Twenty-two-year-old Eileen goes missing while hiking in the remote Ashlough Forest. Five days later, her camera is discovered washed downriver, containing bizarre photos taken after her disappearance.
Chris wants to believe his sister is still alive. When the police search is abandoned, he and four of his friends create their own search party to scour the mountain range. As they stray further from the hiking trails and the unsettling discoveries mount, they begin to believe they're not alone in the forest... and that Eileen's disappearance wasn't an accident.
By that point, it's too late to escape.
Release date: August 20, 2018
Publisher: Black Owl Books
Print pages: 409
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Sunday, 6:40 p.m.
Ashlough Forest, Cobb Mountain Range
Eileen couldn’t hear the bird chatter anymore. She heard only her own ragged breathing, rough like a saw through wood, and her galloping heart.
She stumbled again, catching her foot on a raised root. Her muscles were too drained to keep her upright. She hit the ground hard, branches poking at her side and a rock digging into her collarbone. Eileen grunted, pushed away from the rock, and clutched at the nearest trunk as she waited for the dizziness to fade.
The cool moss felt good under her cheek. A medley of scents—organic decay, fungus, and the strange musk that came from insects—filled her nose. She used it to ground herself as she focussed on the rough bark beneath her fingers, the moss against her skin, and the creaking noise of flexing branches in the canopy above.
A twig snapped. It was no more than twenty feet away. Eileen flinched and pressed her lips together to quieten her rasping breaths. She didn’t know what had broken the twig. But whatever it was, it had been following her for more than an hour.
She tried to look for it, but the vegetation was too thick. Massive trunks, some hundreds of years old, clustered together, linked by trailing vines and weedy, light starved shrubs. The sun was close to setting. It desaturated her environment, dousing every colour in the same shade of grey.
Leaves crunched as the other being took a step closer. Eileen bit down on a moan. She didn’t want to run any longer. She didn’t want to be in the forest as the light faded. More than anything, she wished she hadn’t decided to go hiking that day. She should have been enjoying her last night in the hotel room, packing her belongings and looking forward to seeing her parents the following afternoon.
Now, she would have given anything to find the path out. She’d been lost in Ashlough Forest for more than five hours. Her water bottle was empty. Her lungs ached. Everything was starting to look the same. She felt like she’d passed the same formations a thousand times, but that was impossible. She didn’t know if she was walking towards civilisation or away from it. The second possibility filled her with icy terror. Ashlough Forest stretched for hundreds of kilometres, a blanket of impenetrable green and twisting rivers. If she’d strayed too far from the path, she could spend years wandering through the forest and never find her way out.
A bird fluttered away in a frenzy as its nest was disturbed. Eileen looked in its direction, searching for motion, but it was impossible to see through the gloom. She licked dry, cracked lips. “Leave me alone!”
Even to her, the cry sounded pathetic. She stayed huddled at the roots of the tree, pressed against the bark as though it might offer her some protection. Every minute robbed her of more light. She tried not to imagine what would happen when the final traces of sun faded from the sky. She’d only planned for a half-day hike and hadn’t brought anything to light her surroundings. She would be trapped in the darkness, surrounded by spiky branches and sharp rocks she couldn’t see… and alone with it.
Something shifted between two trees. Eileen tried to fix on it, but it was gone before she could catch more than a glimpse. It wasn’t small, though. Not a wolf or a wildcat.
There was so little time left. She forced herself to her feet, gasping as sore, bruised muscles took her weight, then staggered forward. In the twisting chaos of the forest, it was easy to imagine paths where there were none. The narrow, clear patches led on for a few feet, sometimes as many as twenty or thirty, then vanished. She knew trying to follow those phantom paths was insane. She still couldn’t stop herself.
Dead branches scraped at her exposed forearms and face. She squinted to protect her eyes and stumbled onwards. She couldn’t hear the other entity following her, but she knew it would be there, waiting for her to stop again. She couldn’t stop, though. No matter how dark it grew, she would have to keep moving, keep searching for a way out. If she gave up, she was as good as dead.
Some small animal skittered past her, disturbing dead leaves as it ran. She stumbled away from it as her heart lurched. Behind her, a slow, scraping noise echoed between the trees. It sounded like metal on wood. Eileen’s eyes stung, and she blinked them furiously as she began moving forward again.
