Lina wasn’t afraid of ghosts. The townspeople of Geistbury where highly superstitious. To them, ghosts were an everyday part of reality. Some feared the ghosts more that others, but everyone knew of their existence. Lina wasn’t any different. She knew that ghosts haunted the town, but unlike most, she was not afraid. She was cautious, but never, ever afraid.
She reminded herself of this as she walked home from school with her little brother, Rodney, one day. She had an eerie feeling that she couldn’t seem to shake. This feeling occurred because they had been walking past the infamous Cavewall Woods. Everyone in town knew the woods were haunted. The townspeople often reported hearing voices in the wind, and seven children had gone missing in them in the last month. No one dared to enter the woods. As they walked slowly past the woods, Lina grabbed her brother‘s hand. Not because she was frightened, she wasn’t, but because she could sense Rodney’s fear.
Rodney had every right to be afraid. He was in first grade, and was a very small boy for his age, with tawny brown hair and large blue eyes. He was very quiet and was often bullied by the other children at school. Lina, who was a junior in high school, was tough, and had been dealing with bullies her whole life. She looked very similar to Rodney: same brown hair and blue eyes. She made it her personal responsibility to protect him as much as she possibly could. He was all she had left. Their parents had died in a car accident when Rodney was just a baby. The children had been living their whole lives at Windridge Orphanage.
Upon arriving at the orphanage, she and Rodney were immediately greeted eagerly by Rodney’s friends Scotty and Tod. They were nice boys, but Lina knew how destructive little boys could be, so she was wary of them despite their kindness to her brother. They were excited about something, though they were talking over each other, so Lina wasn’t sure exactly about what.
“Slow down boys,” Lina laughed, ”One at a time.”
Scotty’s eyes glowed with excitement.
”You’ll never guess what we found,” he said.
“What?” Rodney asked, grinning.
“Oh, it is wonderful,” Tod said, barely able to contain himself.
“Well what is it?” Lina said, growing impatient.
“A tire swing!” Scotty said, “We’re about to go out to it now, are you coming Rodney?”
Rodney looked up at Lina, pleading in his eyes.
“Can I Lina?”
“Where is it?” Lina asked the two boys.
The boys looked at each other, as though debating whether to tell her or not.
“Well it’s kinda by the Cavewall Woods” Scotty said shrugging.
“Absolutely not,” Lina said.
“Lina please! I’ll be with Scotty and Tod the whole time.”
“It’s dangerous there! You can’t go,” Lina said, turning to leave.
“You can’t tell me what to do, Lina! You’re not mom, so top trying to be!”
At this Rodney stormed out of the orphanage. Lina called after him, but when she got outside he was gone. Rodney had been angry before, but never like this. When he was angry he often ran off, but he always came back after he had cooled down. This time felt different.
Rodney had been gone for quite some time and Lina was becoming increasingly worried. She walked up to the boys rooms to see Scotty and Tod sitting on the floor playing with a toy train.
“Have you guys seen Rodney?”
Scotty looked up and said, “No, not since he ran off.”
Lina was becoming hysterical.
“Where could he be?” She cried.
Tod sat up, and said, “Maybe he went to find the tire swing!”
“Will you take me there?”
The boys nodded. Lina began to get the familiar eerie feeling as they led her out to the Cavewall Woods.
“The swing is just a little ways into the woods, its been up for about a month, but we just built up the courage to go to it today,” Tod said.
They continued walking in the increasingly dark woods. Up ahead Lina saw the tire swing, swaying in the wind, but she didn’t see Rodney anywhere. Upon arriving at the swing, Lina called Rodney’s name. There was no response, no sign that he had even been there. But then Lina heard a footstep crunching the leaves.
Scotty and Tod squeaked in fear and ran the opposite direction.
“Wait! Guys!,” Lina called after them.
But they were already gone. Lina sighed and began to approach the sound. The footsteps continued, but they were heavy, unlike Rodney’s light, quick steps. But Lina was not afraid. She had to be brave for Rodney. She quickened her pace towards the footsteps and broke through the trees into a clearing. She ran directly into a boy. She yelped. This boy was not Rodney though. He was about her age, tall with black hair and bright blue eyes.
“What are you doing here?” Lina asked, frustrated that it wasn’t her brother.
“I...I heard a noise and went to check it out”, the boy said quietly.
“Have you seen my brother?”
“No, I didn’t. I’m sorry.”
Lina let out a cry.
“But I’ll help you find him,” said the strange boy.
The boy nodded.
“Well thank you,” she said, smiling a shaky smile and holding out her hand, “I’m..”
“Lina,” he interrupted, “I know. We go to school together. I’m Jerome.”
He took her hand to shake it, but at that moment they heard a strange whisper coming from the trees.
Lina shook it off, thinking that she had just imagined it. They began walking toward the trees, still holding hands. They followed the noise until they reached another clearing. They both stopped abruptly, shocked at the unusual sight before them. In front of them stood a large tree, unlike any other. Small shoes hung from the branches.
Jerome quietly said, “Are those..”
