📅 Published on October 2, 2023


Written by Micah Edwards
Edited by Craig Groshek and N.M. Brown
Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek
Narrated by N/A

Copyright Statement: Unless explicitly stated, all stories published on are the property of (and under copyright to) their respective authors, and may not be narrated or performed, adapted to film, television or audio mediums, republished in a print or electronic book, reposted on any other website, blog, or online platform, or otherwise monetized without the express written consent of its author(s).

🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None Available


Rating: 9.00/10. From 5 votes.
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Nearly half a million children are reported missing each year in the United States. Averaged out across all of the cities, towns and the like, that comes out to about four missing kids per populated area per year. Fortunately, all but a tiny handful—about twelve thousand, or one for every nine towns—turn up unharmed. And only a hundredth of a percent, or about one kid every 2,160 towns, is found murdered.

Averages are great for breaking big statistics down into numbers that are easier to understand, but obviously nothing really works that way. More kids go missing in Texas than in the other states, for example, while almost none go missing in South Dakota. More children are found safely in New York than almost anywhere else.

And in the small town of Dorton Bluffs, not one missing child has ever been found alive.

They lose their four per year pretty regularly. There’s almost never been a year where at least two didn’t disappear. 2015 was particularly bad, and ten kids went missing.

The police records for the town only go back to 1996, when a fire burned down the station one night, but the memories of the families there go back a lot longer. Children who vanish in Dorton Bluffs are rarely seen again. Those who are discovered—for the most part, the families wish they hadn’t been.

Statistical improbabilities happen, of course. However, to the eyes of Felix Freeman, an investigator in the FBI’s Child Abduction and Serial Killer unit, these disappearances had all of the hallmarks of an uncaught killer. The victims were all teenagers or younger, with most being between twelve and sixteen.  The town was in a remote geographic area with plenty of unoccupied land. And most interestingly, they seemed to happen around the same two times each year, right at the beginning of both spring and fall. Even in the years where more children went missing, they disappeared in two small clusters around those dates.

This reeked of ritual to Felix. After months of badgering his superiors, he wrangled the funding for an exploratory trip to the region. To his mind, it was an open and shut case. The question was not whether the abductions were happening. That, he felt, was entirely certain. All he needed was proof of the culprit. Whoever was behind this was responsible for hundreds of disappearances, making him the most prolific serial killer ever found.

If, of course, Felix could find him.

He was positive he could. Felix had had the profile built long before he had ever submitted his request for funding. He was looking for a man, likely in his seventies at this point, someone born and raised in Dorton Bluffs but who had not been popular as a teen. He was an only child, or a significantly younger sibling—ten years or more. His mother had died when he was no more than five years old. He had probably never married, and almost certainly never had any children. His schooling had stopped at high school. He did not travel. He was probably a farmer.

Felix had requested funding for two weeks’ worth of travel, but in all honesty he expected it to take only three days: one to search through the town census and land records to determine his suspect, one to convince a local judge to issue a warrant, and one to unearth the trophies that the man had doubtless kept from each of his killings. If Dorton Bluffs had bothered to digitize any of their records, he could probably have found a name for his suspect and gotten a warrant before ever setting foot in the town. Then again, if they were the sort of place inclined to modernize, they would never have had a serial killer like this in their midst in the first place.

His intent had been to keep a low profile. It was very likely that the killer kept an eye on any activity in town, though probably from a distance. His victims were taken too regularly to simply be crimes of convenience, which meant that he had to observe and plan. A stranger in town would already be something of note; one who was blatantly asking questions designed to find someone matching the killer’s description would tip him off immediately.

When Felix walked into the courthouse and asked to see the archivist, though, the woman at the counter cast a jaded eye over him and said, “Here to find out about the missing kids?”

Felix was completely taken aback. “I—what do you mean?”

“It’s the start of disappearing season. That’s when your sort usually turns up wanting to go through the records.”

“I can’t—you have a name for it?”

The woman shrugged. “Course we do. Town’s got a situation like ours, it’s bound to get a name.”

“And what? You just let it happen?”

“What do you want us to do about it?”

Felix was baffled by her unconcern. “Anything! Catch the guy. Stop whoever’s preying on the kids in your town.”

“There’s no guy, mister. The kids who vanish, they weren’t ever happy here. Not a whole lot to offer a certain kind of person out here. We don’t have big malls and fancy theaters and high tech living. Even Walmart’s more than an hour away.”

“So you’re saying that they just run away.” Felix stared at her in disbelief. “Every single year, something like a half-dozen kids just pack up and start walking, and not one of them ever comes back.”

“It’s a—what do they call it now, a meme? It lives in their heads. Things aren’t going so well at home, they start thinking about how Jim or Mark or Andrew was talking last year about something similar, and about how they took a hike. They think about how it must’ve worked out, and how their friend’s probably living it up in the big city right now. They picture themselves in a big apartment, flashing cash around and doing all the things a small town just won’t let you do.”

