Locals warned hikers about the haunted hills of Rockingham, Virginia where several miles of the Appalachian Trail twist and turn up steep, mountainous terrain. Stories fell on ears of any passersby about the little girl who’d sing to her pet in the woods. The tales reached a group of curious youngsters who went missing; authorities closed the trail off for months. None of them have been found.
Margarita and her fiancé Zack were amateur ghost hunters, always looking for their next gruesome discovery. They wanted to hike into Rockingham, but were forced to wait due to the closure. An advantage in waiting was that Margarita was able to interview locals and create a map of the area, showcasing where the teenagers disappeared. It would be their guide.
The dirt trail was knotted with rocks and exposed tree roots. A lazy orange sun would be tucking itself in soon. The wind blew a chill that caused the couple to walk closer together. The woods were isolated; every noise interrupted the silence and carried from one place to another. Shadows darted between trees and beneath rocks.
“It’s pretty amazing up here,” Margarita said as they reached the top of a hill. The pine trees became thicker on the other side and the trail was full of steep switchbacks to ascend. She gripped her map, a lifeline to get back home.
A suggestion of a child’s voice lingered in the air. “Did you hear that? It sounded like someone said something?” Zack pulled out his device for picking up poltergeist activity. A meter flicked its tongue, indicating something was near.
They began the walk down when a smell, foreign and rotting, assaulted their senses. “What is that smell? It’s like something died.” Margarita gagged. Zack waved his hand in front of his face and choked. A group of blackbirds cackled from the treetops, taking flight and ambushing the sky.
“Over there. Tall rocks, just like your map says,” Zack pointed downward.
The couple steadied their weary legs as the sun sank behind the trees inking the ground with darkness. A rustle in the bushes startled them. “What was that?” Zack uttered, just barely audible. He turned on his headlamp, though it was at that miserable hour when artificial light did little to illuminate the world.
A sweet country voice sang, “Just wait, Steve.”
“I heard it that time. It’s getting late. Let’s go back up the hill,” Margarita’s voice no longer concealed her fear.
Zack’s foot slipped, causing his body to wiggle and dance. “Careful, it’s wet here. Wait, do you smell that?”
“Yeah, it’s death. We need to leave; we need to leave now!”
“No, it smells like burning rubber.”
The couple searched for the smell; their thoughts were interrupted by a distinct purring noise and what sounded like a child hushing someone or something.
“What the hell is that?” Zack gestured to a shadow several feet away under a mess of vines. Something was crouching low, but it was hard to decide on its size.
“Get your bear spray. I don’t know what that is,” Margarita turned to run but her shoes skidded. She screamed out in pain. “Something is burning my foot!”
Zack looked down and noticed the soles of his sneakers were disintegrating.
Margarita yelped as a biting sensation seeped into her feet, “Zack!”
“Take off your shoes!” Zack struggled out of his shoes and launched himself several feet up the hill. He fell hard and clutched the ground with clawed hands. His nails broke as they dug into the packed dirt. He turned back when he heard Margarita howl, and saw tears streaking her face.
“Jump! Now!” Zack implored.
She fumbled with her laces as the liquid began to crawl up her feet, burning her extremities. To her horror she watched her skin turn pink, blister, then peel back to reveal muscle and tendons. She screamed again with a shaky voice, “Zack! It won’t stop!”
The liquid inched further up her legs and caused her to fall to her knees. She begged Zack to come back for her and held out her skeletal hand. A low hissing sound floated through their souls, followed by a riddle in a twangy child’s voice. “You can’t leave. You stay for Steve. His tongue quivers. It’ll give you shivers.” A silhouette of a young girl revealed itself behind Margarita.
Zack froze, watching Margarita crumble; her wailing pierced his ears. In a final attempt to free herself, she lifted her head to call out. The liquid ran up Margarita’s neck and plunged into her gaping mouth. Gurgles replaced her voice; the putrid fluid ingested her.
The little girl stood quietly; the purring returned. A shadow hid behind her. Zack felt something wet hit his calf, burning instantly. He began to run up the hill with one leg dragging behind him.
Standing with legs slightly apart, the child cocked her head and pointed at Zack, “Go ahead, Steve.”
Staggering forward, Zack grabbed at roots and saplings, his hands guide him along the dark trail, behind him he could hear the thumping of something hitting the dirt, drawing closer. He hid behind a thicket and reached for his leg. Fingers grazed an open wound so deep he touched bone. He pulled his fingers back as they burned. A light caught his eye; he shifted to the left revealing flashlights up ahead. Desperate, he flashed his headlamp in that direction and called out for help. He saw the lights flash back.
He slumped to the ground while his eyes dropped tears of hope for a rescue. Leaves gently tumbled down over his head. A deep-throated purr stirred above. Slowly, he tilted his head towards the night sky. He started a scream that he never got the chance to finish.
The flashlights in the distance dropped. A little girl’s voice was heard, “What’s the matter, mister. Don’t look so glum. Steve will be here soon for some fun.”