Disclaimer: Mature Content
It was the summer after we graduated high school. The summer I’ll never forget.
My friends and I were dead set on having the time of our lives before we parted ways for college. My parents had gotten me a hybrid DSLR as a graduation gift and I planned on using it to capture memories of our summer adventures. Our first couple months of freedom was pretty typical; we went swimming and fishing at the lake, visited the amusement park, hung out downtown, and partied at our friend’s big, two-story lake house. It was my first year without a curfew and I was taking full advantage of it. I also got to celebrate my eight month anniversary with my boyfriend Nick. Most of my favorite moments that summer happened with him by my side. Looking back now, those hot summer days were picture perfect. I thought that my whole summer would just be an array of happy memories and good times. I was wrong.
At the beginning of July we were all sitting on the back porch of our friend Aaron’s house. I had my feet kicked up on the table and was listening to Nick and Aaron talk about cars while I sipped some lemonade. Whenever I listened to those two talk I swore that they were long lost brothers. If they didn’t look so different their vibe could totally fool anyone into believing so. Nick had short, brown hair and freckles painting the skin of his nose and shoulders. It was my favorite thing about him. Aaron, on the other hand, had no freckles to detail his olive skin but was gifted with dark shoulder-length hair that was thick and lustrous enough to rival that of any of the girls we knew. Katy, my best friend, was notoriously jealous of how easily his hair kept itself while she was left struggling with her own blonde locks every morning.
Katy was reclined in the chair beside me and scrolling through her phone, ignoring the impassioned conversation going on between Aaron and Nick. I glanced over at her just as she began to sit up.
“Hey, this looks pretty cool,” she said, offering her phone screen to the table for all of us to see.
“What does?” I asked.
“It’s this thing someone shared on Facebook. It’s called “Geocaching”. I dunno, it looks like it might be interesting.”
“I was telling you about that, remember babe?” Nick said, breaking eye contact with Aaron. I don’t quite remember him bringing it up but I nodded anyway.
“What is it?” Aaron asked. Katy scrunched up her face as she skimmed down her phone.
“Well like, there’s these secret little containers you have to find with stuff in them. It’s a huge scavenger hunt thing. Like, worldwide. You get on the app and it leads you to different ones and you solve puzzles to figure out where they’re at.”
“Sounds sketchy,” I said.
“No here, check it out,” Katy handed me her phone and I started to scroll up and down the website. I was surprised by how many appeared to be in our area.
“It’d be a cool way to explore,” said Nick. Katy nodded in agreement and Aaron leaned over to look at the screen too.
“This is a legit thing, wow,” Aaron said. “I mean, we’ve been sitting here for an hour now trying to figure out what to do. I don’t see why not.”
I kept looking through the website and realized that it was a pretty widespread phenomenon. Thousands and thousands of people were doing this as a hobby. Besides, Aaron was right. We’d been sitting around staring at our phones for too long and the weather was just perfect to go out and do this sort of thing. I gave Katy back her phone and we all decided to download the Geocaching App. The way it worked was that once you downloaded the app, it would use your location to bring up a map of Geocaches in your area. You can click on one of the caches to bring up hints on what it looks like and where its exact location is. These hints usually have riddles or encrypted messages to help you find your way. Since Geocaches were placed by real people the varieties were endless. Once we all had the app on our phones, we checked to see if there were any within walking distance so we could see what they looked like firsthand. Luckily enough, there were two right down the road from Aaron’s house.
I left everything except my phone and my camera. We went out the front door and started walking down the road, glancing down at our maps to make sure we were going in the right direction. We reached the big sign that welcomed people to Aaron’s neighborhood and saw that the caches seemed to be in that area. After evaluating the hints left for the caches we finally figured out that they were hidden beneath the decorative rocks on either side of the sign. I put my phone away and got my camera out to record Aaron and Katy digging out the rocks. They finally unearthed the Geocaches which turned out to be these green tubes with the Geocaching label stenciled in black on each side. They opened them up and each one had a tiny notebook and a zip-lock bag full of cheap toys, game pieces, pennies, and other knick-knacks. These were the little treasures that you could either exchange out or contribute to. Since this was our first time we weren’t too worried about that part of it. Each of the notebooks inside had several pages of signatures and dates left by the people who had already found them before. At this point I stopped recording and just started taking pictures of everyone looking through the caches. There was a pen inside each cache so that we could all sign the book.
“This is actually pretty cool, ” I said.
“See? Told you it looked neat,” Katy replied.
We all signed the books and put everything back where it was. After that we got on our phones again to see if there were any more we could walk to. There were a few others scattered around the neighborhood so we set out to find them. The other ones followed the same premise but were stored in different kinds of containers; ammo boxes, PVC tubes, film canisters, coffee tins, or anything else that could be sealed tight. When we had exhausted the neighborhood of caches we went back to Aaron’s house to get his car and go out to eat. While we were at dinner we all started checking out the Geocaches in our town. It was a pretty big place so there were plenty for us to find. We decided that we would explore the ones around City Park the next day. After dinner, we all went back to Aaron’s house to get our cars and head home for the night.
We spent the rest of that week Geocaching together and found out that it was a pretty good way to get outside and explore. At the end of the week we went on a fishing trip to the lake with a bunch of our friends. We told everyone about our scavenger hunting and a few of us split off from the group so that we could go looking for some around the park. After sundown we returned to the lakeside and ended the night with a bonfire. I sat in my lawn chair, looking up at the stars as the crackling fire and my best friends’ laughter filled the air. Nick was right there too, holding my hand and watching the skies with me. When he pressed his lips into the back of my hand I felt the same butterflies every girl who is young and in love should feel. I looked down at Katy and Aaron who were sitting on the other side of the fire. They were consumed with fits of laughter, falling into one another as they tried to steady their drinks in one hand. I loved them, I loved us, I loved this. This was what life was all about. These were the moments we lived for.
A couple nights later when Nick was staying at my house we both went through the app to see which caches we wanted to try finding next. As he went back through the map he noticed some new caches that hadn’t been at the lake when we were having the bonfire.
“Come look at this,” he said. I scooted beside him and looked at the caches on the map. They were named “Can You Find Me?”. It was a typical title for a cache, nothing odd. He clicked on one of them and saw that they were just posted the day before. There were 8 of them total and they were meant to be found in a sequence. I pointed out that they were night caches, meaning that they were supposed to be discovered after dark. They had pretty typical descriptions like: “Hidden at eye level. Look for a crooked tree missing bark. Path leads here. Then continue.”
I didn’t want to decrypt the other hints at the time. It was already 1 am and we were both exhausted so we agreed to go check it out tomorrow night. He saved the cache and texted Aaron and Katy when to meet us at the lake. After that, we went to bed.
We woke up the next afternoon and spent most of our time in the house. It was in the upper 90’s that day but luckily the temperature was going to drop to the 60’s once the sun went down. As it got closer and closer to the time that we were supposed to meet at the lake I felt an unusual nervousness in my gut. I mean, we had gone out after dark before but we hadn’t done anything like this. Scavenger hunting in the middle of the night a few miles away from civilization probably wasn’t most people’s idea of fun. Then again, we weren’t most people.
I kept bringing the caches up on my phone while we waited. The words: “Can You Find Me?” hovered and taunted me from the other side of the screen. I was so tempted to decrypt the hint that lay beneath the first cache description but I held off. I told myself that I’d save it for when I absolutely couldn’t figure out where the cache was, which is what I usually did anyway. It was finally time to leave and I checked over the caches one more time. The 8 of them were pretty spread out and it looked like we might have a mile or two of walking ahead of us. Nick and I stopped at the gas station for some quick food and water bottles to take with us. Once we got to the front of the lake he put the extra water bottles in his backpack along with batteries, a phone power bank, a multi-tool, and LED flashlights. We sat in the car and ate our hot dogs and chips while we waited for Aaron and Katy to show up. About ten minutes later we saw the round headlights of Aaron’s Jeep pull into the parking lot. We all got out of the car and greeted one another before I showed them where we were going.
“Wow, that takes you down past the spillway,” Aaron said as he looked at my screen.
“Really?” I turned my phone around to see. He was right.
“Yeah. That’s where people go net fishing and stuff since the rangers don’t patrol down there,” he said.
