“Well. Could be worse,” I muttered, pulling up the driveway to my new home-away-from-home. While I knew such a cheap off-campus living arrangement wouldn’t be nearly as nice as living in a dorm at the university, the pictures made my new domicile seem so much nicer. What I was met with instead was a rundown, rusty looking cabin. The lawn was overgrown, covered in dead leaves and browning weeds. A squat old tree with gnarled branches dominated most of the front yard, casting gloomy shadows over the wooden cabin. The house was painted a forest green at some point; now the paint was chipped, leaving unsightly patches of bare wood showing through.
However not many college freshman could boast moving into their own house, so I could not complain. All those summers working instead of hanging out with high school friends had finally paid off.
Setting the car in park, I hopped out to unpack my meager possessions. Luckily, I hadn’t needed to pack furniture; the landlord promised my new home would be adequately furnished.
The air outside the house had a nice piney smell to it. Birds chirped, flitting between the branches of the forest that skirted the sides and back yard of the cabin. It was one of the warmer days of fall, very warm for a late-September day in Maryland, though not quite so warm as my hometown of Miami.
It took me only a few minutes to unload the car and explore my meager new home. As promised, the house did come furnished… With stained couches, a squeaky bed, an old tv, and kitchen appliances that seemed like they belonged in an antique store.
Laying my boxes on the kitchen counter, I decided to explore the back yard. The sun shone sparsely here, where tall forest trees blocked its warmth. The actual woods started a good few yards away from my house, giving me a small yard to use for whatever.
“Hey!” I heard someone call. It sounded like it came from the woods.
“Hello?” I called.
“Over here!” Said the voice. Looking, I located the caller. A young man stood leaning against one of the trees nearest my yard. “Hi!”
“Wow. Hi! I definitely didn’t see you there,” I said, walking over to my visitor. “Sorry about that.”
“No problem!” The guys said, a big charming smile on his face. “So you’re my new neighbor then?”
“Neighbor?” I asked. “I thought I was the only one out here in this part of town.”
The guy shook his head. “There’s a few houses out here, scattered around. Not many though. I live that way,” the boy pointed through the woods behind him.
“Nice. Well, I’m Alex. I’m studying over at the university. You go there too?” I asked. The boy certainly looked like he could be college age, maybe a bit younger. He had a weird youthful look; all soft, almost androgynous features, pale skin, short brown hair, lean build.
“No, I’m taking this semester off to help my uncle run his farm. They’ve hit a rough patch, and I could use the money. Name’s Eli, by the way,” the boy said, offering his hand. I shook it.
“So I’m guessing you’re new to these parts, right?” Eli asked.
I nodded. “I’m from Florida. Miami.”
“Ah. The ‘Sunshine State’. Most people do it the other way around, you know? Move from here to Florida. Not that Maryland’s all bad,” he said, flashing another one of his smiles. “Although around this part of town we get some pretty weird shit.”
I cocked an eyebrow in confusion. “Weird? You mean like break-ins and stuff?”
Eli shook his head. “No, weirder than that. Creepy, unexplainable stuff.”
I smiled. “You mean ghosts and all that crap. Sorry dude, but I’m not a believer.”
“Not exactly ghosts. Lets just say I wouldn’t advise you to go walking around the woods at night. People hear weird noises; like screaming and stuff. Pretty freaky if you ask me,” he said, shaking his head. “Not,” he added, “that I’m trying to scare you away. The people here are plenty nice, and the woods are beautiful. Hey, I’ll tell you what. We don’t we go on a hike some day? I’ll show you some of my favorite haunts and tell you about some of the history of this place. Sound like a plan?”
“Yeah,” I said. “Sounds good! Hey, it was really nice meeting you Eli, but I have to go get unpacked. I only have, like, three days before classes start. But I’m sure I’ll see you around, right?”
“Yeah man!” He said, flashing a smile.
We said our goodbyes and I left Eli there to go unpack my boxes. I was mostly done by late afternoon, so after a “quick” thirty minute trip to the nearest grocery store, I was pretty set up in my new home.
As I lay in bed that night, exhausted from the days travels and general business, I had pretty much forgotten the specifics of my conversation with Eli. Well, right up until I heard the sound of a woman screaming bloody murder outside of my house. I shot up in bed swearing under my breath. What the hell? I thought. Getting out of bed, I padded barefoot across the bedroom floor to my window. I jumped at another shriek from outside. I could see nothing through the darkness outside my window. Swearing again, I grabbed my phone from my nightstand. My heart was thumping audibly in my chest, and a cold sweat had broken out on my back. Turning on the flashlight on my phone, I raced back to the window. The beam of the flashlight pierced through the dark and landed right on a fox. The creature let out another scream-howl of alarm and shot into the woods.
