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The night of July 13 is one I will never forget.
I was seated by the campfire, staring into the bright dancing flames surrounded by darkness. My two friends, Dave and Chris, were sitting across from me, all of us sitting in those cheap fold-up chairs that you get at one of those knock-off camping stores.
Dave and Chris were chatting on and on about life, school, getting their driver’s licenses, et cetera. In the back of my mind, I could hear them talking, although I could not necessarily make out anything they were saying in particular. My mind had wandered off into a distant place that apparently did not belong in that conversation.
I didn’t really know why I hadn’t joined that conversation. I suppose I was just out of it at the time, but I suspected that I had a feeling deep down that something wasn’t right. Right then, I didn’t realize exactly what it was, but I just felt there was something wrong about the campsite, if not the whole campground.
On that day, which happened to be a Friday, my buddies and I had driven up to the great Colorado Rockies to host our annual camping trip. We had done this for the past few years, and had come to know each other to quite an extent. You could call us best friends. Only this year, our parents had trusted us enough to go on our own, now that I had acquired my own license, and the ability to drive my friends up (they didn’t have theirs yet).
After the long and tedious drive up into the high country, we had arrived at this small, quaint little campground located deep within the woods, nestled in a valley positioned next to a small stream. We had planned out the trip weeks in advance, and this just seemed like the perfect little place to set up camp and relax from the business of the city for a few days or so.
But when we got to the campground that morning, I felt something. Maybe it was simply my imagination, and I am not saying that it couldn’t be, but at the moment, I had sensed something deep down in my gut that something was wrong with the place. Was it the thick pine woods? I was never a fan of thickly wooded places. Was it the fact that it was so isolated? No, I liked remote places, far away from bustling civilization.
I didn’t know what it was. Dave and Chris seemed perfectly fine on the ride in, and it appeared as if they had absolutely no problem with the place, so I decided to put off the feeling. And I didn’t pay attention to it basically for the rest of the day.
We had spent the entirety day setting up camp, getting ready for the days ahead full of exciting and refreshing activities such as hiking Colorado’s great fourteen-thousand foot peaks, and swimming in the nearby lake. We had brought tents, which we set up for spending the night in, and some extra utensils and cooking supplies in order to prepare our own meals. Until I sat by that campfire that night, I hadn’t given a thought about that strange gut feeling I had felt earlier.
“Hey Jake, what’s wrong?” inquired Dave, at last breaking the conversation in order to address me. “You haven’t said a word since we got this fire going, what’s wrong?” I looked up from the fire, it’s image burned into my eyes. I stared right at Dave. He was correct, I was normally the blabber-mouth of the trio. As a matter of fact, I considered myself an expert at initiating conversation.
“Oh, nothing,” I responded bleakly, “I am just…just tired.”
“Tired? Seriously dude? It’s only what, 9:45? You stay up later than that on school nights.” Dave was notorious for staying up late, so 9:45 was like dinnertime for him. And 2:00 was his early morning on weekends.
“Why don’t we get some more marshmallows to roast over the fire?” Chris asked. “Maybe it’ll cheer things up.” Chris heaved his bulky self out of the blue cloth chair and out into the darkness where the picnic table was set up with all of the late-night camping arrangements.
After he was gone, sorting through bags and bags of our plethora of supplies, I said to Dave, “I’m gonna go to the bathroom, OK? Be back in a minute.” Maybe all I needed to do was take a break from the chitter-chatter of the campfire and take a little restroom break by myself.
I got up out of the chair, grasped the flashlight from my cupholder, and flicked the switch. I stretched my legs, and began my walk away from the campsite, out into the cold darkness of the mountain night.
As I walked, I clutched the flashlight, and shone it out in front of me, the beam illuminating the dirt path ahead of me. Occasionally the beam would shine upon a pine tree, or a seldom aspen as I walked around the loop towards the front entrance of the campground, in which the little bathroom house was located.
As I walked farther away from our site, I looked around. There were a few people that I could make out through the thick of the forest that had burning campfires, although as I said, this was a small place, with maybe ten or fifteen sites, so there weren’t many people around to light fires in the first place.
Despite the smoke that one would find at any campground, the view of the stars was absolutely amazing. Nobody could ever see anything that came close to the amount of stars I could see in the sky that night. The view I get in the city pales in comparison the beautiful dome of stars overhead, the milky stream of the center of the galaxy pouring out across the sky above. It was a truly black sky with no interference from city lights with thousands of visible little white specks, from stars trillions of miles away.
