Whenever you heard ‘Teepike’ on a Search and Rescue dispatch call you were in for a rough slog; that’s what we told the newbies on their first day, and as warden of my team a good decade into my career that opinion held strong. But nothing any of us saw out there beat the Teigan boy case, not by a long way.
To begin with, let me outline some of the basics. Teepike National Park is one of the largest and most biodiverse of its kind in America, its terrain made up of forests, mountains, and four lakes, teeming with enough wildlife to repopulate a entire state. It’s a popular tourist attraction all year round, yet in spite of this it never hits any Top Ten lists on TripAdvisor, nor will it ever. Teepike boasts the highest recorded number of deaths and missing person reports of any attraction on this side of Maine- funny thing, though. It barely shows up in those statistics, either.
Those figures, however, were the main reason none of us were surprised by another incident popping up out there; they were a dime a dozen, like petty theft in a mall.
After being debriefed by the police and the frantic relatives of this case’s missing person I managed to piece together the situation. At approximately 2pm that afternoon eight-year-old Phillip Teigan was observed by onlookers playing by the mouth of a cave system at the the bottom of Mount Schräg. He wasn’t alone, reported to be in the company of what appeared be two sisters of a similar age. The boy’s parents, who at this time were still making their way up the adjacent trail, didn’t recognise the other children as anyone they knew, and were unable to recall any accompanying adults present in the area.
At 2.15 pm the mother and father finally reached the bottom of Mount Schräg, finding that both their son and his ‘friends’ had gone, presumably into the vast cave system beyond.
It seemed unlikely to me that three kids under ten would have had the mettle to brave those dark warrens alone, but considering that Teepike National Park and unusual circumstances went hand in hand I rustled my team together without further questioning and drove out to the location.
Waiting there was our guide, a park ranger named Dianne Becker. She was a short-haired, stoic woman of about forty-five who stood jawing tobacco vigorously and panning my group with a critical eye. Being queer myself I had her pinned as a lesbian right off the bat, and she was certainly more attentive to me than any of the other officers milling around.
Call it kinship, solidarity, female sympathy, I don’t know, but she took me to one side almost immediately and confided in me in a way I suspect she wouldn’t have had another controller handled the team that day.
“That little boy isn’t coming back up top,” she said. “I’ll show you around, but it won’t amount to much. Teepike doesn’t give folks up easy.”
“You local?” I asked, picking up on the familiar, unusual accent common to the nearby German-settler town of Walpurgis.
“Yah. Local. Born here. Die here too, I don’t doubt. Been at the park for over twenty years and no plans of slowing down.”
“And you have a lot experience with the caves?”
Nodding, Becker turned to spit black swill into the grass.
“Sure. I know the whole park better than just about anyone. Got a healthy respect for it. Try to teach guests to pay the same, but most folks don’t listen. I tell them, ‘you stick together. Stick to known paths. Don’t go anywhere too far off-road without a ranger.’ That’s how it happens, most times. Visitors going missing.”
I knew the drill. By that point I’d fronted almost twenty Search and Rescue operations and dispatched plenty more. People generally got themselves into sticky situations by being reckless, or thinking they knew far more than they did. Wannabe Bear Grylls-types dropping off the face of the earth were our bread and butter, but this case was different. I could sense it, a deep, internal throbbing, like nerve-pain.
“So what’s the deal with the caves?” I asked. “Unstable caverns? Narrow tunnels? Sudden drops? Water pools the kids might not have seen in the dark?”
“They’ve got all that, sure,” said Becker, sounding suddenly guarded. “But that’s not it.”
Again the Ranger’s cool, grey eyes slid away from mine.
“Ma’am,” I said. “We both know some odd things happen in Teepike. I’m open minded. What’s on your mind?”
The other SAR officers were beginning to get ansty, and I knew that time was advancing rapidly away from us. But there was no way I was setting foot in those caves without understanding what exactly had gotten so deeply beneath this gruff woman’s skin that she felt the need to warn me against an operation.
“It’s the girls,” said Becker, at last. “The girls the missing kid was seen with. They’ve been seen around the mountain before. Always on their own. Anywhere they go something bad follows, like the stink around sick folk. I’ve seen them up close, tried talking to them. Tried getting them to come up to the ranger’s station with me. Never works. It’s like-“
Becker raked a hand through her cropped blonde hair. It was all grey-white at the root.