Letting out a breath I didn’t realize I’d been holding, I ran a hand through my hair. “A frickin’ fox?” I muttered to myself. Who knew they screamed like that?
Surprisingly, it didn’t take me long to fall back asleep that night. The next few weeks went by in a blur. I went to school, met some really nice guys and girls, got oriented to the campus. I had my first classes, saw Eli once or twice more, and continued hearing that damned fox in the woods. One afternoon in the beginning of October, I asked Eli about it.
“Hey, remember when I moved here, and you tried to scare me with that story about noises in the woods? Well, there’s this fox that likes to scream outside my window sometimes. Makes a helluva noise, like someone getting murdered. So much for your ghosts, huh?” I laughed.
“I wasn’t talking about a fox that day,” Eli said, his face completely serious. “I know what a fox sounds like.”
“Come on, Eli. I’m not that gullible.”
“I’m not kidding,” Eli pressed. “There’s this, well, story. About the woods, I mean. It’s sort of cliché, but I think this one is more than a story. Well, back on this town was first settled, a lot of the settlers were religious Protestant refugees from Eastern European countries. Y’know, all that stuff you learn about in your high school history class. Well, these people were super superstitious. When they settled here, people started disappearing. They blamed it on a forest spirit called a Leshy, a spirit that could take the form of anyone he wanted, and lured travelers astray. The Leshy would make strange noises to lead people into the woods, where they would take them away to their caves and torture them to death.”
“Sounds fun,” I joked.
“Not even slightly. I– I think I’ve heard the leshy. They make these, well, strange noises. Its hard to explain. Definitely not a fox. I think the best way to describe it is kind of like a cross between a goat and a bear. Well, something like that.”
“And you’re saying you’ve heard this before?” I asked skeptically.
“Yeah. I have. And that’s not even the weirdest part. See, the police in this town have pretty much given up on missing person cases. People go into the woods at night, and then ‘Poof’, they’re gone, just like that.”
“That’s definitely weird,” I said.
“You don’t believe me, do you?” He asked.
I shook my head. “Sorry bud, not really. I told you, I don’t believe in ghost stories.”
“Fine, but when you get eaten by a giant forest monster, don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
“Alright, alright. Hey, completely off topic, do you want to come to a party next weekend? I’m just inviting a few kids from school for some drinks. I thought you might want to meet the gang.”
Eli considered for a moment. “Yeah, that sounds fun. What day did you say?”
“Next Friday. Doesn’t really matter what time you show up, as long as it’s after 8,” I said.
“Yeah, I’ll see if I can make it. Sounds fun,” Eli said. He left soon after that, back into whatever woodland path he takes home.
I skipped classes the day of the party to set up and get ready. One of my older friends was bringing the liquor; another some snacks. I tried to tidy my house as best as possible; shoving piles of dirty clothes into my bedroom and scrubbing impossible stains out of the old couches.
Before long the first guests arrived. I let them choose the music, which blared out from some speakers I’d won last year at after-prom.
Eli was one of the last to arrive. To my relief, he seemed to get along with my school friends just fine, which was more than I could have hoped for. Eli had a lot more of a chill air about him, where as some of the college kids were wild.
The party went about as well as could be expected. I got shitfaced pretty early on. I’d always been a bit of a lightweight, so I probably should have known to take it easy on the drinks. Around midnight, I started to notice that one of my friends, James, who had a bit of a reputation as a “wandering drunk”, had gone missing. I didn’t think much of it at first, but the longer I didn’t see him, the more I worried, which wasn’t helped by my drunken state. I began asking around for him, but either nobody knew or everyone was too far gone to care. I was about to call him before I heard what sounded like James’ voice from outside the cabin. Stumbling out the back door, I called his name.
“Jay? You out here?”
For a while, all I could hear was the sound of crickets, frogs, the normal noises of woodland nightlife. But then I heard it. The scream.
It was unlike anything I had ever heard before. Different from a foxes scream, that was for sure.
“Alex!” A call shook me from my stupor. “Alex, over here!”
“James?” I cried, recognizing my friend’s voice.
“Alex!” James called again. Another one of those horrible screams came after.
“I’m coming Jay!” I shouted, running into the treeline.
