I have never told anyone about this… but it’s time to get something off my chest. I need to push the darkness of the one horrifying day of my childhood off of my chest like a bench press or the weight of it is going to eventually slip down and choke me to death.
So here we go.
My favorite thing to do when I was 11-years-old was playing “Army” at my friend Toby’s house. I would count down the hours, minutes, and seconds until Saturday afternoon almost every week until I would hop in my mom’s Suburban and traverse the windy roads of the foothills of the North Cascades that led up to where Toby’s family lived on a small rustic raspberry farm at the end of a gravel road.
I loved playing Army at Toby’s house most of all because his family’s multiple-acre property was loaded with forts, treehouses, little creeks, and sheds that made it seem like it was some kind of backlot set from an old war movie. On top of that, Toby’s dad was a Vietnam vet who had authentic military gear that helped us truly feel like we were battling some kind of foreign threat that had made its way to the moist, mossy forests of Western Washington.
The afternoon started just like every other one where my mom dropped me off to play Army and stay the night at Toby’s house – we loaded our packs with hard-ass military essentials like Fruit Roll Ups, Gushers, nuclear green Gatorade, and Nerf guns spray-painted black and we stomped out into the woods. Once into the near-darkness of the Washington evergreens, Toby and I would head straight to a place that seemed almost too good to be true for an 11-year-old rural boy – an underground fort.
The envy of every boy at Browning Elementary School, Toby’s dad built the underground fort based on one he had encountered in the jungles of Vietnam. Toby’s dad said he couldn’t stay in the thing for more than a few minutes or he would get flashbacks and that was good news for Toby and all of his friends as it allowed for him to stash the Playboys we had all accumulated to be stored there in relative safety.
About 25 yards from the end of Toby’s yard and the start of the woods was the rotten stump Toby’s dad had hollowed out to turn into the entrance to the fort. You climbed up into the thing, lifted up a heavy wooden door (to keep out coyotes and other animals) and climbed down a ladder into the darkness hole of the fort where a lantern to illuminate the dirt walls of the thing waited.
Just like any other day, Toby and I started in the fort, mapping out our plan of attack on a custom map of the woods around the house that Toby’s dad made for us. This day, we planned to attack a tiny little island that rested where two creeks on the property met, but we were going to have to take a special route there due to a very real enemy that hovered in the woods between the island and the fort – Colt Gaskin.
A skinny seventh grader with a jet black bowl cut and a mean streak, Colt was Toby’s neighbor through the forest and a menacing figure who rode his dirt bike through the woods that served as our imaginary battlefield. People liked to exaggerate about getting beaten up after school every day when really they just got a little bit made fun of (beatings in real life send you to the hospital), but Colt would literally hit us in the face if he saw us and he had gotten Toby really good last week when we got in the way of his dirt bike.
Our plan was to avoid Colt’s scope of range by taking a path that was just off of Toby’s backyard to the island and it worked. We were able to execute our attack on the island without any interference except for a tough counterstrike from our imaginary opponents.
However, our success made us overconfident, as we took our normal path back from the island that cut through Colt’s hunting grounds.
It was a horrible mistake. The whining rumble of Colt’s dirt bike coming up from behind us made me freeze in our muddy tracks.
Within seconds, I felt Colt’s hand slap against the back of my head and knock my camo hat off. I watched him skid in front of us, whip his dirt bike around and rev the obnoxious engine in our faces.
“Oh fuck,” Toby and I cussed at the same time and Colt skidded to a frantic stop just in front of us with the obnoxious engine of the bike still blaring.
“Ah, little fags playing G.I. Joe in the woods,” Colt snickered just after shutting off his engine and jumping off his dirt bike.
Toby didn’t wait another second, he took off in the direction of the island and I bolted as well, went in the direction of the underground fort.
I’m not sure why I decided not to run in the same direction as Toby, but it turned out to be a good selfish choice. I heard Colt’s dirt bike roar off in the direction Toby had bolted.
