15 Years in the Woods

It was more than fifteen years ago and still I feel guilty. Still I sometimes cry myself to sleep. Still I wonder what in heaven I could have done differently.

It was a hiking trip. Laney loved the outdoors and I wanted to help her love it more. Laney was already in the girl scouts and loved that too but our local group wasn’t very active. I felt like it was my fatherly duty to grow my daughter’s passion for nature and exercise.

Just for the long easter weekend. I carried the tent and sleeping bags and Laney proudly carried our cooking utensils in her small dark green backpack. My then wife wanted to do the family tour with our two year old son.

I think that’s why we broke up – because she couldn’t look at me anymore without seeing Laney. She couldn’t look at me without blaming me.

The first two days everything was wonderful. We hiked mostly along a small river and sometimes through stretches of wood. Along the way I taught Laney about edible mushrooms and how to recognize fresh bear tracks and how her mother had always hated hiking.

Let’s be honest, I loved hiking and my wife hated hiking. I don’t know how I managed to get Laney passionate about it, but to me it seems like one of my greatest achievements – that my daughter shared my passion for fresh air and exploring new areas. With her ten years Laney already seemed in many ways more mature than her mother ever was.

We had left on Friday morning. By 16:00 we had already reached further than I had planned and so we found a nice spot overlooking a lake, prepared food and got into our sleeping bags to watch the sunset. That is how I choose to remember Laney, her eyes sparkling with excitement, her body wrapped in the far too big red sleeping bag and the skin of her face glowing in the orange-red of the setting sun.

The next day we were slower. The night had been cooler than I had anticipated and while Laney said she was fine I felt the itch of a developing cold in my throat. She ran around as the day before, picked up mushrooms and told me all the things she knew about them.

Around noon, when we sat down for a tea break, Laney ran into the woods without a warning. I called after her but the words were painful in my throat and not very loud outside.

I got up to follow her. I saw her red jacket running from one tree to the next and further into the woods.

I ran after her. She was faster and disappeared from my sight. I kept running and calling her name.

There was a cracking sound to my right.

“Boo!”

I nearly had a heart attack when she jumped from behind the bushes.

“I found you a walking stick!”

We laughed and I thanked Laney for the stick but I made her promise not to run off alone again. I wasn’t scared of any creature in the woods – the chance of meeting a bear or anything else that could harm her was pretty small – but I didn’t want to lose her somewhere in the wild. She was still a kid and I couldn’t stand the thought of ever losing her.

With my cold worsening we were even slower after the break. By 18:00 we still hadn’t hiked the distance I had planned for us. It was getting colder again. I knew a nice spot near the river where we could camp and catch a fish for breakfast – but when the sun began to approach the horizon I had to admit that there was no chance of reaching the campsite before dark.

The terrain was hilly so we set our tent up in one of the valleys, just between the hiking trail and a small patch of woods that would catch most of the wind for us.

I told Laney that she could climb the hill to look at the sunset. She preferred to help me set up the tent. Then, together, we collected firewood and Laney showed me what the girl scouts had taught her about making a proper campfire.

By around 19:00 our fire was burning, an hour later we were finished with our bean stew and carried small stones and chunks of wood to the site to prepare the fire for the night. With the glowing would it should have been ready to burn for hours.

By 21:00 the forest looked dark and the sky bright with shining stars. We crawled into our tent, closely shut the entry zipper behind us and wriggled ourselves in comfortable positions in our sleeping bags. Laney was lying half-way on me and when she said that she was scared I opened the zipper of my sleeping bag and wrapped my arm around her.

I remember her steady breathing. Calm, soothing, serene, safe. Then I myself must have dozed off.

It was still dark when I woke up. Wind blew in my face. The tent door was open.

Laney’s sleeping bag was empty.

I went outside to check on her. I thought she had just gone out to pee or maybe to watch the star.

The fire was out.

The forest looked pitch black. There was thick gray clouds and even the sky seemed darker than before.

I grabbed the flashlight and walked around to look for her. I called her name over and over. I ran to the top of every nearby hill.

Gone. Just gone.

By 11 I saw another hiker in the distance. I waved and screamed but the man didn’t notice for another five or ten minutes. Then he sped up and I ran towards him.

He left his bag and ran along the trail to try and call the police or marshals. I varied between frantic running through the woods – sometimes I thought I heard a noise or saw a movement and at other times I just ran by pure instinct.

Nothing. Not a single trace.

The police arrived with three dogs. I heard them barking in the distance before I even saw the officers. There were eight or ten and later there were more and random hikers joined in the search too.

The strange thing was that the dogs couldn’t pick up a trace. The officers said that usually they were able to make out even faint scents if someone just walked along the trees or brushed against bushes.

It was when I gave them the “smell samples” that I noticed that all her clothes were still there. All her clothes, without exception. Everything Laney had brought, even the ones she had worn were still inside the backpack.

