“In the morning, she goes to wake her friend, so she won’t be late for class. She doesn’t realize right away why her friend isn’t answering, why she’s not getting up. Then she pulls back the blanket. Her friend’s throat has been cut open so deeply that her head almost falls off when she puts a hand on her shoulder. Her dead eyes staring up in horror. That’s when the girl notices… above the bed, scrawled in her friend’s own blood, are the words, “Aren’t you glad you didn’t turn on the light?”
Chloe laughed and clapped her hands. “Jesus, Sarah, the look on your face! It’s a story. Relax.”
“It’s not just a story- you hear about things like that happening all the time. My cousin’s ex-boyfriend knew someone that actually happened to.”
“No he didn’t. That’s what everyone says and it is never what actually happened. Because it’s a story – it’s not real.”
“I like stories better when there’s some kind of a happy ending.”
“Happy ending? What are you, twelve? Besides, those aren’t the kinds of stories you tell when you’re camping.”
Sarah rolled her eyes. She had never been camping before and was starting to regret being talked into it. But she’d known Chloe since the third grade – this wasn’t the first little adventure she’d been talked into. “I don’t even know why I agreed to come out with you.”
“Me neither, actually. I was a little surprised.” She grabbed a few small sticks from the pile next to her and threw them into the fire. “Especially because of what happened here.”
“Don’t start, you already scared the crap out of me. You hit your quota for the night.”
“It’s not a story – it’s history,” Chloe said, leaning forward. “You can Google it.”
“No reception out here, remember?”
“Fine. Fact-check it later.”
“Is there a chance in the world of convincing you to do anything else? Dancing naked by moonlight, for example.”
Chloe shook her head.
“Well, then, by all means. Go ahead.”
“It was a long time ago – maybe back in the 40’s or 50’s – when a troop of Girl Scouts came out to the woods here for a camping trip.”
“Chloe. Are you serious? Everyone and their mother has heard this story. Girl Scout troop goes missing. No clues, no suspects. Blah, blah, blah. It’s like you just said, it’s a story. No one even knows if they disappeared from these woods. Or at all, as a matter of fact.”
“Everyone says that. No one looks it up. I told you – you can find it online. The whole story’s there. The real story. And I’m telling you – they didn’t disappear.”
Sarah hesitated. She really hadn’t wanted to hear that story again. Not in the middle of the woods, in the middle of the night, with shadows pressing in on them from all sides. But she was curious now.
“So, what happened then?”
Chloe grinned and moved closer to the fire.
“The plan was to work on basic survival skills, you know, how to start a fire, how to build a shelter, how to find fresh water. That kind of thing. I guess it went well at first. Maybe they went fishing, maybe they set up their tents – who knows. What they do know for sure is that they definitely got a fire going. The trip was only supposed to be overnight, everyone was supposed to be back home the next morning in plenty of time for lunch.
“No one came back.
“And when all the parents of those girls realized that not one of them had made it home by 2 o’clock, they called the police. You can’t imagine the panic. Seven little girls and their troop leader missing. No cell phones back then, no GPS, no way to know where in the woods they might’ve set up camp or even if that’s where they still were. Most of the cops in the county, all the parents, plus friends, neighbors, teachers – practically the whole town came out to help. By the time the sun started going down, everyone started to get nervous. They hadn’t found anything and it was starting to get dark.
“Shadows stretched out on the ground and reached down from the trees. The further they trudged into the trees, the harder it got to see. Just before real dark, someone found them. They almost tripped over the first body.
“Six of them sprawled on their stomachs, a look of complete terror on their faces. It looked like they had been trying to run from something, but didn’t get far. Whatever it was, it took down all of them. Fast. They were only feet away from each other. Each of them had been slashed from the shoulder blades to the backs of their knees. Down to the bone in some places.
“The parents had to be taken away – pretty much everyone who had helped to search was in hysterics. Throwing up, fainting, some of the mothers started screaming and had to be taken to a hospital and sedated.