I figured Toby would meet back up with me after he escaped whatever ended up happening with Colt at the underground fort anyway and dove down into the darkness of the secure facility with my lungs heaving. I scrambled hard onto the hard dirt floor and took a few moments to collect my breath before I started crawling towards the middle of the fort where we left the lantern.
I started pawing on the ground where it should have been, but couldn’t find it. I at first didn’t think anything of it, we must have just put it somewhere else before we left, but that sense of normalcy evaporated when I heard a slimy cough come from a somewhere in the pitch black fort.
I froze again. I thought about calling out the name Toby with a question mark at the end of it, but there was no point, I had seen Toby run off in the other direction and the tone of the cough was far too deep to be produced by an 11-year-old.
Maybe, it was Toby’s dad? My brain thought for a second before it thought of my next move, the lighter in my pocket. I flashed the thing on and saw the worst sight my eyes had witnessed in my young life…
Sitting in one of the corners of the fort was a completely naked middle-aged man covered from head to toe in body hair. My vision was limited in the faint second of a crack of light the lighter gave out, but the guy looked a lot like the wax cavemen I had seen at museums on field trips before and he shot a look at me just before the light gave out and I tore up to the lid of the fort.
I scrambled out into the dying light of the afternoon forest assuming the naked hairy man in the fort was snapping at feet like a shark. I tumbled my way off of the stump that served as the entrance to the fort and took off deeper into the woods at a full sprint without a look back.
The woods were eerily silent as I dashed through the soggy-leafed floor in the heart of dusk that had turned the dimmer switch to nearly dark under the canopy of thick trees. The near darkness combined with the wet air of the Fall Western Washington forest created a bit of a misty fog that crept through the trees and filled my lungs with moisture as I sucked air in my sprint.
My lungs and legs could finally take no more and I slowed to a wobbly stop as a few fat drops of rain fell down from the tall trees and onto the top of my head. I keeled over, gasping for air and put my hands on the knees of my camo pants.
For a second, the adrenaline leaked out of my brain and I started to realize that I ran in the complete wrong direction. I had sprinted deeper into the dark woods, far, far away from the safety of Toby’s parents’ house, closer to Colt’s family’s house and probably actually even past it where I actually had no idea where I was…and the sun was setting.
I took a long look at my surroundings from every direction and in no way recognized any of the endless forest around me. It was just a murky collection of trees, bushes and the call of mysterious birds coming from the trees that were soaking up the last little bits of light of the day.
My first instinct was to cry. I was 11-years-old and I was alone, lost in a darkening forest with the temperature plummeting rapidly. My only comfort was knowing that Toby’s parents knew we were playing in the woods and were supposed to be in by nightfall, but I also had no idea how far away from their property I was and if they would be distracted by trying to track down Toby after his own incident with Colt.
I figured my best option was to try and start walking back in the direction from where I had come, but I wasn’t sure which direction that was. An 11-year-old with a brain coursing with adrenaline and fear, I lost track of my path and just kind of turned around and started heading that way.
Five minutes into my journey, I got the feeling that I was going the wrong way. I had seen no signs of life or anything that I recognized, so I started heading in another direction while wiping tears from my eyes.
It quickly seemed like it was a good choice once I started hearing the light trickle of a creek coming from off in the distance. I knew that there was a small creek, “Crawdad Creek,” that ran the very edge of Toby’s parents’ property. I followed the sounds of running water through some tall grass and skunk cabbage until a flash of orange neon caught my eye.
Sticking out of the tall grass just off the shore of the creek was a small tent that jutted out of the grass like the peak of a mountain stick up out of a grassy valley. I crept up to the nylon structure without anxiety, I believed that the little mobile domicile might be housing someone who could help me, but I was wrong.
I could see that the entrance of the tent was open when I walked in and saw no human presence waiting for me there, just a few scattered items on top of a crumpled sleeping bag. Noticing that one of the items was a flashlight, I figured it would be good for me to do a little scavenging as I anticipated nightfall.