The shrieks of whatever animal could possibly make that noise sounded closer as I ran past trees and shrubs, ripping my jeans free from thorns and jumping over roots. It took all my concentration to keep running.
“James!” I called, “Where are you?”
“Alex!” He shouted. He sounded close. So did the animal screams.
“James!” I tried again. “Jay? Where are you?” No response. The woods became deathly still. Not even the bugs or the frogs made a noise. “James!”
“Eli! Is that you?” I said. What was he doing out here?
“Yeah. What the hell are you doing out here?” He asked.
“James–he, well, I heard him, and there were these screams, and–” I stumbled.
“James?” Eli said. “James was passed out in your front yard. I saw you looking for him earlier. I saw him under that tree in your lawn, and then I heard you screaming. Here, why don’t we go inside. It’s not safe to be out here alone at night.”
I nodded, still in shock. What the hell just happened? Eli grabbed my arm and walked me back into the house, all the while I couldn’t think to say a damn thing, probably thanks to the alcohol.
That night, I drank myself to sleep, unwilling to believe what I had heard in the woods and unwilling to talk to anyone about it. I woke up the next day on the couch with a massive headache. The events of the last night were fuzzy– except for the bit about my run in the woods.
I decided I needed to find Eli. I was ready to believe his stories now.
Grabbing an Aspirin, I texted the boy to meet me at my house within an hour. He texted back almost instantaneously.
While I waited for Eli, I decided to look up the “leshy” on my phone. Clicking on the wikipedia page gave me nothing I didn’t already learn from Eli: Leshy is a trickster spirits; Leshy has a strange scream; Leshy can mimic voices… By the time Eli arrived, I hadn’t gotten anywhere with my research, and my fears about the previous night did not abate.
“Eli, tell me I’m not going crazy,” I said as my friend walked through the front door.
“Why?” He innocently asked.
“I heard it out there last night. The Leshy. The one from your story,” I explained.
“You were drunk,” Eli reasoned.
I shook my head. “I know what I heard. That wasn’t just some alcoholic hallucination. It was out there with me.”
“You said you weren’t a believer,” Eli said skeptically.
“I am now.”
He sighed. “Alright. I’ll tell you what I know. Ever since I moved here when I was a little boy, I’ve heard the noises in the woods. My parents used to joke about there being monsters. They never knew how right they were. Remember how I told you that the Leshy takes people? Well, when I was in the second grade, there was this girl in my class. Strange kid. She didn’t talk to anyone, just hung out in the woods everyday. Well, one day she went out there and didn’t come back. There was this huge police search, y’know, Amber alert and all that. They thought it was some pedophile kidnapper. Well, they never found the body.”
“Ok. Kids go missing all the time,” I said.
“That’s not the weird part,” Eli continued. “Every night after they announced that the girl was missing, I would wait outside on my back porch, staring into the woods. I was just a kid; I wanted to help by keeping a lookout for her. Well, every night after the ‘kidnapping’, I could hear singing in the woods. A little girl singing. It was her voice. I think the Leshy wanted me to go into the woods too…” Eli trailed off.
I thought about his story. If that was true, than that means that the Leshy could have been hunting me that night, and Eli came to my rescue just in time.
“So you think this Leshy is trying to get to me?” I asked.
“I think it doesn’t care who it gets to, as long as it gets someone,” Eli replied.
“I want to find it,” I said, my heart fluttering in my chest.
“What?” Eli asked.
“I said I want to find it,” I repeated, shocking myself with my resolution, even though I knew that I needed to find this creature. “I want proof. Something we can show someone who can help us.”
“Who is going to help us?” Eli asked. “The police can’t help; they couldn’t find that missing girl! And I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to have to call the Ghost Busters.”
“Ha-ha,” I said sarcastically. “I want to do this; for myself at the very least. Will you help me?”
Eli sighed. “Yes. Fine. I’ll help you. But we aren’t doing this half-assed. You need to get equipment; cameras, flashlights, something to defend yourself; the whole shebang.”
“Shebang?” I chortled.
“Hell yeah shebang.” Eli said.
“Ok, ok. Ill see if James or Kate want to come too,” I said. Out of all of my college friends, they’d be the ones crazy enough to help.
“Ok. When are we doing this?” Eli asked.
I considered for a moment. “Tomorrow night.”
I ran out to the store that night, half terrified and half giddy with excitement. I made sure to pick up the items Eli asked for. If he believed they would help, I trusted his instruction. He seemed to know a helluva lot more about these things than I did.