“And that’s what you think has happened?”

She scoffed. “Nah. I’ve seen the city. I think they’re all crammed into tiny rathole apartments with a couple of roommates, working some minimum wage job that barely lets them survive. But the kind of person who runs away from here to prove that they know better, they can’t come back with their tail tucked between their legs. They gave this town a big middle finger and said that they could do better, and they can’t take the shame of admitting they were wrong. They must have been, though. If any of them had made it, you can bet they’d have been right back through here waving that money around to show us all what we were missing.”

“And it never occurred to you that you might be wrong? That something might have been happening to these kids, and you could have helped them if only you’d looked?”

“Someone like you comes by every so often, saying something pretty much like that. They dig into it for a few days and then wander off. None of them have ever stopped back by to let me know what they’ve learned. I’m guessing you won’t either, and I’m guessing it’s for the same reason those kids never came back: too embarrassed to admit that you were the one who was wrong.”

Felix shook his head. “I suppose we’ll see.”

Downstairs, the archivist brought Felix the records he requested without comment, but something in his body language gave Felix the impression that he felt the same as the lady at the front desk. Perhaps it was the way he dropped off the stack of books, or the manner in which he turned away immediately afterward. It may have simply been his total lack of curiosity about why Felix wanted the documents. Whatever the cause, Felix was sure that the archivist expected him to look into the matter, conclude that for decades children had simply been wandering off, and slink back to DC.

For a moment, Felix even wondered if he might be correct. He had thought that it was strange that he was the first one to notice the pattern here, and if it turned out that others had investigated and found nothing, then perhaps he really was barking up the wrong tree.

He shook the thought off. The evidence was too strong. This sort of thing didn’t happen anywhere else in America. It was only Dorton Bluffs. Something was going on here, even if the people in town didn’t want to believe it.

And who could blame them? Who would want to believe that the worst serial killer ever found had been operating nearby for decades? People in places like Dorton Bluffs liked to describe their towns as “peaceful” or “calm” or even “sleepy.” They didn’t want to consider the idea that horrific murders had been occurring multiple times a year for their entire lives. It would upend their entire worldview of their quiet community. It would make them question their own status as good people, having done nothing about it.

Felix didn’t blame them, not really. It was possible to be too close to something to see how screwed up it was. Most of them had grown up with this acceptance of the biannual disappearances being the way things were. Anything could seem normal if you were raised to expect it.

The land records gave Felix a listing of who lived on the outskirts of the community. He was able to cross off quite a few immediately due to the title being in multiple people’s names, as he was looking for a lifetime loner. The census narrowed it down still further, providing him with ages and identifying who had siblings, partners and families.

At the end of the day, Felix was left with a list of four good suspects. It wasn’t quite the absolute certainty he’d told himself he would have on day one, but it was close. A few questions around town tomorrow would reveal which one it was, he was sure. Even if folks said that nothing was going on, people always had opinions on who the weird ones were. Especially in a small town like this.

As he was walking back to the hotel, he was nearly knocked over by a crowd of laughing children scampering by him along the sidewalk. He watched them scatter down alleys and behind buildings, their noise quieting as they separated. Up ahead, a young girl with her eyes closed was being spun in circles by a boy only slightly older, who was chanting:

Standing in the forest, still as a tree
Hiding up high where nobody can see
Snatching up a baby quick as can be
Treetops, Treetops, don’t eat me!

When he finished the rhyme, her eyes popped open and she ran off down the street in pursuit of the others, laughing as she staggered back and forth from the dizziness. Felix heard shrieks of glee and triumph from behind him as she found one after another of her hidden friends.

He smiled and continued on his way. It was good to see that no matter what else was going on in the town, children were the same everywhere.

The next morning, Felix went to a nearby diner in hopes of finding some locals to engage in casual conversation at the dining counter. He thought he might pose as a land developer looking to buy one of the farms on the edge of town, see if he could draw out some thoughts on the men who owned the places.

To his surprise, his attempts immediately ran into the same shrewd awareness he had encountered at the courthouse.

“Hi! I’m new in town, just been taking a bit of a look around. I was thinking I might buy a piece of land around here. Do you know anything about—” He consulted a notebook for the look of things, though he knew the names and addresses of each man he wanted to ask about. “—John Simmons out on county road 115?”

The man next to him at the counter fixed him with a look. “You looking to bother him about the runaways?”

Felix acted confused while trying to recover. “Sorry, the what? Did he have runaways on his farm?”

The man snorted. “Mister, you may think I’m stupid, but I don’t think I’m stupid. If you want an answer to the question you asked: no, John won’t sell. If you want to talk about what you were gonna spend twenty minutes hinting around at instead, we can skip to that part if you like.”

