I love this story. It may not be the best thing I have ever written, it is not my favorite story I have gotten published. But it is fun and gay and cute and I would like more people to meet my queer cryptozoologists.
So without further ado…
By Jennifer Lee Rossman
Four years to get her bachelor's degree, two more for her master's, five for her PhD, only to have her life's dedication to cryptoprimatology reduced to the word squatchin'.
Not even "squatching" with a G, which still wasn't a word but which at least had the self-respect not to end with an apostrophe. Squatchin'. Like she was a hillbilly drinkin' moonshine from a jug down by the fishin' hole.
"I'm conducting a search for an as-yet-unknown primate," Fern gently corrected the reporter.
"And you got a recording of it last time you squatched?"
She sighed inwardly and nibbled a pretzel while trying to formulate an answer that couldn't be sensationalized. When she was growing up, people in her profession were mocked after appearing on episodes of Unsolved Mysteries, but there wasn't such a thing as clickbait in the 90s.
"I made a recording of an animal that I have not been able to identify yet, yes," she said, and read upside down as the reporter wrote "Squatcher claims to have Bigfoot on tape!" because of course that was what the article would say.
A small commotion at the front of the bar drew the reporter's attention. Fern turned to look and instantly regretted it.
Fern was far too professional to have anything as petty as a rival, but if she did, it would have been Lana.
Twenty-something Internet sensation Lana, with her pink-and-brown braids and her YouTube channel. Quirky, "adorkable" Lana, who had single-handedly brought the term squatchin' into popular culture and turned Fern's academic study into a livestreamed event with brand sponsorship.
Never mind that she was cute and funny and had an intense passion for mystery and conservation, and that her ridiculous signature suspenders bore several enamel pins that declared her a fellow queer. She was the antithesis of Fern's careful, scientific methodology, which was why Fern kept staring at her, and why Fern stayed up late into the night watching "Cryptozoo-LANA-gy."
Because of... all the hatred. Yeah, that was it.
"Friend of yours?" the reporter asked, jerking her out of her thoughts and plopping her back in the dim bar in rural Oregon.
She felt her face grow warm. "Not exactly. So, I've actually gotten several interesting recordings in the past year," she continued, determined to do everything she could to impart actual information. "Whether they are from an unknown primate or are perhaps just a new bird call we've yet to document remains to be seen, but I've been trying a new method in which I call out into the woods in hopes of eliciting a response."
"Oh, like how Lana does on her show?"
Fern stared at him long and hard. "I wouldn't know."
"Oh yeah, it's squatchy out here today." Lana set her computer on a convenient stump and hit Record. "Hiya, Squatchfans! I'm back in my hometown woods this week, looking for the elusive sasquatch."
Here she paused so that she could add a flashy graphic in post.
"You might recall that, on my last visit to the Cascades, I got a wicked cool recording of a squatch. Unfortunately, it didn't respond when I called back, but I've had experts listen to it and they say it's definitely not a moose. So take that, MrFoot69." She flashed a bright grin. "In other squatchin' news, I've already had one encounter with a rarely seen primate: Dr. Fern Cortez!"
Also known as Lana's idol and secret celebrity crush. She may have had a silly, hashtag-kawaii-heart-emoji online persona, but behind the scenes, Lana did everything by the book. Dr. Fern's book, Hidden: A Biological Argument for the Existence of a North American Primate, to be precise.
If she could, Lana would have had a poster of Fern on her wall, but the doctor seemed even more reluctant to be photographed than the sasquatches. Lana had settled for a picture cut from a Reader's Digest article, which she taped to her laptop.
"That's right, folks. The Fern Cortez was spotted in town talking to a reporter, which must mean she's getting ready to make an announcement." She waggled her eyebrows. "Of course, I've been getting closer to finding proof too. It seems like every time I come out here, I get a recording. Only a matter of time until I get video, so it looks like it's a race between me and Dr. Cortez to see who finds it first."
As she turned off her computer, Lana let her mind wander. Sure, a rivalry with the nation's preeminent–and possibly only–sasquatch scholar meant more views, but her ultimate dream involved both of their names on a scientific paper documenting the existence of the cryptid.
Dr. Fern Cortez and Lana Jackson. It had a nice ring. Not as nice as "Dr. and Mrs. Cortez," of course, but that wasn't exactly realistic.
Lana was a modern woman. She wouldn't take her spouse's name.
Night in the woods was never silent, but tonight the birds and insects seemed intent on ruining any chance of Fern making a clean recording.
She sat in her canvas folding chair, headphones on and parabolic microphone in hand as she swept the area by the river. Only the static-like rustling of dry autumn foliage broke up the cacophony of animal sounds.
It was as she'd expected, really. Even though she believed in bigfoot, she had to acknowledge the chance that they didn't actually exist was far higher than the chance that they did, making it quite probable that she had wasted her entire life and was sitting out in the woods for absolutely no reason.
She took a deep breath, letting it out slowly as if to blow away the intrusive thoughts. They came more easily when she was alone, making her doubt everything she'd done that led to her being there.
But something lived in these woods. Possibly in woods all across the continent. That many people couldn't mistake a bear for an ape, they couldn't all be hoaxes. Certainly the creature she had seen as a teen hadn't been a bear or a man in a suit, though she kept that sighting quiet for fear of ridicule. Having an academic interest in cryptozoology was one thing; claiming to have seen a seven-foot ape picking your granny's raspberries was quite another.
It worked for Lana, though. She made no secret of her sightings and didn't seem the least deterred by the critics in her comment section.
