16 May By The Light of a Dying Fire
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"By The Light of a Dying Fire"Written by
Estimated reading time — 18 minutes
Ever since history began, mankind has been fascinated by fire. In the days of the caveman the hunter’s campfire was often the only thing that protected our prehistoric ancestors from the predators that prowled the dark. The scenario must have been terrifying as the cavemen sat around their fire knowing that death watched from the shadows. Something about this experience must have imprinted itself upon the human race back in those days, for even today a campfire can bring a chill to most people’s spine, given the right circumstances, and one of the favorite pastimes on camping trips is to sit around the fire and tell scary stories. Many may find this tradition old fashioned and cheesy, but I always felt a small thrill whenever the talk would turn to tales of the dark and disturbing while I was in the Boy Scouts. There is one night in particular that sticks in my memory, and when I tell people about it they are surprised that I am not in therapy.
People sometimes ask me what the scariest thing I have ever experienced is. They are usually surprised when I tell them that I have to think about it for a while. I may look not look like the sort of person that strange things happen to, but I have had far more than my fair share of weirdness in my life. This is one such story.
To begin with, I have to provide some background information. I am the oldest son of a large family and I live in the north-eastern United States. (I have had to fudge the names of people and geographic locations, although some people may be able to recognize the places and people I am referring to.) One of the greatest joys of my high school life were my activities with the Boy Scouts. I am an Eagle Scout and a Brotherhood member of the Order of the Arrow, scouting’s honor society, so I am no stranger to the outdoors. In fact, I so loved scouting that, once I was old enough, I joined the staff of Six Hills Scout Camp as a summer camp councilor. Like most summer camp workers, I had coworkers who were among the most awesome people that I have ever met, some who I wish I had never met, and a whole lot of people in between. The two people that I hung out with the most were my friends Topher and Joe. I actually ended up going to the same college as Topher and our camping experiences were how we became friends, but that is another story. Topher was a very logical guy who loved studying the plants and animals of the wilderness and frequently expounded upon them at length, while Joe was more bookish and shy. The three of us were about the same age, and after our Junior year of college Joe found himself a girlfriend named Ann who frequently visited camp.
Unfortunately, for every Topher and Joe there was a Kyle. Kyle was one of those people who made my skin crawl and yet for some reason most women found him irresistible. Kyle would frequently string along several lovesick girls at once, use them for what he wanted, drop them in the dirt afterwards, and then brag about it. Needless to say no one could stand him and the only reason he was on camp staff was because his uncle was camp director.
The last person on camp staff to play into this story was Bert. Bert ran the camp’s health lodge and was primarily responsible for giving out medications to the campers that needed it. The fact that Bert was in charge of the health lodge was a source of great amusement to most of the campers as he was very old and not in the best shape. In fact, he often drove around the camp in a golf cart as he couldn’t walk long distances very well. In spite of this, Bert was actually a pretty cool guy once you got to know him. He was an Eagle Scout and had traveled around the world a good deal, although he was very reticent about why he traveled so much. If you got him talking he could tell some fascinating stories about the things he had done or the legends that he had heard.
As the last week of summer camp drew to a close that year there was a sense of melancholy among the staff members. As much as the kids had driven us crazy, we would miss them. The last of the scout troops had left that morning and Joe, Ann, Topher, and I were sitting around a campfire as the last of the evening light faded. As usual, the talk turned to scary stories, but we found that we had run through most of the classic ones already. The tales of Hook Hand, Don’t Turn on the Light, and the Licked Hand had already been told and we were running short of ideas. It was Ann who finally came up with a solution.
“Hey,” she said. “Why don’t we tell each other the scariest true story that we know?”
“Here we go with BaronVonRuthless91 and that Aztec Idol again,” said Topher.
“Don’t even joke about that.” I replied. “That is a long story which I am not going into right now.”
“I’ll go first,” volunteered Ann. “Have you guys heard about those murders that happened up on the mid-state trail a few miles from here?”
We agreed that we had. The campers had spoken of little else for the last couple of weeks.
“Well,” continued Ann. “You guys don’t know the full story. The cops are treating it as a homicide because one of the guys was tied to a tree before he was killed. The strange thing is that that other man and woman who were with him were practically torn to pieces. They found parts of them up to a mile away from where they were killed. What type of man could do something like that? They also say some other hikers on the trail have been hearing strange sounds in the night.”
“Probably a coyote or a fox,” suggested Joe. “They make pretty weird sounds sometimes.”
