Phantom of the Forest

“He was never seen from again.” My father always insisted on reciting ghost stories after we finished having dinner. The smell of burning pine and freshly prepared canned beans overwhelmed my senses. An aroma that will never retire from my repertoire of pleasant reminiscences.

I remember like it was yesterday.

I’m sure my mouth was wide open as he concluded his story with a tone of suspense and foreboding. The remaining flickers of flame and embers danced wildly in reflections of his eyes. He suddenly broke character, laughing and slapping his denim encased knee. I was brought back to the present and smiled from embarrassment. Clearly, I was completely captivated. I took in my surroundings and breathed in a lung full of serenity. Whenever we went camping, my father consistently took me to this spot. This was our special spot. It was for us. My mom encouraged father-son bonding trips. Apparently, it is a rarity thing these days.

Nestled about halfway down Skyline Drive in the Virginia Shenandoah National Park, about a half mile off the beaten path, was the small clearing that we claimed. During the day, the sun could be seen highlighting the slopes of all the surrounding mountains and bluffs, but at night, we were visually limited to the trees that encircled our campsite. The occasional buzzing and fluttering of the local wildlife acted as a humbling reminder that we were at Mother Nature’s mercy. Ego and money were useless here. Only respect and discipline for all of God’s creations acted as your only saving grace.

“Not scared, are you?” My father asked with a slight giggle. I shook my head and probably blushed a bit. “Good. You’re a tougher man than me.”

“Dad,” I interjected. “Can’t we just stay here a few more days?”

“I wish. You know I have work Monday morning.”

“What if I catch fish for us? That should help.” It might be a miniscule attempt, but I had to try. “That would save some money that you wouldn’t have to work for.”

“How are you only 10 years old? You have the mindset of a lazy teen, and you haven’t even finished elementary school.”

We both laughed for a second.

“But it’s supposed to rain tomorrow which will take out our whole Sunday.”

“A little rain never hurt anyone, son.”

Almost as if on que, we both started to feel rain drops crash on our heads, alerting us of their presence.

“Does this mean I don’t need to wash up before we leave tomorrow?”

“If you want to sit next to me in the truck on our way home, and not in the back, you better clean up!”

“I can ride home in the back of the truck?”

“I knew that was a mistake the moment I said it.” He said, chuckling.

These were the moments I treasured. We would laugh, make lighthearted fun. If only I had known this would be the last opportunity.

My father started to rub the back of his neck and he shivered. This caught me off guard because the warmth was so intense, that the falling rain was washing off our never-ending stream of perspiration.

“The hairs on the back of my neck just stood up for some reason.” I may have only been 10, but I could always tell when my father was concerned. It was then that I noticed it too, or rather, the lack thereof. The buzzing had ceased. There was no audible evidence of life coming from any direction. The silence encouraged our heartbeats to echo at an almost deafening level.

Without warning, a rock the size of a golf ball landed halfway between us. I think I jumped about 2 feet off the log I was sitting on. We both stared at the rock, almost expecting it to perform an impossible task. The rain began to come down with more force and intensity.

"Noah,” My father only called me by name when he was serious. “I think it is time to call it a night. Go inside the tent and get ready for bed while I clean up.”

A response was not necessary, and I didn’t need to be told twice. I slid into the tent and zipped the nylon door as my father started throwing sand on the fire. A few moments later, after I had changed and made my way into my sleeping bag, my father joined me inside the tent. It may have been my imagination, but his face appeared to be painfully pale.

“Goodnight son.” He said. “Try to get some sleep. I love you.”

“Love you too, dad. Goodnight.”

Laying there, every noise seemed to be magnified. The breaking of a twig sounded like a crashing tree; the billowing of the wind reminded me of a hurricane. Had a snake slithered by, I would have sworn it was a sea monster. The concept of falling asleep appeared to be an impossibility. If a leaf swiped the tent, or a bird flew by, it would startle me to the point of alert and increase the flow of adrenaline through my body. My ear drums were already pounding, and my heart was repeatedly trying to escape its’ ribbed prison.

I suddenly regretted how much water I drank before going to bed.

As stealthily as possible, I made my way out of the tent and headed to the nearest tree line. I assumed position, but before I could relieve myself, I heard what sounded like heavy stomping. I froze. Nothing in my body seemed to work. I was completely paralyzed. That was when I saw it…or saw something. To my left, several yards in the forest, was an enormous black figure. I noticed a glint in the eyes and could hear a heavy breathing and grunting.

It was watching me.

Oddly enough, the only thing that came to my mind was the quote, “It can’t see you if you don’t move!” What was I thinking? This wasn’t Jurassic Park. I didn’t know what to do, I was completely vulnerable. I wasn’t moving, but neither was the black mass. It felt like a game of chicken to see who would make the first move. I was considering my options as fast as my brain would allow. What would my favorite superheroes do? That was my point of reference. I had never felt so small in all my life.

Then the first move was made.

Whoop! Whoop!

I don’t know if it was communicating to another creature, or if it was warning me, or if it was just saying, “Hi.” Honestly, I didn’t care. When it came to fight or flight’, this was definitely the time to get the Hell out of there!

“Nope, nope, nope.” That was all I could say as I ran back to the tent. “Nope, nope, nope.”