“Is it safe?” Nick asked. Aaron looked up and thought for a moment, stroking his bearded face in contemplation.
“I mean…as far as I know. This lake is known for being quiet. There’s a bridal trail not too far from it,” he said.
“Ah well, this is what being young is all about right? Stupid ideas?” Katy said with a smile.
“Stupid but awesome. Everyone else is missing out,” said Aaron.
“I’m kinda glad it’s just us to be honest,” Nick replied. Some of our friends had even worse ideas for how to have fun than we did. I don’t see them taking it seriously, let alone trying not to get in trouble along the way.
I certainly felt more comfortable knowing that it was going to be me, Nick, Aaron, and Katy going on this trip. Aaron was on the wrestling team and watched UFC with Nick all the time. They both enjoyed sparring and testing each other’s strengths even though Aaron was admittedly stockier than Nick. If anything went wrong I trusted them more than anyone to protect us.
Katy had a no-man-left-behind mentality and a track record to back it up. Before I knew her there was a time that Aaron pre-gamed a little too hard before a basement rave at Dylan Grove’s house. She was the only one who stayed behind with him upstairs while everyone else continued down to the party. Nick said that when he came by to pick them up he found them asleep together on the couch. Evidence of Katy’s motherly care was still laying around in the form of Gatorade, a half-eaten sandwich, and a bottle of the nausea medicine she took for her own vertigo. She could be ditsy or flaky at times no doubt, but she was loyal and focused when it really mattered.
Since I had a keen eye for caches they designated me as the pack leader. I would guide everyone with my phone while they focused on staying aware of the environment. Since Nick’s truck was only a two-seater we all piled into Aaron’s Jeep. We drove along the dark, winding road of the lake until we reached the parking lot next to the dam. Across the road from the parking lot were steps that led to a path overlooking the bell-mouth spillway. Behind the parking lot was a stretch of woods following a steep hill that would take you to the base of the dam. The first cache was at the bottom of the hill and from then on they would lead through the woods, over the train tracks, and finally to the area where the spillway let out. We hopped out of the car and gathered up our gear and courage. The moon was out but didn’t offer enough light to really help us find our way. I checked the time on my phone: 9:47 PM. We had roughly two and a half hours to find all the caches before the park closed at midnight.
Aaron locked up the car and we all started walking towards the hill. Once I reached the top of it and looked down I was glad that I had decided to wear my boots. It was sort of a steep hill, not dangerously steep but also not a hill you’d like to run down. I took a mental snapshot of the map on my phone so I knew which way to go. After that I put it away and got a flashlight from Nick’s bag. We each clicked our flashlights on and slowly but surely headed down the wooded hill. Most of us kept our flashlights pointed at the ground to watch where we were stepping, using the passing trees for leverage. A few times you could hear someone in the back cussing because of a tree limb or bush hitting them in the face. Since Katy and I had longer hair we kept getting it caught in the thick tree limbs. Each time a tree would tug at our hair we would squeal and the boys would have to wait for us to get untangled.
About halfway down the hill I raised my hand to stop the group so that I could listen for any sounds. The last thing I wanted was to run into a coyote or something equally as vicious. I heard a car drive by in the distance and an owl hooting ominously. Satisfied, I started walking again and everyone followed. We reached the base of the hill and I took out my phone hoping that we hadn’t already passed the cache on accident. Thankfully we hadn’t; it was at a small creak straight ahead of us. We walked along the clearing before the creek came into view. I checked my phone again for the description;
Small creek at the base of the hill. Line under water. Look for the broken tackle box. Then follow the lights.
I waved my flashlight rapidly from side to side across the surface of the creek. A single line reflected back at me.
“Someone go pull that fishing line,” I said.
Aaron moved forward and grabbed the line. One end was tangled in a tree and the other was leading into the water. He started shining his flashlight into the water below him.
“Hey, something is reflecting under there!” he said.
Aaron started pulling on the line and a tattered old tackle box came along with it. A big orange reflective sticker had been placed on the lid of the box. He drug it out of the water and we kneeled around it on the ground. He opened it up and there was a black water-proof case inside with rocks to weight it down. As he pulled it out and unlatched it, I decrypted the hint at the bottom of the cache screen;
With all due passed, it said. I had seen some strange hints but this one puzzled me.
“With all due passed? What does that mean?” I said aloud. Aaron handed the notebook to Katy and started rustling through the box.
“Hey, that’s what it says in here,” Katy pointed to the top of the first page.
I looked over her shoulder at the tiny notebook she held in her hands. The top of the page said the exact same thing in neat cursive lettering. As she flipped through the note pad I also noticed that there were no other signatures from Geocachers in the book. Were we really the first ones to find it?
“Here’s a pen Katy,” Aaron said as he handed her a pen from the tackle box. I walked over to Nick to grab my camera from his bag. I started snapping pictures of us looking through the cache. I planned on doing this for the rest of the night. Flash photography was Nick’s forte but I figured I’d try my hand at it. Besides, this would be interesting to document.
“Well this is weird…” said Aaron with a disturbed tone.
“What?” I asked.
“There’s like, a bunch of little dolls in here. Not even anything random or cool,” he said as he offered me a look inside.
There were five cheap knock-off Barbie dolls. They were the ones shaped like children and didn’t have their clothes or shoes on. What made them really creepy was how each of their faces had an X marked over them in black Sharpie—except for two. The girl dolls had no markings. I gave Aaron a confused look and he shrugged and put them back in the case. At the time I figured it was just some horror story buff trying to be edgy.
“I thought the first people to find a cache were supposed to get like a reward or something,” Nick grumbled. As much as I disliked his tone he wasn’t wrong. A lot of Geocachers offered incentives to people who were the first to find their cache.
“Maybe we have to find more,” Katy suggested. “They might not be impressed by someone who can find just one.”
“I hope you’re right,” he sighed. Nick wanted this to pay off as much as anyone would, especially given the conditions we were working with. I was just trying to be happy with the experience. I walked over to give him a kiss on the cheek, hoping that he somehow knew that it meant I was glad to be there with him, reward or not.
Once we had all signed the notebook, we put everything back in its original place and checked the map again. The next cache was right before we would hit the train tracks and wasn’t too far away. When I had a good mental note of which direction to go I brought my flashlight back out again. When I swept it passed the trees on the other side of the clearing I saw something very bright flash back at me. Taken off guard a bit, I told everyone to shine their lights in that direction. When they did I saw what was flashing back at me: a stationary marker, no bigger than a quarter, that had been pinned to a tree. We came closer to it and our flashlights illuminated more of these other markers along the trees. They led into the forest and formed a trail of small glowing stars that we could easily follow.
“That’s kinda cool,” Katy said. We all muttered in agreement.
We started walking back into the woods and following the illuminated tacks. Any time I thought I heard something I would shush the others and flip off my flashlight. As we stood in the complete darkness we would keep listening to make sure the sound was just an animal or a tree blowing in the wind. Usually it was just an owl or a distant coyote. At one point we even thought we heard some water splashing around but we just assumed it was the fish in the creek. When the coast seemed clear we would flip on our lights again and shine them at the markers on the trees.
The markers led us through a short stretch of woods until we reached the train tracks. The tracks stretched out horizontally in front of us and the trees continued on the other side. Gravel surrounded either side of the tracks. I pointed my flashlight to the left and saw that the markers continued. We walked alongside the tracks, our footsteps moving the rocks beneath our feet and ruining any sense of stealth that we had before. When the markers seemed to end again I checked my phone;
Hidden at eye level. Look for a crooked tree missing bark. Path leads here. Then continue.
I waved my flashlight around the area again and something reflected back at me among the forest. I located it with my light and saw a sad looking tree with a bare trunk. There was a hole in the tree filled with nesting materials.
“This is it,” I said. I approached it and the others gave me light while I felt through the dry brush and leaves for something hard. Finally my fingers found the box and I lifted it out, shaking the remnants of the nest off of it. This time it was a metal green ammo container that felt like it was relatively empty. I opened it up and there was the usual notebook along with a plastic bag inside. I handed the book to Nick and slowly lifted the bag from the container.
“What the hell?” I said.