The scraping noise continued. The volume rose and fell in waves, sometimes so soft that she thought it might have ceased, but then swelling into a horrific scratching and grating cacophony. She didn’t think it was a coincidence that the sound had started just as the last scraps of light faded from the sky. She didn’t want to cry, but something wet streaked down her cheek.
“Please, please, please.” She whispered the mantra with every breath. All she needed was a sliver of hope. A light in the distance, the sound of a car travelling down a gravel road, anything. She would go home. She would tell her parents how much she loved them. She would never take such a risk ever again.
The transition was so gradual that it was hard to say how close night was, up until the moment it swallowed her. She was blind. Arms outstretched, fingers bumping into bark and leaves, she shuffled her feet, trying not to fall. The scraping still followed her. Sometimes directly behind, sometimes to her left, sometimes to her right, but every time it swelled, it seemed a little louder than before.
“Please, please, please.” Every muscle shook. Every fibre of her body ached with fear and stress. She began moving faster, not minding as obstacles scraped her hands raw. Her eyes were wide, desperately roving across the tableau of darkness surrounding her. They couldn’t see anything, but that didn’t stop her from trying.
Her foot hit something hard. A rock, she thought. She’d gained too much momentum and lurched over it, arms outstretched to break her fall. There was no ground on the other side. Just a sharp, steep fall.
A yelp tore free as she tumbled down the incline. Rocks bit into her. She felt tossed like a rag doll, no longer sure of which direction was up or if the motion would ever end. Hands scrambled uselessly for a purchase. She couldn’t breathe, couldn’t think, couldn’t do anything but silently beg for it to stop.
It did. She came to a halt on a rough, rocky surface. Her head swam. Pain radiated from everywhere on her bruised body, but it was worst in her leg. She reached towards the blinding ache and touched something warm and wet.
A sob shook her, followed by another. A noise came from her right. It wasn’t the scraping sound, though; it was organic. Running water. She’d fallen down the side of a river. It hadn’t been a short fall, though; not the kind she could climb out of. A cliff, maybe.
Eileen clenched her teeth to silence the tears as she felt around herself. She still had her backpack. But it wasn’t much help. All it contained were her bathing costume and towel, an empty water bottle, a sketchbook, her mobile, and her camera.
She pulled the backpack off over aching arms. Every time she moved, the fire in her leg raged hotter. She felt across the fabric until she found the pain tablets she’d stashed in a pocket in case of a migraine. She popped out four and dry swallowed them.
The backpack had been jostled enough that the mobile had fallen to the very bottom. Eileen had to feel through her clothes and towel to find it. She pulled it out and pressed the power button. The phone turned on, and her eyes immediately went to the connection signal in the corner. The phone had lost its connection halfway along the drive to the mountain. Every hour, Eileen took it back out and tried it again.
It was empty, just like it had been the last eight times she’d tried it. She couldn’t help herself, though. She tried dialling her parents’ number. It didn’t go through. She tried calling the emergency helpline, with the same result. She scrunched up her face and pressed her palm into her forehead.
She turned the phone around to point its light at her surroundings. Red liquid glistened on her leg. She knew she should do something about it—she just didn’t know what. And even if she had the training, she doubted she could do much without any sanitised cloths or boiled water.
The light picked up a rocky, weedy shore. Ahead, as she’d suspected, a narrow river wove between the trees. She looked up and behind herself. A steep slope rose at least ten meters above her head.
The phone turned off, and darkness rushed back around her. Eileen swore and pressed the power button, but the phone didn’t respond. She’d known the battery was low, but she hadn’t expected it to drain that fast. She tapped the phone against her forehead as fresh tears escaped.
A scraping sound came from somewhere to her left. Eileen lifted her head. Her heart rate kicked up a notch. The sound fell silent then repeated. She could feel herself breathing too quickly, slipping into hyperventilation. She threw the phone into the backpack and dug through its contents to find the camera.
It had been a gift from her grandfather for her eighteenth birthday, shortly before he’d passed away. It was heavy and bulky, and she still didn’t understand what all the settings did, but it had a powerful bulb. She found its strap first then used it to drag the camera out from under the towel. It had multiple dials, and she strained to remember which one activated the flash.
The scraping was drawing closer. Underneath the noise, she thought she could hear the crackle of dry leaves and twigs being crushed. She found what she thought was the right switch, turned it, and pressed the button to take a photograph.
