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The Woods by John Caudill

The Woods by John Caudill

Fiction, Vol. 7.4, Dec. 2013

April 2nd

Hiker went missing today out at Longleaf Preserve, off State Road forty-four. Twenty-eight-year-old Christy Machen. I saw a picture of the girl. She looked fit and strong. One of them short little bob-cuts and a stout frame. She looked like she was the type of person who had trouble standing still for any period of time. Maybe ex-military. The kind of girl who drank beer and lifted weights at the Y and knew how to field dress a fish. Not really the type to get lost out on the game trails.

She left from DeLand earlier in the week on Thursday and evidently, she’d been hiking through the back-country all weekend. Was supposed to be home and into work as a sky-diving instructor on Monday. Never showed up for work yesterday morning. We had search parties making rounds of the trails today.

Why would a girl of twenty-eight go hiking out there through the pine and palmetto blades by herself? There’s miles and miles of trails out there. Probably close to two-hundred miles of fire roads and game trails intersecting each other all over the place, and only about thirty of those miles are blazed for recreation. According to her supervisors, she was doing some camping to get in shape for a bigger hike she was planning over the summer.

April 3

Still no sign of Christy Machen. We have close to forty people strafing the trails for any signs and additional air support making lines.

It’s a lot of land out there to get lost in. Almost a thousand square miles of converted timber land. Back in the seventies before the sprawl from Orlando started creeping north, this was all just pine timber forests and cypress swamps. The occasional cow field. The big stretch of land connects DeLand inland and New Smyrna over on the coast. There ain’t nothing to see out there. Once you’ve seen one pine tree, you’ve seen ’em all.

It’s been raining all week. Overcast skies and muddy trails. I usually come home smelling like a hog pen. Claire doesn’t much care for it but she’s watching the news like everyone else, waiting for something on the Machen girl and she just tells me to go wash the stink off and come right back down and hold her as soon as I’m done. So that’s what I’m doing.

April 4

We found some of Christy’s stuff today. Strange thing too. Searchers had maps and notes proving they’d already searched the areas where we found the stuff. It’s odd the way it all happened so suddenly. I’m beginning to get an uneasy feeling about this case.

We found one of her sneakers, still laced and tied, sitting in the center of the Green Loop Trail out toward I-4. Just sitting there, pretty as can be, like someone chucked it off and left it behind not ten minutes before we were there. Kind of cock-eyed right in the center of the trail. We found Christy’s driver’s license propped at the base of a tree about a mile in from the SR forty-four trail head parking area.

The damnedest thing was finding her backpack dangling from a cypress branch nearly sixty feet up. There is no way a human could have climbed up the straight trunk without some serious equipment and a good bit of experience. It took us three hours just to get the thing down.

Inside, we found a bunch of hiking stuff: clothes and food and sleeping gear. And stuffed down at the bottom, an empty video camera carrying case.

I don’t know much what to think anymore. It feels like somebody is playing with us. We called out the National Guard for tomorrow morning to do sweeps. It’s been impossible to keep the media out of this one—Chief is giving daily status report interviews to the news. Our team is under intense scrutiny from everyone—there’s no suspect so the cops are to blame by default. I’m going to speak to Christy’s father in Lake Mary tomorrow.

April 5

Went out to speak with Richard Curtis, Christy Machen’s stepfather and only immediate relative in the area. Curtis looked terrible. His face was blotchy from crying when he answered the door. Said he’d known Christy since she was three. Married her mother right after he left the service and stayed with her until the cancer took her a few years back. There were pictures all over the living room of Christy with her mother and Curtis and Christy out at Smyrna, surf boards propped between their tan arms.

Curtis had a solid alibi and wasn’t really a suspect. He was the one who called in the report when Christy never checked in on Monday. Said she always left a schedule with him so that if she got lost, he’d know where to look. At this point, he started crying again.

I asked Curtis about the camera case we found in the pack.

Curtis said that Christy would always carry her video camera on her adventures and that if we found the camera, maybe we’d find her.

