Last summer, I worked as a camp counselor — I won’t say exactly where, but I will say it was somewhere in the Midwest.
The camp is miles and miles away from the nearest town, and that town has maybe only a couple hundred people living there.
Campers live in these tiny wood cabins — there’s no internet, no electricity, no gas and heat.
I was counselor to a group of boys. I was to teach them how to start a fire, build a temporary shelter, navigate using the stars, and identify poisonous plants.
Every week, we would trek a few miles away from the cabins to camp out and put our skills to the test.
I used to be close with three other counselors: Springjack, Tater, and Bravo.
It was the last week of camp and we were all sad that it was ending. Of course, we were happy to get back into civilization. But before we were to leave, the camp counselors and the campers had to do maintenance on the campgrounds to make sure they would still be standing the next summer. Springjack, Tater, Bravo and I decided to do all of the maintenance together and get it out of our way so we’d be able to clear up the rest of the week for easier, menial tasks. We divvied up parts of the site — Springjack and I were to clean up “Roundtop Hill” while Tater and Bravo were to clean up “Ironhide.”
I had originally wanted to clean up “Ironhide” because it was supposed to be a very old campsite, and I wanted to rebuild it to say that I had done it. Tater and Bravo teased me about it, but it was all in good fun. I can’t say I wasn’t jealous, because I was. “Roundtop Hill” was situated just about four miles north, northwest of the cabins, and “Ironhide” was just half-a-mile east of “Roundtop Hill”.
“Looks like we won’t be too far away,” Springjack said, looking at the old, handdrawn map.
“Yeah, if we’re done before you, we’ll come and help out,” I said.
“Sounds good to us,” Tater said. “Make sure to bring some good food for the campers. They’re going to be starving after the hike and the construction.”
The next day, Springjack and I, along with 12 campers made our way to “Roundtop Hill”. We made good time and made camp before we set out the clear the grounds of debris, growth and other things. Just as soon as we started, a camper ran up to us and pointed to the firepit.
“It looks like someone’s been making a fire in there,” he said. “I don’t think it was anytime recent, but it’s still weird to see someone’s been making fires here.”
Springjack, the boy, and I walked to the firepit. I guessed that the fire was at least two to three weeks old. That means whoever it was, was here while we were in our cabins south of the site. We were on full-alert after the discovery. Thankfully, we didn’t find anything out-of-the-ordinary after.
I had planned a surprise for the campers, as a going-away feast. I had brought up chocolate and marshmallows for s’mores, but for some reason, I had forgotten to bring graham crackers. Bravo had said to me before that she was going to make s’mores for her campers, too. I pulled Springjack aside and asked if he’d be alright with me walking over to “Ironhide” to see if they had extra graham crackers. Springjack seemed a little hesitant, but in the end, he gave me the okay.
“Before you go,” he said, “take this,” and handed me a knife. “It’s been cleansed with white ash, so it should ward off spirits in the forest.”
I didn’t realize Springjack was superstitious until then. I took the knife and told him I’d be back within the hour. The sun had gone down, but the moon gave me a little bit of light to navigate down the path. I kept my ears open for any signs of girls talking or laughing, but the most I heard was the winds rustling the branches, or mice scampering between trees. I made my way down the hill and followed the path to “Ironhide” and I found the path to be oddly well-kept for a site that hadn’t been used in what was described to be years. As I walked deeper and farther down the trail, the darker and ominous it became. I felt the hairs on my the back of my neck standing up, and I began to sweat. Ever so often, I would hear what I thought were whispers, and every step I took felt labored, and it felt as if something would step out in front of me at any moment. It was then I realized that I was surrounded by silence. I hastened my walk and hoped nothing was following me. I soon found myself nearing a clearing, with the moon high above, and the glow of a fire just ahead.
“Hey, girls,” I shouted. “Tater? Bravo?”
“Who’s there?” Bravo asked. Her voice sounded shaky and afraid.
“It’s me, Dogwood.”
“Oh, what are you doing here?”
“Just…making sure you guys are doing alright,” I lied.