It was a bag of hair. Not just any kind of hair, but neatly-tied lengths of hair in two different colors. There were four bundles in all. They looked like someone had just taken the hair from a comb, tied them together, and put them in a bag. We all just kind of looked at each other in confusion. It was definitely weird and I wondered if the contents would have been different if we weren’t the first ones to find them. Nick passed the notebook around for us all to sign and again I saw that we were the only signatures inside of it. The top of the page had the cursive writing on it again, saying:
And trouble’s wake
I checked the decrypted hint for the cache on my phone. It was the same message.
“With all due passed and trouble’s wake…” I muttered to myself.
“Sounds like a poem,” Katy said thoughtfully.
She was right. Maybe these caches were just based off of some story we hadn’t read or a movie we hadn’t seen. I checked the time: 10:11 PM.
“Let’s put it back and keep going,” I said. They nodded and hid the container back in the tree.
The next cache was further down the train tracks on the other side. We started walking until our lights caught more of the reflective markers on the trees lining the train tracks. I kept checking my phone for the location and listened carefully to my surroundings for anything odd. Our main concern was for the park rangers or rabid animals but as I walked alongside the creepy, worn-out train tracks I started to worry about what else could be hidden in the forest. The reflective markers ended again and I waved my hand for everyone to come look at the map.
I read from the third cache’s description: “Check your feet. Adjacent to the last marker. Not buried. Just covered. Don’t stop now.”
“Could this person be any more cryptic?” Nick asked.
“I doubt it,” Katy replied. She was right.
They started kicking around the gravel beneath our feet as I took the opportunity to take some more photos. Eventually we heard Nick kick the rocks off of a container. It was a little round tin, one that people keep cookies or sewing supplies inside of. He pulled it from the gravel and opened it up. We all peered inside.
“Watches?” I said, confused by what I was seeing. The tin was full of old wristwatches, each face broken or cracked in some way. Nick pushed them aside to reveal the notebook underneath. He handed it to me and I checked the inside. Once again, there were no other signatures but one simple line of cursive writing at the top that read:
I’ll hold you close
I sighed and picked up the pen from the container and proceeded to sign beneath.
“This is either really cool or really stupid,” Aaron said bluntly.
“I’m gonna look this up when we get back to your house. It’s gotta be like a movie reference or something,” Katy insisted. Aaron only shook his head with doubt.
I liked to think that I kept up with the cinema pretty well. If this was a movie reference, it must be from some cult classic or foreign film that only a few people had really seen. That’s cool if it was based on a movie and all but if it wasn’t then this person was either trying too hard or legitimately weird. I checked my phone again to see where the next cache was at and was glad to see that it was in the same area. This was fun and all but I was honestly starting to get creeped out.
Hanging from the trees. Eye level. The birds love it. Halfway there.
That was the next description. Again I shined my light through the trees and waited for something to reflect back at me. Like clockwork, I saw a quick flash from about 8 feet away. We went back into the woods and focused on the reflective surface. An old bird house hanging from a rope was awaiting us as we got near. It swayed lightly in the breeze and looked very out of place in these parts of the woods. The person must have hung it specifically for the hunt.
This time Katy reached forward to collect the cache. She opened a tiny door that was carved out of the side of the bird house and retrieved a film canister from within. She popped the top of it open and pulled out a scroll of paper wrapped around something. She unraveled it and revealed a small tube of Burt’s Bee’s lip balm inside. She looked at it for a moment with confusion before going back to the piece of paper. I shined my light so she could see what was written at the top:
“Until you break,” she read.
“Well then…” muttered Aaron.
Katy tilted the canister so she could see what else was inside.
“Nope. That’s it. Just a tube of lip balm,” she said.
I reached out and took it from her hands. Burt’s Bees was my favorite lip balm but I’d often lose them at Katy’s house and end up going to the drug store to buy new ones. The seal at the top of it was broken and when I removed the cap I saw that it had obviously been used. There were even still traces of the person’s red lipstick.
“Weird,” I muttered to myself as I placed the cap back on. We struggled to sign the roll of paper because of how small it was. Once we finished we put everything back and I checked my phone. It was already 10:31 pm. We needed to hurry if we were going to find them all tonight.
“Search where floods release. Broken chair. Will shine back,” I read from the description.
The walk to this cache would probably be the lengthiest one yet. It was somewhat down the train tracks where they crossed over the actual spill way. The good news was that the next three caches were all around the spillway. The last one was off the beaten path.
We once again began walking and found another trail of markers that would lead us along the way. We walked for almost ten minutes when our feet started to hurt from walking on the gravel for so long. We kept stopping intermittently for the usual animal sounds we heard in the distance. Aaron, however, shushed us heavily at one point and held his hand up for us to stop completely.
“Shhhh! I swear to God I just heard footsteps behind us,” he whispered harshly.
“Don’t fuck with us Aaron,” Nick said, his irritation shining through. Aaron waved his hand at him.
We all stopped and let our ears adjust. After listening for a good 30 seconds we heard nothing.
“Come on, we need to hurry,” I said in a low voice, doing my best to hide my discomfort. My skin had immediately erupted into goosebumps when I heard the honest fear in Aaron’s voice. I had to force my feet to start walking again as even they were almost too scared to make a sound now. Nick must have noticed the change in my composure because shortly after I began walking he was at my side again, rubbing my back reassuringly.
Our trek continued until our flashlights revealed the railway bridge leading over the spillway. The reflective markers stopped once again. I checked my map and saw that the caches were actually below us. Luckily there was a gravel-covered hill leading down from the tracks so that we could easily get to the paved walkway surrounding the water. We had to sit and slide down the hill so that we didn’t trip and fall on the steep incline. When we got back up we walked along the thin pavement to where the water opened up from the spillway and spread out to the land around it. We were now about 15 feet below the bridge and surrounded by small cliffs and trees. If we wanted to get out of there we would have to climb back up the steep gravel hill to the bridge. The water was tinged green but you could still see the alligator gar swimming underneath if you shined your flashlight at them. The other thing that I noticed about the area was just how littered it was. There were ripped open trash bags, scattered pieces of broken furniture, and even a dirty mattress. The thought of vagabonds came to me and sent a shiver down my spine.
I tried to ignore the true freakiness of the situation and focus on finding the last few caches. From the map it looked like there was a bridal trail nearby that would take us right back up to the dam in half the time it took us to get down here. I told my friends to start using their flashlights to find the broken chair that hid the next cache. A couple of minutes later, Katy called out that she’d found it. We joined her at the white and blue lawn chair near the edge of the creek leading from the spillway. She kicked it over to reveal a metal lunchbox covered in camouflage tape. She picked it up and opened it. Inside were dozens of fishing hooks that were all different sizes. Some were new and others were rusty. I imagined they were probably just found near the water.
“This person is stupid,” Aaron said. “I bet they think they’re being so deep with the shitty poetry and random junk.”
“I’m telling you, it’s probably from some dumb indie movie,” Katy replied.
“Fuckin’ hipsters…” Nick muttered.
Katy used her flashlight to push the hooks out of the way so that she could retrieve the notebook. “Last thing I need is to get tetanus out in bum fuck nowhere,” she groaned.
I pulled my camera out again and started taking pictures of not only us but of the surrounding spillway. The flash from my camera definitely gave the area an even creepier vibe. Every time the bulb faded I felt like someone could appear before us at any moment, like the way paranormal photographers capture something and then the next moment it’s gone. I trembled at the thought and eased up on the shutter. Thinking about everything that goes bump in the night probably isn’t the best idea when you’re miles deep into untamed land.
“For all I ask,” Katy read from the book, breaking me from my paranoid thoughts. I looked through my lens at the cursive phrase on top of the page and snapped a picture.
“More poetry huh?” Nick said, sounding more bored than curious.
“Guess so,” she answered.
We went through the ritual of signing and putting the cache away again. I brought the map up on my phone once more. The next cache was somewhere near the water too. The description read:
Within something hollow. Resting along the shore. Find the forgotten tree.
I used my flashlight to scan the area again. There were many logs laying around but a larger one caught my eye. I had everyone follow me back towards the mouth of the spillway. Laying on its side on the concrete was a hollowed out tree trunk. I kneeled down and shined my light inside. The cache, another green ammo container, was hidden inside. I checked the log thoroughly for any snakes before telling Nick to reach in and grab it. Despite this, I still felt my heart racing when he did.
