Horror Fiction

The National Park Service is Hiding Something

🚨ATTENTION🚨

This is a Swamp Dweller exclusive; he owns all rights to this story and it cannot be used in any way/shape/form. Here are the links to his narrations on YouTube, Podcast, and Spotify. If you haven’t heard his work, I highly recommend checking him out! I’m binging the podcasts, and he uploads so often that new viewers will be hard pressed to run out of content!

Hey Swamp,

I’ve been a fan for a long time and knew you had to hear this! Last week, my cousin from Alabama disappeared. We weren’t close, but his brother went missing last year, and his parents couldn’t handle going through his things. Mom and I flew out to help and found some crazy stuff on his computer. He posted two audio recordings to the Park’s website – both of which were immediately removed – but the files were still on his laptop. Honestly… I don’t know which is more disturbing, but I can tell you one thing, Nate was no actor. I’ve transcribed everything in hopes you might read it. Thanks for the amazing work you do, keep it up!


[feedback] Whoa, hold on. [tap, tap] Okay, it’s working now. [clears throat]

[hesitant] Hello, my name is Nate; I’m twenty-six and I’ve been a Park Ranger in Alabama for almost a year. If you’re hearing this, I’m either dead or missing… [light cigarette] hopefully, dead. I recorded this message three days ago, but didn’t make it back in time to cancel the upload. This is a confession, a warning, and a farewell. Please, don’t look for me.

I was the black sheep in my family. There’s no excuse or trauma to blame; my parents were great, my older brother, Eric, wasn’t a bully. I’m just… a lazy klutz, if I’m being honest – and why not – there’s no reason to lie. Most people won’t believe a word of it anyway – hell, I barely do.

It’s important you understand I’m not a paranoid loon locked in a basement; my world revolves around logic and facts. I never believed in Santa or thought a monster was under the bed – not once. This is so you understand I’m not exaggerating; I don’t scream “ghost” when a door slams, and I don’t see things from the corner of my eye.

Each denial you’re about to have – I had; each question you’re about to ask – I asked. I’m going to start at the beginning, but even then, it may not be enough. That’s okay; you can believe me later. If you ever find yourself lost in the woods, something you learn here just might save your life.

It began in April of ‘21; my drinking was out of control, and I was on thin ice with my boss and girlfriend. It felt like I was past the point of no return, idly waiting for the end. Looking back, it sounds pathetic – I should have stopped drinking; I could have apologized to Jen when it mattered, we would have— [sigh] well… shoulda, coulda, woulda, am-I-right?

Let’s put aside the lies I told in order to continue drinking and focus on the key details. As you can see, I’m a straight shooter; I’m not here to bullshit, so I’ll admit – I deserved to get fired. Bartending is a horrible career for a budding alcoholic, and I’m shocked it didn’t happen sooner. Unfortunately, Drunk Nate couldn’t understand that, and he made a scene…

Normally, if someone breaks a window and steals a $600 bottle of scotch – police are contacted; when you live in Nowhere, AL – parents are called, and money is exchanged. Unfortunately, it was the last straw for Jen; my stuff was packed and waiting when I finally stumbled home. Not that I remember – that’s just what I learned upon waking in my childhood room.

These events were what led to my exceedingly fragile sobriety. If I didn’t want to spend life asking “Do you want fries with that?” I had to work with my brother; no one else would take me. Park Ranger life suited Eric; he was made for the outdoors. Me – not so much, but it meant a place to live for the summer. They like having staff on site for the busy season, though people with families are generally displeased with the idea.

A few white lies and blatant acts of nepotism later – I was starting my first day on the job. I was exactly fourteen days sober when Eric gave me the grand tour – and I do mean grand; we barely covered our territory before quitting time. The whole first week was dedicated to learning my way around; he didn’t start easing me into the weird stuff until the second week, and that, friends, is where this story really begins.


Happy Trails

Remember, at this point – I’m still a barely-functioning alcoholic desperately resisting temptation every second, and I didn’t play it off well. Eric saw me struggling and did his best to help; he tried to distract me with shoptalk – I was expected to know a few basics – but even he was bored. It didn’t seem unreasonable to think he would stretch a few details to get my attention.

Until then, my lessons consisted of which hikes and berries were dangerous; now, it was what to do when someone goes missing. Not “if” mind you – “when”. How often do you think people disappear in a state park? Not lost – missing – as in never seen again? Because I thought two per year was an extreme guess, but it was insanely naïve.

Last year – in our park alone – 138 people vanished. It was hard to wrap my head around that number; how could so many disappear in one place without being all over the news? Well, a couple things contribute to this, but the answers are far from satisfying.

Our statistics are nothing compared to the bigger parks – which would make sense if those places were getting the expected attention, but they’re not. Some of their numbers are triple ours, yet there’s hardly a word to be found! There’s a surprising amount of reasons people won’t report a disappearance, but those with active warrants or lacking citizenship are the most common. Personally, I’d prefer jail or deportation, but [light cigarette] to each their own. The point is – even if we ignore those – there’s more than enough to justify an investigation. You’ll learn the rest as we go; I have much to say and precious little time.

Eric saw my skepticism and showed me the Lost & Found cabin. Some of the stuff in there dates back to the ‘70’s; that’s fifty years of missing people’s crap! Inside, he went to the more recent finds and opened a bin labeled “D. Hill 7/19”. It contained reports from the Dylan Hill disappearance. That July, a family of four drove up from Montgomery for a week of camping; their son was nine and the girl, six. They checked in on a Sunday morning and chose the campsite closest to the welcome center; families always do because it feels safer.

On the third day, Mike Hill rushed into the office – frantic – saying his son disappeared. He and his wife were adamant Dylan vanished; he wasn’t abducted, he didn’t wander off – he vanished. Sherri was preparing lunch while Mike watched the kids. They were never out of sight until Dylan ducked behind the tree-line of a particularly dense area. Even before his sister caught up – Mike was on his feet. When interviewed, he said it was the darkness of the thicket that initially bothered him. There were dense patches everywhere, but none so dark as where his son entered.

