Bill Jeffries is a data scientist in Northern Virginia and a member of the Virginia Writers Club. A data storyteller by trade, he also writes suspense and humor short fiction. He discovers most of his stories while traveling with his wife and three kids
Lori had lost contact with humans two days ago when she set off from Phantom Ranch. She had also not seen any wildlife in the past twelve hours or so. No snakes, no lizards. She didn't even see any of the famous condors gliding high overhead. It was as if this remote corner of the Grand Canyon had swallowed up all life.
She had just rounded a bend when she saw her target. It was an ancient Native American cliff dwelling built four hundred feet up into the canyon wall. It was either deserted or it held clues to an unsolved mystery.
Lori's mission was to ascend to the ruin and find out. As she stared up at it, she realized that the blogger had been right. It felt as though the dwelling, or whatever lay inside, was watching her. It was like coming across an old abandoned house deep in the woods. This place felt haunted. Despite the heat, the hair on her arms were standing up straight.
Blood started to pump like drum beats through her head. The air was humid and completely still. The silence of the Grand Canyon seemed to be making its own noise. She reached up and adjusted her bandanna. After a pause, she bent down and retied her hiking boots. Finally, she turned in all directions and took in the landscape, trying to shake the feeling of being watched. But there was nothing. Just her, the heat, and the dwelling.
There were only about thirty minutes of daylight left. Which meant she had a decision to make. She could call it a day and camp right here for the night. Or she could quickly scramble up and spend the night inside the dwelling.
Both choices were unsettling. If she stayed at the bottom, she doubted she'd get much sleep, wondering what lay inside up above. Might be better to disarm any irrational fear by getting up there and facing it head-on. But if she started her climb now, she might run out of good light and be stranded and exposed at the edge of the cliff, only getting by with her small flashlight. And even if she did reach the dwelling in time, what she might find could be more frightening than any creation of her imagination.
She started climbing up.
. . .
Nine months ago Lori came across a legend about the Grand Canyon. The story was about a young couple, Frank and Emily Henderson who, in the late 1960's, decided to drop out of society and live inside the Canyon. They told friends and family their plan to find a hidden section away from rangers and tourists that they could claim as their own. They would live out a life of freedom and beauty. Life on their own terms.
However, outside of a single letter that Emily sent to her parents soon after reaching the Grand Canyon, the Hendersons completely vanished. No one ever heard from them or saw them again. In Emily's letter, she described how she and Frank had searched for two weeks before finding a suitable place to call home. They had found a small cliff dwelling built high into the rock wall, well away from the main trails.
After months without further contact, and when Frank and Emily failed to return home for planned visits, both families became worried. Emily's parents traveled to the Canyon and tried to press for a search. The rangers and naturalists told them that there were no known cliff dwellings anywhere near where Emily's letter was mailed. And Frank and Emily had not registered with any of the ranger stations. The best that the Park could manage was a check of some dwellings in the Northeast corner of the Canyon, as well as a helicopter inspection along the Colorado River. Neither yielded any clues, though, and so Frank and Emily were declared missing.
From there, the couple's story became legend and myth. All sorts of theories were developed to explain their disappearance. One was that they were still living somewhere in the Canyon. Another was that Emily killed an abusive Frank and changed her identity. The latter seemed more popular, and every once in a while an older woman on a tour would claim to be Emily.
For some reason, Lori became obsessed with their story. Maybe because she loved mysteries and would watch any TV show that explored unsolved crimes and disappearances. She was also looking for something to jump start her flagging journalist career. She needed a breakthrough story to put her on the map and be noticed by the bigger publications like the New Yorker or the Atlantic.
As a journalism student in college, she imagined herself doing serious investigative reporting, breaking big and important stories. Her parents were more skeptical, and continually questioned her choice of major. Which only made Lori more determined to become a serious and respected journalist. Frustratingly to her, it seemed that her parents had been right. Most of her work had been covering routine city hall meetings and civic ceremonies and parades. She was looking for something that could get her out from under the blanket of her parents' criticism. She thought this Grand Canyon mystery might be her last real shot.