Nick brought the container back to us and held it steady while Aaron opened it up. As soon as he did we all got an overwhelming smell from inside the container. Nick started coughing from it.
“Jesus!” he said in between coughs. “That’s strong!”
Once my sense of smell had settled I realized that it wasn’t a bad smell coming from the cache. It was definitely perfume, just way too much of it. The intensity burned our noses like alcohol until the smell became putrid but bearable. I peered inside of the container, covering my nose as I did. There were a bunch of plucked dandelions laying beneath the notebook. Aaron and Nick looked unimpressed as ever. I pulled out the book and opened it.
“And all I ache,” I read from the first page. I grabbed the little pencil that had been stuck through the spiral of the notebook. I signed my name and dated it underneath before handing it to Aaron.
“You know,” Nick began. “This actually kinda smells like something you’ve worn before now that I’ve gotten used to it.”
“You think so…?” I pondered the scent myself. It definitely wasn’t something I was wearing currently but I couldn’t shake the lingering feeling of familiarity now that Nick said something. Even if it was a perfume I wore it wouldn’t necessarily surprise me. I got my stuff from the same stores at the mall as everyone else.
“Does it really smell like something you wear?” Katy asked me.
“I don’t know,” I replied honestly. I’ve worn a lot of perfume over the years.
“I could be wrong. Just thought I recognized it from somewhere,” Nick answered. He shrugged and put the container down so that he could sign the book too. The perfume thing didn’t really stay on my mind. Now, more than ever, I was looking forward to wrapping things up and getting back to Aaron’s house safe and sound.
Nick put everything away and placed the container back into the log. Just two more caches to go and we would be ready to leave. When I looked at my phone it was 10:55 PM. I opened up the next cache on the map. The description for this one read:
Attached to something yellow. Very reflective. Under the bridge. You won’t be let down.
I started doing another sweep of the area with my flashlight. Near the pavement leading under the bridge there was something bright and yellow tied around a support beam. We went over to it and saw that it was a fish stringer. I pulled at it and felt something weighted on the other side. I tugged again and saw something bob to the surface; I grimaced. Attached to the stringer were several small alligator gar who had been dead for many hours and partially eaten by other fish. Despite being slimy and grotesque they still looked rather mean with their sharp teeth and big, cloudy eyes.
“Are you serious?” Katy groaned. We all mumbled along in discontent. I could see a black water bottle strung along the line as well. I was completely grossed out but reminded myself that after this one we only had one more to go. I started to pull on the stringer again, bringing the dead fish and the water bottle closer to the shore.
“I need a stick,” I said. Nick started looking around the land behind him. He found one that was slightly curved and handed it to me. I used it to edge the water bottle further up the line and away from the fish. Then, with the very tips of my fingers, I undid the snaps that attached the bottle to the stringer. I let the line and the fish drift back into the depths.
“Please clean that thing off before we touch it,” Aaron said.
I swished the bottle around in the water a bit with the hopes of cleaning off most of the gross stuff. When I took it out and gave it a little shake, it sounded like a coin jar.
“Is there money in there?” Aaron asked.
I unscrewed the top and he shined his light inside. There were dozens of quarters and nickels inside, probably about $15 or $20 dollars worth. I guess it was a reward for retrieving a cache attached to a bunch of dead fish.
“Looks like we found our Applebee’s appetizer fund,” Nick said as he pulled off his backpack.
“Hell yeah!” Aaron said, clapping his hands together. “Finders keepers!”
“You finally got your prize Nick,” I smiled, handing Katy the notebook and pen so that I could pour the money into a small compartment in Nick’s backpack.
“There’s another riddle on top,” Katy began. “Your flesh and bone.”
“Someone put waaay too much thought into this,” Aaron said as he went to sign the book.
I finished pouring out the coins and put the book back into the bottle once we had all signed it. Nick then reattached it to the line, his face twisted in disgust at the smell of rotten fish. I don’t blame him, I’d take obnoxious amounts of perfume over that any day.
With that cache finished we were closer to completion than ever. I unlocked my phone and opened the location of the last cache:
Back into the woods. Your final task. Base of the tree. Follow the lights.
We were going to have to walk away from the spillway and into the woods on the opposite side of it. I assumed that there would be more of those reflective markers to lead the way. We began walking and once we had gotten to the edge of the woods we saw where the trail of them began. It was 11:04 PM. Maybe we’d be done in time after all.
We followed the markers deeper and deeper into the forest. We just needed to check the last cache and get out of there. The photos that I took would be testament to our friends of the adventure that we went on. I was excited to show them off and maybe even make prints of them for Nick since he always did that with his own photos. Thinking about the payoff was one of the only things that kept me going.
We walked for almost ten minutes before the markers clustered around the trunk of one tree. I shined my light down and saw another metal lunch box sitting at the base of the tree. At least they didn’t really hide this one.
“Thank god,” I said. I kneeled down on the ground in front of the cache.
“Hand me your camera so I can capture our complete and utter triumph over this shit,” Aaron said. I laughed and handed him the camera from my pocket. He turned it on and started snapping away at different angles.
I let out a sigh of relief. We had finally made it with time to spare. Soon we’d be at Applebee’s eating good food and reminiscing. But even more than that, we’d be in the safety of the public once again. I unlatched the front of the lunchbox and pushed it open.
“What the fuck??” I said immediately. Everyone crowded around to see.
Underwear. It was full of women’s underwear. The fact that it was underwear was the first thing that caught me off guard. After looking at the six or so pairs that lay inside, the fact that I recognized some of them was the next thing. Even Aaron had stopped taking pictures and stared with his mouth open.
“Are those…?” he began.
“Holy shit, those look like—!” Katy grabbed a stick from beside her and pushed some of the panties aside.
“Those look like a pair I lost! Is this shit a prank?” she said, clearly distressed. I did notice that none of the underwear was new.
“I’m about to find out,” I said angrily. The notebook had been taped to the inside of the lunch box lid. I peeled it off and opened it. The entire first page read:
With all due passed
And trouble’s wake
I’ll hold you close
Until you break
For all I ask
And all I ache
Your flesh and bone
Is mine to take
My heart froze as I read this to myself. Prank or not, whoever did this was an absolute creep and it wasn’t funny. I read the poem aloud for everyone else to hear. Their faces were consumed by shock.
“We need to leave. Now,” Nick said firmly.
I threw the notebook back into the box and slammed it shut. I quickly got out my phone to bring up Google Maps and see how to get to the bridal trail. It looked like it passed by the forest that we were in but that would mean walking deeper into parts of the woods that we’d never seen before. The trail did, however, cross over the railroad tracks back at the spillway. If we just ran back there and headed along the tracks, we’d reach the trail and be back at the dam in no time.
I told everyone else which way we needed to go before putting my phone away. Aaron handed my camera back and I shoved it into my jacket pocket. We were just getting ready to make our quick escape out of the woods when we all saw something that made us freeze in place.
About thirty to forty yards in the distance were the yellow beams of two flashlights. They weren’t close enough to actually illuminate our bodies but were definitely heading in our direction.
“Turn your lights off!” I whispered frantically. We threw ourselves into darkness and crouched down low to the ground. There were no voices coming from the lights as they bobbed slowly in the dark. Luckily they weren’t in between us and our path to the spillway. I told my friends that we needed to move fast and do our best to stay concealed.
“I have a tactical flashlight, it shines red so they can’t see us,” Aaron whispered. I told him to use it to lead the way. We all started walking quickly through the trees, keeping hunched over and using the red beam of Aaron’s light to see the best that we could. We stayed within arms length of each other at all times. I frequently looked back at the distant lights and saw that they were still moving slowly through the woods. Each time I looked they seemed a little bit closer.
Far beyond the woods we heard a loud wail and almost fell over one another from how much it startled us. The sound called out again and we realized it was the horn of a freight train. The light from it was visible in the distance as it sped quickly towards the bridge over the spillway. I looked behind us to try and find the lights. They were facing our direction.