April 6

We found the camera.

It was in a culvert, wrapped in a muddy women’s hiking shirt, presumably one of Christy’s. One of the boys dug it out of the slimy ditch while a bunch of gators watched from the other side. It was getting late in the day and most of us were close to giving up. There is a strange feeling on these search cases when you find a clue—spirits are bolstered but only for as long as you can forget that the person you’re looking for is still missing.

The camera was dead but appeared to be in working order. We took it back to the station and hooked it up to the computer to see what was on there.

Chief was worried about leaks to the press and didn’t want everybody watching at once so he told Scraggs and McCormac and myself to come back to his office with the tech guy and watch the thing.

The tech guy said the recorder had only one video file and it was two minutes long. He hooked it up to the TV and the whole screen went scratchy for a few seconds. When the file started, the tape was of the woods. The camera was on its side, on the ground. Grass was obscuring most of the frame but it was clear enough what we were looking at.

It was early evening. It looked like the sun had maybe set not but a few minutes prior. The lens was pointed down a trail that was dark at the end. I say a trail because it didn’t look like anywhere I’d been out at Longleaf Pine. The whole trail system out there is rigged as old logging roads, so that all of the trails are two tire tread marks next to each other for easier access for logging and fire trucks. Most of them are overgrown these days.

But this trail on the video wasn’t at Longleaf.

There were pine trees in the back ground but they were Old Growth mammoths, easily gripping a hundred feet into the sky.

There was a single-line trail pointing off into the woods, where it appeared to turn right. The grade was dark around the edges and white in the center, like rain had just washed mud over sand. The only sounds coming through the speaker were of the night—crickets and frogs. Just peaceful as can be. My eyes almost grew heavy from how peaceful it was.

I was beginning to think there wasn’t anything useful on the footage when the screen went fuzzy and the picture started spinning—the camera was being kicked for a field-goal.

My back seemed to melt into the wall.

Once the static let up, I could see that the camera had landed right-side up, on the trail, looking the other direction.

This was no place I’d ever seen.

The image was bizarre but unmistakable. There was a bright little house off the side of the trail. The whole thing looked like it was made out of windows, like a greenhouse with a star or something very powerful trapped inside. There was brilliant yellow light spilling out of the windows. It was the strangest little house I’ve ever seen. It looked like one of those Santa’s workshop jobs they set up for the kids in the park downtown. It was just so damn crazy. My back felt like it was going liquid from all the gooseflesh and chills running down me.

The frogs and crickets moaned in a steady cadence for a few seconds while the camera rested in its new position.

Then the speaker screeched the most terrified, hopeless, painful human sound I’d ever heard in a long vowel sound that made the whole room grow small and freezing cold. The scream lasted for several seconds in one steady punch before it completely, instantly stopped and was replaced by the indifferent drone of evening bugs. The image of the strange little house, glowing in the background, never changed.

The image went fuzzy again. There was another dull thudding kick as the camera went off into the brush. This time the screen went black and shut off.

The Chief leaned back in his seat and the creaking sound made us all about jump out of our skins.

The other detectives and I were instructed not to speak to anyone about this.

I came home tonight and can’t sleep. So here I am.

April 18

This case is getting to me. It’s getting to everyone, not just in the search parties, but all over town. The Patrolmen say the word on the street is that something unnatural has become of Christy Machen.

Something doesn’t feel right out there. Some thing.

I fear I’ve started hallucinating.

The footage I remember seeing of that single-line trail—I don’t think Christy is at Longleaf. It’s all retired timber land out there. Most of the trees aren’t more than thirty years old. The pines on that video were pushing a hundred feet tall. They were Old Growth, from a different time.

When I told this to the chief, he sat me down and called in the tech guys again.

They set up the video and chief asked me to point out the hundred foot pines to him, so he could make a note of it for the investigation.

When the tape started playing, none of it was there. I cocked my head and squinted at what seemed like déjà vu. The camera was still in the grass, on its side and it was still dusk and the frogs and crickets were making their racket but damned if no kick ever sent the camera flying nor no scream of a thousand years of pain and suffering did come screeching through the tiny little speaker.