Over the next weeks, Park Rangers assisted with Search & Rescue operations while doing their best to comfort the grieving family, but they knew it was too late; the ones who seem to vanish into thin air are never found.

You probably think what I thought – that the parents were responsible and coached their daughter to lie, right? It’s technically possible, but the kid was six; I read the transcript from her interviews, and kids aren’t that good at lying. Even if one could keep a straight face – they couldn’t handle a convoluted story, especially not for several weeks under intense pressure.

When asked if she or her brother had met anyone else at the park, she claimed someone with “backwards arms” and “long feet” stood outside their tent the night before. Eventually, it was determined she saw a man, but her imagination invented a monster after losing Dylan.

It seemed like a reasonable explanation until I heard similar reports from other guests. It’s not always a kid, and there aren’t always creature sightings, but when there are, it’s always with the same description. People from all over have described an emaciated animal with long, canine-like feet, no hair, and strangely bent arms – or possibly wings, but I’m jumping ahead a little.

I didn’t believe a word about monsters; I thought it was a gag for newbs. My first personal experience was two weeks later when a woman went missing. It was June 5th, and I had just moved into a staff cabin the week before. Being sober was still a bitch, but there were whole hours I didn’t think about drinking. Having my own place helped immensely, but Bethany Anderson almost pushed me clear off the wagon.

This is what made me understand lives were resting in my hands; if I missed a sign or clue… [shudder] I wasn’t built for that kind of pressure. My focus should have been on her, but it was on a rabid monkey relentlessly clawing my back. That’s also the day I found an AA group; if nothing else, it worked for fear of returning.

Beth and her boyfriend were camping for a long weekend, but they got separated on a hike. Grady claimed they were only apart for a few minutes, but when he walked back to join her – she was gone. The trail didn’t diverge at any point, and everyone she knew agreed that she wasn’t the type to wander off. Her partner believed a tall, deformed man took her. There were several times on the first night when they heard rustling nearby; they assumed it was an animal, but each time they tried to discern the source, it stopped – like someone didn’t want to be found.

That night, Grady crept out of their tent to relieve his bladder and saw a dark shape standing several feet away. It was so thin, he thought it was a tree – especially with the awkward angles of the protruding limbs. Then, it bent drastically near the base and leapt into the trees. The man possessed enough sense not to investigate. When he later relayed the events to Beth, she disregarded it as a dream.

After enjoying a normal morning, she convinced Grady to go on that fateful hike. He hasn’t meant to walk ahead. She was next to him moments before, and thinking she stopped for a photo – he turned back right away; unfortunately, it was already too late.

Obviously, the police thought his entire story was fabricated. If there was any way he could have known about those other cases, I’d think the same – but these people were from Florida! They weren’t locals who happened to know a few stories, and they damn sure didn’t hear in on the news!

It was a miserable two weeks before Search & Rescue left, and four more before the Anderson family flew home. I’ll never forget the sound of the mother’s wails; I heard it in my sleep – and not in a metaphorical way – her cabin was close enough to literally hear it. That’s when I got serious about my training. Maybe there was nothing I could’ve done, but if there was a chance to help the next one, then yea, I was ready to get off my ass.

Cue the training montage; I worked harder than I’d ever worked in my miserable life! The funny part is that’s what got me past the worst drinking urges. I don’t think the cravings will ever fully stop, but I experience entire days without temptation.

By August, I felt like a real Ranger; I was trusted to work without supervision, and my co-workers no longer saw me as Eric’s screw-up little brother – I was part of the team! Life was too good, I should’ve known disaster was coming.


[light cigarette] On Friday, August 13th, everything went to shit; I think the date was coincidental considering how often it happens, but you never know. It was my last two weeks living at the park, and if I didn’t find an apartment soon – I’d be back with my parents which is obviously not ideal.

There’s a kitchen in the welcome center where we have lunch, and that day, I ate with Eric and Teri; she’s a been a lifer and could fill a book with all the strange shit she’s seen. The main reason I didn’t have an apartment yet was laziness; the research alone is a long, tedious process. I avoided it by asking if anyone knew of a good place to rent, and surprisingly, Teri did.

It was a small house only ten minutes away, but the landlord was leaving town the next morning and wouldn’t return for three weeks. Instead of living with my parents for a week like a reasonable person, I was an impatient asshole. The world would end if I didn’t immediately get those keys, and – as usual – Eric went out of his way to help. He was scheduled in the welcome center with Teri, but she agreed to cover for him.

When we finished the last task, I was an hour ahead of schedule, but before I could feel too relieved, our radios crackled to life; there were multiple reports of a bear near Campsite C. They wanted us to investigate, and if that was my worst delay – everything would have been fine.

We drove to the location figuring the animal was long gone but couldn’t risk tourists crowding one for a selfie. After scanning the area, we left the trail and advanced slowly; we only needed to ensure it wasn’t loafing nearby. It made sense to spread out, but there was no more than 15-20 feet between us; plus, I glanced over often to match his pace, and it was never difficult to see him.

Not until he vanished, that is… I still don’t understand how it happened. How can he be there one second, and gone the next?! I called his name, but there was no answer. Bear forgotten, I walked to the last place I saw my brother. I had always felt safe at work – like Rangers were off limits to the misfortunes that fall upon our guests. We’re only here to restore order afterwards – a maintenance crew, if you will – but when my eyes fell upon the void left by Eric’s absence, that illusion crumbled.

It was foolish not to radio for backup. I ran blindly into the forest without caution nor care. It’s a wonder I didn’t disappear as well, but I felt like my only hope was to find him immediately – before a report solidified the event as real. Deeper and deeper I barreled through the woods, ripping my clothes and scraping my arms in the process. I mistook my shock for reason and continued screaming for my brother.

