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I was twenty-three when I had my first encounter with the paranormal. Well, not exactly. When I was about three a young woman appeared in the center of my room one night. She was pale, had light blonde hair with a black ribbon tied in a bow, and a dark green dress. I was sleeping in the top of a bunk bed, but I remember suddenly waking in the dead of night moments before she appeared. She turned towards me, and began walking in my direction. I stayed perfectly still, not even breathing. As she drew near, she slowly and gently began to reach towards my face with her right hand. When it got close, I sharply drew a breath, and she vanished. My eyes darted around the room. Though startled, I hadn't felt threatened. Even as a young child, my instincts were strong, and I trusted them. She had meant me no harm. It could be felt in the air. I fell back asleep. She never appeared again, and as the years went by, I pushed her to the back of my mind. As far as I was concerned, the paranormal was not a factor in my life, and evil did not lurk in the shadows. It stayed in the hearts of human beings.
I was wrong.
That is the story I am about to tell.
I should start at the real turning points in my life that ultimately led me to my encounter with the impossible. My name is Tommy Steele. I was your average rocker/metalhead type of kid. Long hair, tattoos, pack of Marlboro Red 100s in my pocket and several empty whiskey bottles strewn about my apartment in between my guitars. At twenty-five, I should be getting a haircut and finding a better job. But some wounds just don't heal, and this is how I believe my life will be lived out: As unfinished as my musical projects.
When I was twenty-one, I was living the dream. I was the lead singer in a talented band, I had a decent crash pad, a red Camaro, and most importantly, a relationship with a beautiful redheaded spark of life. I loved her, and was inexplicably excited when she told me that she was pregnant. She and I began searching for our first house to raise our daughter in. I'd even written a song about becoming a dad that I will never perform again. You see, after seven months, the pregnancy became complicated. Her health began to fade, and I worried for both my girls. Not two weeks later, she went into labor. I remember driving ninety-six miles an hour, trying desperately to get them to the hospital. The doctors rushed her into surgery, but it was too late. My girlfriend barely survived. But our daughter did not. Less than a week later, I stood before a small headstone that read:
Sofia Angelina Steele. Born: November 11th, 2011. Died: November 11th, 2011. Forever in our hearts.
My tie was loosened and I clutched a half-empty whiskey bottle. My father put his hand on my shoulder, and reminded me I still had a girl I needed to care for. But when I took her hands, she couldn't even look at me. Weeks passed, but nothing I did could lift her broken spirit. After a month, she collected a handful of her things and moved back in with her parents while I was at work. It was clear she never wanted to be reminded of her loss again. I couldn't fault her for leaving. Two months passed when my mother called me with the news. My ex had taken a huge handful of pills, taking her own life. I watched them bury her beside my daughter.
From there, I just fell apart. My drinking became uncontrolled, and I began abusing painkillers. Within a year of my daughter's funeral, I was shooting up heroin every day and night. I chugged liquor in between doses. My band fired me for my intolerable behavior, and I'd gone through three jobs. I was finally given an intervention, and checked into a renowned rehabilitation clinic two states over. After six months, I was finally clean again, and returned home to Kentucky to start over. My parents took me back into their home just before my twenty-third birthday, and that's when things got strange.
As part of my rehab program, I needed a job, and was encouraged to spend time in the outdoors. I found a job as a Park Ranger for one of Kentucky's largest forests. Two birds with one stone, I thought. The best part of the job was patrolling the trails. I would follow said trails and smoke cigarettes, trying my best to focus on the fact that I was alive. Rangers were forbidden to smoke in the woods, but I didn't really care. I always made sure to grind them out with my boot and put the butts in my pocket, anyway.
It didn't take much time for the first camper to go missing in the woods. I was warned from the start that it wasn't a rare occurrence. More often than not, the missing person was found, usually alive. We didn't find this one, though. Her face hung in my office on a missing person flyer. As the days went by, I paid special attention on each of my patrols, staying out closer and closer to dark.
One day, I came into work and there was another flyer. Still fairly normal for tourist season, I didn't have any sense of alarm when I went out to search for him. I located his campsite just before dusk. There was clear evidence of trouble. The tent had a large hole ripped through it, and the supplies were scattered about. All of the food rations were untouched, making an encounter with a bear unlikely. Shell casings from a 9mm handgun littered the ground. At least seven shots had been fired at something but there was no blood. I radioed it in, and my supervisor, Frank, informed the police I'd be taking them up to the scene at first light. As I turned away from the scene, something caught my eye. Something white moved behind a tree. It was so quick, I wasn't sure it had been there at all. "Hello?" I called out. Silence. I shook it off and headed back to base.