Before we could continue moving any further I saw Aaron’s red light disappear. After that, I felt everyone fall away from me and I heard the sound of tree limbs and leaves rustling violently. It all happened so fast that I had no idea what was going on. Something knocked my feet from under me and I hit the ground. Aaron was yelling. Katy was screaming. My eyes finally adjusted to the dark and I saw another body thrown amongst our own. It was shrouded in dark clothes and tangled around someone else on the ground. Our flashlights were thrown from our hands and out of sight. Someone else pushed passed me and joined the two figures on the ground. I felt Katy crawl over to me again and attempt to pull me to my feet. As we rose up I realized that it was Nick and Aaron on the ground fighting an unknown figure. We had all been so caught off guard by the sound of the train that we didn’t hear them approaching us.
Katy and I wanted to run but we couldn’t leave without the guys. Katy eventually caught Aaron by his shoulders in the middle of his scuffle. She pulled him away and left the other two to fight. The stranger was unrecognizable in his guise. Nick quickly gained the upper hand and gave the figure a swift punch to the side of his head. Reeling, he curled away from him. Nick jumped up and pulled me along with him as he started running.
“Go! Go!” he yelled. Katy and Aaron followed close behind.
I turned quickly to see that the two lights in the distance were now bobbing heavily. They were running too. I started to move faster through the woods. We were finally able to see the moon reflecting dimly off of the water up ahead. I checked behind me frantically and saw that the lights were still keeping up with us. We broke through the edge of the forest and saw that the train was already passing loudly over the bridge. My heart sank.
“Over there!” Aaron yelled, pointing to the side of the bridge where we’d came from.
“What about the trail?!” Katy asked breathlessly.
“The train is blocking it!” I yelled.
As we ran towards the bridge I glanced behind me to check on the lights again. They were gone.
We hastily climbed the steep hill up to the gravel path alongside the train tracks. The train hammered against the tracks at an almost deafening level. Part of me considered jumping on the train but it was going so fast I wasn’t sure if I could do so safely. Nobody else seemed to be considering this as they kept moving alongside the train in the opposite direction. The freight train’s cars stretched far beyond our field of vision. We would be screwed if it didn’t end by the time we reached the hill leading back to the parking lot. The waning moon had rose high in the sky above us but still provided little light for us to use. As we were running alongside the tracks I happened to look behind me again. The lights had reappeared and they were moving fast.
“They’re behind us!” I called out frantically.
Already breathless and fatigued we did our best to run faster. No matter what pace we were at, the lights seemed to keep up from several yards away. I kept hoping and praying that the train would end soon so that we could cut across the tracks. We just kept running and running for what seemed like an eternity. Every breath that I took started to feel cold and shallow in my lungs. We were all breathing heavily but knew we had to keep going.
“Into the woods, follow me!” Aaron yelled. He made a sharp left and we followed him into the trees. We slowed down to a jog and kept going until we were covered by a decent amount of brush in the forest. The train continued to sound off.
We all crouched down among the trees and bushes as we tried to catch our breath. In one of the most heart-sinking moments I’d ever experienced, I watched the lights continue along our trail until they reached the point where we had diverted into the forest. There were definitely two people with flashlights and they were definitely chasing us. After a few seconds of them pondering whether to enter the trees or not, they started moving back down the tracks. I wondered where the third figure had gone.
“We need to hide here until the train passes. Then we make a run for it,” Aaron said. He started rubbing his shoulder, taking in a sharp breath as he did.
“That fucker hit me with something,” he groaned.
“We need to call the police,” Nick insisted desperately. “These people are going to hurt us.”
I nodded and pulled out my phone. Nervously, I dialed 911 and waited for them to answer. It was the first time in my life that I had needed to call that number. Once the dispatcher came on the line I tried my best to explain the situation without my voice being too loud or shaky.
“Yeah umm,” I began. “Me and my friends were exploring at Leavenworth Lake and we went to the place on the other side of the spillway where the train passes and this guy attacked us. No….No we don’t. There’s like three people. Yes, I think they’re trying to hurt us. They’ve been chasing us through the woods and we’re hiding now but I can still see them.”
The dispatcher heard the anxiety in my voice and encouraged me to stay calm. She asked for more details on where we were and what the people looked like. With it being so dark I couldn’t give her information on the latter. After explaining more of our situation she said that we needed to try and make it to a service road further down along the tracks. It was the only place the police would be able to reach us without having to cross the train tracks and get back to the parking lot. We were on the phone for a few minutes longer and during that time I had lost sight of the two flashlights. The dispatcher told me again where to find the service road and assured me that the police would be there soon. When I felt confident enough in what I had to do, I let her know that I would be hanging up and making my way towards the service road. Once I got off of the phone I had a little bit more peace of mind. However, whether we made it to that service road or not could mean life or death. To this day I am still in denial over that fact.
I checked Google Maps on my phone again to see if I could find the service road. We’d have to go about a half a mile further in order to reach it but part of the way was blocked by a wide creek. At some point we’d have to return to the open train tracks to make it across, but that was only if the train had finished passing the bridge that went over it. I showed everyone where we needed to go and we set up a miniature game plan. No matter what, if those people showed up again we had to keep running. They could have guns or other weapons that would easily over power us. The Geocaches were evident enough about the type of people we were dealing with. If it came down to it, we’d have to fight for our lives.
We kept crouched down and started moving through the woods, keeping an eye out for the figures. Our path was interrupted when a set of lights suddenly spilled in through the trees, rapidly darting from side to side like predatory eyes. We dropped to the ground and huddled behind a bush just in case the lights could reach us. A distant voice yelled something inaudible over the sound of the train. Another yelled something back and we listened as they continued to call to one another. Both voices sounded frustrated and unfriendly. Without warning, the lights drew towards our hiding spot. We all paused to look at one another. The train was still lugging by as they started heading our way. I pushed everyone to start moving.
“Go! Go!” I whispered forcefully. We bolted to our left and started heading towards the service road. The two men must have heard us all move at once because their lights shined directly on us. I heard more yelling from them as we all glanced back at the light. Time almost came to a standstill. We shoved each other forward and broke into a full sprint with Aaron leading the way again. Katy ran right in front of me and Nick let me run ahead of him, staying to the back just in case the men caught up to us.
“Follow me!” yelled Aaron as he quickly turned to the right. We did without question. He was taking us back to the train tracks and I assumed that it was so the cops would be able to see us if they ventured beyond the service road. We kept running and I could still feel the lights at our backs, chasing us down like helpless prey.
It didn’t take long for us to reach the tracks once again. We took care not to run right alongside the train in fear of tripping and falling under it. I felt like my legs were about to give out but I knew I couldn’t stop going. I felt Nick’s hand pushing me on the back each time I slowed down. The men and their flashlights were behind us and had no intentions of stopping. We were finally able to see the other bridge that the train passes over as well as the creek that lay underneath it. With the train going by, there was no taking the bridge to the other side. We would have to take a chance and swim across the water.
“There’s the creek! We’re almost there!” Katy yelled back to me.
We heaved the cold air through our lungs as we pushed ourselves to the water ahead. When we got to the drop off between the gravel path and the creek bed, Aaron was the first to skid to a halt and slide down to the dirt below. Each one of us followed with Nick being the last. We sent rocks flying off into the water and they clattered through the surface loudly. I could feel the roughness of the rocks on my hands long after I had landed on the ground. Without hesitation, Aaron and Katy jumped into the water and began swimming frantically to the other side. Nick and I joined them, again paying no mind to the noises we made with our kicking and splashing. The water was murky and dark, the mud swallowing our feet at every chance it was given. Something skidded on the rocks behind us and disturbed the water near the shore. None of us were brave enough to turn around.
The swim to the other side of the creek left us exhausted. Once we had reached the muddy shore it took every ounce of our remaining strength to pull ourselves from the mud and back to our feet. Their flashlights stood dormant at the other side of the water. They were watching us from the bank and I knew that they were planning something. The lot of us caught our breaths, leaning over with our hands on our knees and shivering from the night air. My heart dropped when I realized that we had all just swam through water with our phones in our pockets.
“Fuck!” I said as I quickly grabbed my phone. I tried turning it on but nothing happened. Nick put his backpack down beside him for a moment while he watched.
“Shit… I left my phone in the car,” he said.
“My phone is good!’ Aaron said, tired yet cheerily. “But… I have no service.” His face fell once again.
I looked at Katy hopefully. She pulled her phone out and tried turning it on but the screen only flashed once before going black. She shook her head solemnly.
