I’m part of a writing group that meets once a month. We typically meet on a Saturday afternoon and spend several hours hanging out and discussing ideas, talking about problems we’ve been having, and helping each other with feedback from reading each other’s stuff. On the “holiday months”, which in our case has typically meant October and December, we try to making the meeting a bit more festive and it becomes more of a party than anything else.
That’s why when Colby suggested we do an overnight camping trip this October, complete with a spooky ghost tour and scary stories around the campfire, it sounded like a great idea that was more an expansion of what we normally would have done around Halloween rather than any real departure from the past four years I had been part of the group.
I was excited for it, not just because the activities seemed like they would be fun, but because these people are my friends. Sure, we don’t see each other as often as some friends, but I feel like I’ve gotten to know each of the five other members of our group pretty well over time, and I’ve reached the point that I look forward to our meetings more for the social aspect than for any help or support it gives my writing. So last Saturday we gathered up at Colby’s house and headed out in his SUV to Winter Falls wildlife preserve.
Colby said he knew one of the guys that administered the property and we had the greenlight to be there, which was cool for two reasons. First, only a handful of people were given permission to camp on the property every year, so the likelihood of running into loud, drunk teenagers camping too close for comfort was very low. Second, there was an old abandoned place on the land that was rumored to be haunted.
Now I assumed this second thing was likely bullshit, and if it had come from Alan or Janet, our two horror/paranormal writers in the group, I would have said they were just making up stuff as part of some elaborate Halloween story or prank. But all this information came from Colby, and he didn’t like horror. Couldn’t stomach it, really. He mainly wrote poetry and character pieces that were so dense with historical detail that you felt like you’d been through a class on the given period before you reached the end of the story. He was sensitive and delicate and…well, it seemed odd he’d be the one to suggest going there in the first place, but it somehow made it more believable too.
We rode with Colby onto the property, past two gates that he had the keys for and on up a winding dirt road that finally petered out into patchy grass and hard scrabble before being consumed by brush and deeper woods. I made the suggestion that we just camp in that open area near the car, but Bonnie and Susan, who were both allegedly romance novelists (but who spent more time flirting with Colby than working on their writing during our get-togethers) giggled to each other and suggested to Colby that we needed to go deeper to find the right spot. I rolled my eyes and sighed as he awkwardly smiled at them and nodded. Although it hadn’t been said, Colby was the de facto leader on this little trip, and without another word we pushed into the woods.
After the initial few feet, the walk actually became fairly pleasant. There was a cool breeze in the afternoon air, and a small, crooked path had opened up as we went past the first few trees and bushes. We walked for probably thirty minutes before coming to a clearing that Colby was a good spot to set up camp. Looking at his watch, he said if we could get our tents and stuff set up quickly we’d have around a hour of daylight left to start heading to the haunted building he started telling us about.
He told us that at one time it had been a private home owned by a family known for their strange ways and practices. He said this last part with a theatricality that I hadn’t known he was capable of, raising his eyebrow as he lowered his voice to a gravelly rasp. Eventually the family died off or something, because it became an orphanage of sorts, taking in troubled children that were having a difficult time at home or at other orphanages that couldn’t or wouldn’t tolerate their behavior.
“Are you saying this was a baby prison?” By this time we were actually walking with him away from the finished campsite, and I regretted the question as soon as I asked it. I liked Colby, and I didn’t want him to think I was making fun of his weird attempt at a scary story. But he just nodded and grinned at me.
“Kinda yeah. Not babies, but some of the children were very violent or deranged. That lasted a few years, but it seems like a lot of the children got worse living at the orphanage, not better, and eventually the place fell into such ill-repute that business dried up and the house was shuttered for good. Since that time, no one has lived there, but there are several accounts of people hiking or camping nearby and having…incidents.” Again, the raised eyebrow as he looked around at us like an old vaudeville villain. It was kind of cute in a dopey way.
Bonnie tittered at him. “What kinds of incidents, Colby-poo?” That was one of her cloying nicknames for him when she was feeling especially whorish. Like usual, he blushed when she said it, looking away before continuing. I wanted to punch her.
“Well, hearing voices when no one is there for one thing. And more than one account of seeing lights or faces at the windows of the old house. That kind of stuff.”
Susan, not wanting to be left out, grabbed his arm dramatically as she looked up at him with doe eyes. “This sounds scary. You going to protect us?”
Colby gave an awkward laugh and nodded. “Yeah, sure.” He looked up at me and smiled. “I’m sure we’ll all get through it okay.”