I’m not sure how long it took to reach the clearing with the strange snowman rock, but seeing it was like waking from a trance. I had no clue where I was; the full weight of my situation sank in, and my stomach lurched painfully. Eric was likely dead, our ATV was abandoned at Camp C, and I would return alone, beaten, and without an explanation for… anything. Even if other Rangers believed me – I’ve seen firsthand how badly the police need closed cases.

That’s when I learned the radio was dead, and my phone was in the ATV. When something genuinely terrifying happens – the resulting fear is so intense that the possibility it could grow worse is unimaginable. It can always be worse; that much, I guarantee.

Wandering aimlessly is the worst thing you can do when lost. Unfortunately, it’s hard to stay put while your world is ending. I tried retracing my steps, but nothing looked familiar. Eventually, I rounded a curve to see my path blocked by what I thought to be another strange rock formation. It was big, and trees grew around it to form an almost hidden alcove; had I approached from a different angle, it would’ve been invisible.

Unhappy Trails

There was an almost… hypnotic quality; it reminded me of something, but I couldn’t place what. I was so consumed with identifying this foreign, yet familiar shape, I didn’t realize my feet were taking me closer. My knees went weak as I saw only part of the formation was rock; the rest was… flesh. The realization only came as its top half suddenly stood to its full, breathtaking height. Before, it was merely crouching behind the boulder; now, it was staring into the depths of my very soul… I could feel it inside of me.

My limited reserve of composure evaporated as I fled into the forest once again. The urge to look back was intense, but I resisted. With a loud, guttural roar came the clear sound of flapping wings; the image of that thing soaring above was enough to keep me going well beyond my normal limit. I didn’t notice the familiar surroundings until I emerged onto a trail near E Camp.

I was quickly spotted by a fellow Ranger who informed me it was almost 7:00! That’s when I noticed how low the sun had sunk, and how close I was to being lost out there in the dark. Eric was still missing obviously, and search efforts were already underway. I was forced to recount my story to the police before speaking with friends. Despite what they suspected, the evidence was only circumstantial, and I was asked not to leave town. Mr. Davis, my boss, believed me and was kind enough to let me keep the cabin while I wait for the other place.

My parents were an absolute wreck and also allowed a cabin while the search continued; everyone put in an extra show of effort just for them. Watching Mom suffer is the hardest part of this madness; if she loses me too… I can’t think about that. None of this concerns them anyway. The parts you – whoever ‘you’ are – need to know happened after I finally made it home that night; well, Saturday morning, technically.

The unexpected knock at my door was timid but frightening. It froze me in place while I imagined that creature waiting on the other side; had Teri not called out, I wouldn’t have moved. It had started to rain, and flashes of lightning lit the sky; I invited her in and fetched a clean towel. She dried off while the coffee brewed, and we talked for hours as the storm raged outside. Not only did I recount my story, but she told me much more about the disappearances than Eric had. I’m not sure if he knew or not; it’s possible he didn’t want to scare me more than necessary.

Maybe it’s a testament to my selfishness that I only cared about research when it concerned my own brother, but it never occurred to me before that moment. Teri showed me more subreddits, YouTube channels, and podcasts than I could count as she explained something people refer to as the “Missing 411”. I’m going to do my best to pass that knowledge on to you, though there’s not enough time to read every piece of evidence I’ve uncovered over the last several months. The best I can do is point you in the right direction, but hopefully anyone who hears this will decide to stay the hell away.

If one types “Missing 411” into Google, a plethora of films and documentaries appear; a cursory glance leads one to believe these are fictional horror stories. If you skim a few articles, it starts sounding like some grand-scale human trafficking ring, but if you’re willing to take a deep dive something much more sinister rises to the surface.

To put it simply, monsters – or some prefer “Cryptids” – are real; if you can’t accept that basic fact by now, there’s no point in listening to the rest. You can’t look at the Missing 411 as a whole; that’s a rookie mistake full of false leads and deadly misconceptions. Yes, as records of the missing are gathered from across the globe, there are many commonalities, but this is not a singular mystery with a singular answer; it is a collection of thousands, probably millions!

Every case must be considered individually to determine what’s at fault; it’s common for large forests and mountain ranges to house multiple creatures. Whether this be Skinwalkers, Wendigo, Dogmen, or – as in our case – Vetti, it’s vital to prepare for the right creature. Please understand those are just a few examples; it would be impossible to list all the known Cryptids. That’s why the best course of action is to avoid them completely.

[alarm clock] Damn, I’m almost out of time; I must tell you about the Vetti before it’s too late. Teri and the other lifers were only able to identify it two years ago when she found one of the missing. She was alone in a remote area of the park when it happened. Some kids left their trash behind, and a chip bag was tangled in the bushes just off-trail. When she retrieved it, she noticed a candy wrapper a little further in – so she got that, too. Then she saw a water bottle, and it wasn’t until the following soda can that she realized how far away the litter had taken her.

Realizing her mistake, she turned back to see Jason Fuller – a Ranger who disappeared six years prior – blocking her path; he was injured and filthy, yet not a day older. Teri struggled to avoid the word “zombie”, but that’s exactly what it sounded like until she relayed their brief conversation. He claimed to have escaped captivity and asked her to return with him so they might help the “other hostages”. Teri said pure malice exuded from him in waves. Too frightened to refuse, she asked him to lead the way.

The thing wearing Jason’s skin gave a sick, evil grin and walked past her. She held her breath as his rotting stench wafted in her face, and the moment his back was turned, she fled. The sound she describes coming from him was eerily reminiscent of what I’d heard only hours before. She was barely able to make it to her ATV before he was on her heels.

She reported the incident at base-camp, and the old-timers filled her in just like she did for me – except she had provided a missing link in their information. Knowing what hunts you can be the difference in life and death. That night, twenty-seven men went into the forest; only sixteen returned, but Teri was told she wouldn’t see Jason again.

