“It has big red claws, and a super scary face like this,” The boy contorted his face, stretching parts of his skin to form a hideous expression. After he spoke, the boys around him erupted in laughter, seeming to neglect the intended horror of the story.
I sat on a rotting tree trunk a few feet away from a dim fire. Patches of moss and various fungi grew on the makeshift bench, and various insects found shelter inside. These elements left it nearly untouched by the others who preferred to lie on the ground. Next to me on the log sat a boy, smaller and younger than everyone else.
The kid wore thick glasses that rested on his nose falling just below his eyes and causing him to push them up every few seconds. He sat folded over, resting his head on his hand while using the remaining one to adjust his glasses. Through his thick lenses, he stared at the last burning log in the center of the fire pit.
During the early evening, when the fire was young and full of life, it shined brightly, crackling and spitting out embers. Now, in its old age, it provided enough light to illuminate the immediate surroundings without any excess given to anything past a short distance.
“Oh come on, that’s stupid,” A voice piped up over the laughter. “I’ll tell you a real scary story.” The laughter turned into a quiet chatter as the others became intrigued with the promise of a new story.
The boy walked towards the fire to throw in a few dry sticks and crouch in front of it. I looked to my left and noticed that this action had stolen the attention of the boy next to me from the fire. He fixed his posture to sit upright and now focused on the new storyteller.
With each pair of eyes locked on him, he began his story. “In these very woods lives a monster.” He spoke in an intentionally dramatic way, taking long pauses between phrases to emphasize otherwise mediocre lines. “This monster comes in the middle of the night disguised as a human.” As he talked, he scanned the faces of his audience members, likely looking for any indication his story had achieved its goal of frightening innocent children. I didn’t buy it based on the fact that he obviously made the story up. “He snatches kids up to his den where he eats them, and leaves behind only a single polaroid picture of them.” Still crouching in front of the fire, the boy turned his head to stare at its core.
The others remained quiet, as they anticipated more of the story to be revealed. An uncomfortable silence pursued, as the storyteller returned to his previous seat with nothing more to say.
“That’s it?” The boy next to me sounded upset that the story had ended so soon after starting.
“That’s not scary,” I said, feigning confidence, “That’s just stupid and unrealistic.”
“Alright, settle down,” Our camp counselor kept a watchful eye on us throughout the night. For the duration of the campfire, he sat in a white plastic lawn chair, tapping away at his phone. “I think it’s about time to turn in for the night anyway.”
Our cabin lies a short walk through the woods from our campfire site. As we walked, my lack of confidence started to show. Goosebumps ran rampant over my skin, leaving no spot untouched. Each rustle I heard in the nearby bushes and trees caused me to dart my eyes in an attempt to find the source.
“What’s the matter?” Asked the boy who told the last story. “Scared?” I didn’t dignify his accusation with a response, although I clearly was. I had surrounded myself with other campers, claiming the middle of the pack, and despite the cool temperature of the night droplets of sweat streamed down my face. If those things alone didn’t indicate my fear, the fact that every few seconds I braced myself as I glanced over my shoulder should have.
When we finally arrived, I felt relieved that we made it. As soon as the counselor unlocked my cabin, I found my way to my bunk and passed out.
I woke up in the middle of the night with an extreme need to use the restroom. No one around me had woken up yet, so I decided to try to fall back asleep. After tossing and turning for as long as I could stand it, I realized I couldn’t hold it much longer.
Each boy around remained unconscious as I crawled out of bed. I stepped down on to the ground, careful not to make any noise. My shoes sat near the door to the cabin, so the wooden floor felt cool to my bare feet.
“Can you please come to the outhouse with me?” I shared my bunk with the same boy who sat next to me during the campfire. As I shook him awake, I prayed that I could have a companion to come along on my petty journey.
“Can you please come to the outhouse with me?” The only bathroom nearby stood about halfway down the trail to the fire pit. The dense foliage of the trees in the woods concealed the path, blocking out any light. “I just don’t want to go alone.”
“Dude, no, I’m trying to sleep,”
I knew I couldn’t convince him to go with me, so I weighed my two options. If I stayed in the cabin and waited for the sun to come up, I had no indication as to how long I would be waiting. The worst-case scenario of me waiting for too long and wetting the bed seemed like a real possibility.
I snuck over to a nearby window in order to peer out, in hopes I could find any clue as to the time. Outside the window, I could see the moon peeking out from behind clouds, providing the earth with a faint pale glow.
If I chose the other option, I would have to navigate my way through the forest alone to find the bathroom. I know monsters don’t exist, and that I shouldn’t be scared by some story a kid told me, but the story still weighed in my mind. I took one last look out the window before reassuring myself these monsters existed only in my head.
I crept out of the door putting on my shoes on the way out and still trying not to make a sound. As I shut it behind me, I felt a cool breeze across my face. I had neglected to bring a flashlight, so the path before me would remain dark throughout the duration of my walk.