The house was impressive and impressively creepy. Large swaths of moss lay draped across most of the roof, but even with several of the windows broken and its weathered skin of yellowed paint and warped, rotting wood, you could see what a beautiful house it had once been. Four stories tall, with thin columns going up to a large balcony on the second floor, it looked far too stately and regal to be stuck in the middle of these dark woods being slowly consumed by decay. Yet at the same time, it somehow seemed to fit its locale perfectly. The front of the house reminded me of a face—an ancient, moldering face that stared at us with cold contempt as we shuffled across what had likely once been a well-manicured front lawn. I suppressed a shiver as I unconsciously dropped my gaze.
Looking back at Alan and Janet, I saw they had similar expressions of both awe and apprehension. I leaned toward them and tried to sound nonchalant. “This place up to snuff, spookinesswise? It seems to be pretty creepy to me, but I’m no expert.”
Janet looked at me and beamed. “Yeah, this place is badass!” Alan nodded his agreement before going back to fumbling with his phone as he tried to take a picture. Colby noticed him and frowned.
“Come on, man. Leave off with the phone, will you? We’re here to experience it, not look at our phone screens the entire time.”
Looking sheepish, Alan nodded and stuffed his phone back into his pocket. I almost said something then, as I didn’t like Colby bossing Alan around like he was some kid, especially when in truth Alan was probably five years older than any of the rest of us. But then Colby was excitedly telling us to come on, that he had a key for this place too, and I went along, pushing my irritation and doubts aside.
He unlocked the front door without any problem, but it took him and Alan shoving it hard to create a large enough opening for us to squeeze through. The afternoon light had already been fading, and once we were inside, I realized we had left the sun behind. We all pulled out our phones then, using flashlight apps to light our way as we moved down a trash-strewn front hall that lead to a large room that had possibly once been a small ballroom or massive parlor. Now it was a black ruin—a tangy, putrid smell filled my nose as I sent a wash of electric light over moldy walls and dangerous-looking floors.
“I don’t know about this, Colby.” I didn’t want to be a party pooper, but I was already having images of someone falling through the floor or getting sick from breathing in all this rot. I could see that Alan and Janet were feeling the same way, and even Susan was starting to look uncomfortable. I noticed Bonnie scowling at me, but I ignored her as I went on. “I’m just worried this place might not be structurally sound, you know? I don’t want someone getting hurt.”
He nodded and smiled. “I know it looks rough. But listen. I’ve been here once before and it really is safer than it looks. Just go where I go, and if anyone get too worried, we’ll stop and leave. Fair?”
I wanted to say that I had already said I was too worried and wanted to go, but I let it go. I was probably being overly cautious, and as long as we were careful it should be fine. And it was, at least at first. The house was very creepy, and we heard the odd sound or two, but there was nothing too remarkable.
After walking around inside for a few minutes, we split up into smaller groups to explore a bit. Surprising no one, Bonnie and Susan had gone with Colby, while I had gone with Alan and Janet. I didn’t like splitting up, but I was trying to not worry and get into the spirit of our adventure.
We spent some time wandering around the main floor, as I had no interest in trying the stairs or the flooring on the upper levels. The house truly was massive, with numerous halls weaving between different rooms large and small. Alan, Janet and I finally started working our way back toward the front of the house when I turned a corner and ran into Susan, the odd bubblegum-scented perfume she always wore assaulting my nostrils as we bumped into each other. She let out a yelp and then smiled nervously at me.
“Shit! I got turned around and separated from Colby and Bonnie. Glad to see a friendly face again in this place!”
I smiled and then winced slightly. “Poor Colby. Bonnie has probably attacked him by now.” Susan surprised me by letting out a short laugh and nodding.
“Yeah…I think he’s cute and all, but not really my type. I just like joking around a bit. But Bonnie…yeah, she may hurt that boy.” We both laughed again, trying to stifle it as Alan and Janet came around the corner.
We walked on for a bit when I thought I heard Bonnie’s voice. Thinking about what we’d just said, I decided I might as well try to intervene…if Colby wanted any intervening. I dropped back and went in the direction of her voice, making a point to call out to them well before I walked up on something I shouldn’t see.
I got no response, and as I walked to where I thought she had been, I saw no sign of either of them. I was in what had once been a large kitchen, white tile walls painted with blue roosters and hens forming a weirdly quaint procession around the perimeter of the room. There was an old-fashioned kitchen hearth containing a large cast-iron pot along one wall, and as I watched, I thought I saw shadowed movement in the ashes underneath the pot. My first thought was rat, but whatever it was, I wanted no part of it. I headed back the way I came, regretting ever leaving the group in the first place.
That’s when I rounded another corner and saw Bonnie and Colby. At first I thought they were embracing, but then I realized he was behind her and she didn’t seem to realize he was even there. His light was off and I could only make out his outline from the reflected illumination of her phone’s light hitting the rotting wall in front of them. It struck me as odd so I stopped and watched for a moment. Colby lifted his hand and placed it on the back of her head while uttering a single word.
