You will likely read this story in a well lit room in the middle of the day, surrounded by people. In the light of day, you will be able to shrug off this story and click on to the next item and file your reports or fill out your time sheet or ring up the next customer. This, ultimately, is a good thing.
Reading this story at night, in the dark, and alone is not... well, there is a right way and a wrong way to do just about anything, I guess.
I know this story to be true because it happened to me. You aren't me, though, so you may have doubts. This is understandable. Some things are hard to believe when they happen to others. Some things are hard to believe even when they happen to you.
Regardless: this story will be true whether or not you believe it to be true.
Turn the lights off.
Near the town where I grew up is a place called Tyler's Mill. It's called Tyler's Mill because there was once a mill there, owned by one Samuel Tyler. Originally built in the late 1700s, the Mill is long gone now. All that remains is some stone work along the river where they once diverted and sluiced and produced the power to run the mill and provide industry.
My mother, who was born at the tail end of the Great Depression, used to ride bikes down to the Mill with her brothers and sister and friends and swim. Even back then it was abandoned. Even back then they cleared out well before sundown.
One Thanksgiving my uncle - her brother - began to tell the story about a young boy who died there. I think he was going to say he drowned, but my mother shot him a look and he stood up and left the room to refill his wine glass and didn't come back.
When I was a kid the Mill was fully off limits. There is an old town road that ran through the Mill, but the town had long ago put up a fence at both ends to keep people out. That's not to say no one went in or out - as a kid it was a well known fact that Bullies and Bad Kids Who Smoked hung out there, and that if you went there yourself you were Definitely Going To Get Stabbed. As an adult I now doubt any of that to be true, but as a kid it was enough to make you give a wide berth. The only part of the Mill I ever saw was the fence, and the garbage and mattresses and old chairs people would dump there.
And so it was, an abandoned thousand acre stretch of woods lying untouched for a hundred and fifty years, while the surrounding farms and forests were slowly subdivided.
But in the 90s the Mill was rediscovered. Hikers and mountain bikers found the old trails and cut new ones. There was conflict with the ATVers, who started tearing things up, and the hunters, who wanted to stalk deer in one of the few remaining pieces of open land. With some growing pains, the Mill be came a place to recreate, which we did, and often. Sometimes it was a run with the dog, but more often than not, we would be mountain biking.
Then I went away to college, and stopped riding there, and in general. My brother Josh still lived in town, though, and had become bored enough that he started riding at night, with a makeshift headlamp and some very pricey bike-mounted headlights. Home for one Thanksgiving break, with zero desire to hit the local bars to see the high school assholes we left behind, we decided to night-ride the Mill. It was cold, and there had even been a dusting of snow, but the rivers weren't frozen and we thought it manageable . So we grabbed what cold weather gear we had, our lights, and headed out to go mountain biking, at night, at Tyler's Mill.
This was a mistake.
The night started out pleasantly enough. We unloaded at the trailhead and got out gear sorted out. We tried to warm up, goofing off dirt piles and pulling wheelies. Then we took off.
There is something completely disorienting about being in the woods at night. If you've ever hiked, or snowshoed, or spent any time in the woods when it's pitch black, you know what I'm talking about. Everything is new. Short distances stretch. Familiar, comfortable landmarks disappear, or appear where they shouldn't. You get turned around, and are forced to stop often to get your bearings. Sometimes you can. Sometimes you can't and push on, sure that just around that dark bend there will be the trail you're looking for. Or the big rock you often take a rest at.
It was in this way that my brother and I became separated. We were riding together, taking turns leading, reveling in the quiet and the cold night air. A light snow was falling.
Then I blew a tire and had to stop to change it. My brother, who has always been more fidgety than I am, didn't want to stop - he was worried he'd get too cold. I couldn't blame him, I was never great at changing a flat, and I knew that the cold would leaden my fingers and slow me down.
So off he went; we knew a fairly quick loop that started not too far up the trail. He said he'd hit that to pass the time and stay warm, and meet me at the junction. His lights disappeared. Then it was quiet.
For once I managed to change the tire pretty quickly, but given my numb fingers it was still the better part of ten minutes. By the time I was done I was frigid. I stamped and shook to get the cold out, clipped in my pedals, and started down the trail.
I wasn't quite sure why I had stopped. It felt like I saw something. Or more like I felt something. What it was, exactly, I didn't know. A shadow? A shadow of something? The area did have plenty of deer; I probably just scared one along. Still.
I rode on now, tentatively. Without my brother I was alone, and riding alone made me cautious, and cautious is slow. Under daylight, I knew I was only about five minutes from the junction. But I kept going, and kept not getting there. The trees looked different. There was no moon. I hadn't looked at my watch before I started, but I it felt like I had been - must have been - pedaling for a long time.
Finally I found the spot. No brother. The tracks led off to the right, with no return tracks from the left. So he hadn't come back around yet. Huh. That was pretty slow, especially for him. But no sense trying to catch up to him; we'd jut end up riding loops around each other all night.
I waited. I noticed my lights had already started to get a little weak, partially from the cold and partially because they were pieces of crap, so I turned them off. I scanned the woods to the left, back and forth, hoping to catch a dip or flash of his headlight. But there was nothing.
By now I was pretty cold. My initial sweat had cooled and froze when I was changing the tire; stopping again now did nothing to stop that. I turned my light back on.
The dark does strange things to your common sense. Being alone does too. Being alone in the middle of the woods, well, it's hard not to be scared. Had I been with my brother, I may not have even noticed. Or if we did, we would have made a joke about it, putting on a little bravery show to avoid it.
But my brother wasn't here, and I was alone. And there it was again. A shadow.
