The Appalachian Trail ran 71 miles through the Great Smoky Mountains. After trekking the first mile, the Huxley family stopped to picnic at tables positioned in a clearing. They were a nuclear family consisting of daughter, son, wife, and husband.
Liz lay her son’s bologna sandwich and apple juice in front of him.
“Yay!” Five-year-old Chandler Huxley clapped his hands.
Rubbing his hair, she said, “My boy is happy. Isn’t he?”
“I love the woods.” He threw his arms into the air and smiled.
“This heat gets to me. But as long as you’re happy, I’m happy.”
“Roger that,” he said. It was a saying he had learned from his father when they would play imaginary army games that used hand gestures as weaponry.
“Life’s too short not to be happy.” The food for thought slid off his father’s tongue like smooth philosophy.
Once every plate was cleared, they resumed their trek in a single file line.
“Look!” six-year-old Barb exclaimed. “A thousand legs!”
The arthropod scurried across the dirt path.
“In the wilderness,” her mother began, “there are more creatures than we can imagine. Just ask Chandler. He’s the bug catcher. Right, Chandler?”
She spun around, her heels cutting dirt.
He was gone.
His parents’ calls were followed by his sister’s, as they spun in confusion.
“He might’ve gone back to the picnic table,” Ray said breathlessly, and raced off for the site. The others followed.
But Chandler Huxley was not there. Chandler Huxley seemed to be nowhere.
Liz’s voice shook. “We’ll have to search off the trail.”
And that is what they did. She held her daughter’s hand through thickets, creeks, and ravines. Never did they stop calling his name. Finally, to cover more ground, Ray separated from them. An hour later they linked up on the trail, without a sign of their son.
Franticness increasing, they hurried to the police station less than a quarter mile from the parking lot and filed a missing person’s report. “We’re glad you came in when you did,” Officer Matty said. “Some people think they need to wait 24 hours. But you can file as soon as someone is missing. In fact, the first 24 to 48 hours are the most crucial times.”
Liz sobbed between Ray’s shakes. Speaking through the tissue over her face, she said, “Please, please, find my baby.”
“Ma’am, we will do everything we can.”
“Can you promise us you’ll find him?” Ray asked.
“I…can promise we’ll try our best.”
Liz cried harder. “Trying isn’t enough.”
She was wilting, slumping, in the seat. The tissue tumbled to the tile. Ray kissed her temple. “Honey,” he said into her eyes. “I know it’s hard, but—but—we must remain as calm as possible if we’re going to find him.”
Her sobs shortened. “I’m working on it.”
The Huxleys left emptyhanded. Ray felt weightless and dry, as if he had cried a bucketful until the tears washed out his organs. It was a feeling like the one he’d experienced as a child at his aunt’s funeral. As little as he wanted to accept his emotions, he was an equal wreck to Liz. He was just hiding a lot of the damage.
They booked a local hotel room. Liz called her sister and informed her of the situation. Her sister spoke in quick strides. “I’ll be right down to help you look. And I’ll watch Barb for you. Oh, God, I hope nothing happened.”
A formal search commenced on June the fourteenth. Search parties combed a 10-mile radius within where Chandler had been seen last. Bump lines were run through the forest to mark stop and start points. Then horizontal lines of strings were tied to trees, forming a grid. Once that grid was covered, searchers shifted to the other side. By the following week, the strings also ran vertically. The area resembled a spider web. But there was no spider. Except for the searchers, there was no sign of life anywhere.
The formal search ended on July the first. Weeks bloomed into months. Months sprang into years. It was 2022 when Liz Huxley suffered the heart attack that left her bedridden. Eighteen-year-old Barb kneeled beside the bed. Her mother’s voice was hoarse sickness.
“How was school, baby?”
“Fun. We’re watching movies because it’s the last week.”
There was worry on Barb’s face. She’d never seen her mother so sickly, so thin. The weight loss had started shortly after Chandler’s disappearance. Her 160 pounds was down to 105. Ray had lost noticeable weight, as well, though not close to that much.
“We’re all here for you, darling,” he said.
The eyes sinking into her skull jerked from him to their daughter, then to the empty space beside the nightstand, where she expected to see Chandler smiling. Her arms extended toward something not there, her skin shriveling in pain. Doctors had fancy medical reasons for her failing health. But Ray knew the unspoken truth: their son’s disappearance had eaten her alive.
She was dead by the next week.
Ray sat on the back porch, drinking a Guinness with his pal Buck Burton, who had driven from West Virginia to the funeral in Nashville. The descending sun threw shadows onto their best suits.
“I can’t imagine how you feel,” Buck said.
“It’s indescribable. Too much soaking in at once.”
“You always can vent to me. That’s what pals are for.”
After hesitation, Ray said, “I can’t get something out of my head.”
“What she said before she passed.” His face was haunted. “She said, ‘Find our son.’” Odd thing is, she said it in a strong, healthy voice. Right before she passed.”
Buck’s cheeks twitched. He swallowed a gulp, tapping the metal chair. “So much time has passed. But it sure is hard not to search after she said that.” He drooped his head, shaking it. “Quite a dying wish.”