There are hundreds of Cryptids with information available, but we got stuck with a rare one. Most monsters are born as what they are, but Vetti are created. They begin as humans; when someone suffers unimaginable anguish – the type bred from years of brutal torture or a life of enslavement – they become consumed with fury and hatred. When they are finally granted the sweet release of death, their souls are doomed to wander the Earth as vengeful spirits. They know nothing but the desire to share their endless pain with others, and that pain is like catnip to Harpies. Yes, Harpies are real, but I don’t have time to make this a double creature-feature; you can research those for yourself.

Information on what the Harpies do after locating the spirit is vague, but whether it merges with or transforms the spirit – the end result is a Vetti. These things exist purely to cause misery; they should be avoided at all costs. Destroying one is extremely difficult, but barring a few exceptions they normally hunt alone. Their bloodlust isn’t the most dangerous aspect of these creatures; they can do much worse than kill. No one is sure of the commonality between victims, but on rare occasions – such as with Jason Fuller – the corpses are possessed.

I know my brother is dead; that’s not why I keep studying and searching. I need to confirm Eric’s body isn’t being used, and to put whatever I do find out of its misery. If I die in the process, so be it, but I’m taking that thing with me. If I can take it down with hollow points, I’ll let fire take care of the rest. I have a shovel, two cans of gasoline, plenty of ammunition, and a few blades for good measure. If I don’t make it back, I’m sorry; I wish I had been a better son and brother.


Posted one hour later:

Sorry to worry anyone who heard that… unusual message before; I was rehearsing for a play! Everything is fantastic here. Please come for a visit, and let me show you around our beautiful park. Remember, ask for Nate!

Horror Fiction

The Deadlands

Check out this exclusive CREEPYFACE narration here - both parts now available. 

This one has also been translated to Spanish by Relatos D Pesadilla and the links can be found in my YouTube playlists!


Now a CreepyPasta
The Deadlands

In a town kept alive by retirees and tourists looking for a cheap scare, we knew a place hidden from their money was bad news. Plebes are paraded around in horse drawn carriages through the dead of night. If there’s a storm, all the better. In the dim glow of our gas street-lamps, we tell them stories – grinning each time a passenger shakes with fright. As long as they stay on the safe, paved streets of downtown, they’ve nothing to fear. If they knew what was really out there, beyond those city limits, they would jump in their fancy cars and never look back.

It’s when you drive past the city limits things become less… rehearsed. What used to be cotton fields far as the eye could see were now dried-up wastelands, unusable to the living. Over the years, our ancestors built further and further away, desperate for distance, but unable to leave entirely. A forest grew around the 300 acre area known as the Deadlands, but not even an insect crossed Mother Nature’s well drawn line.

The Deadlands were born in the Civil War aftermath. Losing did nothing to sway the opinions of ignorant Southerners who believed slaves were their God-given rights. In a world where tractors were not yet invented, farming seemed daunting. Cotton, ironically prickly, is painful to harvest. Days turned to weeks, and the sight of freed slaves settling into new lives taunted the rednecks relentlessly. In their world, White Supremacy and religion were one in the same, it was fact, unquestioned.

Five families owned the majority of our state’s cotton supply. On their wealth, the town of Cotton Hills was founded, and on their heinous actions it was doomed. Where their property lines merged, each man donated 60 forested acres to the relocation of freed slaves. Thus the 300 acre plot of death was created.

The town formed a posse to deliver every black man, woman, and child. Guard towers were built, each connected by fences of barbed wire, and any who attempted escape were killed on sight. Eventually, some tried to carve out a life for their families. Primitive shelters were erected, men hunted, women homesteaded. They did okay at first, but as more people were thrown into what whispers already called the Deadlands, resources exhausted quickly. Friends who once worked side by side killed each other to feed their children.

After 20 years, the few who remained were so malnourished, so barbaric, they no longer appeared human. Few original guards remained, most being replaced with stronger sons. Sons with ambitions, and the desire to make their own names. One fateful night, while the old guards slept, their younger counterparts entered the Deadlands, intent to win their freedom with blood and fire. They set out to burn every acre, and kill any who crossed their path. Fifteen men entered, but only one returned, smoke and flame billowing in his wake. He was spotted as he crawled from the tree-line, one leg missing below the knee. The remaining guards gathered, waiting to see how far the man would make it.

When he was finally within ear-shot, David Grayson called to the man, who he now saw was the eldest son of the late Jake Abernathy. “What happened boy, tell us quickly.”

Abernathy moaned in pain but continued crawling until he was only a few feet away. Several men aimed their guns, ready to fire should he attempt to cross the boundary. With a knowing look of defeat, the wounded man dropped his elbows, and with his loudest cry yet, rolled to lie flat on his back. Coughing blood with each strained word, he managed to say, “We just… wanted out. To… to live normal lives… why… stay? We killed them… all. But the huts… there was crying… like a baby.” The old guards sat still and quiet through a longer coughing fit, too frightened to turn away, but all sharing the same thought. No way they could be having babies in there.

They jumped when Abernathy resumed talking. “So many… barely human… all dead. We were… leaving. All of us… they came from above… but what… killed us?”

For several minutes, the only sound to be heard over the crackling flames were the man’s wet, dying breaths. The old guards’ trance was soon broken by something large rustling through the flaming treetops. They ran, hid until morning, and left the Deadlands forever. Whether a cowardly excuse to leave or the good of humanity, the men returned to their families, warning all to stay away. None doubted their words.

Now, we future generations are warned as children, raised with proper fear and respect. Maybe we hate our ancestors for their crimes against humanity more than we fear a legend, but the result is the same. It’s not a place kids dare each other to go, no clubs enter for initiation, no ghost hunters investigate, no Christians pray for it. No one has tried to enter for over 100 years, but occasionally, something tries to escape. The evil merely resides within, sleeping – hungry, always waiting. Unfortunately for Todd and Linda, they knew none of this.