I stared in complete disbelief. The tape was just a sideways picture of a single-line trail at dusk—about a minute’s worth of footage all told. And then the camera shut off.

You couldn’t even see any tree tops.

Chief looked at me for a minute and then asked the tech boys to take a smoke break outside.

I looked to my hands and explained exactly what I remembered seeing on the video the first time we watched it—the camera flying off into the brush like some monster—some thing—had kicked it right before grabbing the Machen girl and making her scream like her soul was being sucked through her eyeballs. The giant trees of my memory were in the background, serving silent witness to incomprehensible horrors taking place just off-screen—things I might never understand or could never understand, even if I’d wanted to.

After a moment or two of silent scrutiny I was reminded by the chief of the intense pressure being placed on local law enforcement by the ongoing national media coverage of the search. I was also informed by the chief that slip-ups on a case like this were unacceptable and that if I was having a problem with drinking, I should go and seek help.

When I left this afternoon, I turned in my gun and started contemplating this upcoming forced holiday with severance and what it means to my career as a law enforcement officer, because that’s what chief told me to do. Think of it as early retirement, he said. Management has been hinting about this to me for a few years now. I guess this was the excuse they were looking for.

April 28

It’s been a few days since the start of this whole mess with Christy Machen. Volunteers are still searching out at Longleaf but from what I gather, there aren’t enough of them to cover any sort of ground. I went out there after the start of my “early retirement” and did some volunteering myself. Honestly though, I can’t say it felt like we were doing any good. Wherever Christy Machen is, I don’t think it’s at Longleaf.

There is something else. Something I almost don’t even bother writing for fear of giving it too much thought—a dream that I’ve had the last couple of nights. Something—horrible. The type of thing that could only exist in a dream.

But it’s not even really a dream. It’s more like images that fall together, like a slow-speed projector—only with slides missing. When I wake up, but before I can open my eyes, the whole thing just sort of creeps back into the abyss up there and I forget anything more concrete than its occurrence. It’s the kind of dream most folks don’t have once they leave childhood. The sort of thing that just haunts you all morning. A dream that blasts you back to consciousness. Makes you want to stay in bed for a while, coiled in your quilts, until you are comforted by other human sounds—Claire making coffee downstairs.

I forced myself out of bed and shook my head—took stock of myself in the mirror and wondered what in the hell was going on in that brain of mine. But I looked away from the reflection—almost ashamed at what I’d done to myself. The thing—shame or fear or whatever this thing is that’s taken Christy Machen and sent me down my current path—followed me to the shower and made me feel the need to peek out behind the curtain every few minutes, just to make sure nothing was there watching me. It sat there across from me while I was drinking my coffee like death come down to talk about the weather.

Nothing Claire said made any sense. I sat there, hunched and forlorn, watching her read to me from the paper—blathering nonsense between dainty bites of toast. I stumbled around the neighborhood behind the dog twice today. He dropped a shit in the neighbor’s yard and I couldn’t bring myself to clean it up. That’s a littering citation—I’ve written them before.

But something is wrong. This thing is like a goo or slime that’s all over me. It’s just this thin little film that no one else can see but it’s there, blocking out the sunlight and giving me gooseflesh all day long. I can barely even sit here and write this. Maybe tomorrow when I wake, I’ll look at this nonsense and wonder what all the fuss was about?

Maybe…if I wasn’t so afraid to go to sleep.

September 3

It’s been five months.

They found Christy Machen yesterday. A father and son were out hunting on one of the game trails near where the interstate slices through the old pine-flat timber lands in the extreme northwest corner of Longleaf—over there near where the Ocala Forest kisses the preserve’s edge. Suppose to be some kind of corridor for wildlife or something. They were out there hunting for hogs real early in the morning, probably before the mist had melted off, and she was sitting there propped up against a pine tree on the other side of a clearing.

