The forest was quiet when they got there.
It was hard for Andy to go along with it, but he did. Given, it wasn’t without profuse amounts of groaning and cyclical complaints that he could be anywhere else. If he wasn’t on this camping trip, though, he would be at home, eating ice cream, playing League of Legends, and racking up points on an already fully leveled character.
Andy himself was an as-of-yet-to-be fully leveled human being. He had lost touch with his family – no, that makes it seem like an accident. After a fight with his grandmother about life choices and how he’ll never amount to anything, he decided it was best that he just avoid them, for the most part. Which he was fine with, except his little brother, Tommy, didn’t have much in the way of family to teach him the way of life, not anyone young, at least. So he agreed to join his grandparents, uncles, and his sole sibling on their biannual family outing.
The worst part was over – the initial car ride. He’d opted to drive with his aunt and uncle in lieu of terrible conversations with his Grandmother. Soon as they pulled in and found a nice clearing, Andrew helped Grandmother pull her things from the SUV while Grandpa and Uncle Roger started setting up the tents. Aunt Mavis and her husband Tyler worked on the rest of the supplies. By four o’clock they were done, and Mavis and Grandpa worked on getting food together for everyone. Tommy kept wandering off, and being the sole reason his brother agreed to the trip, Andrew kept a close watch on the kid. His little brother disappeared behind some bushes.
And then there was a scream. Goosebumps racing up his arm and his heart in his throat, Andrew jumped the bushes – “Oh shit!” – and tumbled down a short hill, scratching up his arms and getting twigs stuck in his hair. When Andrew’s fall came to a halt, he looked over and saw Tommy with his shoes and socks off, splashing about in a small creek he’d discovered. Andrew groaned and got up, wiping himself.
“Dude, don’t scream unless something bad happens, you’ll freak us all out,” Andrew whined, walking over to the creek, motioning up to the bushes he’d jumped over, where the rest of the family waited. Uncle Roger and Mavis were clearly laughing at his failed rescue mission.
“I didn’t mean to. A fish bit my toe,” Tommy responded. His face was red.
“You kids wanna come back up? Dinner’s ready,” Mavis said.
The brothers headed back up the short hill and walked around the bushes this time. They sat around the campfire while Roger helped everyone to weenies, salad, and coleslaw. Grandpa looked around a bit and a grin creeped onto his face.
“You boys wanna hear a ghost story?”
“Yeah!” Tommy ejaculated.
“I guess,” said Andrew.
Grandpa looked around at everyone, a seedy grin on his face, and poked at the fire. “We’ll wait for your Gramma to get back, this one’s her favorite.”
By this time, dusk was upon the group, and the flickering of the fire was every bit as cheesy as Andrew hated. He sat back in his lawn chair, pulled out his phone, and checked the time. 7:06, but he didn’t care. He wanted to use his phone, but service was dead, so it was a purely habitual check. With the conversation lulled in preparation for Grandpa’s story, everyone started to notice the only sound they could hear was the popping wood and the dull roar of the campfire.
“Huh, usually ’bout this time you think you’d hear crickets,” Roger muttered.
“Maybe they think we’re predators,” Mavis offered.
“Honey, when you ever been anywhere that don’t have crickets? Or birds? We live in the city and we still hear ’em,” her husband mused.
“I don’t know, Ty, I just…” she trailed off, hearing the twigs break as Grandmother returned to the group.
“There you are, sweetie, we’re about to tell some ghost stories, think you might recognize this first one,” Grandpa said, standing to help her sit down. He goosed her on the way down, much to the chagrin of everyone.
“Alright,” Grandmother responded, her voice a little hoarse. Grandpa paused a bit, waiting for her to settle in and letting the atmosphere and the lonely cackling of the fire set the stage for him.
“Now you kids know my Gram was an Injun, don’t you? Taught me a few things, so’s I can remove warts and do a bit of hypnotism.”
“Did you fight any cowboys?” Tommy asked. Andrew sighed, and despite himself loved his brother for his dumb question.
“Hey now, I’m not that old! Cowboys were all gone by my day – ‘cept for Clint Eastwood, ‘course. Back to my story, you hush.