“An understandable wish. And I loved him, too. Not like she did. But he was my son. We quit searching because it was killing us” His eyes were outsized amid the haunt. “I need a favor. I want you to help me search again.”
Buck agreed to help. They finished their beers in the settling dusk.
They worked their way into the woods behind the old picnic tables.
The plan was to comb the land close to but outside of the original search radius. (Other finely combed areas were avoided, as well.) They were well equipped for the occasion and wasted no time advancing.
A few hours into the hunt, they decided to rest on an outcrop. Buck oiled his rifle.
“You were more concerned about bringing that than you were provisions,” Ray said.
“Pal, these woods ain’t what people think.”
“I’ve been in them my whole life. We both have.”
Buck’s grin revealed coral teeth. “We ain’t been too deep, though. These woods been here long ‘fore us, long ‘fore man. They say the Appalachia’s the oldest mountains. They’re vast, ancient, and dangerous. There’s creeks, ravines, and gorges no man’s ever explored. There’s things out here we don’t know ‘bout.”
Ray scanned the land. All was quiet. “There doesn’t seem to be anything here. That’s the problem.”
“No wildlife in three hours. Maybe there’s a predator scaring them off.”
“Yeah, you never know.”
“Pal, some things we don’t want to know.”
After drinking some water, they resumed the search. The trees became sparse as a ravine came into view.
“We’ll look here,” Ray said.
“Good to me.” A whooshing-snapping sound followed his words.
Ray turned to face his pal.
Buck was gone.
Ray called his name louder and louder to no avail. He studied every direction, deciding to retrace their steps.
Twilight was settling when he felt fatigue taking hold. He found a small clearing, where he set up camp. The tent was in his backpack instead of in Buck’s. But the rifle had vanished. He dumped his food into a trash bag, which he attached to the nearest tree (a precaution for bears).
Night came but he couldn’t sleep. Never did he hear a noise…not since the whooshing-snapping that had sounded somewhat like a trap closing.
At dawn he exited his tent to find the trash bag missing.
Is it a bear?
But then he saw boot prints larger than Buck’s under the tree. His heart pounded.
Someone followed me.
Looking around the camp site yielded no answer. Looking in the woods never seemed to work. Hope faded. But the image of his dying wife speaking her last words fueled him to continue the hunt.
“I won’t give up,” he said, wondering if she was listening from above. A sudden chill passed over him. Then he wondered if he was speaking to her ghost.
He kept his promise, covering miles of land. He even navigated a chest-high swamp, feeling under the murky water for a corpse, both hoping and not hoping to find one.
Neither Chandler nor Buck reappeared.
Again, day switched to night. He positioned a circle of sticks around his tent to alert him to intruders. His exhausted body and mind forced sleep. But the snapping of the sticks severed his slumber. Fear crawled over him like a gang of snakes slithering toward his throat.
Please, God, make it leave!
The snapping loudened.
It’s back. It’s been following me.
Louder, closer. Closer, louder.
It was outside his tent. His eyes were glued shut but he heard the nearness. The reek of death filled the tent. He prayed. But the whispers—the human whispers—starting outside broke his prayer. The whispering was low and rapid, then loud, and finally rapidly loud—but always indistinct.
More sticks snapped.
Shaking, he hunted for the knife in his backpack. Outside, the earth fell silent.
They or it has left.
Finding the knife, he used the tip of the blade to open the tent’s front flap. His head poked out behind the knife. The darkness was still. But, after rising to his feet, he noticed two dark figures standing in the distance. Gooseflesh enveloped his body. Then the figures thundered forward. Teeth chattering, Ray ran until the crack of dawn.
There was a small open field that quickly thickened into dense wilderness. Along a rock wall he discovered caves. These he explored with the aid of his flashlight. They were damp and empty. The end of the rock cliff was sloped and twisted upward to another cave—this one’s entry partially curtained in shrubbery. He trudged over spatial rocks to reach the opening. In under a minute, he was at the destination, crouching and shining the flashlight.
What was unveiled would go on to define the rest of his life.
The beam struck the bearded blood-soaked face. Tendrils of blood coursed wiry muscles. It turned away, a long-nailed hand shielding wild eyes. The hand was unmistakable. The cross-shaped scar on Chandler's forehand was there. Under the feral man lay the corpse of old pal Buck Burton, neck opened, quarts of blood spilled.
Confused, petrified, Ray only managed to say his son’s name. Instantly, a couple of hairy feral quadrupeds shot around the corner. They stopped, snarled, at the home intruder. The trash bag, Ray noticed, was nestled in a crevice.
“Chandler?” his shellshocked father asked.
Chandler spoke in a choppy, harsh tone as deep as a well. “I happy. Happy here. Happy with my family. I talk to them, and they let you live if you leave me be.”
Chandler used his nails to disembowel Buck’s corpse. Ray became queasy. The feral couple crawled forward. He backed away. Once the intruder was out of the cave, they gorged with their “adopted” son.
Ray backstepped too quickly and fell 10 feet. A boulder caught his legs, spraining an ankle. After regaining his footing, he hopped the rest of the way to the bottomland.
His body collapsed. He could rise again. But what was the point? Laughing uncontrollably, he rolled around and then lay prostrate, fingers raking dirt until his nails broke.