In the early hours of the morning, I led the state troopers up to Grid 16. They combed the scene, and gathered what evidence they could. While the police processed the scene, all rangers were out searching the entirety of the grid for the camper. Not one of us found a damn thing. Towards the end of the daylight, I saw something pale moving in the trees again. This time I drew my AR-15 slightly and moved towards it. I was sure something was behind that tree. I snapped around the corner, rifle raised, and nothing was there. Then as I lowered my weapon, I noticed two small prints in the dirt. I knelt down, and realized in horror they were the bare footprints of a small child, but with no tracks leading in any direction. The ground was so soft from a recent storm, even a toddler would leave a trail.
I didn't sleep at all that night. The more I thought back on the movement, the more I could make out. It almost seemed like a little girl in a white dress. It haunted me every time I closed my eyes. I couldn't shake the feeling of being watched during my entire patrol the next day. There was no sign of either of the missing campers. As I turned to head back, I looked towards a hill. There was no mistake this time. I saw her clear as day. A little girl with bright red hair and a white dress was looking at me from the ridge. I couldn't see her face, but I started walking towards her.
"Hey, sweetheart! Are you lost? It's okay, I'm a ranger! I can take you home. Just hang o-" my sentence was cut off when I stumbled on a fallen log. It could only have been a fraction of a second my sight was broken from her, but she had disappeared. I scrambled up the ridge and began calling out. I was practically flipping over rocks, searching for her. Right where she had stood, were two small bare footprints. No further sign of her. I radioed in.
"Frank, there's a kid out here. A little girl. I can't find her now, but she's out here."
"There hasn't been a child in here in months, Steele. Nobody camping anywhere in the forest at the moment has a child, according to the logs. Now get your ass back here!"
I wanted to argue with him, but I had nothing. I snapped a picture of the footprints on my cell phone and reluctantly returned to the ranger station. Frank was there, chomping on a cigar and finishing up some paperwork.
"Frank, you need to see this," I said pulling out my phone. He stood up and walked over to me. I pulled up my recent photos and handed him my phone. There was a long silence before he spoke.
"What exactly am I looking at?" he asked.
"The footprints!" I said, a little louder than I meant to.
"Son," said Frank, "I think you need to get some sleep. There's nothing in this picture."
He handed me back my phone, and I gasped. There was just a patch of dirt. No impressions in it whatsoever. I just nodded and walked out to my truck.
She was in my dreams again, just standing there, not speaking. But this time she let me get close to her. She looked up at me when I approached her and I jumped when I saw her eyes. They were the same deep brown as my own. She spoke.
"Don't go back. It's not safe."
Her voice sounded so far away. It had a slight echo that made it sound like she was speaking into a coffee can. She closed her eyes, and at that very instant, I woke up. Her words were on my mind the whole time I drove my rusted-out pickup truck to work. Immediately after entering the station, I knew something was wrong. The state troopers were speaking with Frank about more searches.
"Steele!" he shouted. "We got a whole family missing now! Man, girlfriend, little girl. Get your gear and start your search in Grid 16!"
I nodded and rushed to suit up for the search. A whole family missing was unheard of. As I stepped out of the truck and onto the trail, I had the feeling of being watched again. But this was different; it was as if something angry was glaring at me. It was an unnerving feeling I couldn't shake, but still I gripped my rifle a little tighter and pushed into Grid 16. The feeling only grew worse as I walked deeper into the forest. Five people had gone missing in a week, with no bodies recovered. This was unnerving even to the veteran rangers. The campsite was only a few miles from the last one. It had been ransacked as well, and there were four shells from a shotgun lying on the ground. I scanned the dirt for tracks of any kind. Nothing. Nothing at all.
I looked up, and there she was. The very same little girl. She looked straight at me, turned, and ran into the trees. I saw flashes of white moving through the trees and doggedly chased after them. I ran flat out for at least half a mile, heart pounding in my chest. I could see the smallest piece of dress disappear through the thick brush. I clawed my way through, and there was a clearing on the other side. Ahead of me, the little girl stood before the opening of a cave I had never seen before. She turned on her heel and walked into the darkness of the cave. I followed. Inside the cave, the path led steeply downward. I held the rifle to my shoulder in one hand, and drew my flashlight with the other. I made my way further and further down until it grew cold. I must have been fifty feet underground or more. Every hair on my body stood on end when I heard a noise ahead of me. I took a deep breath, and turned the corner. The sight was horrifying. Clothing and bones everywhere. In the center were five filthy, injured, but miraculously alive people. Even in their state, I recognized them as the five missing campers.