“Not like this they don’t,” said Ann. “That’s how I found out about all this stuff. My dad is a zoologist and they brought him a recording of the sounds the hikers heard on the trail. He said it definitely wasn’t any animal he had ever heard. The strange thing is this. If some kind of animal killed those three people, how did that one guy end up tied to a tree before the bear, or whatever it was, disemboweled him?”
The thought was unsettling. We sat in an uncomfortable silence for several minutes and we nearly had a heart attack when a twig snapped it the night. There was a short huffing sound and the antlers of a large deer poked over the top of a bush. We breathed a sigh of relief when we saw the antlers. The deer was just as scared of us as we were of it and after a minute we heard it move away through the bush.
“You know,” said Topher. “For some reason that reminds me of something that happened to me a little while ago. “ Topher turned to me. “Do you remember that weird guy at the Order of the Arrow ordeal?”
“Vaguely,” I replied. “I remember you talking about him, although I never actually saw him.”
“That’s right, you didn’t actually see him because we were on different work crews. Anyhow, we were at our Order of the Arrow ordeal.” Topher turned to Ann. “It’s kind of an initiation ceremony where we spent the weekend working. We weren’t supposed to talk unless absolutely necessary. To make a long story short, there was this strange guy who showed up at my work crew and just watched us. Since we couldn’t talk we couldn’t ask him who he was or what he was doing there. He just stood in the trees by where we were working and looked at us. It was really creepy. I had to run back to the dining hall at one point to use the restroom, and he actually followed me for a little while until I ran into one of the scoutmasters. I probably should have told someone about the guy but I thought I would get in trouble for talking.”
“Well that is a little creepy,” admitted Joe. “I probably wouldn’t consider it to be the scariest thing that ever happened to me though.”
“You didn’t see this guy,” said Topher. “It was the way he looked at you. He looked at us the way a snake watches a rat before eating it. The reason I thought of this story just now is because of those noises that Ann mentioned. That night when we were walking back from the big campfire, I remember hearing some kind of weird animal. It sounded like a cross between a lion and a hyena. Is that what those hikers recorded on the trail?”
“I’m not sure,” replied Ann. “The sound my dad heard really gave him the creeps. He wouldn’t let me listen to it.”
At this point there was another sound in the forest. This one was unfortunately all too familiar to the four of us; it was the unmistakable sound of Kyle’s voice followed by a feminine giggle from whoever was with him. A minute later Kyle stepped into the firelight with a dark haired girl who was clearly drunk leaning against his shoulder.
“Well, helllloooo everybody,” exclaimed Kyle in a voice that was just a little bit too loud. I was fairly sure that he had been drinking as well. “I hope I am not interrupting anything.” When he said this Kyle made sure to leer at Joe and Ann. Ann narrowed her eyes angrily and looked as if she were about to reply with a snappy retort until Joe placed his arm on her shoulder. After a second she relaxed. Kyle had spent the previous summer trying to seduce Ann to no avail. Then, at the very end of last summer, Ann’s little brother, Tyler, had died in an accident. He had been two years younger than us and had worshiped the ground that Joe had walked on. He had been at camp with us and had been one of the kindest souls that I had ever met. He had gone out on a walk late one night, and had fallen down a ravine where he broke his neck to the point where he was almost decapitated. I still remember seeing the paramedics take out his body the next morning. The strangest thing about the situation is that the most vivid thing in my memory was the Captain America t-shirt that Tyler has been wearing. The shirt was all torn up and covered in blood, and the image still haunts my dreams. In the aftermath of the tragedy it was rumored that Kyle had taken advantage of Ann’s emotional state for his own purposes, although we never dared to ask her if this was true. Ann had only just started to recover a couple of months previously when she had started dating Joe, and every lecherous look that Kyle gave her was like a slap in the face.
“What are you all up to?” Kyle asked, pretending to not notice the death glares we were giving him. “Oh and by the way, this is Whitney,” he said gesturing to the girl hanging onto his shoulder. “She was hiking along the trail and got lost. I offered to put her up for the night until she can get her bearings. After all there is a murderer on the loose.” Whitney giggled again and the rest of us tried not to visibly cringe.
“We were kind of telling each other scary stories about things that have happened to us,” Joe said quietly. “I guess it’s my turn now.”
Kyle let out a harsh guffaw. “Is this going to be about poor baby Tyler again?” he jeered. At this point even I started to stand up to show Kyle exactly what I thought of him. Thankfully for my well being (Kyle was pale and scrawny but surprisingly strong) Topher stopped me.