The first thing I saw after entering the tent was my father sitting completely erect and alert.

“Come over here.” He said sternly. “Get behind me, and no matter what, do not leave this tent unless I tell you to.”

“Dad, what are you going to do?”

“I am going to check things out real quickly.”

“Dad, no!” I pleaded. “Don’t go! Stay here with me, please!”

“Son,” He reasoned. “I need to make sure everything is okay. I will be back as soon as I can.”

Before I could even object, a deep growl could be heard just outside the tent. We both immediately stopped talking and looked up. A flash of lightening followed by a booming explosion of thunder could be seen and heard. But in that brief moment of illumination from the lightening, the silhouette of the creature made itself known on the side of our tent. It all happened so fast, but it appeared to be about 8 or 9 feet tall with broad shoulders, elongated arms and legs, and its’ head was directly attached to the body with no neck.

“Stay here.” My father ordered as he grabbed his flashlight and moved towards the entrance.

“Dad, no!” I don’t know if he was ignoring me or if my voice refused to leave my lips, but without any hesitation or acknowledgment of my statement, he exited the tent and closed the flap behind him.

I have never focused on listening for anything so intently in my life. I could hear him walking away from the tent. There was a pause followed by more shuffling, but it sounded heavier than what my father could produce. Then the strangest thing happened. It almost sounded like murmuring. It was coming from my father, that was for certain. But why was he talking? And who was he talking to?

I was about to unzip the tent when I heard more activity in the woods. This time it was coming from behind the tent. But this was different. This sounded like multiple creatures advancing on the site, and they were coming fast! I needed to act immediately. For all I knew, my father had no idea these creatures were coming for us. I got out of the tent as quickly as possible and looked in the direction of my father. I couldn’t see the creature because it was so dark and my father’s body was between it and me.

Taking a deep breath, I was about to shout to him, but he looked at me with a look of horror on his face and shouted “GO!!!” as he turned to face the creature again. I turned around and to my surprise, it was not a group of creatures approaching us, but a group of men in uniforms. I went to run for my father but fell in the mud. I looked up and could clearly see my father’s face because a flashlight from one of the men was focused on him.

Suddenly, the creature grabbed my father by the shoulder and began to drag him away. My father started to fight, but even I could see it was pointless. The man’s flashlight lit up the hand dragging my father, and it was the size of an adult baseball mitt.

“NOAH, RUN!!!” My father screamed. Then he was gone. The creature dragged my father past the tree line and deep into the darkness.

“NO!!!” I was at a loss of words. I was helpless and just witnessed my father being carted off by this phantom of the forest. I could hear him through the trees, the breaking of branches getting further and further away.

One of the men in uniform yanked me from the ground and looked me over before asking me several questions. I was too horrified to answer his questions, hear his questions, or even care.

“Go track down Mason Gates, soldier.” A broad-shouldered man emerged from the rear of the group. I assumed he was their leader.

“Yes, Sir!” Replied the soldier. He let me go and went past the tree line to retrieve my father.

“What is your name, boy?” The leader asked.

“Noah.” I said. It was then that I realized I was sobbing. I was struggling trying to say my name. “Noah Gates.”

“Are you Mason Gates’ son?” The leader asked.

“Yes.”

“Lieutenant Tyler,” The leader addressed another man in uniform. “Take the kid back to the convoy.”

“No!” I protested. “I want my dad! I’m not leaving without him” I demanded as tears flowed down my cheeks, mixed with the pelting rain.

“Yes, Sir” Lieutenant Tyler said. He then grabbed my arm and started to pull. I did my best to stand my ground, and when he realized I wouldn’t follow him, he picked me up and threw me over his shoulder.

“NO!” I screamed. “Get off me! Dad! DAD!!!” I screamed, and kicked, and fought back in any way I could. Nothing I did worked. He just marched me back in the direction of the road. I needed my dad! I needed him with me. I just saw him kidnapped, and now it looked like it was my turn. I reached around and grabbed the lieutenants’ flashlight. I shined the light in the direction of the camp sight hoping to see a soldier walking my dad back out of the woods.

Lieutenant Tyler made a sharp, unexpected turn which caused me to lose grip of the flashlight. I barely caught it, and I noticed something on the ground next to us. It was a series of prints- footprints. The only thing was that the person who made these prints was barefoot. The truly astonishing feature, however, was the sheer size of them. They were at least twice the normal size of an adult mans’ foot.

He continued to march towards the road, and I was certain the rain would wash away the prints before I could come back to find my dad. I wanted to say something, to point it out to the lieutenant, but all I was able to do was cry for my dad. I wanted him back. I whimpered for him, I called out to him time after time, but to no avail.

I swore in that moment that I would return and find my father. I would track him down no matter how long it took. And I did. In the days that followed, after the military released me to my mother, I came back to the site. I didn’t care about retrieving our belongings, I was there to find my dad. No matter how hard I tried, no matter what techniques I exhausted, I was never able to find him.

I had to eventually accept the fact that my father was gone, probably dead, and he was never coming back. That night was the last time I ever saw my father. It was also the last time I ever entered the woods. I had my theories on what happened, but there was no point focusing on those since they would never lead to anything worthwhile. My father was abducted by a creature and was never coming back.

I thought all was lost, until today. I found evidence my father might still be alive.

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