It all started with the missing hikers, then it was the missing hunters, the second group of hikers, and now it’s a jogger. They couldn’t find any of the others, Ted didn’t have much faith that they would find this lady either. Who jogs mountain trails? Overachievers, that’s who. Ted was tired and his body hurt; this was day three of the search for the missing jogger and he was over it. Why do I even have this job still? One day, I’ll quit this temporary job and find what I’m really supposed to be doing. The job did a number on his body, he wasn’t in his twenties anymore. Hell, he would be thirty-eight next week. Same job, no wife, no kids. Maybe it was time for Ted to consider a dog, for company…
In the meantime, Ted was part of a rescue team, and it was time to rescue. The downside was that Ossis Woods was notorious for gobbling up campers, hunters, and hikers galore, inexperienced and experienced alike. Too many wives (and two husbands) were reporting their spouses missing from those woods within the last month alone. It was a tempting place, thick with brush but with open areas as well; it was a forest that housed many varieties of plant life, and it was perfect for hunters and hikers to explore.
It was only until this year that a warning sign was finally put up. It announced that too many people had gone missing in these woods and no bodies had been found. People all chalked that up to the rich biodiversity among the forest, but there was still that undertone of the unknown that pulled at your heartstring as you walked by the sign, fully warned.
The sightings of the white ape-man with antlers were the real “straw that broke the camel’s back” for Ted. Lots of things happened in the woods, especially when you’re tired, hungry, and afraid; what could be seen as a huge paper-white ape-man with white eyes and white antlers was more likely a tree and dehydration. Sadly, there was more than one report on the albino ape-man with antlers. Ted didn’t really know what to make of it other than a new species of tree or bush, but the hand-like tracks he couldn’t explain; nothing left behind human-like handprints throughout its tracks.
“It’s eight in the morning and I already don’t want to be here,” said Cid, another crew member. They were driving up a winding trail, deep into the heart of an “off the grid” forest. There were bumps every which way the van turned, making the coffee in Ted’s stomach seem like a bad idea. Why did he have such a big cup before leaving for work today?
They arrived at a clearing and the engine stopped. A second van full of search party members was in toe, ready to rescue. They were loaded up with supplies to last them each three days should they get lost themselves, plus each party member was savvy in the ways of the woods; it’s what they trained for after all.
The forest was dense, and Ted was amazed the cars made it as far as they did. Sure, they were meant for all types of terrain, but the thick brush on either side of the unkempt road was invading in on the driving space. It felt like they had been driving directly through thick underbrush the entire way there. This was the farthest location the search parties had marked, and it was the heaviest for vines, bushes, and all varieties of trees, but it was the most promising spot going into day three of trying to find this woman since it was the least explored.
Her picture showed a young blonde with a bright smile, probably a young mom of two or three. Her blue eyes stood out the most, and Ted thought twice about her. He yearned for the family life, to be a dad, so it seemed he was always on the hunt for a wife, not just a romantic interest, but a traditional stay-at-home wife. Someone to do the chores while he was away bringing home the bacon, to talk to after work, to spend time in the yard with on weekends, that would be the life. He would search for his wife through thick and thin if this missing jogger were her, and no partner had come forward to help with the search. Her parents called it in since she was supposed to visit them for dinner and never showed up.
“Alright,” the man in charge put her picture and a map down on the car hood. “Let’s go through this once again. Her name is Samantha, goes by Sam, missing since Monday evening, last seen entering Ossis Woods. Team A will search the gully in the east while Team B will go through the thicket to the west. Questions?”
“Ray?” A raised hand from the tallest member came from the back of the group.
“How long do we have to search today?” Virtually every member of the crew sighed.
“We go until dusk. Everyone meet back here by sundown.” Cid spit, apparently in agreement. The rest of the members were already collecting their gear.
“I have to piss,” Cid chimes in.
“Then piss,” Ray replied while marking the map, trying to ignore Cid. Angie stood beside Ray, second in command but acted like the leader too often.
“Cid, I swear to God, just make today easy, ok?” Angie said. Cid was standing in front of the tree line a few yards away from the group.
“What does that even mean?” he shouted back at her.
“Ange, just let it go,” Ray said, still staring at the map, pen cap in his mouth.
Ted had come to see Ray as a father figure and he sincerely enjoyed being on his team. Ray cared for the group just as he cared for every missing person or rescue they went on. Ted knew that if he ever was in a life-threatening situation that he could count on Ray. The man was a workaholic and that was enough for Ted to respect him but seeing him in action was another story entirely. You couldn’t let his age fool you; the pepper-haired, mild-mannered man with dad jokes could climb, lift, dig, you name it. He wasn’t just an asset to the team, he was a necessity.