“He’s not worth it,” he said quietly.
“What is Kyle talking about?” asked Ann. “Did something happen between you and Tyler?”
Joe winced. It was clear that he had not been planning on telling this particular story. “It’s kind of complicated,” he began. “The thing is…I suffer from something called sleep paralysis. It’s when you wake up from a dream and are conscious, but you can’t move. Sometimes you also see strange hallucinations. The most often hallucinations for me are long fingered shadows with way to many teeth. I would wake up at three in the morning and not be able to move. After a few minutes I would hear my closet door open, or something move under my bed, and then the shadow creatures would appear. Sometimes they would actually touch me. Even though I know they aren’t real I can still feel them brushing against my face or sitting on my chest. I had one of these episodes the night Tyler died. I woke up but couldn’t move or talk. I saw Tyler sit up in bed. I saw him look at his phone and then go outside. He must have gotten a text message or something. The point is that I saw a bunch of the shadow creatures follow him outside. I know it doesn’t make sense. There was no way I could have warned him. I just feel like I could have stopped his accident and I couldn’t”
By this point in the story there were tears streaming down both Joe and Ann’s faces. Ann gently put her arm around her boyfriend’s shoulder and the two of them quietly wept. The silence lasted for another minute before Kyle interrupted again.
“Well,” he said. “That is all well and fine but I have a real story to tell. It is the tale of what really happened to RON GRAYSON.” Kyle paused dramatically to let the words sink in. Ron Grayson had been a local lawyer ten years previously who had one day vanished off the face of the earth. They found his car abandoned in a supermarket parking lot and his cell phone in the river a few miles away, but there was never any body found. The incident was one of our areas biggest mysteries and, even ten years later, just about everybody had a theory about what had happened to him. The prevailing theory was that he had either committed suicide or run afoul of some inner city mob boss, but there was no conclusive proof either way.
“No one knows what happened to him,” I said. “The man could have been abducted by aliens for all we know.”
Kyle smirked. “That’s what you think. See this is the thing, remember two years ago where I had to spend a couple of days in jail on those drug charges?” We remembered. The charges had eventually been dropped. “My cellmate was this guy who worked for the mafia as a hired killer. He was there waiting for trial.” We raised our eyes skeptically. “I’m serious, this guy was a hardcore killer. He was a mess though. Apparently there was this hit that went wrong a few years back. He and his partner were supposed to off this lawyer who was filing charges against his boss, so his boss sends my buddy and his partner to make the problem go away. The thing is, my buddy’s old partner is like a cat. He likes to play with his food before he eats it. Anyhow he convinces my buddy to kidnap this kid. They found some homeless kid up in Pittsburgh that no one would miss, and they bring him down here. They have this lawyer tied up in the woods and they tell him they will let him go as long as he shoots the kid. Sure enough, this lawyer guy shoots the kid to save his skin. The problem is that the lawyer is a horrible shot so this kid doesn’t die right away. He starts screaming bloody murder and then something in the forest starts screaming back.”
“My buddy gets spooked, so he gets in the car and leaves his friend to finish the job. The thing is, his friend never comes back. My buddy goes up to the place they had the lawyer the next day, and there is nothing there. No lawyer, no kid, no psycho killer for hire, and no monster. Anyhow, that’s how this guy told me the story. The next day he hangs himself in his cell. I get out and I look up any disappearances around the time this guy says this stuff happened, and I see that Ron Grayson disappeared around that time. So there you have it. The lawyer was eaten by a monster. Maybe it was the same one that killed those hikers.”
Once again there was a sound in the bushes and we all jumped. Off in the distance we heard a faint howl. At the time I figured that it was a coyote, but now I am not so sure. A second later a light shone through the tree branches and there was a strange rumbling sound. We all let out a breath of relief when Bert’s golf cart came puttering around the bend in the trail. Huffing and puffing as if he had just run a marathon, Bert heaved himself out of the golf cart and sat down by the fire. Reaching into his pocket he pulled out a peppermint candy and tossed it to Kyle. Topher held out his hand for a candy as well, but Bert seemed not to see him.
“Well that’s that,” Bert sighed. “I just finished a run through of camp and everything is more or less in good shape, although Troop 83 did leave a giant archway in the middle of their campsite for some reason.”
“I guess that means we should be able to get on the road pretty early tomorrow then,” I said. “I’m looking forward to a few days rest before I head back to school for the semester.”
“I think it’s your turn to tell a scary story.” Joe said to me, and so I began my tale.
