Mr. Smith
We all sat in stunned silence for close to a full minute before the eldest sibling, the only woman in the group, told us that the woman we had pointed out in the photos was their aunt.  She explained that the woman had gone missing in 1985, nearly thirty years ago at the age of 41.  Of course, this would make her current age approximately 70, but the woman we had encountered on the beach that night couldn't have been a day over 45.

She told us that the woman had suffered from a chronic drug addiction, and she had moved in with her sister (the siblings' mother) as part of an effort to get clean.  "And for a while it seemed to be working.  She loved it out here in the countryside, breathing the clean air, helping around the garden, and going out on the river at night to catch catfish and crawdads, but then when she up and disappeared on us, we all assumed she had fallen off the wagon and taken off with somebody, probably headed out West or something like that.  We reported her missing, but nothing ever came of it, and we haven't heard from her not once in all of these thirty years.  But the other night when I tuned in to channel twelve to get the weekly forecast, that sketch popped up on the screen and it was like looking into the eyes of a ghost.  She looked just exactly the same as she did the last time we saw her, motoring away from the bank and headed downriver."

Now, up until this point, nothing had been said that couldn't be at least partially explained by the possibility of a doppelgänger, but when Courtney wisely asked if the missing aunt had any particular trinkets or jewelry that she always wore, the youngest man immediately piped up and said "Oh yes, she would never leave home without her pendant.  It wasn't made of gold or silver, but it was precious to her all the same.  It was made, of all things, out of a piece from an old flintlock musket if you can believe it."

As soon as he said that, my blood ran cold, and I knew something more was going on here than a simple lookalike or set of coincidences.  However, the sheriff wasn't so easily convinced (probably a good quality in his line of work, if I'm honest), and insisted there had to be a logical conclusion.  He was also fairly adamant about ruling out someone who had been missing for 29 years as a primary suspect in an ongoing murder investigation.  Nevertheless, as I looked over my shoulder on the way out of the building, I saw him write "MISSING?" next to the woman's portrait on the evidence board.

The next month passed in relative peace, as no new information was released regarding the case, and I had become far more preoccupied with packing for college.  It wasn't until less than a week before I was supposed to leave that the next major development occurred, and let me tell you that it certainly came from the most unlikely of places.

My aunt owns a small antiques shop in town, and occasionally she comes across particularly interesting or unusual historical items.  Every now and again I drop by to say hi and take a look at all the new curios and nicknacks, since she's very knowledgable and can always weave an interesting tale about even the most mundane item.  Anyhow, considering I would be leaving for college in just a few days, I figured it would be a good time to stop by and see her before I left.  

I swung by the store at about 2:00 on a Tuesday, so there wasn't a soul in the place except for her and me.  We talked about the weather and what kinds of classes I would be taking for my first semester; you know, normal family small talk, and all the while I was thumbing through the drawers and bookshelves, seeing if there was anything out of the ordinary for my aunt to tell me about.  And that's when I saw it.  Suspended from a peg, alongside at least a dozen other necklaces and various homemade jewelry, was a simple bronze chain with a curved chunk of rusted iron brazed onto it. 

It was the hammer from a flintlock musket.  "Where did you get this?" I practically shouted, interrupting my aunt mid-sentence.  She was surprised at my outburst, but she explained that a man had come into the shop a few days prior with a bag full of worn out metal trinkets that he had picked up out of river while magnet-fishing.  I asked if he had left any contact info, and she shook her head, but she mentioned that she had paid him for the trinkets by check, so she still had the stub with his name in her record book.  

I asked her to make a quick photocopy, apologizing for cutting my visit short before running up the town's one street to the sheriff's office.  Thankfully, the sheriff wasn't too busy to spend a few minutes walking back up the street to the curio shop to see the hammerlock necklace.  Upon seeing the unique pendant, he asked my aunt for permission to take it in as evidence.  He even admitted it was a "hell of a coincidence, but conjecture and a funny-looking necklace ain't enough to go knocking on someone's door over."  Instead he would contact the family members we had met previously and see if they could come in and verify the necklace as belonging to their missing loved one. 

That evening, I called up all of my friends who had been with me on the island that fateful night, and I told them of this new development.  None of us could sleep that night, instead staying awake on Skype with one another running through every aspect of this real-life thriller we had found ourselves in.  We decided that even though the sheriff was right to follow procedures, we needed to seek out the man who had sold the trinket ourselves.  Luckily for us, there were only two people in the local phonebook under the name appearing on my aunt's payment stub, so the next morning after grabbing breakfast at a local diner we split into two groups and headed for opposite ends of the county to knock on doors.  

My friend Jonathan and I headed North, driving parallel to the river, and we finally pulled into the driveway of a small, one-story house about half an hour later.  A short, grey-haired man answered the door when we knocked, and in hindsight, we were pretty lucky that he was a cheery retired gentleman who didn't mind answering a few random questions at 9:00 on a Wednesday morning.  When we asked him if he happened to pursue magnet-fishing as a hobby, he smiled cheerily and said "Why yes, I certainly do!  You would be surprised at what you can find just lying around on the bottom of your average lake or river!"

