how it must have been for the Bigfoots. One day they were living in villages and towns, friends and neighbors to the humans. Then the talk started.
They don’t go to church, the ministers would say from their pulpits.
They don’t come to school, the teachers would note.
They never wear shoes, the women would whisper. Maybe, when they’re alone, not even clothes!
Why are they so big? Why are they so hairy?
They’re not like us. Just like Jeremy wasn’t like his exceptional brothers. He was lucky, he thought, that his parents still fed him and clothed him and let him live in their house, instead of displaying him in a cage and mak-ing people pay for a look.
Step right up to see the perfectly average boy, he thought, and scrubbed the heels of his hands against his stinging eyes as the bell rang. He heard his classmates gathering their books, chattering and laughing, and Lucy Jones say-ing, “I can’t believe he did the exact same report again!”
When he looked up, the classroom lights had been turned back on, the room had emptied, and Miss March was sitting at the desk next to his. If she’d been angry (because he had, basically, repeated his project from the previous spring), if she’d been bored, if she’d threatened to flunk him, that all would have been fine. But Miss March looked concerned, the way his mother looked, on the rare occasions when she noticed him . . . like at Ben, when he’d gotten a concussion during the state
semi finals, or at Noah, when Nature had asked him to rewrite his paper on stellar parallax before they’d publish it. Miss March’s eyes were soft, and her voice was very gentle when she spoke.
“I apologize for your classmates,” she said. “They should have listened to you with more respect.”
Jeremy shrugged and started to gather his books. He didn’t want sympathy, especially not from a teacher. Miss March put her hand on his arm. “I don’t know if I’ve ever mentioned this in class, but I had a twin sister.”
Jeremy swallowed a sigh and readied himself for Well-Meaning Grown-Up Speech #37: You’re Special Too.
“She was different than I was,” Miss March continued. Of course she was, Jeremy thought. Smarter. Faster. Stronger. Better.
“She had multiple sclerosis—do you know what that is?”
Startled, Jeremy shook his head. This speech wasn’t going where he’d imagined.
“It’s a disease. People who have it sometimes can’t walk or talk. They look different. My sister used a wheelchair, and she could communicate, but her speech wasn’t clear. Most people didn’t understand her.” Miss March looked away, toward the window. “Most people didn’t try.”
In the light from the windows, Jeremy saw that his teacher’s white hair was fine, that her pink lipstick had worked its way into the tiny lines around her top lip.
“I know what it’s like to feel like you’re the child your parents forgot about. Between my sister’s medical issues—the doctors and the therapy and all of it—it felt sometimes like I wasn’t even there. Like I could be turn-ing somersaults, or standing on my head in the middle of the kitchen, and my mom would say, ‘Did Stephanie eat her lunch?’ and my dad would say, ‘I was on the phone with the insurance company about reimbursements.’” Miss March managed a smile. “But I worked hard to carve out my own niche—do you know what that means?—and I made some good friends.” She patted Jeremy’s arm. “It took time, but I found my way.”
Jeremy wondered if Miss March had noticed that he had no friends among his classmates, that all the kids, even the troublemakers like Austin and the lazy lumps like Hayden Morganthal, thought he was a weirdo and a freak . . . and these were kids who’d known him his whole life. How would time help?
“You’ll be fine,” she said, and Jeremy nodded and zipped up his backpack and put it over his shoulders before he thought to ask, “What happened to your sister?”
Miss March had been straightening her stacks of paper. At Jeremy’s question, she went very still. “She died,” she said after a moment. “When we were—when she was sixteen.”
Jeremy didn’t know what to say to that. He’d hardly thought of teachers as having once been children, let alone children to whom terrible things happened. “Have a good weekend,” he managed, and she gave him a sad smile, and then he was out the door, walking fast, with his head down and his thumbs hooked under his back-pack straps.
The kids at school would never understand him, and it would probably take his parents a few weeks to notice if he ran away from home (“Honey, does it seem like there’s more food left over from dinner?” he could hear his mother asking. “Should we call someone?” His dad would think for a minute, then shrug).
He would keep looking. He had one friend, one friend who believed him, and that was enough. He would continue his research and his explorations. He’d find a Big-foot, and when he did, his parents, his classmates, his teachers, and the whole world would know his name.