“Kyle’s story actually reminded me of something,” I began. “I think I actually saw Ron Grayson at this very camp a year or so back.”
“Uh, he’s dead,” interrupted Kyle. “Didn’t you hear my story?”
“Well it must have been his ghost then,” I continued. “It was really weird at any rate. I was doing a night patrol of the camp last summer and I thought I saw someone down by the trading post. I just caught a glimpse of him as he walked around the corner. I thought it was weird, and I didn’t recognize him as one of the scoutmasters, so I decided to investigate a little bit more. I walked up onto the trading post porch and there was this man standing in the corner looking out over the lake. There were a few scouts on the other side of the lake and the man was watching them. We stood there like that for a while; him watching the scouts and me watching him. Then he turned around suddenly and saw me. Then, I swear I am not making this up, he grew a giant pair of antlers, screeched at me, and took off into the forest. I thought about telling someone about this at the time, but I thought no one would believe me. The point is, I was reading the paper a few months ago and I saw some news report about Ron Grayson and they had a picture of him. I realized that he was the man I saw on the porch. Well, at least before he grew that pair of antlers and did his best Nazgul imitation in my face. I actually have a picture of the article on my phone if you guys want to see it.”
I passed my phone around to the others in the group and when it reached Topher he went as white as a sheet.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“Nothing,” he replied. When he saw that none of us believed him he reluctantly continued. “It’s just that that lawyer looks an awful lot like that guy who was following me around in my story.”
“My turn! My turn!” called Whitney, still very much intoxicated. “I was hiking the mid-state trail last year, just like I am doing now in fact, and one night I tried some new…” She cast a suspicious glance at Bert and then continued in a quieter tone of voice. “Stuff, I tried some new stuff. It gave me the biggest high of my life but it also made me see some strange things. So anyhow, here I am in the middle of the woods and I have to go take a crap. So I go off by myself and take care of business. Keep in mind during this entire thing the trees are trying to tell me the meaning of life. Anyhow, I am on my way back when I see Count Dracula fighting with Captain America on top of this hill. I realize that this is just the drugs of course but I still don’t want them to see me. I can hear them yelling at each other. Captain was telling the Count to ‘stay away from my sister’ or something like that. It was weird. Eventually, Count Dracula hits Captain America over the head with a stick and then throws him down the other side of the hill. At this point I decide to get out of there, so I slip away. On my way back to the campsite I see all kinds of crazy things. The trees started trying to attack me, these little goblins would laugh at me from behind the rocks, I think I also remember a bunch of bears and deer ballet dancing. It was a weird night. I’m tired, I think I am going to go to sleep now.”
With that, Whitney lay down and began to snore. None of us quite knew what to make of that story. Bert philosophically stared into the fire before tossing Kyle another peppermint candy. For some reason Joe seemed particularly disturbed.
“She said she saw Captain America getting thrown down a hill by a vampire,” he mused. The image of a bloodstained t-shirt sprang into my mind. “You don’t think that…?”
“Oh for crying out loud!” yelled Kyle. He seemed to be very unnerved by the story as well. The look in his eye resembled that of a frightened rabbit who has just detected danger. “You guys aren’t taking that load of bullshit seriously are you? She had ingested enough drugs to kill Charlie Sheen, nothing she saw had any basis in what was really going on.”
“Are we sure of that?” murmured Bert. “There may have been a kernel of truth hidden in her story.”
“Come on Whitney, we are leaving.” Kyle said roughly shaking Whitney awake.
“Not now Edward. I want to sleep.” She replied and then promptly went back to snoring.
This response seemed to anger Kyle even more. Swearing at all of us, he stormed away from the fire into the night.
“Did he really kill my brother?” asked Ann quietly.
“We will probably never know for sure,” said Bert. “Whitney probably doesn’t recognize what she saw consciously. No jury in the world would convict based on something that may have been a drug hallucination. Although the fact that she just called Kyle ‘Edward’ is telling. I saw Kyle and Tyler having a heated discussion the day before he died. I mentioned this fact to the police, but the coroner ruled the death an accident, and that was that.”
“So he is just going to get away with murder,” said Topher angrily. “Where is the justice in that?”
“Sometimes there is no justice in this life,” replied Bert. “Sometimes we have to wait for the next life for our reward or punishment. In this case, however, I think the situation will take care of itself. It’s getting late and I have a scary story to tell you as well before we go to bed. It is about a creature that was once called the Wendigo.”