And so she learned everything she could about the Henderson mystery, little that there was. After analyzing the scant evidence, she became convinced that their dwelling probably held whatever clues remained. Finding it became her mission. She used mapping websites to pour over satellite images of the Grand Canyon, but there was no way to see a dwelling at that resolution. Then she started searching blogs of people adventuring through the Canyon. She was looking for any mentions of cliff dwellings.
Her big break came when she stumbled upon a blog by a man who was exploring remote parts of the Canyon, looking for the famed wild horses. In one entry, he talked about following a creek into a well hidden corner, just below the North Rim. He described the area as being "darker and quieter" than any other part he'd come across. In great detail, he wrote of feeling watched, and about a general sense of dread hanging in the air. High above, he noticed a Native American dwelling built into the face of the cliff. He snapped a picture of it before retreating.
Lori got chills as she read this. Not just from the haunting descriptions, but because her gut told her that this was the Henderson dwelling. She just hoped that no one else had made the connection. The author made no mention of it. Lori reached out to him on email and asked if he remembered the location. Hoping not to tip him off, she explained that she studied Native American culture and was always looking for new sites to document. He provided enough information on where the dwelling was and how to get there.
She felt excitement and anxiety all at once. She was sure she was now the only person with a lead on the Henderson mystery. She even closed her laptop and looked around the coffee shop she was in, as if someone around her could discover her plan and try to beat her. Anxiety came from the fact that she was going to have to descend into that lonely and haunted place all by herself.
. . .
The going was tough. It was not as though there was a well-traveled mule trail slowly winding up to the dwelling. There was no trail at all. Lori had to scramble up steep and uneven terrain. Essentially climbing from ledge to ledge all the way up. With about one hundred feet to go, the last of sunlight faded to dark. She sat down on a ledge to look for her flashlight. The darkness began to magnify the feeling of dread and coldness she had felt since spotting the dwelling.
It sat in the darkness just above her. Quiet but with a presence. She half expected it to whisper or say something to her. The thought made her shudder. A sliver of panic started to creep in and replace the anxiety. She continued digging for her flashlight as fast as she could, hands starting to tremble.
A sound come from the direction of the dwelling. Like something scraping across the ground. Lori froze in the growing blackness and listened. Very slowly, she continued to look for her flashlight. After she found it, she kept perfectly still, not turning it on yet. Still listening. After a few minutes, she noticed that she wasn't breathing. A quick and explosive breath escaped her so fast that it startled her. Pushing past the fear, she switched on her flashlight and pointed it in the direction of the dwelling, holding her breath again.
Her light only reached the bottom of the front wall. She couldn't quite see the entrance, which she knew to be a narrow rectangle two feet from the ground. And what had looked like sheer face rising up from a ledge to the entrance now appeared to be just a sharp-angled ramp. Lori now wished she had camped at the bottom. The creepy feeling of this place had grown much, much stronger in the dark. She didn't hear any more sounds.
After another minute or so, she continued her ascent. She alternated between keeping the flashlight down so she could navigate the ledges and pointing it up so she could see the dwelling. Whatever she thought she heard had unnerved her. The door was now fully in view. She was terrified that when she illuminated it, there would be someone standing there.
Another sound. This time, it seemed to come from behind her. She spun around and shone the light on the ledges she had just climbed. A shaky hand swept the light back and forth across the rocks. But everything was bare and quiet.
This time, instead of her breath stopping, it gathered speed until she was panting. She turned back towards the dwelling. The door reminded her of the open closet that had frightened her when she was a little girl. She used the same self-talk she had used back then, trying to convince herself that there was nothing inside.
But her gut was telling her to climb back down to the bottom, hike back out of this area to where she felt a little closer to civilization. Camp there for the night and then return and resume her climb in the daylight. This was a bad place. She should not be here alone in the dark. But there was also the real chance that her flashlight would run out of batteries. She had originally planned to do only daytime travel. Losing her only light would put her in an even more precarious position.
She was so close to the dwelling now. Maybe twenty yards. Intrigue started to overtake her fear. She scrambled the short distance to the ramp leading up to the entrance. With the flashlight in her left hand, she crawled up the steep ramp and through the threshold.
