The New Follower
by Lenore Eklund for Halloween 2021
It took 2,447 miles and an extra 18 hours because of a canceled flight, but Brad finally made it to the hiking trail that he had been planning over these last 9 weeks. His followers had dwindled the last year and a half. This pandemic had crushed his social media brand. Brad tried to shift to cooking, but who was he kidding? He had no talent in arranging a confetti of colorful vegetable shavings around plates of lettuce. And it showed, his audience didn't respond well. Brad tried really hard to make it work though. This summer, he was so wrapped up in it, he missed the opportunity when COVID cases went down and he could’ve gotten back to what he was known for - travel and food. Food, that is, that other people made. He restrategized and found the perfect place for taking the kind of photos that stop you in mid-social media scrolling. With a snappy story to go with the images, he’d be back in the algorithm’s favor.
Brad pulled his rental car up to the trailhead. He shoved a handful of granola bars into his backpack and then topped off his canteen with a jug of water that he’d picked up from a run-down mini mart on the way. Brad couldn’t shake the weird exchange he had with the creepy clerk. “Keep your eyes on the ghost cougar,” he had said. That’s what living in social isolation away from populations and internet connection does to you, he thought. You forget how to function around other people on a basic level. Brad walked up to the forest service’s message board. Everything checked out with the research he had done while he was locked down in his compact city apartment. His relief to finally be out of that covid campout cocoon was cut short when his eyes landed on a flyer posted for a missing hiker. Brad knew the hiker as a wildly popular content creator whose outdoor adventure posts were always trending. He tapped his phone in his pocket congratulating himself for bringing a signal booster.
Brad had to hike in 7 miles and 820 feet up for a view of a spanning valley full of vibrant fall trees. He had seen a photo in a cookbook from the 1970s. A search with the idea to make over old salad recipes from that vintage era ended up fruitless when all he could find was Jello salad. The cookbook author had talked about how a hike to this spot inspired the coming season’s recipes. No other content creators had posted from this place. This was sure to create the buzz he needed to get back to being a top social media influencer. The empty trail was so quiet, Brad was able to start to think about new plans for selling these photos, ad placement and possibly monetizing future videos. He was going to rebound and dominate social media! Brad had the next three years of his business plan figured out just as he arrived at the peak. The colors were stunning and the imagery was breath-taking. It was as if the universe was affirming that Brad was in the right direction. He snapped hundreds of photos that could be used for so many more posts than he had originally thought. Brad captured his giddy excitement in a series of selfies before heading back down the trail.
Brad bounced through his descent so smitten with himself as he flipped through the photos he had taken on his phone. Brad snapped back into his surroundings when rustling in the brush nearby startled him. His phone slipped out of his hand, fell to the ground and was propelled across the path by his foot that had still been marching along in a happy gait. Brad stood still waiting to see what was in the brush. After 10 minutes, Brad's heart rate began to slow down and decided to recover his phone. He peered through bushes and around tall grass for it. As he bent down to retrieve the phone, his footing gave way and Brad tumbled down the slope off the path. When his vision stopped spinning, Brad could see he had fallen 15 feet down. A pain shot through his back. He had to get up and walk it off so he could get back to the car, so he could get back on a plane home, so he could reclaim his place on social media. He had gingerly gotten to his feet and straightened up when he spotted a cougar watching him. The cougar was so casual about being there, sitting with tail flicking as though thoroughly entertained by Brad’s situation.
In consolation, Brad reached for his phone. A quick thought came to him. What if he could record his escape from this cougar? He’d seen videos posted by mountain bikers encountering bears that had gotten hundreds of thousands of views. His social media following would surely triple or even quadruple! Brad was about to open his camera application but froze as the cougar bounded towards him. With Brad’s eyes on the cougar, it stopped. They stared at each other for a long moment. As Brad looked down at his phone, the cougar stepped closer. Brad’s attention turned back to the cougar and it stopped again. An idea crossed his mind and Brad tested it by quickly bringing up his phone to his face and then putting it back just as fast. The cougar was two paces closer, but stationary. If Brad kept his attention on the cougar, it wouldn’t come any closer. That meant Brad would have to figure out a plan without using his phone.
As the sun was starting to cast a late afternoon golden light, Brad was lamenting working through this situation without the help of his phone. He needed to call 911. He needed to look up what to do when encountering a cougar. He needed to look up reviews for the chiropractor he was going to need to see after he got out of this. As Brad’s mind ran through every impractical option, his head began to empty and calm. His inner voice stopped chattering and Brad was able to take a slow breath in and exhale. Brad looked at the cougar. It was actually quite remarkable. Its inky eyes were so endless and peaceful. The cougar’s still presence actually made Brad feel a kind of tranquility that Brad hadn’t felt in ages. Just as Brad began to feel grateful to this cougar for showing him this welcomed quiet, his phone chirped with an alert. On instinct, Brad picked up his phone to check the message. As Brad realized his error, it was too late.
Days later, forest rangers searching for the driver of the rental car that was abandoned at the trailhead found a cell phone. The rangers opened the phone to see a message from Brad’s social media app prompting, “You haven’t posted in awhile. Your followers would like to hear from you. Would you like to share a post?”