“I think this vacation is exactly what you need while you’re getting better. I checked this place out, and we couldn’t have found a quieter town. It has one of the lowest populations in the country and only old people and ghost hunters go there.” Linda sat in the passenger seat, reading from her phone as she and Todd entered the last stretch of a long drive.

“Yea, sounds great.” Todd knew Linda was trying to be supportive, but hated how she said getting better. He couldn’t stand being coddled; why couldn’t she just say addiction? Was that so hard? It wasn’t his fault he got hurt at work, he didn’t know what the pain pills were doing to him until it was too late. He went to rehab – horrible as that was – yet he was still consumed by the siren’s call every waking moment of his miserable existence. But that’s not the point. He learned to live with that – he can resist the urges now – but what he can’t live with, is Linda’s desire to talk about it incessantly.

“I don’t think we’ll do the ghost tours, there’s no reason to put you through unnecessary stress… but they have tons of hiking trails. It says one leads to abandoned train tracks with a real antique caboose! Now, doesn’t that sound quaint! Oh Honey, do you think we could do that one first?” Linda turned her phone to Todd, showing him the pictures.

After a short glance Todd turned back to the road, trying to force a smile lest Linda notice his annoyance. What 30 year old says ‘quaint’ anyway? “I’ll look when we get to the hotel, sounds great though.” Using all his willpower, he forced a smirk on his face, and Linda sat back, placated.

Shortly after 6pm they reached their Holiday Inn, exhausted from a twelve hour drive. “How about we order pizza and watch a movie tonight? I want you well rested for another early start!” Linda cooed, already googling the local pizza options.

Todd knew with sickening certainty the moment where he snapped on Linda would come, but he was beginning to worry he would enjoy it. “I think I’ll be fine regardless,” he replied through gritted teeth, then forced himself to add cheerfully, “but you read my mind, movie and pizza sound great.”

Linda’s hurt look faded as quickly as it appeared, leaving Todd to wonder if he’d really seen it in the first place. Most of Todd’s patience was born from guilt. He put Linda through hell with his mood swings and temper tantrums. He never hit her – and thanked the god he pretended to believe in for that mercy – but he had wanted to. At his worst, he wanted to grab her head, force her mouth shut, and keep it that way – but he didn’t. That’s what mattered. He still got the shakes when he thought of that all-consuming rage. In the end, it was the reason he agreed to rehab.

Logically, Todd knew he and Linda had a happy marriage. They never fought before the accident. The addiction was to blame; they were its victims – both trying to cope however they could – grasping at straws to find a way back to their old lives. His wife was only trying to help.

Keeping that thought firmly at the forefront of his mind – he sat and wrapped his arm around her waist. “Let’s see what we got.” Todd leaned over to view the options. “Oh, you want to get P’zones? We’ll find an old movie and pretend we’re back in college.”

When Linda met his gaze, her eyes gleamed. “That sounds like the best idea ever! A zillion times, yes! Please!”

Todd felt his first genuine smile in longer than he could remember. Linda’s silly use of her old catch phrase – once used to accept his proposal, and now reserved only for him – made him feel, a zillion times, yes, like things might be okay. After a magical evening that truly had felt like old times, they slept soundly in each other’s arms.

The alarm rang at 7:00, and they pried themselves apart to prepare for the day ahead. Both walking on eggshells to preserve the previous night’s magic, they spoke in soothing tones through breakfast. As they exited the elevator in full hiking gear at 8:30, they bumped into an older gentleman who resembled Yosemite Sam.

His name-tag identified him as Richard Davenport, Manager. “Ah, G’morning folks.” He greeted them – also sounding like Sam “I say, lovely weather for a hike! Which trail have you chosen? Might I suggest Buffalo Bill’s Bluff? You begin just east of the river, but it takes you to a clearing on the bluff that makes a beautiful picnic spot.” Mr. Davenport waved a chubby hand over his head, as if painting the scene.

“That sounds lovely!” Linda replied. “Let’s do that one tomorrow, Hun! Can we?” Without waiting for his answer she faced Mr. Davenport once more. “But today, we’re going on this one. With the train caboose.” Linda held out her phone, the trail’s website loaded to her favorite pictures. She watched the manager’s face turn from bright pink to deathly pale.

“You okay, sir?” Todd asked, concerned how quickly the man drained of color. “You look like you’ve seen a ghost. We didn’t end up in one of those haunted hotels did we?”

“Ha. No, my goodness, no. I chose a Holiday Inn to separate myself from that part of the town.” Mr. Davenport stammered, pulling a handkerchief from his pocket to mop the sweat from his brow. “No, you’ll find no ghosts here, folks. But that trail is a different story, people get lost, it’s not safe. Please, choose anywhere else. They’re a dime a dozen here, all safe, public property maintained by the city. All except that one.” He pointed to Linda’s phone, pictures still displayed. “It’s privately owned by a family that moved here last year. They set that train to attract tourists, but they don’t know what they’re doing!”

“Really? But it doesn’t say anything about being haunted on the…” Linda began pressing buttons on her phone, ready to enter a full blown debate, but Todd cut her off.

“It’s okay Hun, we can check into it some other time. We better get going or we won’t have time for breakfast.” Having already eaten, he hoped she took the hint to play along. She did.

Once safely in the parking lot where they couldn’t be overheard, Todd explained. “That’s how these small towns operate – by sticking together. They probably hate the idea of outsiders horning in on their local legends. Look around, these people don’t have much else. I haven’t even seen a Walmart since we crossed the state line.”

Linda noticeably relaxed. “You really think so? I didn’t want to admit it, but he kinda creeped me out.”

“I promise. Think of it this way. In a town known for hauntings, don’t you think these people would plaster their website with ghost stories if it was part of their gimmick? But they didn’t, did they? In fact, that old man didn’t say anything about ghosts until I made it clear we weren’t here for that.” Todd, seeing Linda’s perk restored, was pleased with himself.