“They identified five of the girls and the troop leader but one of them was missing. Melissa Vare, Missy everyone called her. Her body wasn’t with the others. They wanted to find her if they could. So the cops, who were the only ones left searching, went further into the woods looking for Missy’s body.
“It was true dark when they found the remains of their campfire. And Missy. She was sitting on a rock, close to where the fire had been, nothing but a sweater wrapped around her shoulders.
“When they got close to her, tried to get a blanket on her, she started crying, rocking back and forth. When they tried to lead her away, out of the woods, she panicked and started to scream. All she kept saying was, ‘Don’t run, don’t run, don’t run.’
“They got her out eventually – I don’t know how. Maybe they carried her. They said that she wouldn’t move a muscle on her own until she was back on the road and out of the woods.
“The murders got pinned on her. Nobody liked it and I’m pretty sure no one believed it – a tiny nine year old girl mutilating six other kids and a grown woman? Then going back to sit in the dark by the burnt-out fire for more than a day? No, I don’t think anyone believed it. But they had no other answer. And Missy never spoke about it. The only two words anyone heard her say again after that night were, ‘don’t run.’
“They locked her up in an institution somewhere. As far as I know, she’s still there. But think about this, if Missy didn’t go crazy and murder her Girl Scout troop that night – then something else did. And it could still be here. Waiting.”
“You know you’re full of it, right?”
“Are you serious? First of all, that’s a true story.”
“Sure it is. Just like that mass murderer who escaped last week. I hear he has a hook for a hand and has been hanging around make-out point.”
“I don’t even know why I bother with you.” Chloe stood up and grabbed her flashlight. “Fine. I’m going to pee. When I get back maybe you can tell me a story. Like the one about the girl who let Mark Kramer get into her pants last Friday night.”
Sarah dropped the stick she’d been poking the fire with. “What are you talking about?”
“Oh you didn’t hear that one? I guess it is fairly recent. Most people don’t know about it. Yet.”
Face burning, Sarah scooted back from the fire, even though it wasn’t why she felt hot. She considered denying it, laughing it off, telling Chloe she was crazy – but what would be the point? She didn’t know how, but Chloe knew. And she didn’t want to trap herself in a lie. Besides, she had nothing to be embarrassed about. She and Mark were consenting almost-adults, it wasn’t like either of them were seeing anyone. And they’d made out for a half an hour. Maybe a little more. That’s PG-13 at best.
“I don’t know how you found out, but I don’t know what your problem is about it.
It’s not like we were doing anything wrong.”
“I don’t have a problem with you two hooking up. I have a problem with you not telling me about it. We were supposed to be friends I thought.”
A surge of guilt hit Sarah in the stomach. Chloe would manage to find a way to make this about her. But it wasn’t like that. “I was going to tell you. It never crossed my mind to not tell you. I just, I don’t know, wanted to keep it to myself for a little while. Before I shared it with anyone else.”
An emotion Sarah couldn’t quite read flared then faded on Chloe’s face. “It’s fine.
Don’t worry about it. Just – you should’ve gone after someone else. I’ve heard a lot of stories about Mark getting what he wants from as many girls as he can juggle. You just should’ve gone with someone else.”
With that, Chloe turned on her heel and headed into the trees, the beam of her flashlight cutting a narrow, white light through the darkness.
Alone, Sarah sat and waited. The sounds in the forest at night were unnerving – she had thought it would be quiet, but the trees seemed to come alive after the sun went down. And everything living in the trees. Some things she could identify, like the crickets and peeper-frogs. But there were so many sounds that seemed strange to her.
She grabbed a handful of kindling and started snapping the sticks into tiny pieces, throwing them into the fire. Chloe always pulled something like this – always managed to find a way to make Sarah feel awful about herself. And over what? Mark Kramer?