The father said at first he didn’t know what he was seeing—said he couldn’t even recognize whether it was a person or not because it was just so odd to see anything like that out there in all those woods.

I heard the story secondhand from Scraggs. I haven’t been back into work, even though the leave of absence ended weeks ago. I’m realizing now that Claire was probably right when she called it my pre-retirement.

It was strange but I knew why he was calling as soon as I picked up the phone. I could hear it on his lips like a curse word. Said she was just sitting there, still wearing her clothes, like she’d sat down for a rest and had never gotten back up again.

What he said was really strange though was that she hadn’t started to rot yet. She was still fresh, even though the ME found out she had been dead for several months. Nothing had taken a nibble—not even the maggots.

He said what really got him though was how her eyes were still open and moist. Said they were real peaceful-looking like the eyes of most dead folks but that they were wide open and clear. This isn’t what you’d call a huge homicide area but we’ve had our fair share of murders in town. Usually domestic violence-type stuff. Drunks getting too liberal with their fists and so on, as is common in a poor little town. Well what I mean is that both Scraggs and I know what death looks like. The way a body can get after only being dead even a short time. A few years ago an elderly gentleman with Alzheimer’s walked out of his daughter’s living room and just up and disappeared. He turned up in the copse of trees where the homeless sometimes camp out behind the old train yard. Had been dead for a few days and already, just from being out in the Florida heat and humidity, his body had started to stink up something fierce. You could smell it before you could see it type of thing.

Well, Scraggs told me there was no smell to Christy. No decomposition. She might have been in a trance but for the fact that her heart hadn’t been pumping in several months and evidently, her blood and all her insides had turned to molasses.

What was strangest of course was that there was no evident cause of death. Exposure would have been my best guess, but evidently the body didn’t show any signs of that at all. The coroner, Ed Hamilton—been on the force for longer than me—finally just put her down as “heart attack” for lack of a better explanation. I don’t think old Ed or anyone else would believe that a fit, strong young girl with no family history of heart problems could just keel over from a heart attack one day without warning. Probably more likely that something must have caused her heart to stop beating.

Foul play is still on everyone’s mind—how else could you explain all the strangeness? But there’s none of that absolutely necessary physical evidence to support the suspicion. Scraggs says they wouldn’t even know where to begin an investigation without a shred of evidence.

I guess it goes without saying but I’ll say it anyways because I can’t stop thinking about it—this spot where they found her was an area that had been combed over several times. I myself had been out there with the search and could almost picture which clearing it was that she was found in.

November 5

The dreams have started again. They’re clearer now though when I wake up, as in I can actually sort of remember some of the stuff that’s going on. I don’t like to, though.

I saw her eyes just before I heard that scream again—I can’t even barely get this out. I’ve got a glass of whiskey sweating almost as much as I am and it’s not making it any easier. I don’t want to describe the sound but it’s what makes me wake up—the screaming. Every time I shoot awake, it’s because of that scream, just like the one I thought I heard on the tape last April. Such a horrible, sad, suffering sound. But there is something behind the sadness too—some kind of forceful thing—a sort of powerful echo that sounds infinite and hopeless.

I know in my heart that Christy Machen didn’t get lost out at Longleaf. She was taken away and brought back by something I don’t or can’t understand.

November 6

I went out to the woods today. I just got home. All the lights are on. I turned them all on and locked the door and loaded my gun and poured myself a triple and am sitting here at the desk trying to get this out. Claire is already asleep in bed. She doesn’t ask where I go anymore. Just assumes I’m down at the watering-hole.

Christ, why did I go out there? I don’t know if it’s because I’m just drunk but I can’t recall my rationale for wanting to drive out there this afternoon.

Should have known better. Should have known it was too late in the day already—the sun sets at five o’clock, for crying out loud. But I couldn’t stop. Shit, I couldn’t stop walking. As soon as my feet hit that trail I was gone. It was like there was a magnet out there somewhere in the dark, quiet swamp dragging me in deeper and deeper, past the never-ending halls of perfectly lined-up timber pine and the exploding green palmettos.