As Bert began his story the fire seemed to die down and a cold wind sent a chill down our spines. Whitney let out a whimper in her sleep and curled up into a ball close to coals of the fire. The shadows at the edges of the light seemed to stretch closer, and the insects and night birds fell silent as if they too were listening to Bert tell his story.
“The Native Americans would tell their children tales about the Wendigo. They sometimes called him a Forest Giant. The story goes that the Wendigo could change his shape so that no one could see him coming or kill him. The legend also goes that a man could become a Wendigo if he ever ate human flesh. That is how the old stories used to go. When I was a lot younger I met a Medicine Man when I was doing some work on a reservation. He told me some more stories about these creatures. He said that a man didn’t have to be a cannibal in order to be turned into a Wendigo anymore; although that was still a good way to become one if anyone ever wanted such a thing. The man said that the Wendigo was in constant pain as a result of the curse. As the years went by, the pain would get worse and worse until it drove the Wendigo into a frenzy where it killed anything in its path. The Medicine Man said that there was only one way for the Wendigo to stop the pain; and that was for the Wendigo to attack someone who had been as wicked as it was, someone with innocent blood on their hands, and turn them into a Wendigo. Then the pain would fade for awhile, and eventually the original Wendigo would die after it had created a few new Wendigos. It is very difficult to kill a Wendigo although there are certain things that attract them or repel them. They don’t like light and the smell of garlic for example, while fresh blood, peppermint, and the sound of young children will attract them like moths to a flame.”
“A few years after the second World War there was a little boy who claims that he saw a Wendigo. He had gone out on an overnight backpacking trip with his troop when he became very sick. One of the scoutmasters had to drive him back in the dark along with one of the other scouts because of the buddy system. Now this scoutmaster was not a nice man. He had only recently come to the United States and he claimed that he was Dutch. However, a lot of people who were actually German claimed to be Dutch in order to come into the United States. We were not that friendly towards Germans seeing as we had just fought a war against them. The rumor in the scout troop was that this particular adult leader was one of these Germans who had pretended to be Dutch. The rumor further went that not only was this man a German, but he had been a Nazi. At any rate the leader and the two boys were driving along the back roads towards the hospital when all of a sudden they see this man standing in the center of the road.”
“The adult leader swerves the car to avoid this guy and ends up crashing into a tree. One of the scouts was knocked unconscious in the crash but the leader and the sick scout were still all right. The leader gets out of the car and goes over to where the man is standing and starts to yell at him. The man doesn’t say anything. He just stares at the leader and the two scouts. The sick scout is back at the car and managed to drag his friend out of the wrecked vehicle where the scoutmaster had left them. At this point the man in the road grows this big pair of antlers and opens his mouth wide. The scout can see that all of the man’s teeth are at least three times the size of a normal man’s teeth and are very sharp. The strange man jumps on the scoutmaster and begins to tear him apart before coming after the boys. Luckily the one scout managed to find a large hollow log and pulled his friend inside before the monster could get to them. The Wendigo spent the rest of the night clawing at the log trying to get at the boys. Around dawn it went back up to the road and crouched over the body of the scoutmaster. The boy then swore that he saw the dead leader stand up and follow the monster into the woods. The sun came up and a search party found the two scouts a few hours later. The little boy spent the rest of his life looking up information on all kinds of monsters, and travelling the world to hear the various stories about them, so he could find out what happened to him that night.”
There was a long silence after Bert finished the story. Finally Whitney let out a drunken giggle. Apparently she had woken up part way through the story.
“The scary stories were supposed to be true stories that actually happened to us,” she said.
“Sorry,” said Bert after a slight pause. “My mistake.”
“Well we should probably turn in,” said Joe. “We have a long day tomorrow.”
“Sounds good to me,” said Bert. He turned to Whitney . “Do you have somewhere to stay tonight?”
“I have a campsite a few miles up the trail,” she responded.
“You know what?” said Bert. “You can sleep on the sofa in the health lodge. Something tells me that tonight isn’t a good night to be out in the woods alone.”
Bert helped Whitney into the golf cart and the two drove off down the trail. In the distance there was a very faint sound that could have been a human scream that was suddenly silenced. Shortly afterwards there was a strange call that sounded like a cross between a lion’s roar and a hyena’s laugh. Topher, Joe, Ann, and I decided to share a tent that last night. I had a funny feeling that we would never see Kyle again and we didn’t. Topher claims that it is probably because he ran away for fear of getting arrested for murder. I am not so certain. That last night in the woods I remember drifting off to sleep with dreams full of antlered men and peppermint candies.