“Shoes,” Lina whispered, “But why shoes?”
She stood, examining the tree. But then she spotted something that made her eyes go wide.
She pointed,”Jerome, those are Rodney’s shoes!”
Hanging above her were Rodney’s favorite white sneakers. She had painted tiny flames on them. She told him that they would make him run faster. She began to cry. Where was Rodney? And why were his shoes dangling from this peculiar tree?
“Lina, look at this!”
Lina ran over to Jerome. He was holding an old, tattered newspaper dated back 74 years. There was a picture of a small boy with the caption “Local Boy Found Dead in Woods.” Lina skimmed the article. The boy had run away from an orphanage and was found frozen to death in these very woods. Jerome pointed at a line in the article.
“He was found with no shoes. He probably couldn’t afford them,” Jerome said quietly.
“Where did you find this?”
“It was stuffed in one of the shoes.”
“Well, what does that have to do with my brother?”
“I don’t know.”
“We need to find him Jerome.”
“I know, Lina, but it’s already dark, and it’s no good if we get lost in the woods too. Let me take you back and we can search right away when the sun comes up. I’ll do some research tonight about this boy and maybe we can find how he links to your brother.”
Lina finally agreed after much debate. Jerome was right, she would never find Rodney in the dark. When Lina returned to the orphanage, Miss Hutney, the woman in charge, reprimanded her for being out so late. Lina told her that Rodney had gone missing. Miss Hutney notified the police, but there wasn’t much they could do. Miss Hutney assured Lina that they were investigating and they would find Rodney, but so many other children had gone missing in those woods in the last month, that Lina doubted that Rodney would be any different. She had to find him herself, and she refused to be afraid. Despite this, Lina struggled to sleep that night. She had strange dreams of shoeless children running through the woods. She wondered if Jerome had found anything about the boy from the article.
The next morning, Jerome was already at the orphanage when Lina came out to meet him. He shuffled his feet, seemingly excited at something.
“Lina! You’ll never guess what I found about the boy in the article. Last night, before going home, I went to the library. I looked at some of the old records and newspapers of Geistbury. The boy’s name was Ainsley. His parents died in a car accident.”
“Just like my parents.”
“But, Lina, that’s not the only similarity. Ainsley was admitted to Windridge Orphanage shortly after his parents death.”
Jerome continued, “He lived there for a year, but then went missing in January 1937. Apparently he had run away and they found him three days later frozen to death in Cavewall Woods. He had been living an a small cave in the northern part of the woods, but the cold eventually killed him.”
Lina didn’t know what to say. This boy’s circumstance was so similar to Rodneys. She was relieved by the fact that it was summer, so Rodney would not freeze to death.
Jerome continued once again,”It get’s even crazier yet. I looked into the files of the seven kids that have gone missing in the last month. Every one of the kids is from Windridge Orphanage.”
Lina was shocked that she hadn’t noticed. Lina often kept to herself, so she didn’t know many of the other kids in the orphanage. Kids would leave all the time. They were usually either adopted or transferred to a different orphanages. So, Lina wouldn’t have noticed them leaving, or she just would have thought nothing of it.
“So what? Is some one taking kids from Windridge? Why us! I don’t understand why someone would do that!”
“Not someone, Lina! Ainsley!”
“You think the ghost of Ainsley took my brother and the other kids?”
“I know it sounds crazy, but It explains so much. It explains the tree of shoes. Ainsley could never afford shoes, so he takes theirs. It explains the strange whisper.”
Jerome seemed reluctant to answer.
He sighed, “Remember when we met in the woods yesterday, and I said I heard a noise?”
Lina nodded her head.
“Well, the noise I heard was a whisper. Not a menacing whisper. More like a plea. They wind was blowing loudly, but I made out the word ‘Friends’ being whispered through the trees. Lina, I know you’ve heard it too. You walk by those woods every day.”
“Well, yes I have, but it could just be a trick of the woods.”
“It’s not, Lina, it’s Ainsley calling out.”
“So you think Ainsley took those kids? Why in the world would he do that?”
“Isn’t it obvious? He’s alone. He wants friends!”
“Well, why in the last month? He’s had 74 years to take kids! Why now?”
Then it dawned on her. Scotty had told her that the tire swing had been put up about a month ago: around the same time kids began to go missing.
“The kids went to the tire swing! Ainsley must have seen them and realized how lonely he was! That’s what lured them into the woods! The tire swing!”
Lina paused. She felt hope. Maybe she could find Rodney and the other children!
“Well, what are we waiting for! My brother is in those woods! Let’s go get him!”
Lina and Jerome made their way to the woods. They stopped at the edge. The huge, dark trees hung over them ominously. Lina grabbed Jerome’s hand and looked at him.
“Where do we even start?” She asked.
“Where it all started! The tire swing.”
Lina nodded as they made their way into the dark woods. The tire swing was coming up. She saw it swaying in the distance, as it creaked eerily. Suddenly, Jerome grabbed Lina’s arm, stopping her.
“What?” She whispered.