Maybe she would ask to pack it up and go home. Chloe would never let her live it down, but at this point, she thought that might be worth it. Besides, it was getting colder and the novelty of roughing it had definitely worn off. Maybe Chloe would feel the same way – enough, at least, to give in and take them back to her house.
She leaned in toward the fire, stretching out her hands and trying to warm up her fingertips. How far had Chloe gone just to pee? It had been more than enough time for her to go and come back. She should –
Sarah heard her name screamed through trees. She started moving in the direction of the voice before realizing she’d even moved. Twenty steps away from the fire, she remembered the flashlight and sprinted back for it.
Turning around, she heard Chloe scream again. “Sarah! Help me!”
She ran toward where she thought Chloe would be, trying to keep control of the black panic that wanted to overwhelm her. Nightmare images flew through her head as the words of Chloe’s story came back to haunt her. She thought she saw things in the woods, shadows and shapes moving behind the trees – and tried to ignore them knowing it was just her fear. Fear trying to crowd in on her, trying to get into her head.
Running full-tilt, Sarah tripped over Chloe’s body. She hit the ground so hard, it knocked the air out of her, stunning her for a minute. Grabbing the flashlight that had gone flying, Sarah turned around on her knees and told herself that she was not seeing what she was seeing.
Chloe was on her stomach, one arm flung out in front of her, the other trapped under her body.
“No,” Sarah said, crawling over. “No, no, no.”
She knew, absolutely knew Chloe was dead. Her skin was stone white under the flashlight, eyes open wide, staring past Sarah.
What was she supposed to do? Run for help? Try to carry her out?
“Pulse, check her pulse,” she said out loud. “That’s what you’re supposed to do.”
The light shook as she reached out toward Chloe’s neck.
Inches away from her face, Sarah saw Chloe’s eyes blink, saw her lips smile, felt something grab her hand and hold her in place.
It happened so quickly – Chloe was up on her knees and lunging at her. Sarah managed to pull free and scramble back a few feet. Her chest stung, and when she looked down, she saw a scrawl of blood from her chest running up to her shoulder. Her jacket had provided some protection, but the cut was bleeding just the same.
Chloe stood, smiling. Not hurt, not dead. Sarah’s mind tried to convince her, just for one second, that this was a joke. A terrible joke, but not real.
“What, what,” Chloe said mocking her. “You really are pathetic. And you don’t even know it. That’s the part that kills me. You have no idea.”
Blinking up at Chloe as she took a step closer, Sarah couldn’t manage to say anything. Her thoughts still trying to catch up to her situation.
“You really have that innocent act down. Sarah doesn’t drink at parties, Sarah’s always home before curfew. You don’t mind half the guys at school following you around, though, like dogs waiting for a hand out. Didn’t mind giving it up to Mark Kramer.”
Some of what Chloe said got through the storm of confusion, even though it didn’t make any kind of sense.
“Mark Kramer?” Sarah asked, her voice coming out shaky. “Who the hell cares about Mark Kramer?”
“I do. And he cares about me. At least he did until you came along with your good girl routine. I have to admit, it’s good. They all want what they think they can’t have.”
“Wait, wait – you and Mark? Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Because I never thought I’d have to worry about you.” Chloe took another step closer, raising the hand that held the knife.
Too afraid to get to her feet, Sarah shifted her position around so that at least she was kneeling instead of sitting. “This is all because of Mark?”
“No, this is because of what you did to me. And my guarantee that it won’t happen again.”
As Chloe came at her, Sarah grabbed a handful of dirt and flung it at Chloe’s eyes. It was a lame deflection, but it was all she had, and she prayed it would be enough to give her a few seconds head start.
Sarah ran. She didn’t bother dodging or ducking the interlacing branches, just ran straight through them. The only thought in her head was to get back to their campsite, back to the fire. From there, she thought she could get back to the road, at least knew the general direction. Otherwise, she might not be able to find her way out. She might get lost in here. With Chloe.
Breaking through the last line of trees and into the small clearing, Sarah didn’t stop running at the sight of the campfire and their sleeping bags. She slowed only to grab her pack, which had an extra flashlight, her cell phone – and the car keys.