“-It’s like talking to a cayote or something. Blank behind the eyes.”
“What you’re saying is some, uh, supernatural children lured Phillip into the caves? That right?”
“Didn’t say supernatural. But seems to me it’s the same kids people have been seeing around for a while. Same kids been popping up here and there for over fifty years.”
I suddenly felt weary, and at the same time deeply disturbed.
“Well, I respect you filling me in on local lore, Dianne, but I think it’s more likely some other, live kids went missing alongside Phillip, and for whatever reason their guardians just haven’t come forward yet. That happens, sometimes, and we have to reserve our judgment for now.”
“Yah. I’m reserving them. Lot more I could say on it, if I wanted to.”
Ignoring the wry interjection I pushed on, raising my voice for the benefit of my team.
“Now, I have some brief descriptions- red-haired in a blue tee and jeans for the boy, long, blonde hair, white dresses for the girls. Shouldn’t be too many folks loitering down there fitting that demographic. Now how about we get going?”
There was no argument from Becker, but I could see from the set of her mouth that she thought we were making a wasted journey, and a dangerous one, at that. I wondered what had given her that hardened, war veteran caginess, whether she really believed the girls she’d tried to coax down from the mountain were some breed of malicious ghost.
I’d seen my share of oddities- strong swimmers found drowned in shallow waters, bloated as if from months submerged when they’d been dead only a day, mutant animal corpses discovered in the charred remains of forest fires. Even so I wasn’t convinced that the cause was paranormal, no more than the Bermuda Triangle or any other scientifically explainable phenomenon. It wasn’t the way my mind worked, and never has been.
Still, as my team, Becker, and I filed into the mouth of the cave system I felt a clammy chill pass over me, and I had to clench my jaw to keep my teeth from chattering.
The fist inner cave was spacious enough, about twenty or so feet long and wide, with a high ceiling. It opened out into dripping tunnel that went on for a good three minutes, throughout which we called out and flashed our lights around in case the kids were still nearby. Distantly I thought I could hear movement in the caves ahead of us, but the acoustics of any system plays tricks and makes even the smallest disturbance sound like a whole other being.
“Forks out here,” said Becker abruptly, at my ear.
She pointed to the next cavern, which was full of chalk doodles, a child’s handiwork, although some seemed too high up for any youngster to reach. Half a dozen headlamp beams jittered about, picking out smiley faces, scrawled names and stick animals.
“There are a few different directions we could take,” Becker explained. “The one right ahead goes on for some miles. Can get pretty steep and slippery. Leads down to an underground lake. Very sceneic.”
“And on the far left?” one of the youngest officers, Mick Bradley, piped up, wiping cave water from his face.
“Sort of a labyrinth that way. Marked a lot of it with glow-in-the-dark paint, but there’s a ton I haven’t got round to yet and nobody’s sure how deep the tunnels go.”
“Let’s hope they didn’t pick that way. They’ve been down here for over an hour; they could have made a fair amount of distance in that time.”
“What about that one?” someone asked, aiming a torch beam to the right of the cave.
We all turned towards it. A groan went up, and a few of the officers were shaking their heads. A voice at the back of the group said, nervously, “Fuck that, man.”
The hole was only about three foot high and wide, about the right height for a kid to take interest in, and to be an adult’s nightmare. Crouching down beside it I tilted my head to look inside.
“It’s not so bad. Crawlspace of about twenty feet. Looks like it opens out after that. You been down there?”
This directed at Becker, who made a low humming sound in the back of her throat.
“Few times. Not my favourite, put it that way. But doable. Not marked much of it. More of a puzzle than a labyrinth.”
“Jesus,” I muttered.
Edging further to the hole I shone my flashlight around for any indication it had been used. As I did so I heard the distant strain of a voice, the words indistinguishable.
It came from the crawlspace.
Glancing up at the others I saw that they’d all head it too, their expressions suddenly taut and grim.
“Boss,” said the voice from the back again. “There’s no way I can get down there. There’s no way.”
Leonard Holt was the tallest of the group, and while usually a great asset tight squeezes weren’t his strong suit.
