*All characters and places in this piece are fictional and do not reflect anyone alive or dead. Flathead National Park is a real place, but as far as the author is aware, it is not haunted. This story may have content that some readers find offensive or disturbing, so discretion is advised, especially to those under the age of 13.*
The rustling leaves of autumn drew Callie outside, filling her distracted mind with the sounds of nature. She sat on the ground and watched them gently dance in the breeze. She heard Ranger Stevens before she saw him. He had a distinctive way of walking. “Hi darlin’ you talking to the trees again?” Callie blushed as she quickly rose to her feet to face him. She was hyper-aware of her hand-me-downs clothes and ancient fleece that had either belonged to Hep’s or the twins. No one knew anymore. “Hi, Ranger Stevens, I was just taking a break. Can I help you with anything today?”
“Callie I’ve told you it’s ok to call me Mike, I’m not a police officer or anything.” His face lit up as he grinned and Callie swayed a little on her feet. Her homeschooling had limited her interactions with real boys. She didn’t consider her brothers to be real boys) and Mike happened to be a particularly handsome one, but it didn’t matter, Callie Barlow would have been awkward with any boy. The only boys she really knew were her brothers, Hep, Are and App. “Sorry, Mike, how can I help you today?”
“Well I’m looking for your father actually, is he around?” He took off his hat in anticipation of speaking to Lucas Barlow. Callie was certainly among the softer of the Barlow family siblings. Her eldest brother was exceptionally rough and ready despite all the classical training their mother Joanne had given them. He was very much a carbon copy of his father Lucas. Who was known as crass, angry and loud. Yet Lucas Barlow was well regarded in the town of Mirth and the Barlow family had lived in Flathead National Forest for generations. “Daddy will be back soon he was doing his morning rounds of the land. Would you like to wait and have some coffee?” Her voice cracked nervously as she asked this, but she was relieved when Mike nodded almost furiously.
“That’s great if any of your brothers are around I might speak to them too?” Callie’s heart sank. If it was a palaver with her brother’s Mike wanted, she wouldn’t get a word in. Mike seemed to notice this, and said kindly, “of course you know these woods just as well as them, so you will certainly have some useful input to give Callie.” Callie blushed again at this. Not just because he was so kind, but because he had noticed her disappointment. Nobody took much notice of Callie when her brothers were around. She nodded and beckoned him inside.
It was early morning and the sun had only just risen in the East, but the Barlows had been up since before dawn. It was the family way even before Callie was born, and she knew no different. They would begin their studies at 9am. Well, she would, Hep and the twins had already taken their SATs. Beforehand the chores would need to be done. Chores from which Callie had been skiving off from. “Callie, are you finished checking on the deer jerky?” Her mother Joanne had an ability to appear from thin air. Both Callie and Mike jumped. They had thought themselves alone in the quiet kitchen. “Yes ma’am, mother. I invited Ranger Stevens in for coffee while he waited for Father.” Joanne folded her arms and took in Mike silently. A silence descended and as expected, Mike nervously filled the gap.
“I’m sure you could help too Ma’am, Mrs Barlow, it’s about another missing tourist. Two actually. They went into the forest last night. It was meant to be an overnight camping trip, but when they didn’t call their girlfriends this morning at the crack of dawn as promised, well the girlfriends got frantic and called the police. You know the reputation these woods have so the coppers asked Chief Ranger Makowski if he’d look into it. I thought that since Mr Barlow, and your family have had such luck with turning up missing people in the past, knowing the woods so well…” Joanne finally smiled and Mike trailed off. “No problem Mike, I’m sure Lucas would be delighted to help once he returns from his rounds. In the meantime let me get you some breakfast.”
“Oh you’re very kind but if you could just let Mr Barlow know we will be mounting a search party down at the ranger cabin that I would be very grateful.” Callie’s heart sank. Mike would have happily stayed for a chat if her mother hadn’t appeared. Callie had been so sure her mother was out back feeding the chickens, but Joanne Barlow had a way of knowing when to appear uninvited. She didn’t like Callie talking to outsiders, especially not men, despite what was thought of the family in town. “Are you sure Ranger Stevens? I was about to start breakfast, the boys always come back from their rounds, ravenous.” Her eyes glinted in the early morning light, and Callie could see Mike audibly shiver.