At a closer vantage, the items on the sleeping bag were the flashlight, a thawed-out box of Bagel Bites, a long hunting knife with a ringed handle and a stack of Polaroid pictures. After confirming that the flashlight worked, I turned my beam of light to the Polaroids and immediately wished I hadn’t.
What I saw were those rare images so vile they immediately make you feel sick to your stomach. The first three Polaroids I scanned for the faintest of moments were of Toby naked, frozen forever in lurid poses that reminded me of the portraits in the Playboys back in the fort and the last two were of Colt in similar positions in the very tent I was standing in.
I felt stinging vomit bubble up to the back of my throat before I threw the pictures back down and shuffled out of the tent with the flashlight stuck to my hand in a tight grip of dark fear. Once outside of the cover of the tent I saw reason to quickly shut the flashlight right back off when I heard a familiar cough cut through the now completely dark forest and caught a glimpse of the naked, pale meat of the man I had seen in the fort.
I dove into the tall grass behind the tent and started to crawl on my belly towards the creek where I eventually settled underneath the safe cover of a rotting dead log lying on its side. Once, comfortable, I peeked up into the night to see the hairy man, wearing a pair of tighty whitey briefs with a bearded face covered with blood, duck down into the tent in the light of the lantern he must have swiped from our fort.
I lay frozen for a handful of minutes until the clumsy sound of snoring came beaming from the tent and I loosened up, ready to make my escape by the banks of the creek. I slowly got myself to my feet and started sneaking down to the creek in the direction I believed led back to Toby’s house.
I planned to follow the water all the way back to their property, but encountered a problem when the creek turned into a small pond that I did not recognize.
It apparently was not the Crawdad Creek that I had been following and now I was at some completely unfamiliar murky pond. Somehow though, the chilling discovery that I had been going the wrong way for an hour now was not the most disturbing thing I saw. That sight was Toby’s custom painted black Nerf gun, floating in the middle of the pond.
That sight was enough to send me scrambling back into the thick of the dark woods with my little beam of flashlight leading the way, but that was not the right choice and I knew it as soon as I felt the ground fall out from under me. I became weightless and screamed until my little body came to a hard thud.
The wind thoroughly pounded out of me, it took a second to catch my breath and figure out what happened. I now laid on the dirt floor of some kind of trap – broken pieces of wood of the fake forest floor that had pulled me in all around me.
I cried and my chest heaved in exhaustion and terror. The hole I was in looked to be about ten-feet high on each side. There was no way I was going to climb out of the thing and I let out an audible scream when I looked to my side and saw Toby’s beloved army pack that he had gotten from his dad wrapped up around one of the thick branches of the trap.
A light rain began to trickle down from the canopy of trees and drop into my already wet eyes. My little body couldn’t take much more – the cold, the walking for hours, the horror, the hopelessness of the situation – I had enough. I sat down in the mud, with my butt stuck into the cold wet ground, tucked my knees up to my face and cried into my army pants.
I sat there sulking and crying for what must have been 30 to 40 minutes before I cracked open my eyes to realize I had a ray of hope… Toby’s pack. I remembered that Toby always had his army pack loaded up with tactical gear, including a thick rope.
I tore at Toby’s pack and found Toby’s trusty rope. I started to unspool my salvation when the distant murmuring of voices froze me in my escape. Vaguely familiar adult voices, I heard them come closer muffled by the sound of the rain falling all around me. I perked up my ears to try and decipher the words that sounded like when the adults talked on Charlie Brown and slowly started to recognize who was talking… it was Toby’s parents.
They must have been looking for me.
“Help! Help! Help! Help!” I cried out into the night as I saw the beams of their flashlights cut in and out of the air above my hole. “Pleeeeeeeeeeeeeeeease.”
They probably couldn’t hear me over the rain. I went back to my work as fast as I could, throwing the rope over the edge of one of the sides of the hole hoping it would catch on something. It took a few tries, but it eventually did and I used the last reserves of energy and hope I had to pull myself up the dirt walls of the hole while trying to yell as loud as I possibly could.