I was about halfway to the restrooms or so, although it was hard to tell due to my stargazing, when the flashlight went out. It just stopped shining. I was plunged into complete darkness for a couple of seconds, until my eyes adjusted to the faint, distant glow of campfires, casting dancing shadows over the nearby trees, interspersed with yellow and orange.
I peered down at my flashlight, questioningly. Why did it go out? The switch was still switched in the ‘on’ position. I attempted to slide the switch down, then back up again. Nothing. I did it again. Nothing. I even tried unscrewing the back, extracting the batteries, then placing them in again to no avail. I looked back. I could no longer see my campsite, and I debated heading back there. However, as I considered my options, and the fact that I really did have to go to the bathroom, I decided to continue on my journey to the bathroom hut. This was possibly the worst decision of my life.
I huddled my arms closer to my body as I walked, now submerged in near-complete darkness. The temperature had plummeted once the sun had gone down, and now that it was dark, it left me shivering in the t-shirt and shorts I wore. I should have brought a hoodie or something. I didn’t expect it to feel this cold.
And suddenly it struck me. That feeling of dread that had overcome me earlier that day, it returned. I stopped dead in my tracks. What was it? Was it truly just my imagination? It must be, I thought. After contemplating my situation for a little while longer, logic overtook me, I decided to continue walking. It was just a feeling, nothing real, or so I thought.
I had only made it a few more steps into darkness, guided only by the meek campfire light, before I heard something in the bushes to my right, away from the main campground. Again, I stopped dead in my tracks. All was silent, except for the faint rustle of leaves from the wind. I conceded it must be an animal or something such as the wind, so I continued.
As soon as I started walking, I heard it again. I stopped once more. The sound abruptly stopped once again. I took another step forward, and heard the sound. Was I going mad? Was the sound only there when I moved? Why did the sound always sound like it was in the same place, as if it was following me? These were all questions that I had no answer for, at that moment.
The feeling of dread in the pit of my stomach was becoming increasingly stronger. I didn’t know what to do. Fear was quickly taking over my senses, my rationality. I had a strong hunch that whatever I was experiencing had to do with what was making the sound, that it had everything to do with what was making the sound. I was paralyzed with fear, standing erect in the midst of a silent breeze.
I sensed something behind me. At first I thought it was maybe an itch or something, but a feeling began to build up behind me, as if someone was watching me. A feeling of an energy, possibly, of some sort. It is difficult to describe, but I just knew there was something behind me, I didn’t dare look.
Yes, there was definitely something behind me. I could feel it breathing on the back of my neck. I slowly turned around, carefully turning my head, to witness whatever it was that was behind me. At that point, I was so paralyzed by fear, that I just knew that whatever I saw would mean impending doom for me. As I turned my head, I realized I had never felt anything close to the kind of fear I was feeling at that moment, and yet, I still hadn’t even caught a glimpse at what was causing it.
At last, I saw it. Nothing. There was nothing there. I stared off into the space where I absolutely swore there was something in that very place, but yet, I saw nothing. Just nothing. Nothing. I laughed. I laughed some more. I laughed so hard out of the pure feeling of relief. I laughed until I realized there was something that I missed. All of the campfires at the campground were out, as if they were extinguished simultaneously, and I hadn’t noticed it. It was completely dark. I turned around again.
Then I noticed a light, coming from behind me, where I was just looking, but also somewhat off to the side, to the right. It wasn’t the soft, glowing orange that would indicate a fire’s combustion, but it was piercing, white light, the kind you would find being emitted from a lantern. A lantern?
A spun around on my heel in the dirt, and then I saw it. A man, standing up ahead on the dirt road, holding a lantern in his left hand, with a red handle. The lantern was all rusted, with the remnants of green paint on it’s surface. He was completely dressed in a long, flowing black cloak, the hood covering his face. Or should I say, it’s face. I stood still, in shock. It was staring right at me, motionless. My eyes drifted down to it’s right hand. What was in its right hand sent chills down my spine. In it, I saw a long knife, grasped by a pale hand, covered in blood.
It started toward me.
The light of its lantern bobbing up and down, its knife poised to attack in the other hand. I screamed, not knowing of anything else to do. Immediately, I turned and bolted off into the night.
I continued to yell, scream, do whatever I could to attract the attention of others at or around the campground. The thing was still following me as I sprinted down the slope, in the direction of the bathrooms. I rounded a corner, slipping on the gravel underneath me as I did so. I quickly recovered from the fall, the thing getting closer and closer. The only light I had to navigate by was the dim glow of the lantern bobbing up and down in back of me. I could hear its footsteps crunching on the ground, along with mine, getting louder.
