A man is sent into the mountains on the trail of a missing girl.
| I work for a search and rescue team in the Smokey Mountains as a part of the select "Amber squad" whose specialization in child search and rescue is often deployed throughout the warm months when tourism takes over the towns along the foothills. It's April 30th, 9:18 pm, weather is a balmy 69 degrees with a medium strength thunderstorm blowing through when dispatch contacts me at home. The missing person is a three-year-old Caucasian girl, three feet and approximately forty pounds, dressed in a bright, flowery dress. I hop out of my easy-chair and whistle for my K-9 partner, Deuce, who was more than likely snoozing under my bed, trying to hide from the thunder and rain drumming the aluminum roof overhead.
Tugging on my vest over a raincoat, Deuce trotted out to my side and sat down, patiently waiting for me to put on his own vest. Attaching his equipment to the vinyl before clicking it into place, we set out in my truck to the provided location; a campground just up the road from Cade's Cove and by the time we'd arrived most of the force had already set up around the area. Pulling my hood over my head, I grabbed Deuce by the leash and together we walked over to the small group of uniformed men huddled around the distraught parents.
The mother was hysterical, her sobs lightly audible over the whistling wind and rain. I tapped Officer Harrison on the shoulder as we approached, and he stepped aside to let me through. Lieutenant Davis introduced me to her. "He's the man who's going to help."
I nodded to her. "I'm Officer Murphy. In cases like these, time is of the essence. How long ago did you notice your daughter missing?"
"I don't know, I woke up from the storm out of anticipation. Molly fears thunder and she'd often wake us up back home to sleep in our room. But..." She sniffed hard, daubing at her eyes, "her sleeping bag was empty."
I eyed my commander. "This doesn't sound like a search and rescue case, sir."
"Whether it is or not, we called you out to try." He responded gruffly.
"Of course. Do you have anything of your daughter's for the dog to gather scent from ma'am?"
"Our tent." She whispered softly.
I whistled for Deuce to follow and together we threaded between the throngs of people and tents to where another group of officers had cordoned off the family's plot. I let Deuce into the tent, directing him to the small, pink sleeping bag for a few moments before he dashed out, straining against his leash. He had it. I grabbed at the radio as Deuce tugged me out towards the woods on the south end of the campsite. "This is Murph and Deuce, we've got a trail."
"Copy that." An officer barked back, the rain and fluttery static removing all chance of recognition. "Stay within radio sight."
"Solid copy." I picked up the pace, letting Deuce tug even harder. Trail must be fresh for him to be this excited. I clicked on my flashlight, training the beam on the ground but didn't see any non-canine footprints. The rain would wash away a lot of evidence, but not this soon. Were Deuce not with me I'd have been sure she hadn't come this way.
The dog took me deeper into the forest as the terrain steadily grew more and more difficult to cross. I struggled around the ravines and boulders while Deuce danced through them, never faltering from taking us down a trail that was rapidly leading deeper and deeper into the mountains. There was simply no way a young toddler, in this weather, would be able to get this far away. I was becoming more and more convinced about what I'd said to the commander earlier, and yet, Deuce was still going. He had a scent. There were no footprints, but Molly had come this way. My dog's nose wouldn't lie, he's proven himself enough by it. I was about to pull Deuce to a halt and turn back when he began to frantically bark.
I froze, my heart thudding hard in my chest. "Go Deuce!" I called in a whistling voice, letting his leash fall to the sopping ground. Deuce shot off like a rocket, I could barely keep him within range of my flashlight when he suddenly stopped and sat down, his paws against a small, colorful object. I didn't need him to move to know what it was; a small scrap of a flowery dress, wet, and with a big dog print placed across it.
"Good boy Deuce." I wrapped an arm around his neck and gave him a good scratching as I pulled my radio free of my vest. "Command this is K9 Officer Murphy, I've got what looks to be a piece of the missing person's dress, come in."
We sat squatting in the mud for a few moments as no noise, but rain moved around us. I frowned. "Command this is K9 Officer Murphy, do you copy?"