It didn’t work. The camera clicked, but there was no light. Eileen swore and tried turning the switch in the opposite direction. Another click, still no light. Despite the chilled air, she was sweating. She tried a different switch. This time, when she pressed the button, harsh, polarising light exploded across the scene.
“Yes. Yes!” She lifted the camera and pressed the button again. For half of a second, her surroundings were brought into sharp relief. She could see the trees, the rocks, and the cliff she’d fallen down. Another flash. She caught glints of light in the canopy as night animals watched her. A third flash. This time, she saw something standing between the trees.
Eileen’s breath froze in her lungs. She tried to scramble back, but the pain in her leg exploded, making her gasp. Instead of moving, she lifted the camera again and took another picture.
Something watched her. It was tall and covered in thick black fur, its head tilted to regard her. Eileen’s mind froze, refusing to accept what her eyes were showing her. The face looked like it might have once been human, but it wasn’t anymore. It was like something out of her worst nightmares.
The scraping repeated. It was moving closer. Eileen pressed the camera’s button again, and as light flooded the scene, she screamed.
Todd refreshed his browser. Eileen Hershberger’s Facebook page flashed white for a second then reappeared exactly how it had been before. Her latest status read: Going on a hike!! Ashlough Forest, one of the most beautiful places on earth! Look out for some photos when I get back to the hotel, lovelies!
It was eleven at night, and there was only an hour’s time difference between his state and where Eileen was holidaying. She’d probably forgotten to post the photos and gone to bed. Irritated, he clicked on another tab to see if anyone had replied to his forum comment. No one had.
He didn’t even want to see the photos. Sometimes, if she went swimming, Eileen posted pictures of herself in a bikini. Lots of guys replied to those photos, but Todd didn’t. He wasn’t there to gawk at her like some mouth-breathing weirdo. He was just worried, like any good friend would be. It was Eileen’s last day on holiday, and he wanted to make sure she’d gotten back to the hotel safely.
Spending most of his life on the internet, he found it hard to avoid missing-person stories when they popped up. Sometimes, girls went missing on holiday. Eileen was pretty, she was young, and she was travelling alone. Todd honestly didn’t understand why her parents had agreed to the plan. He’d tried to tell her to be safe on the last day he’d seen her, the day before she’d gotten on the plane, but she hadn’t heard him. She’d been sitting at the other end of the picnic bench, between Chris and Hailey, and no matter how much Todd had stared at her, she hadn’t looked back at him.
He exhaled through his nose and returned to the Facebook page. It was a Sunday night, which meant no one worth talking to was online. He was bored and frustrated, and a gnawing anxiety had started in the pit of his stomach. He clicked Refresh. The page vanished then reappeared. Eileen smiled at him out of the last photo she’d posted, a selfie of herself at breakfast that morning. She’d eaten pancakes. Todd didn’t think that was a smart choice. Sometimes, she felt unwell if she ate too much gluten.
Todd scrolled down through her other photos. He’d seen them probably close to a hundred times and knew them all well. Photos of Eileen at her hotel. Eileen on a ferry, holding a floppy hat onto her head. Eileen pointing up at a bridge. She smiled in every picture. That was his favourite part of her—she never seemed to stop smiling, and she never tried to moderate it. Smiling made Todd feel uncomfortable. But not Eileen. She showed off her teeth and her gums and let her eyes scrunch up with delight in every picture.
He found his least favourite photo of her. She was at a club, holding either a mocktail or a cocktail—he hoped it wasn’t real alcohol—and leaning her shoulder against a strange guy’s chest. The status had been cryptic. “Enjoying my night out, making new friends!”
The guy was tall with broad shoulders and an ingenuine smile. He looked like an ass. Todd didn’t know why Eileen had decided to hang out with him. If she was smart—and he knew she was—she would have ditched him quickly. Still, he didn’t like how close they were standing together. It made the situation look more intimate than it really was.
He slouched farther back in his chair and chewed on his thumbnail as he kept scrolling. It took a few minutes to get to the photos of her at the airport on the day she’d left. She’d only been gone for two weeks, but she uploaded multiple photos and statuses each day. He didn’t want to be paranoid, but it seemed weird for her not to post anything on her last evening.