I’m not a young man anymore. I’ve been polishing a seat with my ass down at HQ for far too long. I was winded and ready to stop before I even got but a half a mile out there. That’s when I realized I was going so fast. I was practically jogging. Where the hell did I think I was going that fast? I don’t even recall wanting to stop.

Well the sun just kept getting lower and lower and the sky was getting paler and paler and I was just going deeper and deeper into those cursed woods.

I guess it was about sundown when I hit the river. I don’t have my map of Longleaf anymore but I know it almost by heart after having gone over the whole thing so much, and damned if I can remember any river or stream out there. There are creeks and culverts and swamps but none of the trails actually cross a river or stream.

But there it was. Just a quaint little stream trickling on by like it had been there forever, like something out of a sunny summer afternoon.

So I crossed. Got my shoes soaked and all but I didn’t care. I don’t seem to remember feeling much of anything. I do recall that before I crossed, I noticed that the trail, which continued on the other side of the stream, was not a double line but just a single line, and that it turned off and disappeared into a stand of cabbage palms and live oak on the other side.

I stopped on the far bank for a moment and looked at my shoes and the next thing I knew I was walking through the cabbage palm and live oak hammock, still on the single-line trail. It was getting dark now and the brush was rustling with crickets and critters but I wasn’t scared. I wasn’t anything but walking forward, crunching through the fallen turkey oak leaves and dead palm fronds littering the trail. I just couldn’t stop.

When I stepped out of the hammock, I wasn’t the least bit surprised that I was in another pine forest. Only the trees weren’t lined up in rows like in the timber lands. These were the old-growth giants, swaying in the cool breeze under the glittering stars. I recognized them immediately.

Up ahead there in the fading light was the little house, glowing like a million candles behind glass. And it was strange but as soon as I saw that house, it was like I snapped out of the trance that had brought me so deep into the woods.

I stopped walking and looked at the house and realized what I’d just done for the first time since stepping onto the path back at the trail head. I was overcome by a complete, primal terror. I felt violated and used and completely alone.

And then in an instant the lights went out and it was pitch dark night. No evening. No dusk. Just right to dark as if someone flicked a switch.

And so I was out in those woods in the pitch dark, terrified, feeling so horribly naked and alone. The sounds of night started droning in, very slow at first like the way a diesel train engine goes from a whisper to roar. The frogs and crickets started out low and soft but then they were getting louder and there was some kind of pattern there and I swear to god and my own grave that all of the millions of groaning sounds of the mighty Old Growth forest came together in unison and formed a single steady sound, a giant voice stretching through all the hollows and thickets of the woods—and it was laughing hideously.

The cool air on my neck was like fingernails on my skin and all it had to do was blow a little before, without warning, I emptied my bladder right there. I’ve never done that before.

I ran.

I turned and ran as fast as I could away from that house, back the way I seemed to have come. Now it was really dark and I couldn’t see much of anything, but I swear there were animals all along the trail watching me. I could see their horrible yellow glowing eyes reflecting the pale moonlight. Hissing snakes and snarling bobcats that didn’t run or skitter away when I passed, but more seemed to curse me like I was something they’d never seen before. There was a big old black bear in the middle of the trail just standing there. It looked at me and snarled and then turned tail and crashed off into the brush, making all sorts of racket, like I was death chasing his soul.

I got back to the car in a daze. I’m not sure how I got home because I have no memory of the drive back. Even as I write this absurdity now, the memory fades. What did I see? Was it real?

November 8

Claire isn’t home and she hasn’t been since I went out there. I woke up on the couch the next morning and she was gone. The bed was unmade. Her car was still parked in the drive. No note. No phone call. Nothing.

I’ve been sitting here for the past few days going through this journal and drinking the rest of this handle, trying to see if I can figure where she got off to. I was thinking of calling Scraggs but I can’t imagine this is going to look too good for a drunk old ex-cop like me.

I think I’ll go out there again and see if that’s where she went. I’m writing this entry to let anyone know who might come looking for us that that’s where I am—out in the woods.

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