“So you’re aware of the disappearances.”

“If you want to call them that. Folks disappear off to the big city every day. It’s got a lot to offer a certain type of person.”

“But these are kids!”

“Farm kids, mainly. Been doing hard manual labor since they were old enough to lift a pail. Working a sandwich shop sounds to some of them like it might be a nice break.”

“Did you know that they only vanish at certain times of the year? It’s only ever at the start of spring and fall.”

“When did you want them to go? In summer, when it’s so hot even the flies go lie down in the shade? Or in winter, with snow drifting up past a grown man’s shoulders? ‘Course they go in the nice times of year.”

The man turned back to his coffee. “Look, you don’t have to listen to me. Go down to the high school, ask the kids there. Tommy Finch left last year. Everyone knew him. If they think different from me, they’ll let you know.”

Felix looked around the diner. No one was even pretending not to have been listening. He could tell by their expressions that they were unlikely to give him any other answer than the one he’d just gotten. He sighed and ordered breakfast.

The rest of the day was no more fruitful. He tried a few different cover stories at other locations, but met with the same result everywhere. Everyone called him on his bluffs immediately, and although they were perfectly willing to talk to him, every single person gave him the same answer: the kids had just left on their own. Year after year, in defiance of all probability, they had gone looking for a better life in the big city and had never come back.

As the afternoon wore on, Felix found himself running low on ideas. He couldn’t bring a judge four possibilities and ask for a warrant for all of their properties just to find out which one it was. He was tempted to just pick the most likely and hope, but if he guessed wrong then the murders would continue and, on a more personal level, his credibility and career would take a serious hit.

Against his better judgment, Felix headed over to the high school as it was letting out for the day. He tried to figure out a reason for being there that wouldn’t sound creepy. After a few rejected ideas, he decided to just bite the bullet and go with the truth.

“I’m looking into the yearly disappearances of kids. I know Tommy Finch was one of them last year, and he went here. Any of you willing to talk about it?”

Most of the teens streamed past him without stopping. A few did him the courtesy of shaking their heads to at least show that they’d heard him, but the majority didn’t even make eye contact.

Just as Felix was giving up, he caught one boy’s attention.

“Hey. You looking for Tommy?”

The boy was on the younger side for high school, maybe fourteen or fifteen. Four other teens had stopped with him. All were eyeing Felix curiously, waiting on his response.

Felix didn’t want to give the group false hope by implying that Tommy might still be alive, but he also didn’t want to lose the first students who’d been willing to talk to him. He chose his words carefully.

“I’m looking into the disappearances including his, yeah. I think it’s likely that there’ll be some more soon. I’m hoping to stop them.”

“Then you’re looking for Treetops.”

“So you don’t think that the kids are simply running away?”

The boy shook his head. The gesture was echoed by his friends.

“No. They get out of line, and Treetops takes them.”

“Who’s Treetops?”

“Not who. What. Up in the forest north of town. That’s where they take the offerings. That’s where Treetops is.”

Felix was elated. Only one of the farms on his list was up that way.

“Is it Darren Olsen? Is that who takes them?”

The boy shook his head. “Treetops isn’t a person. It doesn’t matter who takes them. You could arrest anyone in this town and someone else would do it.”

“Treetops is a cult?” The idea took Felix’s breath away with its enormity. It seemed impossible to believe that an entire town could be complicit in such a thing, but it fit with everything he’d seen so far. In fact, it made significantly more sense than anything else.

Felix’s heartbeat was suddenly loud in his ears as he considered all of the people he’d spoken to over the last two days. By now, everyone in town must know why he was here. He wasn’t safe. He had to leave.

The boy’s voice cut through his burgeoning panic. “I can show you where they take them.”

Felix hesitated, considering. Spending any more time here was a risk. On the other hand, fleeting empty-handed because a teenager had fed him a story about the entire town being a death cult wasn’t going to play well with his superiors. It all made sense, but Felix had no proof. If the boy could show him something in the woods, he could bring back concrete proof instead of just a bad feeling.

“All right.” Suddenly it occurred to Felix that going to the woods outnumbered four to one might be a mistake. “But just you.”

“I’m not getting in your car alone, man. Me and Carl.”

Neither boy came up past Felix’s chin, and he had his gun besides. “All right. Let’s go now before it gets dark.”

Paved roads gave way to dirt roads, which quickly led to a rutted, weed-covered path closed off by a chain with a “NO TRESPASSING” sign hanging from it. Carl got out of the car to unhook the chain. Devon, which Felix had learned was the first boy’s name, leaned up from the back seat.

“We’re gonna go down here about a quarter mile. Go slow, ‘cause some of these ruts’ll rip the bottom right off of your car if you’re not careful. The road’s gonna end in a little clearing, and then we’ll walk from there.”