His phone sat on the edge of his desk. He flicked it on, but the chat window was still empty. Todd always replied to his messages promptly. He didn’t understand why other people got so lazy about it. “Oh, I’m having issues with my phone.” He’d heard that excuse so often, he was sick of it.
He scrolled through his contacts until he found Chris Hershberger then tapped on the icon to write a message. Chris was Eileen’s older brother and Todd’s best friend. He must have noticed the lack of status updates, too—and unlike Todd, he knew Eileen’s phone number.
Todd stared at the empty message box for a moment, his thumbs poised over the keys. He didn’t want to come off as weird. On the other hand, he didn’t want to beat around the bush, either. He drafted a message.
Hey man! Sorry to bother you, but I noticed Eileen hasn’t uploaded any pics recently. She doing okay? Not sick, I hope?
He reread it, cringed, and deleted it. Chris could get weirdly protective of Eileen and had actually snapped at Todd one time when he’d tried to visit her at her work. Asking about her outright would get him some backlash. Instead, he tried a different tack.
Yo yo, Chris Columbus! What’s up, my man? Anything exciting going down this evening?
He bit his lip. He couldn’t tell if it was too much. He was trying to be funny, but funny didn’t always come across in text messages. He deleted it again then stood and started pacing. After a moment, he hit on a solution, sat back down, and started typing.
Chris! Do you have any plans tonight?
He sent the message. It was good, casual and friendly, but asking a pointed question that demanded an answer. He set his phone on the desk, balanced on its end, and leaned back in the chair as he waited for a reply. Seconds ticked by. He began to feel itchy and reached around the phone to refresh Eileen’s Facebook page again. No update.
“C’mon, Chris, don’t do this to me.” He picked up the phone, turning it in his hands, and jumped as it pinged. A new message waited for him: Not much, hbu?
They were having a conversation. That was good. Todd typed frantically.
Oh, lazy night indoors. I was chatting with some other friends on Facebook and decided to see if Eileen had uploaded any more photos, but…
He bit the inside of his mouth. He was coming on too strong again. Rushing, knowing Chris was probably waiting for a reply, he deleted the message and tried to take a circuitous route.
I was just wondering if we could hang out some time. Maybe tomorrow?
He sent that message, waited a second, then typed a follow-up.
Oh wait, you’re picking Eileen up from the airport, aren’t you? Never mind. We can hang some other day.
Seconds passed without a response. Todd’s palms were itching. He hoped Chris hadn’t thought it was the end of the conversation. He added another message: How’s she going, anyway? Having fun, I hope?
Chris couldn’t get antsy about that. It was perfectly normal to ask about your friends. He set the phone back down and pulled his legs up under his chin. The seconds on his clock ticked by. Todd tapped his fingers on his knees as a frustrated impatience built flames in his stomach. He’d asked a simple question. Was it really too much to ask that his best friend reply to him?
The phone pinged, and Todd lunged for it. The message was short, but another followed almost instantly.
We haven’t heard from her tonight.
But I’m sure she’s fine.
“Oh, you’re sure, are you? That’s just great.” Anger let typos slip into the reply, and Todd didn’t try to correct them. Eileen wasn’t some ditzy blonde who forgot to phone her parents. If she hadn’t contacted them, chances were she was in serious trouble.
Have you tried caling her?
She said on faceboo k she was going to upload photos tonight but hasn’t.
That’s not like her.
When was the last time you heard from hr?
The phone stayed silent. Todd glared at the screen, willing Chris to reply, but minutes ticked by with no response. He scrolled back up to read the messages and groaned. They were too much. He should have kept his cool. Now he’d chased Chris away and would probably need to apologise to make things right.
Todd threw the phone aside then leaned back over his computer. He refreshed Facebook a final time. There was no change.
Eileen’s parents were nice people, but they were stupid. Knowing them, Todd thought they would sit on their asses and wait for Eileen to call them, when maybe she wouldn’t… ever. At least Chris was a bit more intelligent, but he wasn’t active enough. He liked to let other people lead. Todd didn’t have that luxury. He’d read stories about what happened to girls who were kidnapped. They couldn’t afford to wait a few days when every minute was precious. Waiting meant nothing except maybe a body in a shallow grave.
He opened a search engine. A few keystrokes brought up the police station for the last town Eileen had stopped at. Normally, he avoided talking to people over the phone. But for Eileen, he would. He dialled the station’s number with shaking fingers and lifted the phone to his ear.
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