“I don’t want to be the one chopping down shit on the first go again,” Cid said.
“Don’t worry,” Angie replied. “We won’t count on you for much.”
Team B was composed of Ray, Angie, Cid, and Ted, the team known for their daring searches and high-risk rescues. Angie was set to work checking her medical supplies, ensuring everything was in its place and accounted for before leaving. She was the head medic for Team B, Ray was in charge, Cid was the best climber and swimmer of the group, and Ted was the aforementioned hunter/tracker. Years of hunting as a teenager and young adult had earned him the right to be “wildlife management”, a.k.a, Ted held the weapons and dealt with the animals.
“These bugs will be the death of me,” Cid said, swatting at the flies buzzing around his head. He slapped at his arm, apparently killing one, judging by the disgusted frown on his face.
The mud certainly wasn’t going to make today any easier. Ted was sure to wear the best hiking boots, but no amount of high-end boot work can prevent your boot from being sucked into the earth with each step. Because of this, it took extra effort just to walk, a burden they didn’t need. The woods were still soaked from the downpour, leaving little room for dry patches to rest. The dampness of the forest floor only brought out more bugs and worms to get in the way; rain always hindered a search and rescue.
The sun was still trying to peak through the clouds to give them reprieve from the musk of the woods, but to little avail. They would have to hike through damp, thick brush to find what they believed was a body at this point, it was just reality. Few people were savvy enough to make it in the woods for three days without supplies, that was just a sad fact. Ted held very little hope for finding her at all let alone alive; he was certain they were looking for a dead body. Cid swatted at bugs flying around his head.
“Time to load up on the big spray.” He pulled a can from his backpack, took a deep breath, and covered himself with the spray. Team A was making their way down a clearing along the treeline. Angie was clearly anxious to not be beaten, speed-packing her various medical and hiking supplies. Annoyed, she glanced towards Cid who was eating a protein bar and staring at his fingernails. Ted was ready and waiting as usual and Ray was busy gathering north from south, choosing which path to take.
From deep within the forest came a screeching that pierced the ears of every member there. It was a mix between an owl’s screech and a bear roaring, and it stopped the rescue teams from their tasks. Everyone looked at the treeline before them. No one said anything. Ted noticed the birds stopped chirping for a moment, and the wind picked up. Each member from Team A down the clearing to Team B felt the chill run down their spines, the hairs stand on end, and their heart rates increase. No one could identify the sound, although Ted wouldn’t admit to it. The thought of being alone in the woods with an unknown potential threat made Tim’s ears ring; tinnitus was a bitch but so was his job.
“So… are we just ignoring that?” Cid commented.
“Yes,” Ray replied. “We have someone to save, and we have a hunter on hand with a gun. Now get your gear and get to work. We’ll start down this way, folks,” Ray said. He was pointing in the direction of tall grass and thin trees, all of which needed to be hacked through. Ted would take the first round since Cid made it clear he would not.
“Down that crap trail? Are you serious, Ray?” Cid asked.
“I don’t want to hear it, Cid,” came Ray’s reply. Ted smiled, smacked Cid on the back, and followed after Ray, machete in hand. The birds had returned, as did the singing of insects. The wind died down but still, the sun just couldn’t make its way through the cloudy morning.
It wasn’t far down the trail when they found the body of a raccoon. Angie found it.
“Hey, you guys, come see this,” she shouted behind a large bush. Its fur was matted and bloody, its body was torn to shreds, and its head was gone.
“Ew, what the fuck,” said Angie to herself.
It appeared that most of the bones had been pulled out; the skin had been peeled away, exposing the innards of the mangled raccoon, and one bone from a leg protruded out into the sky as though it were a landmark. Blood pooled on the forest floor surrounding the body, thickening the air with the smell of iron and sweat. The black and white stripes on the raccoon’s tail were the only identifiable markers. Flies surrounded the body, maggots already making the remains their new home.
“OK, that’s messed up,” said Cid. Ray turned the corner of the brush pile to see the spectacle before him.
“Ray, what do you think?” He said nothing, drawing nearer to the pile of meat and bones. He came face to face with the mass, the smell wafting up his nose.
“Ted,” Ray said without taking his eyes off of the raccoon. “What do you make of this?”