“Much obliged Ma’am, but I best be on my way, thank you now.” He dipped his head and slipped back out into the yard. Callie watched him as hopped onto his bike and quickly disappeared down the path from the Barlow homestead. “So, you think he’s cute do you Calliope?” Callie froze, she could feel her mother’s eyes on her. As if feeling into her mind somehow. “Sure, in an awkward kind of way.” She tried to laugh it off, making her tone light, but her mother always knew. “Stay away from men like that Callie, I’ve told you before. They want what’s between your legs and nothing more.” Joanne began making breakfast, and Callie simply fell into the morning ritual once more.
“Listen this is official Park Ranger business, you know I can’t tell you that information. Besides, they aren’t technically missing persons yet, they’ve only been incommunicado for 3 hours or so. Really, any information we have from their girlfriends and the state coppers is private.” Chief Ranger Makowski was an imposing specimen. Standing at 6 foot 4 and about as broad, it was difficult for most people to argue with him. Of course, Jacob had known Ingrid Hanson since she was a small girl, and her tenacious nature had always endeared her to him. Although he admired her spirit, he was protective of the Ranger service which he had served for decades. It had increasingly come under fire for their inability to locate the mounting missing persons list. He would enforce the rules and regulations, in public at least.
“Ingrid, as soon as I get the go-ahead, you know I’ll call you, but right now it’s a private matter.” He smiled a rare smile and Ingrid rolled her eyes. “Alright curmudgeon, but I’ll be back.” Makowski huffed. “No need to throw your fancy college words at me, young lady.” He was still smiling in spite of himself though, as she flounced off.
Ingrid was thinking about how good a large coffee would feel to ward off her sleepiness and the cold of a Montana morning when she bounced off Chief Stevens. She landed on her ass and looked wearily up at into his face. There she observed in him the same equally dazed state. She simply groaned. “I’m not caffeinated enough to process this yet.”
“Oh Ingrid I’m so sorry are you ok?” He tried to help her up but she shooed him away. “I’m fine Mike, no worries, it was my own fault. It’s an early start and I skipped my morning coffee to get here. Chief Makowski won’t talk to me yet though, so I needed have bothered.” Her keen eyes studied the slumped posture of a man who usually stood proud in his newly earned Ranger uniform. “You ok Mike? You look like you could use a pick me up yourself.” Mike nodded gently. “I was just up at the Barlow homestead…” Ingrid normally wouldn’t have to ask for details, she knew the Barlows as well as anyone else from Mirth. However, her inquisitive nature was the story and she decided this might as well be included. “Let’s grab a coffee and have a chat, Mike.”
“So that’s all she said? That they would be ravenous?” Asked Ingrid doubtfully. Mike looked wounded. “I know but it’s the way she said it, and her eyes…” Ingrid nodded in understanding. Although it didn’t seem like much, Ingrid knew the look Mike was talking about. She had known Mike for most of his life too, she’d palled around with his older sister Mary in school, and he wasn’t a liar. No, there was definitely something weird about Joanne Barlow and it wasn’t her choice of words exactly. It was the emphasis she put on certain things that gave kids the creeps. Her sons were similarly weird if not more rambunctious. Yet Lucas was a typical Montana man. Quiet, hard-working and private. Well respected. The match between them had always struck people as odd.
Some had even gone so far to say that Joanne had used witchcraft, learned from her native ancestors, to trap Lucas. Ingrid always thought that was bullshit. Plus she’d always been uncomfortable with how old-seed Montanans had used ‘witchcraft’ as to describe a woman behaviour when they acted in a way they didn’t like. Ingrid had often thought if a man acted the way Joanne did they would just be labelled as unusual or strange. Joanne Stone had gone to university, which had been unheard of in her day. She’d studied the ‘classics’ whatever that passed for these days, and she’d insisted from day one that her children would be educated at home with her. It had worked so far. Though the boys had only gone to the local college for the environment or natural science, word on the street was their SATs scores where something to be very proud of.
Joanne had named her children after the Greek gods. Hephaestus was her eldest, Ares and Apollo were her twins and her youngest and only daughter was Calliope. This was the one and only thing that Lucas had pushed back on. He’d wanted to give his children family names. So the compromise was that their middle names were Greek, and first were good old fashioned Montana names. Yet they’d never gone by their first names. Heck Ingrid couldn’t even remember what they were. There was a good chance they were John, Joseph and Thomas, but she couldn’t be sure. She would need to look that up…
She snapped back to her conversation with Mike. Why would she need to look the names up? The Barlow family weren’t the story. The missing men were the story, and the rest of the missing in their droves. Flathead Park had a 78% higher missing persons rate than the national average. She’d found that out from intensive Google searches. “It really seems like Callie is the only ‘normal’ Barlow and I say ‘normal’ very lightly. She was listening to the trees when I arrived at the house this morning.” Ingrid tilted her head and frowned. “What do you mean listening to the trees?”