“Cool. Well thank god we already called the police. We need to just get up over this hill and–” I stopped when I noticed Nick staring behind me. I glanced back and saw that the men’s flashlights had disappeared.
“Where did they go?” Nick asked.
“I don’t want to stay here long enough to find out,” Katy said.
“You’re right. Let’s go,” Aaron said.
Nick put his backpack on again and we all began walking along the creek bank trying to find a way up the hill that wasn’t too steep for us to climb. There was nothing really preferable so we had to make due and use the small sturdy trees as leverage to get back up. Once we were at the top we could see the clearing where the service road crossed over. Without the men chasing us we felt comfortable alternating between walking and jogging our way there, though each of us still kept an ear and an eye out for anything odd. It seemed like we were getting close to the road when Aaron, who was leading the way again, stopped dead in his tracks. I followed his stony gaze to our left where I saw the two circles of light once again. When everyone else had seen the lights it didn’t take long for us to begin running through the sparse forest despite how much our bodies were protesting.
My heart was racing but the adrenaline kept me and everyone else going. We knew that safety was ahead, that once we made it to the service road everything was going to be alright. At least that’s what we were trying to convince ourselves. When the trees were no longer surrounding us we gave our final burst of effort towards the finish line. We saw it there, like a beacon of hope: the service road. I was so focused on making it there that I didn’t even realize that the lights weren’t behind us anymore.
We hit the road at full speed and came to a skidding stop behind a row of trees. Katy and I collapsed to the ground. We sat together and she laid her head on my shoulder. She breathed heavily as we tried to let our bodies recuperate. Nick sat beside me and Aaron sat on Katy’s other side. All of us leaned in to one another despite being wet and muddy. Katy started crying and I grabbed her hand. Aaron raised his own to her back and started to rub it comfortingly.
“Wh–where are th–the cops?!” she asked, trembling against my side. The train continued to roar in the distant night air.
“They’ll be here,” I said reassuringly.
“Look they probably had to get the park sheriff too. It won’t be long now,” Aaron added.
Myself and Aaron focused on calming down Katy while Nick stood up and started to pace the road. He stopped every few seconds, listening for the sound of cars or sirens, but nothing ever came. I could tell how frustrated he was by the speed of his walk. He circled us a few more times before facing us again.
“We should probably hide until they get here,” he said.
“If those guys are still after us then they know where we’re at. It wouldn’t be that hard for them,” retorted Aaron.
“I know but I’m just saying we might as well try. Or we can start walking down the road. Anything but just sitting here.”
“It’s not like we want to just kick back and relax for a minute man, she’s tired, I’m tired, Katy’s upset…”
Nick looked at Aaron irritably. I could see in his eyes that he was close to tipping over the edge. Nick usually kept a level head but with everything we were facing tonight I could understand why his emotions were beginning to surface.
“So? I’m fuckin’ tired too but you don’t see me sitting here whining with a target on my back.”
Aaron looked like he was ready to stand up. Katy stopped her whimpering and stared up at Nick. His words stung.
“Chill out with your holier than thou attitude man, you’re just as susceptible to getting fucked up as the rest of us,” said Aaron.
“Am I really?” Nick replied, arms open.
“Yeah, really,” Aaron pressed Katy back into me as he got to his feet. Nick glared at him as he took a few steps closer.
“Then I’ll go get fucked up somewhere else while you sit here and be helpless with your non-girlfriend,” he said.
Aaron lunged at Nick before we could stop him. By the time Katy and I had gotten to our feet, the boys were already in a scuffle on the ground. We kept yelling their names and trying to grab their arms until they finally broke away from each other on their own.
“Fuck you!” Aaron yelled across the space between them. Katy flew in front of him, holding her hands up to his chest. Nick shook his head and turned away. He had nothing else to say to him.
“Can you two chill the fuck out?! Now is not the time. We need to go,” I said. I wasn’t going to sit and watch them fight. We had more important things to worry about.
I met eyes with Aaron who gave me a nod of agreement. I let Katy walk with Aaron while I joined Nick at his side. I wrapped one of my arms around his, hoping to calm him down. He sighed and accepted the affection but I could tell he was still heated. Katy and Aaron spoke in low voices behind us and I assumed that she was trying to relax him too. Tensions were high but we needed to focus on getting to safety.
Nick led us partially into the woods beside the service road and we began walking, keeping the road within visibility while we remained out of sight. Katy wept silently and I shushed her every time she coughed or whimpered. Aaron continued to hold her close, for he knew as well as I did that Katy wasn’t one to be easily traumatized. I was truly worried for her and despite feeling the same way I just didn’t have the will to cry at that point.
I heard Katy whisper something to Aaron and he called for us all to stop. Nick and I turned to see why.
“I… I need to pee,” she said.
“You can’t hold it?” Nick asked, ready to snap again. I squeezed his arm.
“I’ve been holding it.”
“Come on, let’s go over here,” I told her as I approached. I took her hand into mine and began leading her away.
“In her defense, I need to go too,” Aaron said. Nick rolled his head around his shoulders.
“Fine, nobody go too far okay? I’d rather catch one of you pissing than get snatched up by a psycho,” he said.
Aaron only stepped a few feet away to relieve himself. Katy and I found a large bush a few feet away that would provide ample privacy. I stood to the other side of the shrub as she squatted down to do her business. She finished quickly and made herself decent again. We returned to the guys and they asked if we were ready to go.
“Oh fuck! My phone fell out of my pocket over there,” Katy said suddenly.
“Are you serious?” Nick asked. Katy looked like she was ready to choke up again because of his bitter tone.
“Just get it Katy, be quick,” I told her after shooting Nick a stern look.
“Take this,” Aaron said, handing her one of the lighters from his pocket. She took it graciously and muttered out a thanks.
She walked away, a lone flame in the darkness. We waited for her to return. It wasn’t that far away, all she’d have to do was pick it up and walk back. While she searched for her phone we tried to seek out any headlights along the road in the distance. Still nothing. Even the train had passed and we were left in quiet twilight. That is, until Katy screamed.
Her cry was cut off quickly and her second yelp was muffled and desperate. We ran over to the bush where she was and heard the leaves on the ground rustling violently. A light from behind us ignited and we saw her horror-stricken, dirt-covered face halfway hidden by a man’s gloved hand. The figured was wearing dark clothes and had something wrapped around his head to conceal his face. He was much taller than us and proceeded to drag Katy’s small frame away with ease. He kept one hand tightly over her mouth and nose while the other one clung around her body underneath her shirt. Behind us, a light was approaching rapidly. Our hearts began racing again as we realized that we were surrounded. Our options were few but we quickly decided what to do first. Nick, Aaron and I dove to Katy’s rescue.
I grabbed the stranger’s arm to try and pry it away from Katy’s face in fear of her suffocating. As I watched Nick and Aaron struggle to pull him off of Katy I realized just how strong this guy had to be in order for him to hold his own against myself and two athletes. Aaron eventually gave up with pulling and just started to punch and kick the man as hard as he could. The attacker kept Katy’s head close to his in order to avoid Aaron’s blows. Katy started to flail herself around as much as possible to throw the man off. She bit desperately at the mans hand hoping to get a stray finger or two but could not succeed. He pulled his arm tighter around her and her face turned bright red, making me even more desperate to free her. I was ready to give the man a brutal bite myself until I felt a hard pull from behind.
It was as if someone had attached a rope to my neck and yanked it as hard as they could. I hit the ground hard as a set of bare hands tried to restrain me. Katy began to scream for me through the assailant’s hand, her eyes wide in horror. Nick followed her fearful gaze and immediately lunged towards me.
The other stranger got distracted by Nick’s sudden departure and Aaron took the chance to circle around and deliver a hard blow to the man’s head. Shortly after, he used his weight to push the reeling man to the ground. Once his body connected with the dirt beneath him, Katy sprung free of his grasp like an animal released from a trap. Aaron scrambled to grab Katy and pull her far away from the unconscious figure. Meanwhile, Nick had gotten my attacker to release me and was now focused on an intense one-on-one. Just when I thought I was free, the left side of my face exploded with pain. It impaired me immediately and my world tumbled over itself at nauseating rates. A third pair of hands picked me completely up off of the ground. I was hoisted roughly over someone’s shoulder, the tree limbs above our heads scratching my skin as I went. A shrill, deafening screech flashed through my ear drums and overpowered my other senses.
