“Do you put the kids to bed before you get out here, Louise?”
“I try to, but I’m sure their dad lets them slide out after I’ve walked out the door. I’m the only one who makes them sleep at all on the off days.”
“Heh, see it was the opposite when our kids were growing up. I had to be the one to put my foot down. Liz was always tellin’ me, ‘Harry you gotta handle em’! You’re the cop, you know the protocol!’ Ahh, rough stuff Louise, I tell ya… I thought you quit with those.”
“Only at home, with this job I still need to get my fix every now and again.”
“Whatever you say. Department has a pool on when you’re gonna put them away for good. Looks like I’ve got a shot again.”
It was just after 2 A.M. as the cruiser made its way through the narrow street along the center of the Herrington Forests a mile or two from the town of Blackwater. Officer Harry Burton was behind the wheel, his front seat occupied by Officer Rebecca Louise, a recent transfer from out of state. The two had become fast friends since her joining the force in Blackwater and often chatted nonchalantly on their way to calls, the camaraderie a way for them both to cope with the demands of the job.
The Herrington Forests were a popular campground and usually secure, although Louise had been called out on a missing-person’s assignment before. Even then though, the lost hiker and his dog were found after only a few hours of searching, tired and a little hungry, but fine otherwise.
Unfortunately, she didn’t think this night would be so simple.
“That guy the commissioner mentioned… You don’t think he’ll be around here, do you?” Louise asked through her cigarette, Burton only sighing.
“I certainly hope not… Still, we gotta be ready to shut him down if so.”
Aaron Nelson. Believed upon his arrest to only be a con man, further investigation by the police revealed two young men and a teenage girl locked within his basement, purchased from a ring of child-abductors and kept as abused slaves. During a routine transfer, Nelson had escaped and, presumably with the assistance of a friend, obtained a car and fled state lines. It was believed he was last spotted in Blackwater in the last ten days, though whether it was actually Nelson or a lookalike it was still unclear. Louise muttered his features to herself: oversized nose, balding, black hair, a tattoo of the word, “King” on the front of his chest.
“She said they were staying in campsite seven,” Louise muttered as Burton continued down the path. Their call regarded a young woman, sobbing that her friends disappeared in the dead of the night. She frantically searched the grounds, called their cell phones, searched for anything, but there was no sign of them to be found. Louise and Burton suspected it might be some mean-spirited prank, but that was not their decision to make.
The two officers pulled into the parking lot of the campsite, a tiny light switched on in one a single large van sitting before them. Nodding to one another, the officers stepped out and lightly tapped the glass of the van’s window. The young woman sitting in the front seat jumped a little but, upon seeing them, stood up, wrapped in a blanket and wincing in pain a little as she stood.
“Hey there,” Burton said. “Megan Sheel?”
“Yes,” she said, “Thank God you’re here!”
“Not a problem,” Louise said, sliding a notepad and pen out of her pocket. “Can you tell us what happened?”
“I-I mean I don’t even know,” she said. “I’ve been out on this road trip… It’s our graduation trip, see? We were taking a big, cross-country trip before we all go off to college. I’ve never even been here before.”
“Not a nice introduction to our town,” Burton said softly. “We’re sorry for that. You said on the phone that you woke up and your friends had just disappeared?”
“Yes,” she said. “My boyfriend and I were in that tent over there,” she said, pointing to a large, bright orange one. “I didn’t even hear him get up, and I’m usually such a light sleeper! But him and all my other friends had just disappeared!”
“And this was about an hour ago?” Louise asked, the struggling Megan nodding. “What are your other friends’ names?” She listed them off quickly: Gary, Vicky and Theo, her boyfriend. “And why did you wince when you stood up?”
“Twisted my ankle or something,” Megan said. I looked in the woods with my flashlight a little, if they were maybe playing some kind of terrible joke, but I couldn’t find them. I twisted my ankle on a root or something as I was coming back.”
“You might wanna have a doctor look at that,” Burton said. “The ambulances have to come out when you dial for us, why don’t you go with them? I don’t think it’s a good idea for you to stick around here like this.”
She opened her mouth to protest, but shut it quickly and nodded. “We’ll wait with you here until the ambulance arrives. In the meantime can you tell me what your friends look like?”
So the two officers remained with the young Megan as she described her friends and the police attempted to give her some reassurance. When asked about the blanket to try and distract from the matter at hand, Megan sheepishly admitted she had left her tent without changing from the very minimal pajamas she had worn that night. Flashlight in hand, Louise led her back to her tent so she could retrieve her clothes without fear. In time the ambulance came and Megan was taken away, confident in the work of the officers who had come to her aid.
“There’s only so much we’re going to be able to do tonight,” Burton said, pulling his flashlight from his belt. “You know that right? We’ll give the five-mile radius a once-over. Hopefully this is just a really bad joke.”