The gray-haired man excitedly invited us inside, talking at length about the finer points of his hobby and showing us countless shelves lined with various iron baubles which he had pulled from the local waterways, and when we mentioned that the pendant had belonged to a missing person, he happily offered to show us the exact spot that he had dragged when he found it.  We thanked him profusely for his hospitality and went on our way, making the long drive back into town in silence. 

By happy accident, we pulled into the small parking lot of the sheriff's office just as a maroon minivan opened its doors to reveal two of the three siblings.  We eagerly followed them inside, practically chomping at the bit to hear what they had to say.  They both took one look at the pendant and confirmed that it had belonged to their missing aunt, and sheriff sighed and thanked them for their help before turning to us and asking us what we wanted this time.

We told him of our morning meeting with the magnet-fisherman, and he gave us a good tongue lashing for potentially compromising an ongoing investigation (which we certainly deserved), but ultimately he asked us what we had learned, and when we told him that the retiree was willing to take deputies out to the spot where he had found the pendant, his mood softened a bit.  

Unfortunately, this is basically where my personal involvement in the case ends, since I left for college less than a week later.  However, I can tell you a few final details that are matters of public record, and you can fill in the gaps yourself. 

A few days later a small armada of volunteers in john-boats and bass-trackers combed and dragged the stretch of river where the magnet-fisherman had found the pendant, and among other things they found several human bones, all later determined to belong to the same individual.  A private autopsy (or the closest thing one can do on a partial skeleton) was paid for by the family, and DNA testing confirmed the bones as belonging to the missing aunt, with accidental drowning being ruled as the official cause of death.  Exact time of death was unknown, but based on water wear to the bones, the coroner estimated that the skeleton had been down there for at least 25 years, if not longer.

Of course, this came as quite a shock to me and my friends because as previously stated, we had all seen her plain as day.  We each had our own theories to explain this turn of events, but none of them were theories that a credible law enforcement agency would be likely to agree with. 

Officially, the case of the body buried on the island remains open, and it's become a bit of a local legend.  However, the victim has since been identified as a 35-year-old woman from a few counties over, and about two years ago (four years after our campout on the island), a man was arrested on suspicion of the murder; although he was later released after his alibi was substantiated.  This means that the greatest mystery from that night remains unsolved, but at least one family got to put their lost love one to rest thanks to a bunch of random high schoolers getting drunk on a Friday night, so I suppose that's at least some form of a happy ending. 

As for my personal theories about the woman we saw that night, I have two. 

The first is the more logical: that we all did in fact see a very real and not at all supernatural woman that night, but she looked just similar enough to the missing aunt that we succumbed to confirmation bias once we were presented with blurry pictures of a coincidental lookalike.  Also keep in mind that all of us saw her from different angles, and it was very dark at the time in addition to the fact that we had all had plenty to drink that night. 

Furthermore, it is important to recognize the fact that it's easy for a group of witnesses to cross-contaminate a memory of a time or place when they all weigh in on specific details at once.  This is why it's standard police procedure to interview witnesses separately and one-by-one.  So maybe there's still a killer out there with his (or her) auburn-haired girlfriend roaming the state, and the rest of the peripheral events were simply coincidental. 

The second theory, which I am hesitant to share with anyone who knows me personally or professionally, is that maybe we really did see the missing woman that night.  Whether or not she knew she was dead could be argued from both directions, but to me the strongest "evidence" of her being some sort of spirit is that there was only one clear set of footprints on the island in the morning. 

The heavy-soled footprints that encircled the grave only extended as far as the tree line,  and the woman we had spoken to the night before had come all the way to the edge of our fire pit.  Rivers don't really experience tides that far inland, and we didn't go back and forth on the beach enough to completely obliterate every single footprint she would have left, so where were they?   Moreover, how many people wear a cheap bronze chain embellished with the hammer of a gun from the 1700s?

I like to think that maybe that woman's spirit was serving as our guardian angel, keeping us from seeing something we might not have walked away from seeing.  No matter what she did in life, I'll always regard her as somebody who watched over us that night, and I still take flowers to her grave every now and then, hoping she found an escape from this world once her remains were laid to rest.  

As far as I know, the island is still a getaway spot for the local youngsters, but to the best of my knowledge nobody else has ever reported seeing a soft-featured woman with long, rust-colored hair offering to tell them ghost stories, not since myself and my friends all laid eyes on her during that calm May evening six years ago.  But who knows?  If you're ever out in the area, and if you can find the right person to give you directions, then maybe you too can head out there on a cool, misty evening with just the right amount of moonlight, and you can see for yourself just what (or perhaps who) the river brings your way.

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Thanks so much for sticking with me on this one.  I know it's a heck of a long one, but I couldn't find too many things that could be cut out without the details and gravitas being lost.  I really appreciate the positive comments and feedback I've gotten from you all, and thanks again for reading.  In hindsight maybe I should have posted this in the Ghost Stories thread.
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AmmeJeanRomeo
Ah and we have reached the end! Fantastic story my friend! 
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Elizabeth Holman iiGhostLuverii
Holy crap that’s so chilling! I literally couldn’t take my eyes off my phone until I finished reading this story, that’s how good it is! I think that if Darkness could figure out how to shorten it a bit, that he probably would read it in his YouTube channel!
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