Once inside, she stood up and looked around. Starting at her left, she zigzagged her light from floor to ceiling and back again. This revealed a room that went back about thirty feet to cliff wall. It was empty and seemed to be devoid of any evidence of past inhabitants. In the middle of the floor, though, was a round opening. Lori slowly moved over to it. Holding her breath, she pointed her light down into it.
This revealed another room. The floor was about eight feet beneath the opening. Because the hole was not very wide, it was hard to tell how big the room was. She had another decision to make. She could lay on her stomach, lean her head down into the hole, and inspect the room more thoroughly. Or she could sleep on the main floor and conduct an inspection in the morning. Her fear told her not to look anymore in the darkness. But determination and intrigue told her to keep exploring.
She ultimately chose sleep. The adrenaline of the climb was starting to wear off. Exhaustion was taking its place. There didn't appear to be anything obviously foreboding inside, and she didn't want to use up any more of her batteries. She set up her sleeping gear on one side of the room. Before falling asleep, she made some journal entries describing her climb and initial inspection of the dwelling.
. . .
In the middle of the night, Lori woke to a voice screaming, "Emily! Emily!" It was echoing off the canyon walls. She opened her eyes and sat bolt upright. From within the dwelling, there was nothing but blackness. Her heart was pounding as she listened for more. She tried to control her breath so she could hear. She felt around for her flashlight, gripped it in her hand, but did not turn it on. Still listening.
There was nothing more. As she came fully awake, she realized it must have been part of a dream she was having. The details started coming back to her. Frank was in the area, still searching for Emily. He was delirious from heat and stumbling around, screaming her name. After a few minutes of sitting and listening, she laid back down.
But finding it hard to wind down, Lori turned on her flashlight and shone it around the room, hoping to notice more detail than her first examination. As she did so, the hole in the floor started to consume her thoughts. Not feeling that sleep was coming any time soon, she slowly crawled over to it.
She lay prone and hung her head off the edge and down into the opening. She hung her flashlight extended out in front of her to get a first real look at this second room. "Do you see Emily?" a man's voice asked from the entrance behind her. This time it was not a dream. Lori's hand let go of the flashlight and she began screaming.
As she pushed away from the opening, a hand grabbed the back of her neck. Her head was forced back down into the hole and she felt her body following. Before she fell all the way through, she held out both hands and grabbed the opposite side of the opening. This stopped her slide. The grip slipped from her neck, giving her the chance to swing her legs to the side and away from her attacker.
She again tried to push away from the hole when the man hit her with his flashlight just below the eye. She lifted her left arm to protect against another blow. At the same time, she pushed back hard with her right hand and was finally back away from the opening. She was now on the opposite side of the opening from the entrance and from where her attacker was. He was rising from a kneeling position shining his flashlight directly in her eyes. All she could see was his silhouette.
"What are you doing? Who are you?" she screamed, panting hard.
"You just made the biggest -- and last -- mistake of your life coming up here. You're going down there with Emily." He pointed the flashlight into the opening.
"No", she tried to say forcefully, but without much success. She instinctively backed up as far as she could and was now up against the back wall of the dwelling. He returned the light to her face and took a couple of steps around the opening towards her. Then he turned the flashlight off.
Suppressing another scream, Lori crouched down to a kneeling position and protected her head with both arms. Her face felt numb where he had hit her before. She could hear his shoes shuffling her way. She couldn't make anything out in the blackness but sensed that he was a little to her left, while the hole was directly in front of her. She was thinking of how to push him down into it so she could escape. That's when the flashlight turned back on.
He was standing above her holding the flashlight right over her head. Still crouching, all she saw was his shoes and legs. He had brown hiking shoes and olive shorts; just like a park ranger.
As she was processing this, he grabbed the hair on the top of her head and pulled her up to a standing position. Then he put his hand at the base of her throat and held her against the wall. Through clenched teeth, he said, "Who do you think you are, coming here? Don't you know that we came to be left alone?"
"What?", she stammered. "Wait -- what -- are you Frank?"
"Good thing I trusted my instinct and followed you. I was Frank. Long time ago. Then I disappeared, became different people for awhile. But for the last twelve years, I've been George Rider, back-country ranger."
"What happened to Emily?"