“Hey! You’re right! They don’t, and he didn’t!” For only a second did Linda allow herself to think but what if it’s not a gimmick. Then, imagining the photos she would later post on Facebook banished the thoughts completely. “Wow, we’re never telling anyone I almost fell for a redneck ghost story.” The young couple shared a laugh as they passed a sign informing them they were “now leaving the city limits.”

As they drove, the GPS indicated a left off the highway. The road they followed turned from a black top, to gravel, to dirt in the span of 20 miles. “Wow, we must really be out in the sticks now.” Todd noted, driving slower to appreciate the scenery around them. “We don’t have anything like this in the city, I don’t think I’ve seen so many trees in my life – not in one stretch.”

“I know, it’s so beautiful! I think I could live here.” Linda said, rolling her window down to breathe the fresh air. “You smell that, Hun? That’s clean air!”

The road ended in a large clearing with a parking sign in the center. Beyond that loomed a small, wooden shack with “WELCOME” painted above a glass window. To the right, a brightly colored post marked the trail entrance, and a matching post to the left marked the exit. After gathering their equipment, the couple headed to the shack first.

“Huh, it looks empty.” Todd announced, face pressed to the glass as he peered inside.

“I’m sure it is… there’s no other cars here and look – they have a donation box. Do we have any cash?” Linda asked, knowing they didn’t but feeling guilty.

“Uhh, not in the last 5 years.” Todd laughed, shaking his head. “Oh well, I’m glad we have the place to ourselves. Does the website say how long the trail is?”

“It’s supposed to be four hours. No tricky terrain, just watch for snakes. Hey, we might have time for the bluff today after all.” Linda answered excitedly, skipping toward the entrance.

“Wait for me!” Todd called, running to catch up.

In the first hour, they walked without a break. Linda took pictures by the dozen, but having no signal for Facebook, resigned to save that pleasure for later. Todd walked slowly, enjoying the scenery and not thinking about pills for a change. As he felt his throat going dry, he noticed a fallen tree that looked perfect for a quick rest.

“Hey Lin, you wanna stop for a water break? This looks like a good place to sit for a minute.” Todd was already digging through his pack.

“Sure, I could go for a power bar.” Linda settled next to Todd, laying her head on his shoulder as he drank deeply. “I love it here, we should go to places like this more often. Just listen to all those birds, it’s like nature’s music.”

“Definitely! I guess being raised in a city, I never gave this stuff much thought, but yea. I dig this, we should make hiking our new thing. I wouldn’t want—” Todd’s words were cut off as they heard a shrill cry to their right.

“What the hell was that?! Was that a person?!” Linda’s nails dug into his arm, her eyes frantically searching for the scream’s source.

“No. No, it wasn’t a person.” Todd cleared his throat and tried to sound less terrified. “I think it was a deer. The doe are supposed to sound like humans or something. Danny told me that after one of his hunting trips. Whatever it was, I think it’s finished now. Come on, let’s go see that train.”

They hiked another hour before coming to the caboose, strange cry nearly forgotten. “I should have known they’d put it in the middle – those crafty devils – that’s one way to make sure people do the whole trail!” Linda took pictures from every angle. The selfies took 15 minutes followed by another 20 posing her husband every way she could think. “Ok, that should do! I cannot wait to go through these!”

“You sure you got enough? You only took a few hundred.” Todd teased, slightly flinching at his wife’s playful punches. The woman wore rings, if she caught you just right, those puppies could sting.

“You’re just a mean, ole bully.” Linda joked in a mocking child’s voice, but their flirting came to an abrupt end with the sound of a large animal barreling through the trees.

Both stood frozen, holding each other tightly as the sound drew closer, louder. The trees, thick around them, blocked their view. Mentally tracking its location by sound alone, they flinched when the animal should have burst through the clearing, but nothing came. The noise stopped as suddenly as it began; only silence followed.

“I’m starting to think Mr. Davenport wasn’t so crazy after all.” Linda whined, voice thick with fear.

“No, that’s silly; there’s no such thing. He got in our heads is all.” Despite the hammering of his own heart, Todd tried to seem brave. At least one of them needed to keep a cool head. “Everything is fine, I promise. Look, we’re at the halfway point. We’ll walk to the exit without any more breaks, and this will all make a great story for Facebook, okay?”

“I say yes, a zillion times, hell, fucking yes!” Quickly, they once again donned their packs, and continued forward.

Only minutes after resuming the trail, trees grew denser than ever. The path appeared to shrink, becoming darker, twisting and turning to restrict their lines of sight. The couple clasped hands, neither willing to admit the feeling of being watched, but they felt it intensely. They progressed from a steady pace to almost jogging without noticing until Linda fell to the ground, screaming.

Todd, unsure if her high-pitched wails resulted from agony or terror, kneeled next to her. “What was it? Are you okay? Talk to me, please! What happened?!”

Linda sat up, pulled her legs to her chest, and scanned the ground around her. “Where’d it go? What was it? Did you see? Did you see? Something grabbed my ankle. Where’d it go!?”

Her words struck new fear into his heart. Something… grabbed? “Hold on, grabbed you? Like a hand? You’re sure you didn’t just trip, I mean we were moving pretty fast?”

“Yes! A hand grabbed me!” She quickly shot her hand out and grasped Todd’s ankle in a vice-like grip. “See! Do you think you could mistake this feeling?”

“I believe you, I was just… hoping… that’s all. Do you need a second? We shouldn’t have let ourselves get so worked up, we need to be more careful.” Todd stood, offering his arm to Linda.

Taking hold, she pulled herself up, but collapsed once more upon standing. “I think it’s broken, I… I can’t walk on it. Why is this happening to us.” She sobbed, dropping her face into her hands.

“It’s going to be fine, here, let’s take a look.” Linda winced as he removed her shoe, but it had to be done. “It’s dark under these trees, can you shine your light? The shadows are playing tricks with my eyes.” He stared, unable to accept what he was seeing, but when the flashlight illuminated the purple bruise on his wife’s ankle, he gasped in shock.”