Felix eyed the treeline. “How long a walk?”

“Half an hour, maybe. Less if you’ve got a good pace. Plenty of time to get in and back out while it’s still light.”

The path ended in a space just big enough to turn a car around, as Devon had said. Felix climbed out of the car and followed the two boys into the woods. They walked with purpose, which he took to be a good sign. The idea that this was all a prank—or worse—was still at the front of his mind.

“So how long has Treetops been going on?” Felix asked.

“Longer than anyone here,” said Devon.

“What happens to people who don’t join?”

“Treetops happens to them.”

“Aren’t you worried about them finding out that you’ve told me all of this?”

“Nah,” said Devon. “Treetops’ll take care of that.”

Abruptly, the two boys sprinted off in different directions. Felix cursed and grabbed for his gun as he took off after Carl, who seemed to be slightly slower. The teen’s smaller size was an advantage in the woods, however, and Felix rapidly lost sight of him as he vanished into the trees.

Felix stopped, caught his breath and assessed his situation. He didn’t know precisely where he was, but he knew roughly which direction they’d come from and how long they’d walked. Even if he missed the car, he was bound to come across the road, and he could find his way back from there.

He began walking back in the direction of the car. After a few feet, Felix heard a faint, intermittent rustling from somewhere behind him. He kept walking as if he had heard nothing, but focused his attention and waited for the sound to repeat.

A few steps later, it came again. It was a gentle rustling of the underbrush, the sort that might have been caused by an animal or even the wind. It was coming from only a short way behind him, though, and it seemed to be moving in his direction.

Felix continued onward until he heard the noise once more, then whipped around, gun drawn. He expected to see the scared faces of one or both of the teens, or at least their backs as they ran from him, but was surprised to see nothing behind him but vines and trees.

One of the trunks suddenly moved, sweeping toward him in a huge, ground-eating step. It traveled through the air with barely a whisper and landed with nothing more than a slight rustle of the brush beneath it. Felix looked up in disbelief to see a titanic, gangly hand descending for him. Each gnarled finger was as long as his body, and the arm beyond them was the size of an oak. It moved with terrifying swiftness and almost total silence.

Felix fired his gun directly into the onrushing palm, but it had no more effect than throwing a pebble against a train. He ducked and ran as the fingers swiped overhead, clenching into a fist just where he had been standing.

Roots, vines and branches clutched at Felix as he ran. The forest itself seemed determined to stop him, though it offered no such impediment to the gigantic thing at his heels. Over and over again he heard the frightening whisper of its footfalls, felt the threatening breeze of its grasp. He dodged back and forth, scoring his face and arms with a thousand small cuts, desperately fleeing for safety.

Sunlight glinted on metal, and Felix recognized his rental car. He was almost back to the clearing. He put on a final burst of speed and tore from the trees, sprinting for the car. He grabbed the door handle, only to find it locked.

As he grabbed for the key in his pocket, fingers as hard as stone wrapped around him and lifted him effortlessly from the ground. Felix shrieked as he was carried up into the trees, the car vanishing beneath him. He struggled and kicked, but the grip around his body was implacable. Enormous steps carried him swiftly back into the forest, the tops of the trees brushing rapidly by his trapped body.

The green of the pine needles surrounding him was suddenly broken by swaths of white. In horror, Felix realized that the upper branches were decorated with thousands of bones, ribcages and hipbones and skulls. The grisly ornaments stretched as far as he could see in any direction, a gruesome aerial graveyard.

Felix opened his mouth to scream again. The hand holding him tightened only once. There was a sudden, brutal crunch. After that was silence, except for a quiet, steady dripping.

“He almost made it out,” Carl said. He and Devon were back at the clearing, hiding behind a small earthen hill on the far side.

“Good thing for us he didn’t,” said Devon.

“You think he deserved it?”

Devon shrugged. “Could be. You think any of us deserve it?”

“Well, they pick the ones who act out.”

“Sure, if you believe that. You think you’ve been good enough that they couldn’t find a reason to feed you to Treetops? Better him than us.”


It was always a good year when someone came from the outside. Treetops was happy to eat strangers, and they could spare their own.

Rating: 9.00/10. From 5 votes.
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🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None Available

Written by Micah Edwards
Edited by Craig Groshek and N.M. Brown
Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek
Narrated by N/A

🔔 More stories from author: Micah Edwards

Publisher's Notes: N/A

Author's Notes: N/A

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Copyright Statement: Unless explicitly stated, all stories published on are the property of (and under copyright to) their respective authors, and may not be narrated or performed, adapted to film, television or audio mediums, republished in a print or electronic book, reposted on any other website, blog, or online platform, or otherwise monetized without the express written consent of its author(s).

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