Lying on my belly in the mud, I finally laid my eyes on signs of life. Off in the near distance, in an opening in the foliage was a roaring fire with the silhouettes of a few adults standing around it. I screamed at the top of my lungs as I staggered towards the people, but my wasted lungs, the rain and the rock music blasting from the camp were all drowning me out.
I was just about to the edge of the camp area when I held up for a second… something wasn’t right. As I got closer, the sounds had turned from what seemed like normal conversations to weird, unnerving howls and screams. I could see what was clearly Toby’s parents, but there was one more person who stopped me in my tracks a few yards outside of the camp… the hairy man from the fort, he stood fully-clothed now with his thick beard sticking out of the hood of a sweater, staring at the fire with a beer in his hand.
It took a second, but I eventually realized that it wasn’t actually the fire that he was staring at. He was staring at a gagged and bound Toby who was squirming just off to the side of the roaring fire as his parents stumbled around drunk next to him laughing. But his gaze didn’t remain on Toby, it shifted over to me, standing slack-jawed in the woods.
I sprinted away as soon as our eyes locked. I started tearing through the wet foliage of the forest with the rain beating upon me and my little feet pounding the ground imagining the hot beams of the scary adults’ flashlights upon my back. I ran and ran and ran until I could run no more again.
Finally out of breath, I stopped in a grassy patch of land and realized that I was actually in a large backyard of muddy grass that cut into the thick trees. Just off to my side was a rusted trailer home with its lighted windows calling to me. The family from Texas Chainsaw Massacre could have been waiting for me inside there, but I didn’t care, it was better than what I assumed was trailing me through the woods.
I staggered up the soggy wooden steps of the trailer with legs that wobbled with fatigue and fell onto the metal door with a pound. With my last reserves of power, I threw my hands against the heavy door until it swung open and I fell at the feet of a shirtless middle-aged man eating a can of pork and beans with a fork. The man licked his lips and looked down at me quizzically, like a dog looks at a bug running across the driveway.
After a few moments of looking up at the man and his raggedy beard, I realized that I recognized him a little bit and not in a good way, he was Colt’s dad. I had seen him before at parent/teacher conferences, walking through the halls in dirty cowboy boots and chewing tobacco and had watched him drop off Colt for school in a colossal Jeep with no top.
I usually would have been horrified to stumble upon Colt’s dad, especially knowing it probably meant Colt was just feet away smoking cigarettes or playing video games, but it was instead a salvation this time. I didn’t even care about Colt. I just stayed at his dad’s feet and asked if he could drive me home.
I was actually glad that Colt’s dad came off as a bit of an outlaw because he didn’t ask a single question about what had happened to me, just drove through the night to my parents’ house 15 minutes away and dropped me off just as the sun had finished rising. He gave me a wink when he dropped me off bathed in a coat of frigid morning air that had been enveloping me during the entire ride in his open Jeep.
I told my parents Toby woke up at the crack of dawn with his dad to go fishing and I didn’t want to go so I just had them drop me off. They didn’t even ask a single follow-up question, just fed me breakfast before I slunk off to play video games and tried to wash the horror from the coils of my brain.
I’m not sure exactly why I never told anyone what happened. I think maybe it was as a kid you feel like all adults are infallible and that no one will believe you. I also feel like subconsciously maybe I knew doing so would end up making the rest of my life be a giant controversy of black clouds. So I just stayed silent. When I saw Toby at school on Monday, I never said a single thing about what happened and we stayed school friends, but never saw each other outside of school ever again. Even school friends didn’t last long either as Toby started getting homeschooled the next year and then moved away. I have tried to find him on Facebook over the years (usually when I get drunk), but have never been able to find anything about him, which to me is always a huge red flag.
Well… until yesterday when I noticed two little red notification bubbles on my Facebook. They were a friend request from a heavily-tattooed Toby Gunderson and a message from him which read…
Hey man. It’s been forever and a crazy life. Just got out of prison and I have been thinking about that day in the woods. I want to know what you remember happening? Hit me up.
The message has been sitting there unanswered in my inbox for weeks. I don’t know, do you think I should get back to him?