Louise nodded, flicking on her own flashlight and accompanying her partner into the dark of the forests, Louise stopping on the edge for a moment and pulling a roll of yellow athletic tape from her belt. She cut it with her utility knife and tied it in a knot around the branch of one of the trees. “So we’re sure of where we began,” she said.
“Better safe than sorry,” Burton replied. “C’mon then.”
The powerful beams from the flashlights cut through the darkness of the trees as the officers proceeded into the timberland. They alternated between calling out the names that Megan had given them, following with, “This is the Blackwater police!” And usually explaining that they only wished to find them, not bring them any harm. Still, the woods were silent apart from the crunch of leaves under their steps.
“You don’t think they’d disobey a cop do you?” Burton asked. “That this could still be a prank?”
“I don’t think so,” Louise admitted. “And if I’m right they certainly have to be deeper in these woods.”
“You’d think they’d have heard about the Nelson guy and stayed somewhere else,” Burton said. “It was all over the radio.”
“A lot of kids don’t listen to the radio anymore. I think the better question is if they were given any warning by the guy who runs the campground. The tents had the Herrington logo on them, they had to have rented them here.”
“Maybe they just figured it would happen to anyone else. Maybe that’s all part of the bad prank… Then again, we just decided it probably wasn’t a prank, didn’t we?”
Louise froze, Burton immediately taking notice, “Hey, what is it? Do you see something?”
“Up there,” she said quietly, pointing with her flashlight. Burton squinted a little as she pointed before his mouth opened in shock.
The two rushed forward to get a better look, their fears confirmed. Just ahead of them upon a high tree branch there hung a body on a knotted rope. A quick comparison of their notes told them it was Theo.
“How… How the hell did that happen?” Burton asked in disgust as Louise climbed a few feet up the tree, severing the rope with her utility knife, her partner catching the body as it dropped. “He’d have had to have climbed one of those branches and jumped, wouldn’t he?”
“I don’t know if it’s that simple.” Louise said. “Take a look at his face. Those scratches are pretty fresh, I think there would have to have been a struggle.”
“With what? Those are too small for a bear or a wolf…”
“But not for a person,” Louise said.
“That just doesn’t make any sense.” Burton said. “What, did Nelson find him out here, force him to climb that tree and then push him off?”
“It would hide the fact that he murdered him if it looked like a suicide.” Louise replied. “Maybe I’m giving the son of a bitch too much credit, but it would explain the scratches.” The two exchanged grim looks as they made the call to their department, reporting a young man dead. Possible suicide, but murder was not out of the question.
“Disaster,” Burton murmured, shaking his head and wiping his forehead with his hat for a moment. “We have to keep going. The others could still be out there and still need our help.”
Both stood over the body of the lost young man before taking a few steps forward, Louise yelling a little as she tripped up.
“You okay?” Her partner asked.
“Fine,” she said. “That kid was right though. These roots are rough stuff. Let’s go.”
For something close to forty minutes the two continued in silence before reaching the edge of the woods, an annoyed look coming across Louise’s face. “Oh damn it Harry, we turned around!”
“What are you talking about?” Burton asked.
“See here?” Louise said, proceeding forward and motioning at a tree, the brightly colored bandage still wrapped around one of its branches.
“You gotta be kidding,” Burton said in a now equal annoyance. “I was sure we were going forward when we saw the body. How did this happen?”
“I don’t know,” Louise sighed. “Alright, to the east this time, okay? Not just straight forward, it’ll give us a better chance of finding something new.”
Finding themselves again in silence the two of them stepped through the unmarked woods, still searching for any sign of life, save for the squirrels and raccoons they noticed skirting up the trees or into the bushes hiding about. Remembering their mission however, the two began to call out the names again. After another ten minutes, there at last came a reply.
“OVER HERE!” A man’s voice seemed to shriek.
“About time!” Burton exclaimed. “Could always be someone else though… Keep your guard up. What’s your name kid!”
“Gerald! Gary! Whatever!” The voice cried, the police picking up their pace before encountering the young man, laying slack against a tree, shuddering in terror.
“What happened here kid?” Burton asked, stepping closer.
“I- I don’t know! I… I can’t move!” The young man cried.
“What do you mean you can’t move?” Burton asked, stepping forward to examine him. “May I touch?” Gary swiftly consented and Burton lifted one of his arms, noticing it fell weakly when he let it go.
“I can’t move at all!” Gary insisted. “One moment I was asleep and the next something had grabbed me! My girlfriend too, right out of our tent! He zipped my sleeping bag over my face, I don’t even know how far he dragged me! And then… Oh God!” He was sobbing now as the two examined the situation.
“Up there,” Louise said, pointing. Burton grimaced as he saw what she referred to: a broken piece of rope, formerly held in a hangman’s knot.
“And someone else had you up there?” Burton asked. “You didn’t do that to yourself?”