During the daytime, the dense brush of the forest covered the trail, with some parts of it being impossible to see without pushing bushes and shrubs aside. The night time amplified this effect, making finding my way a difficult task.
As I got deeper into the forest, visibility decreased. At the start of my journey, the gravel path stuck out from the green plants surrounding it, but now everything I saw melded into a dark green mess. To see the trail beneath me, I had to constantly push plants out of the way. Each time I took a step forward, I considered how easy it would be to turn around and cut my losses, but the fact that the outhouse could be around the next corner kept me searching.
The constant scurrying of animals and buzzing of insects brought the woods to life with an unseen vitality. Every time I heard one of these sounds, I attempted to locate the source of the noise to no avail. Within minutes of entering, sweat covered me as I couldn’t tell if these animals viewed me as predator or prey.
Regardless of what they saw me as they seemed to watch my every move from a distance. Even as I moved forward, the noises followed me.
In an attempt to shake my pursuer, I became more frantic. I spared only a few seconds looking behind me in order to locate it before I began running, hoping I could evade whatever pursued me.
As I ran, I tried to make a mental map of the area. Every noteworthy rock or odd-looking tree I passed, I made a note of. Before long, each of those landmarks I attempted to capture lost its significance, as each significant item lost its meaning to numerous other copies.
Looking down, I saw the gravel that once lied beneath my feet had gone, and now soft dirt replaced it. I glanced behind me to search for the trail I left behind but instead tripped over a root and fell to the ground.
Despite my efforts, I heard the crunching of dead leaves nearer than any sound before. Each story I heard during the campfire played in my head, as I became paralyzed with fear. Vivid images of slasher-film style fatalities and terrifying monsters devouring people consumed my thoughts. Every one of those stories came and went, until only one persisted. The last story told at the campfire didn’t seem the scariest, but something about it captured my mind and wouldn’t let go.
When I finally worked up the courage to look in the direction the sound came from, I locked eyes with a squirrel for a moment, before it bolted the other way.
As I stood up and brushed myself off, I realized I had arrived at the outhouse. It stood in the middle of a clearing to the side of the trail, surrounded by a well-kept circle of grass. Four planks comprised the walls of the structure, each having various cracks and breaks beginning to form on the edges. On the top, a slanted sheet of metal rested, protecting it from rain and other debris. The outhouse itself was nothing more than a patchwork of old boards, held together by a few nails and a tin roof, but to me, it looked like a sanctuary.
I took my time in the bathroom, cherishing every second that I didn’t have to walk through the forest again. The interior of the structure contained nothing more than a pit toilet that reeked of past uses. The comfort of the safe space I had found wore off quickly, as the pungent smell drove me out, and back into the woods.
As I stood in the clearing around the outhouse, I looked up to see all the clouds in the sky had vanished, making way for thousands of stars. I finished half of my journey, and now only the walk back remained.
I began my trek along the path, this time knowing the assorted twists and turns it contained. The fear I felt on the first leg of my trip hadn’t lessened, but my courage increased.
On the way back, the night sounded quieter than it did previously. Insects and birds declined to chirp at this late hour, and other nearby animals had finally decided to rest for the night. As I walked I only heard the sound of dry leaves crunching beneath me as my feet hit the ground.
The calm of the forest made me feel at home in a way. Now, I felt welcomed rather than rejected. Ahead of me, lied a break in the plant life. I knew that behind that break, was the cabin which marked the end of my mission, but I almost felt compelled to stay. As I left the forest, I waved goodbye to the peaceful serenity deep inside it.
When I woke up in the morning, I saw everyone in the cabin crowded around my bunk. I stepped down to see them passing something between themselves. Confused, I snatched the object for myself, to find nothing more than an unassuming picture.
A white border surrounded the picture on each side, with the bottom having a larger border than the remaining sides. The front side of the card had a glossy finish coating it, although on the back this coating was absent. It had no imperfections in the forms of rips, tears, or fading of the colors. Each corner had a sharp point to it, with none of them being crumpled to any extent.
The most significant aspect of the photograph didn’t come from its brand new condition, but its contents. It depicted the young boy with glasses kneeling on a wooden floor. The picture captured him staring up into the camera, suggesting the photographer stood above him, looking down.
I scanned the group that had gathered around my bunk, looking for the boy in the picture, but none of the faces in that crowd belonged to him. My heart sank as I realized what had happened.
I snatched the picture and bolted out the door. I sprinted the approximate quarter-mile it took to get to the counselor’s cabin from my own. When I got there, I could feel my heart beating in my chest, as I swung open the door hoping to inform my counselor.
While searching for him, I noticed that on the back wall of the cabin hung a board with an attached paper that spelled out “Missing” in big black letters. Below the word, thumbtacks fixed three pictures to the board. As I stepped closer to inspect it, I noticed the third picture contained the same boy as the one in the photograph I held, the only disparity between the two pictures being a slight difference in the angle the picture was taken.