Two of the dogs pulled towards the forest and one of them towards the river. They pulled their respective teams along. I went with them back inside the forest and we fanned out to make sure we wouldn’t miss her.

With every new “Laney” call I felt more desperate. With every new call I felt she was further gone.

The search missions went on for nearly two weeks. My whole hiking club, a hunting club and many friends and family members came to help the search. All in all there were more than two hundred people looking for Laney.

We put up flyers. The police watched security tapes from nearby towns. Hunters brought us their trail cam recordings.

Nothing. Nothing at all for two months.

Then came the first phone call from the police. A hiking family had called in to report that they had seen Laney standing at the far end of a clearing. They had recognized her from one of our flyers but when the mother stepped closer Laney took off into the woods. She tried to follow Laney but she was just gone.

There was a new search team. New hope. Four days of men and women walking through the forest and shouting “Laney.”

And again all of it for nothing.

A month later a group of hiking boy scouts saw Laney together with another girl hiding behind a few bushes and staring at another hiking family.

This time the police only sent three officers with their dogs. I managed to rally my hiking group but most of my friends had already given up. Even my wife prefered to stay at home and cry rather than to come and help.

Only two weeks later a small family camped near one of the rivers. When the parents woke up both of their children – a boy of six and a girl of nine years – were gone.

Just like with Laney all their clothes and belongings were still in the tent.

Just like with Laney the dogs didn’t pick up any scent.

Just like with Laney the search mission didn’t find even the slightest trace of where they had gone.

There were two “sightings” during the winter. The first was by yet another couple hiking with their children. Around noon they saw four children standing on the hiking trail. The children were naked and stood perfectly still. When one of the adults stepped closer the children ran into the woods.

There was a one-day search mission but the account seemed “unlikely” and the heavy snowfall would have buried any traces quickly.

The second winter sighting was by a drunk bachelor party. They were doing an illegal barbeque in the fores. They left the grill alone for some drinking games and when one of the party members turned towards the grill to grab another bite he saw two naked children sneaking up to the barbeque.

He was drunk. He shooed them away. He only realized his mistake when the kids had already disappeared.

The search mission only had two members – me and the father that had lost not just one but two of his children.

A week later, when I came back to work, I found out that I was fired.

“Too many absence days.”

When I tried to explain the situation my boss insulted me. He said that I was “disgusting” and that I should “stop exploiting your daughters death for extra holidays.”

In spring, when two hitchhikers reported seeing a group of kids in the forest I again packed my backpack and tent.

My wife said that I should “let Laney rest in peace.” She said I should think of our son. She said that she would leave me if I went into that forest again.

I went.

FIfteen years. Fifteen years Laney has been missing and the sightings never stopped. Whenever I hear about another report I rush to the forest and, afterwards, to find the witness. Most of them said that one of the girls that they saw looked like Laney.

They all say she looks identical to the photo. They say that she hasn’t aged at all.

The only change seems to be that the group has increased in number. A few months ago two grandparents that were collecting mushrooms with their grandchildren saw the kids. They didn’t pay attention for a moment and when they turned around they saw two pale and naked girls speaking to one of their granddaughter and a whole group of other kids standing in the distance. They said that their granddaughter walked a few steps with the two girls before the grandmother managed to grab her hand.

They said that they saw at least twelve or thirteen kids. And they said that one of the two girls had two large scars on her chest and that the other looked like my daughter.

My ex wife has long moved away. She couldn’t stand being so close to the forest anymore – or maybe not to be so close to me.

I’m now self employed. The money is bad but at least I can manage my own time. I can hike through the forest two or three times a week hoping that finally I too will see the group of kids. That finally I too will see my daughter again.

I see my son about three or four times a year. The last time was a month ago – just a few days after his eighteenth birthday. Colton doesn’t remember his sister, but he understands me. He understands why I need to keep looking for her.

Colton told me that he sometimes dreams of a girl that looks like Laney. The girl tells him that he should come to visit her. The girl says that she misses him.

When I handed Colton his birthday present he didn’t even say thanks. He just said that he wanted to come too. He wanted to visit the forest where his sister disappeared. His only condition was that we don’t tell it to his mother.

Over the years many times when I told people that I still look for Laney they told me that I should see a therapist. They think I’m insane or obsessed. I never saw a therapist and I never stopped searching Laney. Instead I stopped telling people that I am still going to the forest. I don’t even tell my son about it, he worries too much.

Last weekend I stayed in the forest overnight. It was warm so I just slept beside the fire without the tent. I still make the fire the same ring of stones that I built together with Laney.

That night in the forest I felt something. It might have been just the wind, but I felt far too cold during the night. I registered something bright above me but when I opened my eyes it was gone.

When I came back into town on Monday morning I had a voicemail from Colton. He had dreamt about Laney.

She told Colton that she is excited that he will come. She said that on the weekend she tried to keep me with her but that I am too old. She hopes that Colton can stay.

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