"We had a misunderstanding." Lori shuddered. She needed to stall.
"Why are you back?"
"To live out my days in the Canyon, just like Emily and I planned to do together. Until she decided that we'd made a mistake and then tried to ruin my dream. Kind of like you're trying to do now. But she failed and so will you. Why did I come back? Look at me. I get to patrol remote areas and sleep where I want. And so I check in with the ranger stations and Phantom Ranch, to find out if any hikers are in this area. This way, I can live below the rim and also keep an eye on Emily."
Before Lori could respond, he grabbed the front of her shirt and yanked her violently downward towards the hole. She screamed and held onto his hand with both arms to stop her momentum. But he was too strong. He dragged her right to the edge and then stopped. He got a better grip on her shirt and then used all of his power to throw her. Instead of resisting, she used his momentum to jump so that her legs cleared the opening and landed on the other side.
This caused her to twist in midair, with his hand still clenched to her shirt. But her force caused him to release his grip to prevent himself from falling into the hole. Lori was able to gain some balance and keep herself from falling. She was now on all fours at the opposite edge of the hole, with the entrance behind her. She heard him grunt, but didn't hear him fall.
His flashlight had dropped from his hand and rolled a little bit away from him, shining onto one of the walls. Lori quickly crawled over to it and grabbed it. She stood up and started to run for the entrance when his hand clutched her ankle, causing her to fall. Laying on her side, she pointed the flashlight down to her feet. His legs were dangling into the opening while his torso was flat on the floor. One arm kept him from falling and the other held her foot in a death grip.
"No!", she screamed. She reached down and started pounding his wrist with the flashlight. On the fourth hit, he let go to re-balance himself. As he did this, Lori kicked him as hard as she could in the forehead. He slipped backwards and fell into the hole with Emily.
Lori didn't wait to check on his fate. She used his flashlight to flee the dwelling and climb down the cliff as fast as she could. At the bottom, she saw a backpack. Before inspecting it, she pointed the flashlight back up at the dwelling. There was no sign of Frank/George. Inside the backpack, she found a thermos of water and a walkie talkie. She grabbed both and, lighting the way with his flashlight, sprinted all the way to Phantom Ranch.
. . .
Lori picked up the stack of Rolling Stone magazines that sat on her kitchen counter, took the first one off the top, and placed it on the table. After a detour to the coffee machine, she sat down to read her first published national story. On the cover was the title "Canyon Psycho", along with a picture of Frank's mugshot.
She flipped to the article inside, where her byline was printed prominently under the title and a wedding picture of Frank and Emily. Her article started with the background of the mystery. After news broke of Frank's arrest, Emily's sister had contacted Lori and sent her a copy of the letter Emily had written to her parents from the Canyon. A brief correspondence took place, and Emily's sister was able to give more details about the relationship, including her own original suspicions about Frank.
Lori mostly skimmed the sections of the article about her discovery of the dwelling and her confrontation with Frank. She had written about the account with as much honesty and raw emotion as she could muster. But there was still a lot of trauma that remained, and she was not ready to relive it as she tried to bask in the glory of her breakthrough article.
Finally, she read the excerpts about the conclusion to the entire ordeal. Having made it back to Phantom Ranch safely, she had raised the staff, who immediately brought down security from the rim and also gave her shelter and comfort for the night. The following morning, Lori had led Grand Canyon police back to the dwelling, where several armed officers made the climb up. They found an injured Frank still laying in the room below with a broken leg. A search and rescue team was called in to lift him up and carry him out of the Canyon.
Also discovered in the room were skeletal remains. Forensics would soon conclude that they were of a female estimated to be about twenty-five years of age. She had been dead for decades. Further tests would prove that she was indeed Emily Henderson, and had died due to blunt force trauma to the back of her head. The rest remained a mystery. Frank had refused to speak since being lifted out of the Canyon. He was charged with both his attack on Lori and the murder of Emily.
Overall, Lori was pleased with the article. Whatever editing had been done did not alter her voice or the trajectory of the story. She took two more copies off the stack and put them into a large envelope. On the front she wrote out the address of her parents. For the return address, she simply wrote Lori, Writer - Rolling Stone Magazine.