“I say don’t touch it and move on, that’s what I say,” Angie kicked in.
Ted walked by her and knelt down near the body. Using a stick, he moved the pieces around, carrying some intestines out of the pile for all to see.
“Whatever it was, it wasn’t hungry,” said Ted.
“It?” Cid scoffed.
“Well, this didn’t die of natural causes, now did it, Cid?” Ted remarked. “Something did this, took a lot of the bones out, and left the meat behind.”
Ray was looking around in the mud for tracks, but with no luck.
“OK, so no one else is as concerned as I am?” Cid asked.
“Cid, we have Ted,” Ray said, squatting. He was still looking around the dirt and mud for signs of anything other than a raccoon.
“Ted, seriously, what do you think?” Ray asked as he finally stood up. Ted put his hand to his mouth, deep in thought. He stood for a few moments before speaking.
“I suspect this animal died and other things came to take a meal when they could. Maybe it had gone bad by then.”
“Oh, please,” Cid scoffed.
“Would you prefer me to tell you a madman in the woods did this?” Ted said.
“Guys, this isn’t doing anything helpful. We need to move on,” Angie said. Ted walked over to Cid and offered him the machete.
“It’s your turn and besides, it will keep you safe, right?” Ted smirked. Cid took the machete, glanced down at the rangled mess of raccoon, and started clearing a path from where they left off. Angie was close behind, ready to put distance between herself and the curious death. Despite having the stomach for handling some serious injuries in the wilderness, she had little stomach for what she saw as “gore”. She once came home from school to find her cat dead. She hopped off the bus without thinking anything of it, went to get the mail, and noticed something in the road when she turned around. Felix had been run over, his guts squished up out of his body, and blood was spattered in all directions on the pavement around him. The pile of raccoon leftovers reminded Angie of that memory and she felt sorry for the poor thing.
Ray was more curious than afraid; his biggest fear was not being able to find the missing jogger. Too many people had gotten lost up here recently and strange things in the woods like finding mutilated animal bodies were becoming concerning. First the missing people, then the sightings, and now to hear weird screeching and then find this raccoon? He didn’t know what to make of it, he was leaning on Ted for this, wait where was Ted? Ray had been following Angie and stopped long enough to glance around and see Ted standing over the dead raccoon. He was distracted, staring into the woods.
Ted didn’t even flinch at the sound of his name. He was distracted by the big, white eyes staring at him through the brush, at least, that’s what idt looked like. Ray walked over to him and rested his hand on his shoulder.
“Hey, man,” Ray said. “What’s up?”
Ted couldn’t look the man in the eye, he couldn’t turn his gaze away from the white round objects that appeared to be looking at him. He could even see the veiny details in the corners of the eyes. They were nestled in white fur but Ted couldn’t see beyond that; the woods were too thick.
“Ted,” Ray insisted. “What’s wrong?” He looked towards where Ted was staring but apparently couldn’t see the spectacle. Ted raised his arm and pointed at the eyes, but still, Ray saw nothing.
“There’s nothing there, buddy,” Ray patted Ted on the shoulder. “We need to get moving.” He turned to walk away when he heard rustling in the bushes where Ted had been staring. His stomach immediately dropped and his heart picked up. He whipped back around expecting trouble, but instead Ted hadn’t moved and nothing had appeared.
“Ted?” Ray was officially freaked out. “What did you see?”
Ted didn’t move his gaze from the bushes but there was only silence to accompany him. Whatever it was had left them alone for the time being.
“I think… I think I saw a sick owl,” Ted finally spit out. He dropped his glare into the bushes and made his way towards Ray with his head down, not making eye contact as he passed him. Ray grabbed him by the arm as he walked by.
“Teddie,” Ray stated firmly. “What did you see?”
Ted paused a while before finally saying something. “I thought I saw a pair of white eyes staring back at me,” he said.
“So? Could have been albino or something,” Ray played devil’s advocate.
“Ablino’s have red eyes, Ray, and that’s not what I meant. I mean there wasn’t any iris or color anywhere; it was just a pairi of cloudy white eyes.
“Ok, so you saw weird eyes,” Ray said.
“Yeah, but I saw them at about eight feet up in the air, Ray,” Ted replied, jerking his arm away to freedom. He continued walking down the path while Ray looked back a the brush where the eyes had been.
“So it must have been an owl sitting on a branch,” Ray confirmed.
“Sure,” Ted said. “Except there aren’t any trees there, just thicket.” Without glancing back at the brush, both moved on in silence.