“Stevens, get your ass in gear, we’re heading out in 10!” Came Chief Makowski’s bellowing voice. Mike promptly jumped to his feet. “Sorry Ingrid gotta go, I’ll chat with you later, send me a text.” Ingrid nodded languidly as Mike hopped off to his newfound duty as Park Ranger. “You’re a long cry from playing dungeons and dragons with your friends Mike Stevens.” She sighed as she gathered her things. Now to sneak into the Rangers cabin to listen to the meeting.
Ingrid was met with an eye-roll from Makowski, but he didn’t ask her to leave. Truth be told, he was starting to worry about the increased disappearances and incessant attention it was getting from young people. They were doing over-night challenges in the supposedly haunted forest which they filmed and subsequently uploaded to their social media. We spent the night in a haunted forest and you’re not going to believe what happened. They were putting themselves in danger, and it was up to the Rangers to get them out of it. Maybe if someone like Ingrid covered the story it would prove a cautionary tale for future inexperienced campers.
It was customary for the Park Rangers to fall silent when Lucas Barlow entered the cabin. His presence was suffocating. Unlike Chief Makowski, Barlow was not a particularly tall man. It was his energy that naturally pulsated and disarmed you. His blue eyes could freeze, and although he was not considered to be a warm person, he helped each and every person that found themselves lost in the woods.
“What’s the 411 Makowski?” Barlow croaked as he lowered himself onto the bench, his sons looming behind him. “Simply put, two college kids approximately 21 years of age, go camping last night in the woods. They promised their terrified girlfriends that they would call in at 5.30am no later, on account of the ‘reputation’ our forest seems to be getting.” Barlow’s eyes narrowed at that. “When they didn’t check-in, they call the police, they called me, I called in the staff.” Makowski moved his arm to display the fine team of men and women assembled. He looked at Ingrid closely when he said the next part.
“The girlfriends also sent us a video that the boys sent to them around 3.30am this morning, before daybreak. It’s not very clear, but it appears as though the boys are being attacked. We cannot verify this for sure, or even if it is real, however, we will proceed with caution. If it was a lion attack we will need to be vigilant. I will now show you the video.” Chief Makoswi cast the video onto the large wall projector. Stevens turned off the light so they could get a better view, but the morning sunlight was started to make that difficult.
The video started with content which is common on YouTube or other social media these days. The boys joking around, filming each other. Setting up a poor camp. Chief Makowski skipped along until they got to the pertinent part. Boy number one spoke up in the darkness. “What the fuck was that Aiden?” He panned the camera around in the swift jerky motions. “Did you hear that, what the fuck was it?” Boy number two answered. “I don’t fucking know I’ve never heard an animal make a noise like that before.”
Shuffling noises, like leaves and tent canvas. Silence, all but for the heavy breathing of the boys. Then an inhuman screeching noise, which started out low then built in a horrific crescendo. Even hardened Rangers seemed disquieted by the sound, as they shook their heads, shifted in their seats and even covered their ears. When the screeching came to a halt, the maddened sound of a predator racing towards the boys and their own version of screeching began. Then nothing.
“Now the girlfriends say they received no message with this video as if it was set to automatically send to them. Like I said, we don’t know if this is a hoax or not so I would advise caution. We all know wild animals can make a variety of noises…”
“I’ve never heard one that sounded like the damned goat guardians of hell before though!” Called out one of the senior rangers and laughter erupted. When Makowski and Barlow didn’t join them it quickly died down. “Like I was saying. This could all be a joke, but it’s our duty to check it out regardless. However, we do not put ourselves at unnecessary risk so be on the lookout for lions or even bears. Now we will break into the usual parties of 4. Someone is designated as the leader…”
Not that anyone would have noticed, but Makowski and Barlow weren’t the only ones not to laugh at the Ranger’s poorly timed joke. Ingrid’s eyes had glazed over as she began recalling her interviews with those who had been recovered from the forest after being missing for days. She remembered how they had described the exact sound she had just heard from the missing boys’ video.