I think I heard Nick calling my name. In fact, I think everyone was shouting at that point. The trees grazed my back until suddenly I was on the ground again. Bodies all around me, pulling my limbs in different directions. Everything felt so loud that I swore I could feel everyone’s voice bouncing off of my skin. I almost thought I was drowning. The fight continued to circle around me as I tried to bring my throbbing head back to the surface. The closer I got, the sharper their voices seemed to be.
“Run! Just run!”
“Let go of me!”
“I’ve got her, come on!”
I was on my feet again with my hands latched to someone else’s. Katy. They were Katy’s. But why were they wet? Two bodies pressed against my sides and ran with me. There were unfamiliar voices yelling behind me. They kept getting further and further away. The trees flew passed us, I almost felt like I was running through a tunnel. Within seconds, I heard the shots.
There were three. They cut through the night air with an echo that would ring in my ears for many years after. There was arguing behind us before the first shot. Then silence. Ten seconds of nothing. The next shot. We all flinched and hunched over. Still running, still frantic. I couldn’t tell how far away they were. Another one. I could have sworn it ricocheted off of a tree just above my head. I was panicking so much that I couldn’t even bring myself to look behind me. I just imagined them following us, hunting us like game animals. Their irate voices crescendo again.
Our feet hit the dirt road. Nick lead us down and around a curve that took us through some more hills. I saw the faint illumination of red and blue lights off of the far away trees. I couldn’t see their cars because of another turn up ahead, but I knew that the police had arrived. A final shot rang out from behind us. There was more yelling.
The police car finally pulled around into view. Their headlights fell on our sprinting figures and the car stopped. Another set of headlights followed close behind. I heard the front car’s doors open and hoped that it was really the police and not another ambush.
“Are you kids alright down there?” a voice called. It sounded official enough for us to approach without hesitation.
“No! They–they’re gonna kill us!” Aaron yelled back.
We reached the first vehicle and the two officers who were with it. They had both pulled out flashlights to watch us coming towards them. I heard their radios going off and the low hum of the engines running. Once I saw their authentic uniforms I finally felt safe again.
“Alright now, what’s going on? You said you were being chased?” the driver asked. I could hear the other cop communicating on the radio about finally finding us.
“We are! One of them has a gun and–and they attacked us,” I said almost breathlessly. I pulled a disheveled Katy around for them to see. That’s when I realized the blood stains on her clothes and hands, mostly from me. He looked at Katy and I could tell he knew the severity of the situation.
“Where are they at now?” he asked firmly.
“Behind us, over there!” I pointed back towards the woods.
“You said they had a weapon?” the policeman asked, still looking off into the distance.
“Yeah. They started shooting just before we got to you guys,” Nick replied. “Could you hear it?”
“We did. Usually it’s from one of the ranches outside the park some. Farmers fending off coyotes and what not.”
Aaron shook his head quickly. “It wasn’t that. They were in the woods with us.”
“Alright well, I need you kids to go back with the sheriff over there and talk to him. We’re just gonna drive up this road here and see what’s going on,” the cop motioned for us to go to the second car. We obliged and him and his partner got back into the vehicle.
The park sheriff looked shocked at our condition and asked if we needed an ambulance. We all had injuries but our psyche was far more damaged than our bodies. The sheriff told us that the police would go search the area down the road while he took us to the station. Aaron asked about our cars and he said that they’d be fine until the morning. I just assumed that the police might want to search them. I guess Aaron assumed the same and didn’t argue with him about it.
The sheriff radioed for one more squad car to come down for us. After telling the sheriff what had happened again, spending an especially long time explaining to him what “Geocaching” was and why people did it, another police car pulled up. Nick and I got into the sheriff’s car while Aaron and Katy got into the police SUV. They drove us down the winding service road and out of the park. For fifteen minutes, I sat silently in the back of the car with Nick’s hand in my own. The sheriff was conversing with a couple people over his radio about us. As tired as I knew I was, my body stayed alert and upright against Nick’s. He was still shaking. I patted the dead phone in my pocket and then reached into my jacket. My camera was gone. With everything that we had just done, I can’t say I was surprised.
The four of us were taken into the police station and questioned again about what had happened that night. At first, I was sure that we were going to be in trouble for being in that area of the park so late at night. But after hearing of the trauma that had happened to us, they were more worried about our safety than anything. Katy and I especially proved to be the most moving pieces of evidence. We already had the faint beginnings of bruises on our bodies, not to mention the side of my face was still bleeding. If we were just kids trying to cover up a bit of trespassing, we would have been going a long way to do so.
Aaron tried to pull up the Geocache map on his phone but found that all of the cache’s we were searching for had been deleted. He did, however, have a GPS trail of the path we followed thanks to Google Maps. I offered my dead phone to them as well since my SD card was still intact and held at least some info from that night. Katy almost offered her own phone as well until she realized that she had still left it in the woods somewhere. Nick, however, was able to let them have our loot of coins from the water cache, even if it was begrudgingly so.
They sent us to the forensic nurse to have our injuries photographed and tended to. She collected our finger nail scrapings as well as some blood and hair samples. I felt like a lab specimen but I knew it was for the best. When our parents arrived they had just as many questions as the police. The nurses were concerned that I had gotten a concussion but I tried to convince them that I didn’t feel dizzy anymore. I didn’t want to spend the night in the hospital. I just wanted to go home.
When I got into my parent’s car I slumped over and fell asleep before I even realized it. When I woke up a few hours later, I was already tucked into my own bed. It’d been almost 10 years since my dad had carried me from the car to my bedroom. After waking and realizing that the previous night had not been a dream, I began sobbing. At first it was from the culmination of fear, the tears that I’d held in for the entire ordeal. But then I realized that I was not only lucky to be alive, but glad.
In the week following, my mother had bought me a new phone and the boys had gotten their cars back. Nick and Aaron came to see me and Katy since we were put on bed rest. They’d already apologized to each other for the fight at the service road and were acting like their normal selves again. Katy and I only ever left the house to check up with the doctor. We all would be meeting with the detective for our case again soon, however so far the only evidence that the police found was Aaron’s tactical flashlight. It was still laying, untouched, in the forest brush. My camera was gone, Katy’s phone was gone, the caches were gone, and even the glowing markers were gone. I was convinced this had to involve more than three people. If it didn’t, those three were certainly efficient.
When I was finally given the green light by my doctor, I joined Nick and Aaron on one of their visits to Katy. She had seen a doctor who’d noticed signs of PTSD that were more severe in her than the rest of us. She was, of course, rightfully afraid. The only thing she asked us about that night was if the police had found anything. We told her no but that they were still hopeful in the digital evidence. She sighed and then moved on to another subject. When the three of us left Katy’s house we would talk about the night in detail in the car, speculating about what was going on, why it happened to us, and what would have happened had the police not showed up. We tried searching for the strange poem that the caches alluded to but came up with nothing. We soon realized that the scary part wasn’t the night we spent in the woods. The scary part was that these people had been stalking us long before the woods came into play. I didn’t tell the guys this but I don’t think their original plan was to kill us. I think they wanted to take Katy and I for keeps and dispose of Nick and Aaron later. Or maybe they did want all of us, I mean these weren’t just normal people, they weren’t even “normal” criminals. Their ritualistic methods made me wonder if there was a twisted reason for why they couldn’t just kill us or take us from our homes. When one of the strangers began shooting, it sounded like the rest of them were yelling at him about it. Things obviously didn’t go to plan. What they would have done to us in that forest is still a thought that leaves my stomach turning to this day.
Three weeks passed. Katy was finally starting to feel human again and we all spent time together doing more mundane things than we used to. Our curfews became re-instated and Katy and I were given mace to carry on ourselves at all times. After the park incident, we were perfectly fine with this. We were even advised to deactivate our Facebook accounts for awhile because of how easy it would be for the assailants to keep tabs on us through it. The news eventually reported our story but kept our identities anonymous. Needless to say, the lake’s popularity fell. We never planned to go back anyway. We were already constantly looking over our shoulders, jumping at loud bangs, and staying wary of cars driving through our neighborhood. Things may have changed for us forever but at least we were still there. At least we were still alive. All of us.