“Now, Gram used to tell me about these… things… in the woods. Said they lay in wait for a group of hunters or nomads to show up. They think everything’s all peachy-keen ’til little by little they start to go missing, no one knows where to. Gram said she was with her dad on a fishing expedition once with a few others in their tribe and a few white folk. The tribesmen all had these beads they’d carry with them to ward off bad spirits: crystals, some gems, precious stones. Gram didn’t have one, bein’ unsuperstitious and all. Took a lot of fighting with her dad to get away with it, and she had to promise she wouldn’t leave his side. But couple of the white men went off on their own, said they could hear a creek off in the woods they wanted to check out. One of the tribesmen kept a listen for them as they went over the itinerary for their trip. Gram said it was then she heard this awful noise, like a babe screeching in the distance. The other tribesmen didn’t hear it, but it had Gram on edge ’til the white men got back. Two of them showed up, and her dad pointed out three of them’d left. ‘Must be takin’ a piss,’ said one of them. The other nodded, and repeated back in this stilted voice, almost mimicking his fellow, ‘must be.’
‘Say, what’s your name?’ the watchman asked, cocking his head at the white man. He didn’t respond for a minute and the other man answered for him, ‘His name’s Eric, mate.’
‘Didn’t ask you,’ said the watchman, eyes boring into the other man. Eric inflected his name just the same as his friend.
‘Hey mate, cut that out, y’hear?’ said the white man, rapping a knuckle against Eric’s arm.
‘Cut that out, mate’ Eric said back, his words chopped together.
The tribesmen drew their fishing spears on the man, while Gram’s dad pulled her behind him as she hugged his waist and another man pulled the other white man aside. Eric let out a shrill cry that Gram tried to describe to me once, but I was little and would get too scared. After she gave me a hug, and calm me down a bit, she’d tell me how Eric managed to fight off all the spears and dive into the forest. Said they hightailed it out of there as fast as they could. Some point the white man yelled stop. He’d found the body of his friend Eric, or at least they thought it was. His skin was all peeled off, but the white man said he knew it was him, his pack was all strewn about.'” Grandpa paused there a bit, his hand circling Grandmother’s knee. He’d caught Tommy’s reaction to the gore and had to break the tension with a laugh.
“Don’t worry, boy, it’s just a story,” Grandpa offered, hitting Tommy on the side of the leg with the back of his hand.
“Well, Gramps, I think we can safely say you scared the bejeesus out of my little brother,” Andrew said.
“But not you, right my boy?
“As to be expected. Takes intelligence to fear, know that what goes bump in the night is a thing to avoid.”
“I imagine that’s why we’re in the middle of a forest, isn’t it?” Andrew responded, looking around, doing his best not to show his grandpa how much the story creeped him out.
“Dad, I hate that story,” Mavis muttered, leaning into her husband.
“This seems like a great time to go to bed,” Roger laughed, rising and stretching as he walked over to his tent.
“Guess we’ll turn in, too,” Tyler nudged Mavis, “gotta get up at dawn tomorrow, right?”
Mavis groaned as she followed her husband into their tent. The others stayed outside for a while, until the eery quietness of the forest got to Andrew and he convinced his brother they should go to sleep too, while Grandpa and Grandmother made their way into their tent.
Andrew would have gone to bed sooner, but he was trying real hard not to be rude to Grandmother. She didn’t make it, easy, though, kept staring at him with this strange look all the way through Grandpa’s story. That’s what really crept him out, with her staring the entire time. Made him think she could be one of those things Grandpa talked about. But he knew Grandpa’s Gram never went on any hunting trips; she was a weaver. It was just a dumb story.
After the brother’s snuggled into their sleeping bags, Andrew tried to sleep. The quiet was already interrupted by Mavis’ and Roger’s snoring (family trait, courtesy of Grandmother). And apparently, under cover of the jet plane inhalations of their offspring, Grandpa and Grandmother had decided to…
Andrew buried his head in his pillow. This was just the worst. At least Tommy had passed out hardcore.
Andrew could still hear his grandfather a bit; “yeah, right there,” and “not so hard, Millie,” poked through all the way up until Grandpa’s half-grunt-sigh-thing. At least the noises had stopped. Andrew just had the snoring to contend with now.
A few minutes later, he heard a tent opening, and footsteps.
“Sweetie, come right out, alright?” came Grandmother’s voice, somewhat disconnected, somewhat hoarse. Andrew didn’t know who she was talking to, but she didn’t sound right. He pulled his sleeping bag closer, and tried to concentrate on the light snoring of his brother.
“Come out, right, sweetie?” she tried again, her words sounding the same, even in a different order. Andrew stilled his breathing, hoping he would come out of this night alive.