God, Fern admired that about her. That confidence. Lana didn't care what people thought; she just was. Traipsing around the wilderness without formal training, calling out into the darkness and hoping–believing–that something would call back.
She had completely ruined the profession, turned it into a total mockery. But still. She seemed to have a good time doing it.
Fern let her finger rest on the spacebar, contemplating the idea of playing the prerecorded gorilla call that had gotten her results last time. Lana didn't use recordings; she just hollered like a fool.
Fern laughed softly at herself for letting that woman get into her head. And then, because science was nothing without experimentation–and because no one was around to see her–she let out a short woop.
For a second, the chirping stopped. Even the wind seem to pause its shaking of the trees as her voice echoed down the ravine.
Exhilaration surged through her and she giddily wooped again, a long and low sound that rumbled from her diaphragm. It was primal, raw, and carried clear across the forest.
Lana was in the middle of her livestream when she heard the squatch, and stopped dead in her tracks to listen.
"Did you guys catch that?" she mouthed at the camera mounted on her helmet as she whipped her head around. Not that there was much light, the trees still thick with leaves and the moon only half full. She would have to check the night–vision cams when she got back to civilization.
This was it: this was the night the world changed.
If she got evidence of a real squatch while transmitting live across the world, no one could claim video manipulation. No one from the government could silence her when she tried to come forward. Dr. Fern would have to take her seriously then. Maybe even invite her out to dinner to discuss the discovery.
At the risk of hyperventilating, Lana forced herself to take slow breaths. She didn't need the sound of her own wheezing to affect her microphone.
The squatch called out again, louder this time, and Lana had to clamp her mittened hands over her mouth to keep from crying out with joy. The hairs on the back of her neck tingled as they stood on end.
She took a moment to orient herself as she picked up her laptop; no sense in leaving any recording device behind in case one glitched out. "It's coming from upriver," she whispered, afraid to speak too loudly in case she scared it off. "And it's close."
She started off in that direction, taking each step as if she thought the ground might fall out from beneath her. No snapping twigs, no crackling leaves to betray her presence. But squatches could move fast if they wanted to; was she still going in the right direction?
"I'm going to try to get a reply, squatchfans." She glanced at the screen and saw dozens of people calling her a fraud. Well, she'd show them.
Lana let out the best howl of her life.
Back and forth, the calls volleyed through the woods, growing closer and closer. When they found each other, meeting at the river's edge, adrenaline surged at the sight of an upright figure emerging from the shadowy tree line.
Disappointment soon followed.
"It was you?" Fern asked, half in confusion and half in accusation.
Lana buried her face in her hands, as if she could hide from her viewers. "Oh god. We've been replying to each other all night."
Fern gave a humorless laugh, then froze. "Has it been you all along? What dates were you here?"
Lana listed them, watching her idol growing more outraged with each one. She threw the helmet-cam off so she wouldn't have to see her tears become a meme. "We hoaxed each other."
"It's just like you internet cryptozoologists," Fern muttered, sinking to the ground. "Think you know everything because you read one Wikipedia article, and you run into the woods screaming your head off and ruining it for the rest of us. If there ever was something here, you probably scared it off." Her gaze flicked to Lana's laptop. "Wait, is that my picture?"
Flustered, Lana grabbed her laptop and held it to her chest. "No. Maybe." She sat beside Fern. "Yes. I just... You're awesome."
"I'm really not."
"Beg to differ. Only someone who's awesome would be devastated to find out her college didn't offer a degree in cryptozoology and then take the initiative to devise her own multidisciplinary approach that involved becoming an anthropologist and a primatologist and taking classes in tracking."
"Oh please; I couldn't even tell the difference between an actual bigfoot and your trademark squatch hollerin'." Fern sat up straighter. "Wait, you've read my book?"
"You watch my YouTube series?"
Fern shrugged, dropping her eyes to the ground. "It's not really my style, but it's nice to see a cute girl talk about my passion. Even if she does spell it with an apostrophe."
Lana beamed at the compliment but said nothing, and they sat beside each other for a moment, listening to the birds and the insects and the wind that obscured the sound of something large walking through the brush.
"You weren't the bigfoot I saw when I was younger," Fern said finally.
Lana shook her head. "And you weren't my first squatch."
"They're still out there, then. We just need a different strategy to find them." She paused, then ventured, "Together?"
"Together," Lana agreed, grinning. "Me and Dr. Fern Cortez. Squatchin', hollerin'... kissin'?"
Fern smiled and nodded. "Kissin'."
They leaned into each other and their lips met. Awkwardly at first, with them both grinning and giggling like schoolgirls, but they adjusted their methodology and soon found that squatchin' might not be the most interesting way to spend the night in the woods.
Lana broke away abruptly. "The camera!" She scrambled for the forgotten helmet-cam, which was still broadcasting live. "Oh god. The squatchfans got a show tonight."
"Oh god," Fern echoed, covering her face and laughing. "How many people saw?"
"I can check." Lana opened her computer, expecting to see gross men clogging up the comment section.
But in a strange turn of events, the creepsters hadn't seemed to notice the smooching ladies, for the comments overflowed with questions about whether or not something was a hoax.
"I think I missed something," she said, still broadcasting. "What are you all talking about–"
"Lana," Fern whispered, grabbing her arm and turning her around.
A shape moved along the riverbank, dark and tall. Not a bear, not a man in a suit.
Lana swung her camera around, watching the creature become more distinct as it was bathed in night-vision green.
"Hey Fern?" she whispered. "Wanna be co-authors of a scientific paper with me?"