I walked up to their tents and saw that they were placed very closely together. The campers watched me as Bravo and Tater climbed out of their tents to pull me to the side, out of earshot from the others.
“What the fuck are you doing?” Bravo whispered. “You scared the shit out of us.”
“Scared? Why?” I asked.
“Something’s not right here,” Tater whispered. Bravo nodded.
“We keep seeing things just beyond the tree line,” Tater said. “Thankfully, whatever it is hasn’t come out from the shadows. I’m afraid if the fire goes out, something bad is going to happen.”
“Where the fuck did you come from?” Bravo asked.
“There,” I said and pointed at the old trail. “To be honest, it was one of the creepiest things I’ve ever experienced. Did you guys use that trail?”
Bravo shook her head to say no. I felt chills going down my body. “Are you sure it was that trail?” Bravo asked.
“Yeah, I’m positive,” I said.
Bravo pointed at a different trail heading down to meet the main path. “This is what we took.”
“This part of the forest feels different,” Tater remarked. “It just feels different…”
“Are you two going to be okay?” I asked.
“I think we will,” Bravo said. I could see that she didn’t feel that way.
“I’ll keep watch all night,” Tater said. “I’ll keep that fire going. Can you help us gather firewood so that we don’t have to later?”
I agreed and quickly helped them gather a large enough batch of wood to last them at least for the night. Before I left, I asked them for some graham crackers, of which they gave me an entire bag.
“Be safe,” Bravo said.
I left using the trail Bravo and Tater had used. I didn’t get the ominous feeling that I had felt on that other trail. Although this was longer, I felt more at ease, and I didn’t care to feel what I had felt earlier again. When I met the main path, I double marched back up to “Roundtop Hill,” but not before noticing that the path I had taken had disappeared. Where the entrance used to be was covered with heavy brush. There was no way anyone would’ve been able to enter without seriously getting tangled in it. Shaking my head, and racking my brain for an explanation, I made my way up the hill to see Springjack and the campers around the firepit telling stories. I sat down next to Springjack and handed out the graham crackers.
“Where’ve you been?” Springjack asked. “We were afraid you were kidnapped by a phantom!”
I handed him the knife back. “No, it was nothing,” I lied. “I helped the girls gather some firewood before I left.”
“Aren’t you the Romeo?” he joked.
We let the older boys help the younger ones make s’mores and I pulled Springjack to the side.
“Don’t let the fire go out,” I said.
“Don’t let anyone go in the forest and don’t let the fire go out.”
“What are you talking about? You went in there by yourself and you’re okay.”
“Springjack, listen to me. There’s something weird about this forest. Please, listen to me. Besides, I had your knife, remember?”
He tensed up, after realizing how serious I was.
“Dogwood, dude, I won’t. Trust me.”
Springjack said he would take first watch. The boys went to sleep, but I stayed up with Springjack, just in case.
When the sun started to rise, I let Springjack take a quick nap and I started cleaning up around the fire. The boys woke up one by one and I made hotcakes for them. We finished breakfast and quickly completed maintenance around the site (which amounted to replacing rocks and removing weeds). We packed up our gear and headed back to the cabins.
At suppertime, Bravo pulled me over.
“Looks like you didn’t get any sleep last night,” she said.
“Same to you.”
“Did anything weird happen?”
“Not that I could see,” I said.
Bravo bit her lip. “Well, it was weird,” she said. “Tater and I stayed up all night, but the girls… they kept talking in their sleep and waking up crying. When Tater asked them about it in the morning, all of them saw a man in their dreams… A man with no face…”
“No way that happened,” I said.
“It did. I asked them myself, Dogwood. They all said the same thing. A man with no face who spoke in whispers.”
“Whispers.” I thought back to the time I thought I heard whispering around me while walking down that trail.
Bravo touched my arm. “Well, I’m going to get some food. I’ll see you at mess hall.”
I waved and went to my room and sat down on my bed. I thought about what Bravo said wondered if the whispering I heard in the forest was that faceless man the girls had seen in their dreams. I pulled the boots off my feet and laid down in bed, to find myself dozing off.
I had the deepest sleep of my life that night.