"Is that you?" I called, hoping it was my brother. My tinny voice evaporated in the cold. Nothing but silence.
The cold and the unease motivated me. Fuck it, I said, I'll track him down. I rode to the right. The snow was a touch deeper now, not hard to ride through, but it made it easy to see where my brother had been. I followed, quickly, quickly, quickly.
Until the tracks stopped.
No turns. No back tracking. Just stopped.
Now, my brother and I are both big fans of The Shining, so my first though was that maybe he pulled a Danny Torrance? Maybe he had back tracked? But... to do that he would have had to put his feet down to turn around. And there were no footprints. He couldn't have.
"JOSH? NOT FUCKING FUNNY."
Did you ever talk to yourself when you're alone in the woods? At night? Your voice sounds far away, like it isn't coming from you. It's almost a surprise, even if you're the one talking. It's small, and far away, and ineffective, even when you're shouting. Weak.
I stood there, over my bike, not moving, the sound of my breathing and heartbeat filling my head. The beam of light through the falling snow made the world warped, made me dizzy.
Panicked now, I turned around and rode back. I don't know what the fuck Josh did but he did something, somehow, and he was waiting back somewhere to laugh at me. He had to be.
I slammed on the brakes again. Footprints. So that fucker did manage to turn around somehow. Only... we were wearing narrow bike shoes, the kind with the clips on the bottom. There were tracks from boots. Big boots.
The tracks were heading back to where I started. I was in full on panic mode now. Going back meant finding whoever was making those tracks. Going forward meant... what?
My light began to flicker. The batteries were going weak. I had to decide. So I followed the boots.
I walked. As I walked I tried to listen. The falling snow was coming heavier now. It dampened all sound. My light, like high beams in the fog, didn't help at all. I opened my mouth to shout my brother's name but changed my mind.
Then I saw it.
Something brown and furry and bloody in the middle of the trail.
Something brown and furry and bloody in the middle of the trail that had not been in the middle of the trail when I came though five minutes ago.
Something brown and furry and bloody in the middle of the trail that had not been in the middle of the trail when I came though five minutes ago that was NOT covered in snow.
The boot tracks led straight to the brown and furry and bloody thing. I crept closer. It was a... what? It was an animal part. It was a deer's leg. The leg, where it had once been attached to a deer's body, looked like it had been torn off. The bone was intact, sticking, ivory and shiny, out of the end of the torn fur and flesh and cartilage.
The knee, though... the knee had been cut. Cut twice: just below the knee, and just above. The cut was sharp and clean. The two upper pieces were spaced evenly away from the center. Like art. The knee cuts had no blood.
This was not my brother's prank. This was not anyone's prank.
I ran. I ran back. I ran, panicked, the light from my headlamp bobbing in the trees. I ran, tripping, my face swatted by branches. I ran, stumbling over rocks, falling, rising, running, falling, rising, running. I ran until I saw him.
He was lying face down, on the side of the trail. There was blood all over the snow. I ran to him and rolled him over. He moaned, this is good, he's still alive, this is good this is good this is good. I looked at his hand, where the blood was coming from. In the space where Josh's fingers should have been was...nothing.
Then my light finally died. It was pitch black. We were hurt. We were scared. We were alone.
But we were not alone.
"You with him, huh."
The voice stopped me still. Frozen.
"Yeah I figured that."
I refused to turn around. I couldn't turn around.
"Now that boy... that boy's tough. But he screamed reeeeeal pretty when I took his fingers off."
A man's voice. Not old, not young. The words made sense, but the voice that spoke them did not. It was empty. Hollow. The voice, and the body it came from, did not care. Maybe it had never cared.
I swallowed. Hard.
"You ain't... you ain't gettin' out of this, you know that?"
My hands scrabbled over the ground, my fingers frantically searching for a rock or a branch or something, anything for a weapon.
"You know that, right? Nobody ever has."
"But hell, I'll give you a fighting chance. Take these."
Something landed near my feet. I reached down, and found something. Something small and jointed and human. Something gnawed.
"For luck. Get it?"
I also found a rock. I stood.
He stopped talking. I couldn't see him, but I could hear him. He was breathing loud. Loud, excited breaths. He had been holding back, but now he was ready to enjoy this.
He started moving. Walking. Not at me - around me, in a circle. I could hear his boots crunching softly on the twigs and gravel. He was taking his time. Moving slowly. Breathing loud. Around and around.
Then he was quiet.
The first fist caught me in the ribs. The second, on the side of my head. In the pitch black, my world spun.
"Hell now, ain't you gonna at least try? I likes to earn it. "
I swung my arm, the one holding the rock, wildy. Just air.
I swung again. Air.
I stopped. He was almost giggling now. The ragged, quick breaths of pleasure. He couldn't stop himself. He wouldn't stop himself. Maybe he used to keep it controlled, but not anymore. Out here, he didn't need to. Not anymore.
I felt him tense. I tensed. Then he sprung.
I swung my arm, blind, and connected. Maybe in the head, maybe not, but he fell, hard. Still breathing. Not talking. I didn't care. I inched over towards him. He wasn't moving. I raised my rock high over where I thought his head was. I brought it down. I brought it down hard.
I fucking connected.
I kneeled. I felt the snow falling on my face. I felt warmth and wetness on the rock. I felt. And I remembered.
I remembered my brother. I remembered that we had to get out of there.
I'm not sure how I found him in the dark. I'm not sure how I carried him. I'm not sure how I found the way to the car and found the keys and got him in the car and drove to the hospital. I'm not sure how I did any of those things. But I did. I did.
The next day the cops went out to the Mill. They found our bikes. They found the boot prints. They found the deer leg. They found my brother's fingers.
They didn't find a body.