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There was something undeniably creepy about that forest. A plague of beetles had set upon the place some years earlier and left dozens of trees dead. Their rotting husks were now strewn across the forest floor, their gnarled limbs reaching out to snatch unsuspecting passersby. The beetles had gone by the time that we had reached that forsaken place, but I could see their ghosts from the corner of my eye, wriggling out from their victims, already searching for more. I often imagined that I could feel them crawling up my legs or dropping in my hair, burrowing, burrowing, burrowing into me until they had sucked me dry. I could see similar thoughts whirring through my bunk mates’ eyes as we trudged on through that surreal place.
The fear was only intensified by the silence, the great distance from civilization. The eerie quiet filled us with the sense that we were utterly alone, save for the watchful demon that followed closely in our steps, waiting for a chance to strike. Even the birds and other fauna seemed to have abandoned that place, as if they too had been scared off by our imagined ghosts.
We were not often allowed to go there, due to the dangers of the felled trees, so we jumped at every chance. True, it was terrifying, eerie, even somewhat macabre, but we rejoiced in this. It was a break from the norm, a fantastical adventure like those in our well-worn novels. The fact that it was normally forbidden only served to make it more enticing to us.
But despite the perceived magic of the place, only one particular memory of it stands out clearly in my mind. A huge group of girls had been brought out to a clearing near the woods to practice archery. There were dozens of girls and only five targets, so we had to wait quite a while to take a turn. During this time, of course, we elected to play in our forest. We played a game called survival, which was similar to hide and seek. One person would be it, and the rest of us would run out into the woods to hide. The only real rule we had was that if “it” could call out the color of your shirt and your approximate destination (“blue shirt in the juniper bushes), you were out. Other than that, anything was fair game.
My friend Anna and I preferred to push out as far into the woods as possible, until we were so far out that we couldn’t even hear the excited cries of the archers. Out there, it seemed as if we had been transported to a different world; all of the problems of the real world fell away, and all that was left was what imagined. We had our own secret world, one that could be whatever we wanted it to be, where we could be anything we wanted to be.
As the game continued, the other girls began to push out as well, and soon we could hear them rustling around us. A constant murmur started up, the sound of hundreds of whispers swirling through the woods, that was only broken by the occasional call by “it.”
Anna and I were comfortably perched on a patchwork of logs when the steady din was suddenly broken by an agonized cry. For a moment, we were certain that the sound was a creation of our own minds, that we had become so enthralled in our fantasies that we had convinced ourselves they were real. But the other girls reacted also, slipping out of hiding spaces and running to the source. A low cry continued to emanate from somewhere to our left, something so primal and pained that we could barely stand to hear it.
We began to crash through the underbrush, tripping over stray logs as we went. After what could only have been a minute or so, we saw something several meters away. It was hard to get a clear look because they were moving and the trees partially blocked our view, but we could see one of our counselors, carrying what looked like…. well, a dead body. At the very least, there was a girl with long blonde hair and blood all over her pale body, so much that it was impossible to tell where it had come from.
I noticed another girl following in their wake, tears streaming down her face. I called out to ask her what had happened, and despite her heavy sobbing, she managed to convey that Taya, a friend of ours, had somehow impaled herself on one of the husks.
The logs seemed to have taken on a new menace as we made the perilous trip back to the clearing, and anytime one of us tripped we both lost our breath. The horror that had once been a game now felt far too real, far too dangerous. We picked up pace as we went, filled with the irrational sense that there was something following closely on our tail, breathing down our necks, reaching out to snatch us away. By the time we burst into the clearing, we were flat out sprinting.
Most of the other girls were already there, standing in a half circle around Taya, who was lying on a neatly placed pile of logs.
“What’s happening?” I whispered as we pushed into the crowd, “Is she alive?”
“Yes. Apparently she tripped and landed on a branch from one of the fallen trees. Took out a huge chunk of her knee.”
We had finally managed to get a clear view of her by then, milk white, with blood running all down her legs as one of the counselors tried to bandage it. It was utterly gruesome, one of those moments when you want nothing more than to look away and wash your mind clean of the images, but you can’t help but look on with morbid curiosity.
We were on our way back to camp only a few minutes later, but no matter how far away we got, I could still feel that that forest under my skin.