Bonnie jumped and let out a little scream as she turned around. I couldn’t see much of their faces in the phone’s meager glow, but I could hear the fear in her voice as she spoke, although she tried to hide it and turn it into a joke once she saw who had touched her. “You scared me, you asshole! You’re going to have to make that up to…”
“Hey, you guys ready to go?” I don’t know why I blurted it out, but I didn’t want to be in the house any longer and for whatever reason I didn’t feel right leaving Bonnie alone with him any more. I expected a glare from Bonnie as I shined my light on them, but instead she looked relieved. For Colby’s part, he just gave me a thin smile and nodded.
“Yeah, I think we’re done here.”
We were all fairly quiet on the way back to the campsite, though I noticed that neither Bonnie or Susan seemed interested in sticking close to Colby this time. I didn’t know what to make of what I had seen, and as we settled into cooking hotdogs and joking around, things began to feel more normal again. By the time we were taking turns telling scary stories, I had almost decided I’d just made a mistake thinking anything was going on beyond a guy trying to scare a girl he liked.
But when it was getting close to my turn to tell a story, I got up to go to the bathroom as I racked my brain for something that could even vaguely compete with Janet’s story about her mother’s dead twin sister or Alan’s tale of “waterbabies” that drag people into a nearby lake. I found what I hoped was a non-poisonous bush and squatted down, my gaze going back to the campfire and my odd collection of friends laughing and talking there. Their shadows were flung giant against the tents and surrounding trees, dancing and shifting in the ever-changing flicker of the firelight. That’s when I noticed it.
Bonnie had two shadows.
One was like the others—vague and ill-defined, but still an amplified and distorted version of her silhouette. The second…the second was something very different. It was much darker and almost seemed to have a substance to it. It moved, but in a way that was discordant and wrong, out of sync with the fire or the other shadows. And its shape. Its shape was more defined than the others and much more horrible because of that added definition. I didn’t know what it was, but it didn’t resemble anything human.
I pulled up my pants and strode back to the camp. My heart was thudding, and the last thing I wanted was to be near either Colby or Bonnie, but he had the only car and I wasn’t staying out there any longer. I told them that I was sick. Badly sick and I needed to go home.
Alan and Janet made disappointed noises, and Bonnie and Susan gave no real argument or comment at all other than Susan asking if I needed anything, but my eyes were primarily on Colby. He just looked at me, his expression seeming sad or disappointed except for his eyes. His eyes were hard and distant as though he was considering something, doing some kind of dark arithmetic behind that gaze. After a few heartbeats, he just nodded with a small smile.
“Sure. There’s always next time.”
The ride back to his house was the longest three hours of my life. I was exhausted, but there was no chance I was falling asleep in the car with either of them. While I didn’t know what was going on, I was past doubting myself or putting myself in any more danger than was necessary to get home and away from them.
So I sat in the back with my hand on the door handle in case I needed to make a hasty exit, fast moving asphalt or no. I talked very little, and when we reached Colby’s house, I was out of the car before it made a complete stop. Someone yelled that I was leaving my sleeping bag behind, but I didn’t turn around. Fuck it. They could keep it.
When I got home, I locked my door and checked all the windows. It was after sunrise before I finally fell into a fitful sleep, and even then I was plagued with dreams of being trapped in that house with shadows chasing me through the dark. In the first few days after that, I kept expecting to see Colby or Bonnie or both. Coming around to check on me or deal with me or…something. But there had been no sign of anyone.
I have stayed in my apartment most of the time since then, but this afternoon I finally had to go out to get groceries. I was nervous the entire time, but I never saw anyone I knew, and I made it back home uneventfully. Yet when I walked into my apartment, I froze.
Bubblegum. I smelled bubblegum.
I dropped my bags and stepped back into the hallway. After several seconds of silence, I reached in enough to turn on all the lights I could get from the switches next to the door. Nothing seemed out of place, and there was no sign of anyone. My heart thudding, I picked up one of my grocery bags containing several weighty cans and began to explore my apartment with the makeshift weapon. There was nothing there. Well, except for the singular smell of that bubblegum perfume in several spots throughout.
I locked the door back and went to sit down at my laptop to write this all out when something made me stop and go to the window. I had gotten in the habit of looking outside frequently in the last few days, always wary of some sign of Colby or Bonnie. But there had never been anything out there. Until now.
Across the street on the far sidewalk, I saw Susan and Alan standing together holding hands. Holding hands and staring up at me. That was five hours ago, and they’re still out there.
They haven’t tried to come in or communicate with me, but they also haven’t moved from their spot in all that time. They just stand and stare, waiting. Waiting for me to give up and come out so they can get me for…something. And while I don’t understand enough to know exactly what they want to do with me, I have a strong suspicion.