The bathrooms. Up ahead, I saw the small bathroom hut. I immediately turned, slipping and sliding along the dirt as a did so, gripped the handle of one of the doors, opened it, and flung myself inside. The door slammed with a loud BANG! I scrambled to my knees to lock the door.
I sat on the floor, huddled into a ball, protecting myself not only from the biting cold, but from my own terror. The crunching footsteps from beyond the thick steel door stopped. Silence. Terror.
The scratching sound started, and it didn’t stop. Somebody was scratching the door from the outside. It got louder, and louder, and louder, until the sound was completely filling my ears. An immense terror overtook me as it kept getting louder, to the point it sounded like pounding. My heart was racing faster than it had ever before. The scratching and pounding continued to the point where I could simply not take it anymore, and I screamed. I screamed louder than I had ever screamed before in my life. The experience that I was encountering was more formidable than I had ever thought was possible.
And then it abruptly stopped.
I heard shouts and voices from outside, and rapping on the door of the bathroom. I was still huddled on the floor. I heard a muffled voice sourced from the outside. “Hey, Jake! What happened? Let us in! What’s wrong?” I took me a moment to recover and gain back my senses. After a few moments, I lifted myself off of the ground, composed myself, and unlocked the door. I opened it.
“Jake! Are you alright? What happened?” They must have seen my pale face, it contorted with the residual of fear. “Jake?”
“Uh…yeah…” I responded, not really knowing what to say. What could I say? “Did you see him?”
My friends looked confused. “Did we see who?” Dave said.
I was angry now, “Did you see him? Him! That guy! He was chasing me! He was in a black cloak, with a knife and a lantern, you must have-”
“I have now idea what you are talking about. Did we see who?”
“You must have seen him! You must have! He was at the door! Scratching, scratching…”
“I think you need some rest or something,” Chris interjected, “You seem a bit wacko right right now. Come on, let’s go back to the tent. Apparently, it’s time for you to go to bed.”
“Let’s go.” They practically were forced to drag me back to the campsite. It was as if all of the energy had been drained out of me, sucked right into space by the sheer force of horror. As we walked back, with a fresh new, working flashlight, I kept looking over my shoulder, around, making sure nobody, no thing was there. I was scared out of my mind that we would be attacked by whatever I previously witnessed.
By the time we had made it back to the campground, I had fallen into a pure state of exhaustion. All I wanted to was sleep. I barely remember walking up to the campsite, heading off in the direction of my tent, laying down in my sleeping bag, and setting my head upon the pillow, under the flickering light of the dying fire. My eyes closed, and I fell into a deep slumber…
I awoke the next day feeling refreshed, and ready for another day of camping. What had happened the night before will forever haunt me, even if I try to put it off. That morning, I did just that. I put it off. It was a beautiful, sunny Saturday morning, Saturday, July 14. We would be camping until Tuesday, when we would head back. There was no use in pondering over something that happened in the past.
But my mind could not stop wandering, reliving the images that had played out that last night. Well, I suppose it could have been a figment of my imagination! Oh sure, it could’ve been. It could have been a dream, for all I know. But if it was, it was so real, that I will never forget it.
The rest of the days on our camping trip went by in a blur of fun and excitement. At times, I didn’t even think back to the night for hours at a time, as we were so incredibly busy with hiking, swimming, walking around the campground. We would sit by the fire once the sun had dropped below the horizon, telling stories of ghosts, of funny moments, roasting marshmallows over the blazing fire.
We would busy ourselves with activities that one would expect to do on a camping trip. As a matter of fact, we had very little down time, which probably helped divert my thoughts from the events that happened that night. And I was glad, indeed. Glad to have a break. Glad to just put it off, and ignore it, dismiss it as a dream, as a false event that never actually occurred in reality.
And it worked. I felt none of that clenching fear that I had felt before, no suspicion that something was wrong. I spent time talking with Chris and Dave, as if nothing happened. As if we could just carry on with our lives, no problem.
As we were finalizing the packing-up process that Tuesday, making sure that we possessed everything that we brought, I stared aimlessly back at the site. It had served us well. Regardless of what happened, it was a nice, cozy little campground, with a nicely positioned campsite in which we had stayed on. It was the place we had called home for the past days.
“I think that’s everything!” Chris said, “Come on Jake, get in the car.” Dave and Chris were both in the car waiting for me to climb into the driver’s seat, and whisk us back to civilization. But I just stood there, staring at one thing, one object, left in the center of the campsite, that surely wasn’t ours.
A lantern, with a red handle, and a rusted surface, with remnants of green paint on it.
Credit: Anthony D.