“That’s okay, Len,” I said. “We need someone back here anyway. If there’s trouble we’ll call. Is that okay with you?”
“Sure,” said Len, looking relieved.
“Man, I wish I was the stringbean,” said Bradley. “Who’s in first?”
“Well, I’m the closest,” I said. “I’ll take one for the team.”
Taking a deep breath I got down flat on my belly and inched my way into the hole. It wasn’t the smallest I’d attempted, but there was something about its atmosphere that made it feel impossibly tight, as if the grey rock was closing like a muscle around me. I focused on my breathing, on the thought that if I got stuck or too scared to move I had a group of people I trusted with my life to haul me out.
Consciously relaxing every muscle I inched my slow way along the shaft, calling out the missing boy’s name every now and then. The end of the tunnel seemed so far away that I wondered if I’d misjudged the distance, every motion forward seeming to eat very little into my journey. I paused to assess my progress, and again I heard the voice, a voice that sounded childlike but spoke no comprehensible word.
I didn’t like it. It made me think of the other things I’d seen in Teepike, in other places, a reports of a woman with no arms walking alone on a hill-path, grass that shifted and moved under picnicers as if it breathed. Still I shook my head and humped my way through the passage like a worm, grunting and cursing for the sheer release of it.
When I finally reached the other end of the tunnel I rolled out and collapsed in a grinning heap.
“I’m through! It’s stable!”
A muffled round of cheers and clapping went up from the other end of the tunnel, and one by one the team inched through to join me in the second cavern. This one was far larger than the first, with so many openings and corresponding tunnels that I gazed about in awe.
“Looks like a collander in here,” said Tom Krieg, another Walpurgis resident, mopping sweat from the back of his neck.
“Be careful where you step,” said Becker. “Some of these holes in the floor go down for miles, I’d guess.”
I was beginning to understand why Becker didn’t think the lost boy was coming back.
“Well,” I said. “We all heard voices. One or more of those kids must be alive. So let’s stay positive. Keep together and sweep the cavern.”
Slowly we moved from one side to another, searching high and low. I could tell most of the group had little faith left in success, but to their credit none of them said so, combing the area so thoroughly that I almost felt ashamed of my own efforts.
Then, just as I thought we’d have to call the search off due to sheer lack of leads Bradley spoke into the lamplit gloom.
His voice was a a strangled sing-song, like a little boy’s.
“What’s the matter? Have you seen something?”
Bradley was staring into a hole at his feet, his eyes flicking right and left.
“There… there was some girl, lying on her back down there. Looking at me. Eyes wide open. At first I thought she was dead, but then she- she moved.”
“You mean she’s still down there?” I asked, aiming my flashlight at the gaping aperture.
“Nope,” said Bradley.
He let out a shaky, humourless giggle, and blurted out, “She slid away across the floor. Not like a little kid would. Like- like she was being dragged by something. Only nothing was dragging her, not that I could see.”
There was nothing in the hole but black, and yet I believed him. There was no reason for anyone to lie or play games, and I strongly doubted Bradley had developed some sudden weakness for hallucinations. Turning to face Becker I saw from the raise of her sparse eyebrows that she believed him, too.
“I’m going down,” I said. “Just to scope around. She can’t be that far. You guys can keep hold of my rope for me.”
“What if there’s a wild animal down there?” someone asked, and there were mutters of agreement.
“I have bear spray,” I said. “Besides, it’s pretty unlikely. Not this far in. Out of the way, folks.”
As I stepped towards the hole Becker touched my arm.
“Ma’am,” she said. “You don’t want to follow those girls.”
“Well, that’s what we’re here for,” I said, irritably.
Becker wouldn’t let me go, her grip on my bicep tightening.
“Don’t go down there. Please.”
“The longer we fuck around the less chance we have of getting any of these kids out alive. Give me one good reason why I shouldn’t go after that little girl the way I’m supposed to.”
The older woman hissed under her breath and said, almost grudgingly, “It’s- it’s not a kid.”
Bradley let out another mirthless giggle, and I saw the first ripple of fear pass around the circle.
“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” I said. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Means what I said. Don’t know much more. But the girls, they’re not kids. Told you before we even came down here. And the boy-“
I shook my arm free and sat on the edge of the hole, gesturing for my unofficial deputies, Rick Hollinger and Nate Spall, to aid my descent.