Terrified, Linda sat forward and instantly regretted it. Wrapped around her now swollen ankle was a perfect handprint. Well… perfect if your fingers were skinny as knife blades and your thumb was twice as long. She inhaled deeply, preparing for another scream, but Todd clamped one hand over her mouth, and the other over the light. “Eeem! Mmm! Grmm!” She hummed, staring daggers into her husband.

“Shhh! Please! I know, but if something is out here, maybe we shouldn’t draw more attention with loud noises.” He whispered close to her ear, relieved to remove his hand when he felt her struggles cease.

Carefully, Linda turned the light off, and returned  the otherwise useless phone to her pocket. “What are we gonna do?” Her voice was barely audible.

“We’re going to get back to our car, drive to our hotel, lock ourselves in, and order take out. Because I am starving. You’re going to lean on me, and we’ll hop out of here if we have to, but we are getting out.”

Linda collected herself, dried her tears, and prepared to stand. After a dozen attempts, they conceded it was a poor plan. “I’m sorry, I just can’t! What are we going to do?”

Still catching his breath, Todd was lost deep in thought. He knew he couldn’t carry Linda the rest of the way, he would never lift more than 100 pounds again thanks to his accident and that idiot forklift operator. That only left one other option. Not brave enough to suggest it, he stalled. “I left my phone in the car, let me see yours.”

Linda glared again, hurt and impatient. “Don’t you think I’ve tried that?! There’s no service out here!”

“We have to try something, we can’t just sit here and hope someone comes along to help. I’ll climb a tree, maybe I can text 911 or something.” She didn’t budge. Todd took a deep breath, “Look… it’s either that or I have to leave you here while I go for help. Neither of us want that, can I please see your phone?” Todd held his hand out, waiting. 

Tears filled Linda’s eyes anew as she handed him the phone. “Please, not that, I can’t be here alone, anything but that.”

Todd shook his head in agreement, and began searching for a signal. Linda dragged herself to the center of the path, propping her pack up as a back rest, staying alert for any movement in the dark forest. When Todd returned, it wasn’t with good news. “Ok, there’s no signal right here, but I know if I can get out from under all these trees I can at least get a text out. I saw a tall one I could climb easily just before we got to the train…”

Linda stopped him there. “No way, that’s back where that noise was! It’s too dangerous! And too far away, what if something happens?”

“Hun, we don’t have a choice, it’s this or walk ahead with no idea how far I’ll have to go. At least this way we know where I’m going.” He tried to sound confident, hoping to ease her worry.

Linda didn’t like it, but knew it was their only option. “Promise you’ll be careful and come back fast.”

“I promise, and I love you.” Todd kissed her forehead, loaded his gear, and walked away. As he reached the curve that would hide Linda from his sight forever, he stopped for one final wave goodbye.

Todd jogged at a steady pace and returned to the train clearing in good time. Stopping at the tree-line to catch his breath, he felt his stomach lurch. Something seemed different, but what. Making his way across the clearing slowly, cautiously, he scanned the area for any sign of movement. It wasn’t until he passed the caboose, the spot with the little step ladder Linda made him pose on, that he understood what was wrong. His heart leapt into his throat, almost choking him as he remembered how the sun had glinted off the caboose, into his eyes. There was no sun.

It was gloomy under the thick treetops where forest closed over the path, but this was wide, open skies. It was dark, nighttime without stars. If they were storm clouds, they were the blackest he’s ever seen. His mind raced, a storm like that would be on the news everywhere, and Linda checked the forecast at least 50x the night before. It should be a clear, sunny day. But, it can’t be dark already…

“No, it can’t be, we’ve only been here a few hours, this should be the brightest part of the day.” Todd muttered to himself, digging through his pockets. He dropped the phone between the tracks twice without managing to see the time, but even as he stared, mouth agape, at the brightly lit phone, he couldn’t believe it. The screen was technicolor and shattered.

Todd’s stomach lurched again and he thought about pills for the first time that day. So overwhelming was the craving, he momentarily forgot Linda. It wasn’t until the phone rang, that he realized the full extent of this new dilemma. He repeatedly swiped his finger across the bottom, hoping the phone’s other functions remained intact, but screamed in anguish when the ringing stopped. He sat on the ground, rocking, muttering. “What have I done, how long have I been gone? I’d do anything for a few pills. What will I say? How do I explain.”

A loud, piercing scream penetrated his skull. Phone forgotten, Todd leapt to his feet. “Linda?! Linda!” He screamed her name, not knowing if she could hear him, just wanting to stop his thoughts.

It was another deer, it wasn’t her. Is what he was trying to think.

It was her, and you know it. For that matter, you knew the first wasn’t a deer either, but you can’t ignore it this time. Don’t panic, after all, she’s going to scream every time a cricket chirps. Especially now that it’s dark… oh no. It’s dark! If I had pills, I’d crush some up right now and snort one big line. How long have I been gone? What must she think?! How can I explain this… or her phone? Is what he knew.

Moving fast as he dared in the dark and soaked in cold sweat, Todd focused every ounce of his willpower on returning to his wife. The longer he walked, the more anxious he became, and his junky monkey clawed his back furiously. He called to Linda, expecting to see her around each new curve. Only when he reached a clearing with blackened remnants of tall wooden structures did he stop to assess his location. Taking a deep, steadying breath, he visualized every step when leaving the train area.

“Was there more than one path? I didn’t walk toward the entrance, but I didn’t see Linda either. I’ve never seen this clearing, or I would have remembered these… What are these? Burned down deer stands? I want some pills so bad. Well if people hunted here, maybe a cabin with a phone is nearby. Maybe Linda fell asleep… I coulda passed right by her if she did.”

It felt strange hearing his voice break the silence, as if he were in a library, offending other patrons. “Stop being stupid, there’s no one out here. You’re alone in Hicksville USA. You need to man up right now, find a phone, and get your woman to safety. Linda is out there, in a strange place, alone in the dark, depending on you. This is not the time to bitch out, son. Forget the damn pills!” Todd’s inner voice became that of his father’s. A few slaps to the face helped him regain the illusion of control.