She almost made it. She had a bigger head start on Chloe than she had hoped for – but Chloe had a better arm. An apple-sized rock connected with the back of Sarah’s head, and she went down, hands pressed to her scalp.
In seconds, Chloe was on top of her, using her knees to pin Sarah’s arms. She couldn’t move but struggled anyway.
Chloe raised the knife, holding it above Sarah’s neck – she could see it glinting against the black of the night sky and closed her eyes, knowing it was the end, waiting to feel the sharp metal cut through her skin.
Instead, the forest started to go dark around her. They noticed the fire at the same time, the flames burning out, getting lower and lower as the light went out. All around them, the sounds in the woods died, until there was silence. Neither of them moved –
Sarah didn’t fight to get away, Chloe didn’t bring the knife down.
Through the quiet and the dark, came the wind.
Sarah heard something in the wind, sounding like it came from far away – but was getting closer. A voice whispering to them.
Sarah felt herself shoved back hard against the ground as Chloe jumped up, releasing her. She called, “Wait!” after Chloe’s running footsteps.
Terrified, Sarah got to her feet feeling very alone. The wind picked up and pushed against her back, the voice whispering again.
It sounded like it was right behind the stand of trees closest to the clearing. And she could hear something else, too. Maybe whatever it was the voice belonged to.
Something that sounded like it was made of sticks, and leaves, and darkness. And it was coming.
For the second time, she grabbed her pack off the ground without stopping and sprinted toward what she hoped was the car. Something groaned behind her and picked up speed, dead leaves crackling, sticks snapping.
It felt like she ran without breathing, without feeling the ground under her feet. She ran with only one thought in her head: get to the car, get to the car.
Sooner than she would’ve believed possible, the tiny dirt parking lot came into view. Her blue VW was alone there.
As Sarah darted toward the driver’s side door, Chloe tore from the woods on her left. Skidding to a stop, Sarah froze, not knowing what she should do.
“The keys!” Chloe waved her over in a frantic gesture, trying to get her to hurry.
Certain it was an awful idea, Sara ran over, unzipping the side pocket of her pack to get at the keys. She made it to the car and unlocked the doors thinking, I can’t believe we made it, when she heard Chloe scream behind her.
Something hidden just behind the treeline grabbed Chloe by the ankle, and started to drag her back into the woods. More on instinct than anything else, Sarah dove and grabbed Chloe’s hand, trying to pull her back.
“Don’t let me go!”
But Sarah already knew that she was fighting a battle she had no chance of winning. Whatever had Chloe was strong, and soon both girls were being pulled into the trees. They had already been hauled off the dirt lot and were being taken across the grass. There wasn’t a choice, not really. Sarah looked into Chloe’s wide, terrified eyes and said, “I’m sorry.” And had to let go.
Flailing and shrieking, Chloe was taken into the woods. Sarah didn’t waste any time, she raced back to the car, flung open the door and was clear across the parking lot before she took the time to close it.
For awhile, the only thing she could hear were Chloe’s screams clanging in her head. Then she noticed another sound, a thin miserable whimpering – and realized it was coming from her. She didn’t remember the drive – the next thing she was conscious of was pulling into the driveway.
When she got home, she switched on every light, locked every door, calling for her parents. Empty. She stood in the kitchen and cried, at a loss for what to do or even what she should feel.
Her whole body shaking, she decided to call the police. She could report Chloe missing, say they’d gotten lost and separated in the woods.
Her phone was still in her pack – in the car. There was no way in the world she was going back outside. But she had a landline still in her bedroom for emergencies.
She dragged herself upstairs and into her room. Exhausted, thinking only of making the call, Sarah didn’t notice the open window next to her bed.
Not until she felt the cold wind behind her. As the lights in her room started to dim, Sarah heard a voice whisper to her. The same voice she heard in the woods.
I told you not to run.