“We’re all going down,” I said, firmly. “Drop isn’t far, looks only about seven feet. We don’t have time to be superstitious. Are you with us, Dianne?”
She closed her eyes in exhaustion and nodded.
“Yah. Might as well see this thing through. But pretty soon I figure we’ll all be on the same page.”
One by one we all made the drop, this time in silence. The cavern below was more of a twisting tunnel, the walls moist and slippery with some substance I couldn’t identify, nor did I want to. The heavy quiet of the cavern was more noticeable now in that it felt somehow loud, as if we and the cave itself were both waiting for something to happen.
Taking the lead, I began to tread my way through the tunnel, aware that the ground underfoot was growing wet and damp. Water underground isn’t uncommon, but it might have been a concern if it got deeper and became a drowning hazard, or caused someone to trip and break their necks in the dark.
“Walk carefully, guys,” I said. “I’m not carrying you all home in braces.”
This time nobody laughed.
After a few minutes of trekking this way Hollinger said, “What’s that? Can’t you hear that?”
Rounding the next corner I gave a yell of surprise and clapped a hand over my thumping heart. I heard the others behind me cuss and mutter amongst themselves in agitation.
“It’s the two girls,” I said. “They’re here. I’ve found them.”
The sisters cringed from my headlamp beam, clinging together by the opposite wall. They were very pale and- wet looking, their skin shining, their hair and dresses glued flat to their bodies.
“Are you alright?” I asked, gently. “Did you fall into the water? Get some blankets over here, somebody.”
One of the girls said something under her breath. At first I thought it was a foreign language, one I didn’t recognise, but when I asked her to repeat herself I realised with a strange, cold feeling that she wasn’t really saying words at all, only making sounds, like someone trying to mimic speech without knowing its meaning. After a moment her sister joined her, and they were both mumbling, mumbling and staring with wide, pallid eyes.
“Ma’am,” said Becker, approaching me with the cautious pace of someone trying to engage with a dangerous animal. “Don’t get too close.”
I humoured her, mostly because the situation made me feel so uncertain.
“What’s wrong with them? What are they trying to say?”
Becker shook her head.
“Nothing. But people hear what they want to hear. Like one of them Rosarch things, you know?”
“What the hell are you talking about?”
“Is there a problem?” called Krieg, from further down the passage.
“Not yet,” I yelled back, then to Becker, “If you genuinely know something you’re not letting on I need you to tell me right now. Is this a set up? Because an eight year old boy’s life is at stake here, and I’d certainly hope you’d be as worried about him as I am.”
Appearing even wearier than before Becker said, “Look at the girls again. Look properly, this time. Then follow, slowly. You can see where the boy went, if you want to, but only if we go quiet.”
Gritting my teeth over a harsh word I turned back to the girls, running the lamplight over them. They retreated further into the tunnel, but not before I realised something I’d missed before.
They didn’t have white dresses, nor white hair, come to that. What I was looking at was skin, another layer of skin folded so cleverly over the rest of their bodies that they looked like tissue matter and fabric.
I should have backed up the length of the tunnel then and there, but I didn’t. I wanted to see, wanted to understand, so even as every hair on my body prickled upright with the primal need to run I ushered my team forward, following the two girls deeper and deeper into the tunnel. I kept looking at the clever folds of skin, trying to figure out what it meant.
Abruptly the tunnel opened out into a vast cathedral-like cavern, wet and dank and foul smelling, like the bottom of a lake. The girls were moving into the gloom, looking back over their shoulders as if they meant us to follow.
“Where’s Phillip?” I hissed, and Becker seized my shoulder to silence me.
“No further, now. I’ve seen shit like this before, and this is about as close to one as you can safely get.”
“Close to what?” I asked, bewildered.
The woman leaned in towards me and said, “We can go back. Tell the parents the boy broke his neck in some cavern too dangerous to reach.”
I stared at her, disgusted.
“Are you fucking serious? Show me the kid. I need to see this. I need to be honest with his parents.”
Resigned, she said, “Get all the lights over here. Then be ready to move. You don’t want to outstay your welcome.”