“All of the missing children were taken from Windridge Orphanage. Ainsley will know that you are one of them. He’s going to want to take you, and he could lead you directly to your brother if you let him.”
“So I should let him take me?”
“Yes. But remember, I will be right behind you the whole time.”
They had arrived at the tire swing, when suddenly the winds picked up. The wind barely masked the sound of a whisper.
“Cooome wiiiith meee, freeeiinds!”
The whisper was not angry or frightening. It was innocent, and wistful, and so full of sorrow. This voice sounded so like Lina’s brother. The whisper was so sad that Lina wished more than anything to make the voice happy again. She followed the voice. Something was glittering up ahead. It was a shining, beautiful butterfly. It fluttered around Lina and she couldn’t help but laugh. It flew, guiding Lina and Jerome through the woods. They entered the clearing where the shoe tree stood ominously. Jerome looked at her and nodded. A silent message to add her shoes to the strange tree. She sat and removed each shoe, hanging them beside Rodney’s favorite sneakers.
The butterfly continued on and they followed. The winds blew whispers around them.
“Frieeends! Neeever alooone.”
The walk was long. As they continued on, the woods became darker, and the ground was covered in large rocks. The butterfly led them to a large rock. As the butterfly approached it the rock slowly rolled away. Behind the rock was a large opening into a cave. The cave was lit by candles and toys littered the floor. Lina approached the cave. Someone was in the cave, walking slowly toward her. She held her breath.
“Lina!” She heard her brother yell.
It was Rodney! He giggled and leapt into her arms.
“You’ve got to see this, Lina! It’s wonderful!”
He led her into the cave. It was a truly magical place. It was bright and colorful inside. There were toys everywhere. But the most beautiful thing were the walls. They had been painted with beautiful scenes of children playing. There were paintings of flowers and sunsets, and butterflies, and every beautiful thing one could image. The ceiling had been painted with beautiful constellations that looked as though Lina was really looking at a night sky. It truly was wonderful. After observing all the beauty around her, Lina finally came to her senses. She looked and saw all seven of the missing children laughing and playing in the cave.
“Rodney, you’ve been gone since yesterday and those kids have been gone for weeks! Why wouldn’t you come home?”
“Rodney gave Lina a funny look,”Lina, I’ve only been here for a few minutes. The other kids were here before me, but only a few hours before me!”
Lina didn’t understand. Only a few hours? But they hadn’t been seen all month! Suddenly the wind began to blow, the whispers with it, but in the cave they were more solid.
“Tiiime iiis sloowed heeere.”
Jerome said,”Lina, Ainsley slowed time in the cave. The kids only think they’ve been here for a few hours or even a few minutes, but for us it’s been days or weeks.”
Lina clapped her hands to get the children’s attention, “We have to go back, everyone! I will take you all back to the orphanage safely, and you are to never go into the woods alone again!”
The children groaned, “Why?”
“Miss Hutney want’s you all back right now!’
This got the children’s attention. They all began to exist the cave.
“Waiiit! Youuu muusn’t taaaake theeeem wiiithoout meee. Leeet meee coooome tooo!” The whisper pleaded.
Jerome nodded his head.
Lina said,”You can, but you must never lead the children away, ever again!”
The whisper hissed it’s agreement. As Lina led the children back the beautiful butterfly followed. They made their way out of the woods and arrived at the orphanage. Before entering Lina stopped Jerome.
“Jerome, what was Ainsley’s last name?” She asked quietly.
“It’s nothing. Just take the children in and make sure they’re safe. I need to deal with something.”
Jerome shrugged and led the children into the orphanage.
“Ainsley!” Lina whispered.
The wind picked up and the butterfly flew to her and she knew he was with her.
Lina walked leading the butterfly. She recognized that last name, Forester. Her parents were buried near a Forester. She led the butterfly to the graveyard. It was a beautiful place. Flowers grew all around. Lina visited often to talk to her parents and place flowers on their graves. She led the butterfly to the familiar gravestone that read “Frank and Mindy Forester.” The butterfly landed on the old gravestone and fluttered its wings.
“Go! Be free! Be with them again!” Lina whispered to the beautiful butterfly.
“Thaaaanks!” Said the whisper.
Suddenly the wind picked up once again. The trees blew and the wind whistled. The butterfly flew up, glowing ever brighter, until it disappeared with a flash. Lina wiped away a tear, stood and walked slowly back to Windridge.
A week later Jerome, Rodney, and Lina walked back into the woods. They went to the cave, but it had been sealed off. The woods no longer felt eerie or full of magic. They were just woods. They walked back to the strange tree. The shoes hanging from it’s branches swung in the wind. Jerome kneeled and nailed a small wooden sign to the tree. The little sign read as follows: “In Memory of Ainsley Forester, beloved son, and cherished friend. Jerome grabbed Lina’s hand as Lina held Rodney’s with the other. They all stood looking sadly at the tree. The shoes and the little wooden sign still hang from the tree to this day, so that the townspeople would always remember Ainsley: The shoeless, lonely, orphan.