“Oh God no!” Gary cried. “I’m not suicidal! I swear I’m not, it wasn’t me!” He was choking on his words now as Burton bent down and put his hand on his shoulder. “I- I can’t feel anything!”
“The knot must have broken his neck,” Burton whispered. “It didn’t kill him, but it came very close.”
“Please!” He pleaded. “I need to get to a hospital. And Vicky, please, my girlfriend Vicky-”
As if his words had triggered something there was a scream, both of the officers jerking in the opposite direction. “That’s her!” Gary cried. “That has to be her!”
“Rebecca, go check that out!” Burton yelled.
“We shouldn’t split up-”
“No, you need to go see what that is,” Burton insisted. “I need to stay with this kid. Go! We don’t want another body on our hands.”
Swallowing a little, Louise nodded, pulling her gun from her belt and bringing her flashlight up to follow the sound of the scream. Another root or two tripped her a little, but she kept running faster and faster until stuttered to a stop.
Another body hung from another tree.
Her eyes darted in horror for some sign of the assailant. Three already found, two now dead, and this one so recent. This had to be the girl who had screamed, she was sure. But where had the attacker gone?
Where had Aaron Nelson gone?
As she continued to search for some kind of evidence, she became transfixed on a branch next to the tree of the hanging, her blood seeming to freeze in an instant.There was the yellow bandage, wrapped in a knot around the branch.
All that could go through Louise’s mind was the simple revelation: He knows we’re here.
And then there were two screams from where she had come from. It was Gary and Burton, she was sure.
“REBECCA! GET BACK HERE!” The sound of gunshots followed. “HURRY! My God- HURRY!”
Again she sprinted, demanding in her mind how Nelson could possibly be so fast and how he had taken an officer by surprise. Unfortunately, another root snagged her as she ran, and she let out a scream of pain, falling to the ground, sure her ankle was at least twisted, and at worst her leg was broken. Fighting through the pain, she forced herself up, pushing with all her remaining strength towards the two she had left for only a few moment.
But by then, it was too late.
Burton and Gary were both hanging from the tree’s branches, Burton’s gun and flashlight lying on the ground under his dangling corpse. Staring in terror, Louise swallowed, struggling to regain a little composure, and fired a shot into the air.
“WHERE THE HELL ARE YOU NELSON?!” She screamed, all of her training seemingly lost in the death of these children and her friend. “WHERE ARE YOU?!”
She stood, paralyzed in fear and raged, waiting on an answer she was sure wasn’t going to come. When suddenly she caught something. Almost light as the wind: Over here.
She starred in the direction of the sound, so thrown by it she wasn’t sure how to proceed. She took a last look at the victims before stepping forward slowly, flashlight in one hand, handgun in the other.
Over here, the wisp called, Louise ready to give it a fight. Over here.
Through the sea of trees she continued, eyes darting every which way, desperately searching out some sign of life. When she finally came upon something unusual in the wooden labyrinth, she proceeded slowly.
It was another body, and another hangman’s knot. But at this point, that wasn’t enough to solicit the look of shock that came across her face.
It was the fact that, coming up on it, she noticed a large tattoo across the body’s bare chest.
Aaron Nelson was hanging before her.
That would have been tremor enough, but she noticed the corpse wasn’t fresh. It was flushed of its color, cold to the touch, bloated. Nelson had to have been dead for days already.
When her eyes left the madman’s stone-cold body, she noticed something else, perhaps the only thing more terrifying.
The yellow bandage wrapped around the branch of a nearby tree.
She starred, stunned, for only a moment before she noticed something taking hold of her feet.
There was a scream and a gunshot. The roots had come alive and were grabbing at her legs, trying to pin her down. There seemed to be a groan of pain as she pulled the trigger and fired a round into the root, taking the moment to sprint from her place.
Where had she come from? Where was the police car parked? Where was civilization in the void of suddenly living wood.
That’s it, run the wisp said. I never got to know the chase before. They used to simply come to me. Back when this was Clearwater, they flocked for the gift you will receive.
Louise continued to fire at the roots as the trees themselves, at least a few of them, seemed to be perusing her. She didn’t look towards the roots or the feet or whatever they seemed to move with. Somehow they were coming for her. She had to escape, there had to be a way.
And then another root took hold, putting the already injured Louise to the ground, desperately pulling the trigger but finding she had run out of ammo.
The trees, like wooden demons surrounded her, a single pair of blood colored eyes looking down on her from one of them, a small mark, like a pointed heart on its cheek, as a rope came into view, the horrid material sliding around her neck as the red eyed one knotted it around his arm-like branch.
This will be message enough, the thing whispered. Clearwater, Blackwater, soon all of its children will be mine again.
Louise went for her utility knife, fighting with all her strength before there was a knot, a whip and a snap.
I told them once. Noose bleeds, but Noose does not die.