Silence again. I stood up. "Keep going Deuce, let's find her."
I began to walk away, but my dog remained behind. I turned around. "Deuce!"
He looked at me, panting, but didn't move.
I suppressed a shiver. This couldn't be right. Walking back to him, I held out the scrap of cloth to his nose. He sniffed happily, padded the ground beneath him, and refused to move. He thinks she's here.
"Molly?" I call out over the rain but got no response. I thumbed my radio and called out again, but still got no response. Sighing, I shouted out into the woods again. "Molly I'm Officer Murphy with the Gatlinburg Police Department. Are you around here? I'm here to bring you back to your parents, they're awfully worried about you."
Every ounce of my mind and hear were telling me that she wasn't here. But I trusted Deuce, more importantly, I trusted his nose. If he said she was here, then she was here. Holding my flashlight in my armpit, I pulled my gun and slowly began to sweep the clearing. Why wasn't anyone responding to the radio? Did I accidentally switch frequencies? No, I always lock down the controls while on duty. Maybe there's a signal that's just too weak to come through the static. I should be able to hear it if I just open the squelch like-
My hands shot to my ears as my radio belched forth a demonic screeching and howling. Like the winds at the center of a tornado, the pained and incessant howling of winds threatened to tear away at my soul. I fumbled with the device, trying with numb fingers to reengage the squelch. As the radio fell silent, I felt a shuddering chill run sluggishly through my body. I quivered, suddenly feeling like my flashlight wasn't enough to hold the darkness at bay. "Okay Deuce, let's get back."
I turned around and saw my dog had disappeared. "Deuce?" He knew better than to just up and leave, he wouldn't do that. "Deuce! Come!" Had the radio scared him off? I couldn't blame him; it took everything I had to keep from chucking the black device far away into the weeds. Still, he was trained to be better than that. I knelt at the scrap of cloth again. Yes, here were our original tracks, softened and rounded by the steady rain. Here were mine when I walked across the clearing and here are fresh dog prints. He went the opposite of the way we came in and given the slip marks he left in a hurry.
I pulled out a GPS from my belt, it was linked to Deuce's collar and would be the quickest way for me to track him back down. I pressed the power button and held it, but the device refused to turn on. I knew the batteries were good, and yet it wouldn't work. I had to get back to the campsite, we'd be able to coordinate and bring him back from there. My belt also contained a compass. We took a roundabout way, but if I make sure to head due south, I'd hit the campsite. Flipping it open, my heart pounded as I watched the needle jitter and swing back and forth without ever settling. Must be iron in the area, I'd have to follow his tracks then.
I shook my head as I jogged through the woods, flashlight beam trained on the spattering of dog prints in front of me. How could Deuce have gotten so far ahead of me? I didn't even hear him run away. I needed to grab him and get us out of here. Something was wrong, and we were only accomplishing getting soaked by staying out here. I returned my gun to my holster but kept my hand ready. Someone took that girl, and I wasn't particularly certain it wasn't a something at this point.
Deuce's tracks hooked back to the left, back towards the path we took up the mountain. The ground turned rocky again as I approached the boulder field again. Dog prints disappeared from the pebbly mud, but were replaced by human ones, small human ones. My breath quickened. "Molly? Is that you?"
I rounded a boulder and just beyond stood a frail, little figure in a muddied dress with their back to me. I held out a hand. "Molly? Don't be afraid, I'm a police officer. I'm here to help you get back to your parents."
She didn't turn so I reached out to place a hand on her shoulder when she ripped around. I yelped and fell back into the mud, my eyes meeting her coal-black orbs. A mouth of jagged and twisted fangs poked from behind her lips, slightly open in an expression of child-like curiosity like she hadn't expected me to be in front of her. My hands dug for purchase in the gravel as I pulled myself away back into the trees. I looked back over my shoulder but saw no pursuit. I crouched down in a small cluster of trees to catch my breath and examine my surroundings. My tracks had crisscrossed so many times I no longer had any idea where I was anymore. I wanted, no needed Deuce back.