Ushering my team around me I directed them to shine their beams at the centre of the cavern. At first they only traced the girls, their enveloping skin. Then the beams picked out what appeared to be white cords, running from the sisters’ necks into the dark. That was strange enough, on its own.
But then we cast our beams upwards, and we saw it.
It was something like a giant, white human face, vast as an canyon and undulating with jellyfish softness. It had no body to speak of, seeming to grow from the rock floor beneath it. Nor do I think that it could see us, not exactly- instead of eyes it had only sockets from which those white cords spun, the girls that were not really girls dancing on the ends of them. Its nose pulsed in out like a snail’s organ, huffing the air, and the red-slicked mouth beneath was the only near-human thing about it, open and wet and panting, full of boar-bristle teeth.
There was no doubt what that red wetness was, nor now the soup we’d all waded in like water was visible in the light. For a moment we all gazed at the creature, rendered still and voiceless by our abject horror. Then without speaking we all ran back the way we had come, scrambling and jibbering in the dark.
Without Becker to guide us there is no doubt that we would have all died down there, if not by being lured into the mouth of that great, hungry face then by becoming hopelessly lost in those warrens and starving to death. Becker was the only calm one amongst us, coaxing grown adults up pitch black shafts, talking us through our breathing as we each had to squeeze through the entrance, each captivated by the fear that the shuddering collosus beneath us would send its feelers up to drag us down.
None of us saw the girls again on that flight back to the surface, but we heard them, their nonsense murmuring turning us all sick with the thought of how many might have been fooled by it before us. We poured out into the daylight like Orcs from some forgotten Tolkien story, some retching, others sobbing openly in relief. Holt, who’d only heard our screams and yells from his vigil in the first cavern, watched us with frightened eyes, clearly at a loss.
The police officers who’d been stationed outside the cave to communicate news to the worried parents began to close in, asking questions. It was Becker, again, who took them to one side to deliver our prepared lie, a tale of how little Phillip and the unidentified girls had plunged into the depths of the cavern and died there, how the sight of it had been too much for even seasoned rescuers to bear.
I quit after that day- not because of what I’d witnessed in the Teepike cave system, but because of the lie. Never in my career had I ever been anything but brutally honest regarding the outcome of a rescue. It was never easy- I was often screamed on, yelled at, wept on, even hit a few times by grieving relatives enraged that their loved one couldn’t be found or saved. I always took it in my stride, seeing it as much part of the work as the search itself. There was integrity in the truth, no matter how awful, and that the little boy’s parents only knew half of what became of their son was beneath me and everything I stood for.
Most of my team stayed on after I left, at least for a while. Denial keeps a lot of people going in life, and theirs was a reinforced steel resolve to never think of that great white beast in the dark.
Bradley was the first one to break. Being the youngest he’d seen the least horrors, was still soft enough for it to take him out before he could make himself forget. He spent three years in an institution before slitting his wrists in a hotel shower cubicle, a sad little anonymous death for a decent sort of kid.
Hollinger and Krieg hit the bottle hard yet both stuck at the job, so I’ve heard, whereas the others all dropped out, one by one, moving away, throwing themselves into any occupation that worked them too hard too think and, thus, remember.
I wasn’t so lucky. It was hard to hold a job down with everything on my mind, all the questions I had no idea how to answer. After six months of drifting from city to city I wound back to Walpurgis again, working behind the bar of a quiet spot overlooking the forests skirting Teepike National Park. Running away from it hadn’t worked, so I figured sticking closeby was a better option, to see if I could flood my way through the trauma. Something like that.
As it turned out, by coincidence or something more, that bar was a place Dianne Becker frequented. I saw her often, usually on Friday nights, sometimes with another woman, most often alone. She’d sit in a corner, nursing a beer quietly, glancing my way once or twice. Whether or not she would have approached me to talk if I hadn’t made the move I’ll never know. I sat down with her one dead shift, not knowing how to open what I wanted to ask.
At last I said, “Teepike. Strange place, huh.”
Becker quirked an eyebrow and tilted her head a little.
“You want to know what’s wrong with it?”
“Well, kind of. I was going to ask what that thing was, in the cave.”