With his second wind coursing through him, Todd steeled himself, marching forward as if he could see farther than five feet ahead. He passed the ruined guard towers he mistook for deer stands and hair stood on the back of his neck. Continuing beyond the line of burned and rotted tree stumps from which an Abernathy once emerged, legless and dying, he began to shiver from a sudden temperature drop. Afraid to acknowledge the feeling of being watched had returned – stronger than ever – he desperately called for Linda until his legs shook and throat ached.

“Oh man, what am I doing? I’d sell my soul for a few pills. There’s nothing out here, everything’s dead, there’s not even grass.” He whimpered, teeth chattering as much with fear as cold.

Todd tried desperately not to think of ghosts. If there’s one thing all haunted stories universally agree upon, it’s that chills inevitably precede every encounter. “Nope, screw this. I’m going back the way I came, no way I’m finding a phone out here. There had to be another path; that hotel guy said people got lost here… I was so scared I ran off without the phone. Yea, I ran down the wrong path, hell, the paths are probably marked, this is for beginners! That’s it! I just have to get to the train, and then I’ll find Linda in no time.”

So relieved was he at the prospect of turning back – all fear of Linda’s anger evaporated. He would spend the rest of his life making it up to her. The moment he turned around, a bolt of lightning streaked across the sky, momentarily allowing Todd to see his surroundings clearly. His knees almost gave out, but somehow, he managed to stay up right.

Due to their long feet and snout-like mouths, he wanted to believe a pack of rabid coyotes were blocking his retreat – but he couldn’t reconcile that hope while thinking, ‘they’re bald… standing on two legs… and, were those… wings? Or were they extra long arms bent wrong at the elbow? They’re thin as these dead trees, what the hell are they?’ At the moment it didn’t matter; neither did the rain that now soaked him to the bone. What mattered, was running.

He could only go forward. Running as he hadn’t since high school track, he couldn’t get their image out of his mind. ‘Those eyes, they were red. If I looked back now, I would still see their eyes, glowing in the dark. I wish I could die high. Oh Lin, I’m so sorry.’ Another bolt of lightning lit the sky, and Todd saw a small hut only fifteen feet ahead. Ignoring the stitch in his side, he ran with renewed vigor. ‘Please be unlocked, please be unlocked, I don’t want to die.’ Lunging the last few feet, he collided with the door and scrambled for the knob. Tears of joy spilled over when it turned easily under his grip.

He threw himself inside, risking a short glance into the darkness before slamming the door shut. “Holy…” he pressed his back to the door, slid to the ground, and dug his feet in for leverage as the impact of several creatures threatened to break in. He almost lost his hold when the lights came on and the old man spoke.

“Here, move aside.” A deep, rattled voice of a lifetime smoker instructed while placing a thick, wooden beam across the door. “Don’t worry, that‘ll hold ‘em. Come sit and have some coffee, keep a lonely old man company won’t cha?”

Todd stared, stammering but unable to speak. The tall, old man shook his bald head as if disappointed, but not surprised. He poured two cups of coffee, and placed them at the table, waiting patiently. When no more creatures tried to break in, Todd found his voice. “What are they? My wife is out there – on the trail. I have to get to her.” He rose on trembling legs, body aching for the warm coffee despite everything else.

“On the trail you say? Ahh, she’ll be fine for now. It’s you who wandered away. Took a wrong turn at that train is my guess.” The old man let a hint of disappointment out when he said Linda would be okay, but Todd was too rattled to notice.

“How do you know that, who are you? Is this your trail, Mister?” Anger raced through him at the prospect.

“Oh my heavens, no! I’ve been here longer than you’ve been alive. No, I have nothing to do with it, but it’s brought me some visitors since it opened, so I can’t complain.” The old man mused, clearly enjoying himself.

“Then who are you? What the hell are those things out there?” Todd tried to keep his voice even, but couldn’t.

“I’m nobody anymore, I just stay in my cabin. Sleeping mostly, waiting. It’s them you gotta worry about.” The old man pointed his cane toward the door, indicating the creatures outside. “They’re hungry, it seems you’ve riled them up; they are Vetti. They’re normally solitary creatures – extremely rare – but special circumstances culminated to create this horde.”

“You’re crazy!” Todd interjected.

Making no effort to hide his amusement, the old man smiled wide, exposing his yellow, rotted teeth. “My dear boy! If I’m crazy, you’re absolutely mad! Those Vetti were humans once you know. Are you familiar with Harpies at all? No? Shame. You see, when humans suffer terrible anguish, when they’re tortured for years, and there’s no end in sight, most develop a seething hatred; an overwhelming desire for revenge, for inflicting their pain upon others. In the most extreme cases, after they die, their souls reek of that hatred and pain, it’s like catnip to the Harpies… and when they come for it… well, you get the point.

“No, I don’t, what happened here? You’re not making sense!” Todd rose to his feet quickly, getting a head rush and feeling dizzy. His hand pressed to his forehead as he fell to his seat. “I don’t feel so good. Please old man, speak plainly, I’m begging you.”

“I’d love to sit around shooting the shit, I really would, but it looks like that coffee is kicking in. I’m afraid we’re out of time.”

The last thing Todd saw was the old man rising from his chair, eyes glowing red. With a snap of his fingers, the brightly lit room returned to darkness. He unlocked the door, opening it wide, “Come brothers, it is time!” He announced, arms held high in victory. “Tell me, which of you will take this vessel and venture forth?”

From the darkness, one Vetti came to stand before the others, snout pointed high, wings stretched open, strutting. The two entered the cabin alone. Several bloody hours and ear-splitting screams later, Todd emerged from the cabin, eyes glowing red. The other Vetti, not yet possessing their own vocal cords to communicate with, were still able to speak to their brother telepathically. What will you do first? They eagerly inquired.

“Find Linda, of course.”