Grabbing at my radio, I had one final go. "Please God," I whispered, "if someone can hear this, I'm uphill from the boulders. I've lost track of where I am, something is wrong here. This is Officer Murphy; Deuce is MIA and I've lost my bearings. Please, someone respond." Despite my pleas, the speaker remained silent. I took a shuddering breath and swallowed. Was I going to have to wait out the storm to get back? A front had blown in, there was no way to get back by the stars. Maybe the storm was messing with the GPS, maybe when it cleared, I'd be able to get Deuce and get out of here.
I choked on my breath as lightning danced openly across the sky, bathing the mud around me in a flash of blinding white light. Standing at the opposite side of the clearing was the small figure in the sundress, her head panning slowly back and forth. I fell into the soft mud, tucking myself amongst the roots of a bush. My face was covered in mud, it wouldn't stand out in the lightning. And it didn't look like she'd noticed me.
I watched between bursts of light as the girl lurched back and forth along the clearing, trying to trace my rapidly disappearing footprints. Whatever it was, it knew enough to follow a trail but not enough to have any real common sense. We both froze for a moment as a pitched yelp bounced along the wind. It was a cry of pain, but not from a human.
The girl was gone by the next bolt of lightning, her tracks leading out towards the direction of the sound. I cursed and broke into a sprint. She wasn't getting Deuce. At the far end of the trees was a stream, I met up with it and ran along its length occasionally giving a brief whistle that Deuce would recognize, but my dog didn't come. I slowed to a halt as I passed a splash of red in the mud. My numb hands turned my flashlight upwards towards the sight of a humanoid figure hunched over a mutilated corpse. The thing's head whipped towards me as it slowly stood up. Its body was gnarled, a skeletal thing clad in pallid, shriveled skin. Two bulbous black eyes stared out at me over a slit nose and round mouth full of twisted teeth like screws and shards of glass. Two iridescent appendages grew from its shoulder blades, tattered ribbons of rainbows and black veins that looked like a shattered window of stained glass.
At its feet, what remained of something very recently alive was covered in gore...and tufts of brown fur. "What the fuck?" I whispered faintly. "D-Deuce?"
Two more of the monsters came into the light of my flashlight, the bulb flickering and dimming. The batteries were fresh, I knew that for a fact. I took a step back, if the light went out, I was done. My hand moved slowly to the gun on my hip, but fingers only found an empty holster. A childish giggle echoed behind me as my blood ran cold.
My mind flew into a blur as I lunged for my flashlight, sprinting back the way I came as those abominations released a chilling inhuman screech like the call of the wolf pack. Others appeared as I dashed into the boulder field, barely feeling the rock bashing against my palms, ribs, knees, as I struggled my way down the hill. Their numbers grew, claws lashing out at my ankles as I stumbled back towards the camp. Few hundred more yards, it couldn't...be much farther.
I cried out as I collided with a figure, the both of us falling into a tangle of limbs. I rose up with a fist. "You won't take me; I'll fucking kill you."
"Murphy? Jesus Christ what the hell has gotten into you? Get off me!"
"A-Anderson? Is that you?"
"Who the hell do you think it is? What happened to you?"
Radio static. "This is Officer Anderson, I've got Murphy. I'm headed back to the campgrounds, have the EMTs ready."
Deuce's death was attributed to a black bear attack, it's the only explanation they could derive from the ramblings I managed to provide during my lucid phase. After a few months and a psychiatric evaluation, they put me on street detail in downtown. I wasn't going to be search and rescue anymore, not they were would have been able to make me. They never discovered Deuce's body, but we gave him a funeral anyways. The next teams didn't find Molly either, they weren't going to. But I still see her, occasionally, outside my home. Just beyond the edge of the trees, she stands there and watches me for a bit, sometimes she waves. I don't know where she is, what she is, but wherever it is...
I hope she's happy.