“That’s just a little part of it. A germ on a flea on a rat. It’s Teepike, you know? It’s Teepike that’s wrong. I just don’t know exactly what, for sure.”
“Start with the germ,” I said, releasing a long breath. “The thing in the cavern.”
Becker sipped her beer and savoured it. Then she said, “I’d never seen that one up close, before. I just guessed the kind of shit we might find down there. There’s a name I give its kind. I call them Old Kings.”
“Old Kings,” I repeated, carefully. “You mean- so there are more monsters like that.”
“Yah. Bunch of ’em, all across the park, and changing all the time. All different. Can never keep up with all of them. There are other strange things going on, couple you might have picked up on, but it’s the Kings I worry over the most because it seems like they’re getting emboldened as of late, and I don’t know what’s changed.”
She picked at a scrap of dry skin on her knuckles. I stared at her, trying to make sense of the conversation.
“And what are they? Where do they come from?”
A gruff shrug
“I don’t know. Animals, spirits, Gods, something else. Hard to say. But I’ve never once seen one outside of Teepike’s perimeters, so either it’s the only place they can live, or they’re drawn to it somehow. Or were made there. All of them at once. Sometimes I think its some weird natural phenomenon, the closest real explanation for a curse.”
Another gulp of beer. A slight wince.
“I’ve got another theory, though. I think the park is alive. Not just the things living in it, but the rock, the earth, the water. It thinks. It makes things. Not possible, okay, I know,” said Becker, as I
opened my mouth. “But I know you believe what I’m saying.”
“I don’t disbelieve you,” I said. “But, like… what’s causing this? Where did it come from?”
For an hour or more Becker went over her theories, gathered from what she’d seen and what other Rangers before her time had documented. There had was been stories, both factual documents and of the mythical, cultural, and religious writings of the various groups that had occupied the land before it became protected and reserved by the state.
The oldest of them seemed to imply the land was actually an ancient entity that birthed smaller deities in its orbit, whether consciously or unconsciously differing from different tales. Others suggested the land had gained a cursed sentience in retaliation to its human incubation, to their noise and poisoning of the natural world.
“But whatever the reason,” said Becker, ag last. “That’s just how it always is. I do my best to look after the land, take care of visitors, honour it.”
“And you honour those fleas too, huh? The smaller monsters? You don’t-“
I made a slicing motion with my right hand. Becker stared, deadpan.
“Ma’am, this isn’t like a mad bear or stag that’s lost its fear of people, needing to be put down. First off, I don’t think bullets or fire would do much good. I’ve heard about folks before me that tried, and ended up as dead or missing as the people they were avenging.”
The older woman leaned towards me, her voice wavering.
“Besides, I wouldn’t want to piss off something as big as Teepike. Not worth the trouble. They don’t kill too many, the Old Kings, after all, and those who do kick it tend to have wandered places they’ve been advised not to. Darwin doing his bit from beyond the grave.”
“So, what,” I said, slowly. “You just… let these things kill people? Just shrug and accept it?”
With a quick back-jerk of her glass Becker drained her beer and sat up, wiping her mouth on her sleeve.
“Just about. You ought to work on accepting it, too. You want to do something concrete, something to wash your hands of that day in the cave?”
She flipped a dog-eared white card onto the table, a phone number scrawled across the back.
“You call me and I’ll see about getting you a job at Teepike. Lot of good you could do out there. Protect the land. Keep dumb tourists safe. Lot of things you could see that might make you think on things a little different. You let me know, alright?”
After a quick nod she sloped off towards the bar door, leaving me brimming with more questions than I’d had before she’d started talking.
A year later and I still have that card pinned to my fridge with an old Simpson magnet- Patty and Selma, oddly reminding me of Becker. I still work at that same bar, still see Dianne drop in every now and then. Still think about Phillip Teigan, and how red his blood had looked against the irredescent white of the beast in the cave.
By writing all of this up I guess I’ve worked through it all, in a psychological sense, and brought myself to a tentative conclusion. The only one, I guess, that doesn’t end in a nuthouse or at the dregs of a bottle.
There are wrongs I’ve put out into the world I cannot put right- the lie I told, the way I ran through that cave like a kid. But if there’s a way to settle the uneven kilter of my mind, my dreams, that’s something. That’s something.
I’m making that call.