One morning when I woke up to check my phone I noticed that I’d gotten a new email from an unknown sender. My heart immediately sank. It was titled: “Missing You“. After wrestling with curiosity, I pressed the notification with my finger. I wasn’t sure what I was thinking. In hindsight I should have known something was wrong. When the email opened it turned out to be an invite to search for a new cache. A map of my neighborhood popped up and showed a single marker right behind my house. My friends and I had all stared at these maps for hours, we knew damn well that there was never a cache in my back yard, let alone my entire block. I didn’t think that it could have been something that would kill me, I didn’t really think about it at all. It was drawing me in, knowing that I would be starved if I didn’t find out what was inside.
I looked out of the window into the back yard. The sunlight was reflecting off the lawn and I could hear the neighbors already up and running their mowers. I slipped on some pajama pants and grabbed my mace from my bag. After putting on some flats, I walked downstairs and through the patio doors. I was cautious as I stepped outside, checking each corner of the fence and looking over anything that may have been a hiding place. I pulled out my phone so that I could open the cache’s description:
By the dog house.
I circled around the small wooden dog house that lay in the corner of our back yard. On the right side of it was a patch of dirt that had been turned over several times. I hesitated before kneeling down, even checking inside of the dog house to see if someone or something was hiding inside. The sounds of children playing, birds chirping, and lawn mowers surrounded me. I sat my phone on the ground, grasped my mace in one hand, and started to dig with the other. It was only a minute before my fingers hit something hard. I moved more dirt away from the object to reveal what it was: A small green ammo container.
I looked over both shoulders again before pulling it out. I kept telling myself that I shouldn’t open it, that I should just stop right there and call the police before I ruined any evidence. I sat on the ground and stared at the container.
“Don’t be stupid,” I said to myself. I wasn’t going to play their games the way they wanted me to. I grabbed my phone and started scrolling down for the number of the detective on our case. As I did, I heard a twinkling melody playing from inside of the box. I felt my skin go completely cold as Katy’s ringtone sang happily in the container.
That was it. I unlatched the side and let the lid fall open. Katy’s phone buzzed against the metal on the side of the box. I picked it up carefully, not wanting to smudge my own fingerprints all over it. The screen only said “Unknown Number” and I had no intentions of answering it. The call soon went to voicemail and her lock screen appeared again. I put the phone off to the side. I was just about to pick up my own phone and call the detective when I saw a stack of 4×6 photo prints sitting inside of the container. The top photo was the picture I took of us all finding the first cache. I felt panic rising from my stomach into my chest. I grabbed my phone and dialed the detective. The moment he picked up the phone I told him that the strangers had left another cache in my yard and that he needed to come over. He said that he was on his way and told me to be careful before he hung up the phone. I put my phone back down and stared at the pictures in the box, daring myself to grab them.
They had found my camera. They had all my photos. They’d probably seen everything that was on that SD card. That card had belonged to Nick before he gave it to me so they even had his pictures too. The stack of prints was almost an inch thick. My skin started prickling more and more. I couldn’t wait for the investigator to arrive. If those weirdos had gone to this length, I figured that they wouldn’t be clumsy enough to leave any fingerprints or DNA evidence now. I grabbed the stack and started flipping through every picture. The detective would have to forgive me later.
The first dozen were all the ones that I had taken of us finding the cache’s at the lake. The next pictures were some that Nick and I had taken over the course of the summer before we’d started Geocaching. I could tell most of them were Nick’s from the use of heavy flash. There were photos of Katy and I embracing at a party. There were photos of Katy when her hair was bleached and me when my hair was longer. There were pictures of me and Nick as well as Katy and her ex. Katy and I’s faces were the only ones not marked out with a bold black X.
As I progressed through the stack, my heart began racing even faster. I suddenly remembered the photos that Nick and I had taken in private a few months ago. I knew they had to be in the pile, it was just a matter of time before I found them. Sure enough, after another set of Katy and I at the lake, there they were. The pictures Nick and I took after getting drunk in his room. I could have sworn he deleted them the next morning but my memory was hazy and I wouldn’t be surprised if those creeps could recover them anyway. The first one was of me laying on my stomach in Nick’s bed with just my underwear on. The next ones showed me rolling above the sheets, topless and care-free. I didn’t want to remember that night like this. I should have been going through these with Nick, laughing about how silly it was. But this was serious and I needed to see where all of these photos led. I kept going through another and another, watching myself smile and laugh coyly at the camera.
There were photos of Nick on top of me as I held the camera at arm’s length. There were others where I could tell he was trying to take a photo of us kissing but his hand was just too unsteady. Regardless, his face was marked out each time. He was taking pictures of me again and my poses continued to get more provocative. I couldn’t handle the embarrassment. I stopped pausing at each photo, filing through rapidly until I was forced to stop again.
There were photos of Katy and I walking around town that were obviously not taken on my camera. The photographer was distant, hidden away and trying to shoot through obstacles to get to us. Then there were pictures of Katy walking into her house. These were no longer our photos. With a shaky hand I moved on to the next and almost dropped the stack from shock. Katy was passed out on the bed, her clothes crudely pulled halfway off. I could tell by her face that she wasn’t there. A harsh flash reflected off of her pearly skin with each shot as the photographer circled the bed.
I couldn’t do this anymore. I threw everything back into the ammo container and ran into the house, double checking the locks on all the doors. My parents had already left to go to work or run errands. I sent a text message to Nick, practically begging him to come over. Shortly after I sent it, the doorbell rang. I could have jumped out of my skin from how much it startled me. Nick hadn’t gotten here that fast.
I edged my way to the front door, peering out the window at the blue car that had pulled into our drive way. When I reached for the doorknob I opened it just a sliver so that I could see who was standing outside. Luckily it was only the detective. I opened the door fully and welcomed him inside. He asked me to take him directly to what I found.
I had to admit that I’d opened the box to him but he didn’t seem too upset at me for it. His only concern was if they had left something dangerous for me inside of it. He called someone from the police station so that they could come bag everything as evidence. I didn’t want to watch them go through the risqué photos so I told the detective that I was going to wait out front for Nick. I took the chance to text Katy and tell her to stay home today, no matter what. She texted me back quickly with no questions asked, just an: “I will.”
“Promise me,” I replied.
When Nick showed up I asked him about the pictures. It took him a moment to recall that night but he began swearing up and down that he’d deleted the photos off of the memory card.
“What about your computer?” I asked.
“My computer? Ummm…” Nick paused to think for a moment. “No, no I don’t remember.”
“What do you mean you don’t remember?”
“Babe look, I’m pretty sure that I deleted them okay?”
“This is just—this is so fucked up,” I felt a shudder rise through me. Tears started falling from the corners of my eyes.
“They police will figure it out. They’ll find them,” he said adamantly as he pulled me into an embrace.
I wanted to find comfort in his words, I really did. But the uneasiness had taken hold of my very core and I didn’t know when it would let go. Nick held me silently as I cried. When the detective came outside he approached us with concern and asked if there was anything he could do.
“Find those fuckers,” Nick answered for me. “Find them and put them in jail. Make it stop.”
After the police had left, Nick asked me if I wanted him to stay the night. I told him I did because of how afraid I was. He reassured me again that everything would be alright. After sundown we cozied up in my room to watch movies together, trying to forget everything that was going on. At around 11 pm I started dozing off and Nick decided that we should go to bed. I curled up with him under the blankets and quickly fell asleep.
I was deep within a dream when I suddenly woke up. I reeled into awareness of the pitch black room, my head still buzzing from being in a deep sleep just seconds before. I could no longer feel Nick’s body next to mine. He must be in the bathroom. I squinted at the red letters on my clock face across the room. It was 3:50 am. I laid back down and reached over to grab my phone. The screen almost blinded me when I unlocked it. I saw that I had some missed calls and that Aaron had texted me. The air conditioner whirred quietly while the trees outside blew gently in the wind, tapping softly on my window. I opened his text.
My breath had abandoned my lungs. Before I could even think of what to do, I heard footsteps from the other side of the room. They were not those of Nick’s bare feet. They were heavier than that. My body almost froze as my ears tuned in further. I wasn’t alone anymore. They’d come for me.
I heard the shutter.