"I'm a ranger!" I called out, lowering the rifle. "Are you all okay?"
The man who had been the second abductee stood.
"You have to get us out of here!" he shouted. "It's coming back! It's coming back!"
I noticed his shirt was slashed. There were bloody wounds on his chest that looked like a gigantic bear had swiped him.
"Okay!" I said, trying to keep the panic out of my voice. "Everyone get behind me! We need to get out of here right now!"
The other man cradled his daughter and helped his girlfriend up. The woman who had been missing the longest was clearly weak from starvation. She did not speak but her eyes darted in every direction. She was terrified. They all fell in behind me as I started up the path back to the outside. Upon reaching the mouth of the cave, I scanned the area. Nothing. No little girl, no bear, nothing. I quickly lit a cigarette to calm my nerves a bit before giving the order to move.
"Clear, let's go!" I whispered. One by one they crawled through the underbrush to the other side. I went last. And as I came through, I felt that same horrible presence as before. My group hadn't gone more than a couple hundred yards when we heard the howl. I froze instantly, the cigarette dropped from my lips. The sound I had just heard didn't come from any animal I knew. It was a gut-wrenching, horrid noise. And that's when I noticed all the sounds of the forest. Birds, animals, even the bugs had completely stopped. There was utter silence. I looked to my left and the girl in white was standing beside me. She said only one word.
"C'mon, we gotta run for it!" I shouted at my group, and we tore off into the trees. Over my thundering heart, I could hear something big tearing after us. I slowed enough to let the others pass me, and began firing at the rustling trees behind. There was another howl, but this one sounded like pure fury. We kept running. The lone man was the first to fall. He tripped, and we didn't even slow down. I heard him scream, and then abruptly stop. The lone woman was next. She was simply too weak to continue running. She dropped to her knees, closed her eyes, and wrapped her arms around herself. I didn't hear her scream. Lastly, a man carrying his baby stepped into a small hole in the ground at full speed. His ankle snapped with a horrific crunch, and both he and the baby hit the dirt. They had been running ahead of me, and when they fell, the mother stopped and ran back towards them, screaming at me to help.
"Don't!" I yelled. "It's too late, c'mon c'mon!"
She had just reached them when something pitch black burst from the trees and was upon them. I fought back tears as I heard their screams, and the baby's cry. I could make out a flash of white ahead of me making straight for the trail. The beast was still after me, but I could hear voices from the trail ahead. I didn't have enough breath to call out, I just kept running. The trail was just yards ahead when I felt a sharp pain just above my ankle. My leg gave out and I collapsed. I turned around and saw it. Good God, did I see it. A horrible black mass of a beast. Piercing yellow eyes, and a snout and fangs like a wolf's. Its whole body was nearly transparent. I could see the outline of a heart. It wasn't beating. The next thing I saw was a flash of massive claws, and a sharp pain in my chest. My finger squeezed the trigger of my AR, but the rounds passed right through. Blood gushed from my chest, and I began to black out.
"Over here!" I heard Frank's voice shout. "I heard shots!"
I could hear police dogs barking. My eyelids began to flutter due to the blood loss, and the thing was now just a black blur with those shining yellow eyes. I swear to God, those eyes narrowed in anger, and the creature vanished into thin air. Shouts for a medic were the last thing I heard before blacking out. Next thing I knew, I was floating in and out of consciousness in a hospital. I saw a few doctors, heard a few cops, and I distinctly heard Frank having some sort of discussion.
"I don't know how he survived. The bear must have stopped chasing him. With wounds like that, he couldn't have run far."
"Any sign of the missing campers?" asked the other voice.
"None," said Frank sadly. "Not even the baby."
I looked down at my chest hours later when next I awoke, and could see the bloody bandages covering my mechanical heart tattoo. I could tell they had raked across the design. Something else caught my eye. The little girl from the forest was standing beside my bed. I tried to speak, but being intubated made it impossible. I could hear her whispering to me as I was losing the fight to stay awake. I made out her words.
"He has your scent now. He'll never forget you, or let you go. I tried to warn you. I can't stay any longer. I'm sorry, Daddy."
That was two years ago. I never saw my little girl again. The rangers never found the cave, or that damned... Thing. I quit my job, and stay far away from woods of any kind these days. I'm living under a new name in Arizona. But even here in the desert, I can still feel that agonizing glare every now and then. And each time I do, I fear I will see those horrible yellow eyes in the darkness once more.