That night, as I lay in bed, I heard the screaming again. Not the fox, the other. The Leshy. Soon enough, I challenged the spirit. Soon enough.
The next day was spent contacting James and Kate and hanging with them until Eli was ready. I decided not to tell James and Kate the real reason for going into the woods; and let them believe we were going for a hike. It would be better that way, not that they would have believed my story anyway.
We ventured into the woods two hours before sunset. For the most part it was a nice day, a little chilly, but sunny even through the copse of trees. For the entirety of the first hour, I could really believe we were just on some friendly hike. The woodland vegetation was sparse enough to offer easy trails to follow, and for the most part the ground was even enough for easy walking. We talked about school, and movies. We joked. It seemed like nothing at all was wrong in the woods.
“Eli,” I whispered to the boy, falling behind Kate and James. “I haven’t heard anything strange. Im starting to fell a little stupid about this whole thing.”
“It’s alright. The Leshy might be waiting until nighttime. I mean I haven’t ever heard Leshy noises during the day. Maybe he’s nocturnal?” Eli suggested.
“Maybe,” I agreed. “At any rate, we have flashlights, and it looks like the sun will be going down soon.”
The sky was fading to a pale pinky orange. The chill in the air grew colder; I shoved my hands into my pockets.
“Hey! We should start heading back soon,” James said.
“Not yet,” I said. “Don’t you want to do some night hiking?”
James and Kate shared a questioning look. “I guess I’m up for anything,” James said hesitantly. Kate shot him a look that said that was the wrong answer.
“Hey, why don’t we find a place to sit down for a bit?” I suggested, trying to appease my friends. This seemed to lighten Kate’s mood, who brightened up considerably.
We found a few rocks to sit on nearby, bordering a shimmering stream. James broke out some granola bars he’d brought and we snacked on those while the sun sank beneath the treeline, leaving us in a wash of pale dusky blue light.
That’s when the noises started.
It was the same unearthly, beastly braying from before, a guttural bleating that sounded like nothing from this world.
“What the hell was that?” Kate asked, shooting up out of her seat.
I pulled my phone from my pocket, turning on the camera as quickly as possible.
“Sounded close, whatever the hell it was,” James said.
Then there was singing. Further off in the woods, almost inaudible, came the voice of a girl in what sounded like some haunting melody. I couldn’t make out any words. Eli looked as pale as a ghost himself.
“That’s the girl,” he said, eyes locked unblinking towards the ethereal tune.
“Come on,” I said, pulling Eli’s arm. This seemed to snap the boy out of his trance, who in turn ran to catch up with me.
“Wait!” James called.
“Where are you going?” Kate shouted.
I didn’t stop. I needed proof of the Leshy.
I ran towards the noises, the forest around me growing dimmer as the sun finally set. I stumbled over roots, struggling to keep my footing. All the while the brays and grunts grew louder still.
“Alex!” I heard Eli shout. He sounded far away. I turned, looking for my friend; realizing he wasn’t behind me like I had thought.
“Eli?” I screamed over the sounds of the Leshy and the singing.
“Shit,” I swore under my breath. “Eli!”
In my haste I’d lost my bearings. I couldn’t even tell if that was actually Eli, or something much more sinister.
All the while I stood there thinking, the bleating got closer. Now it seemed like the noises were coming from only a few feet away. A cold sweat trickled down my back. I only had seconds; I turned and ran.
I was too slow.
The beast sprinted through the woods; in the darkness I couldn’t see it, but I could hear it right on my heels. And then it pounced.
Whatever the Leshy was, it must have been heavy, because I went down hard. My shoulder hit the ground first, then my head snapped hard into the ground. Blazing white hot pain erupted in my forehead, radiating across my vision. I struggled to remain conscious, to lift myself up and keep running, but even breathing was a chore. I couldn’t keep awake, and as I felt myself slipping, the Leshy grabbed hold of my ankle and started to drag me through the forest.
When I finally woke, my head throbbed. My body felt like lead. I tried to open my eyes; I was unsuccessful.
“Alex,” someone said. It was a familiar voice. “Wake up.”
I tried again to open my eyes, peeling my eyelids open slowly. My vision was fuzzy. It was like there was a sheet of plastic over my each of my eyes, blurring my vision.
There was a fire, that was the first thing I noticed. A small campfire, nothing huge. Then I saw the figure. I blinked a few times, trying desperately to clear my vision.
“Eli?” I asked. My voice sounded far away; muffled, like I was underwater.
“Good evening Alex,” Eli said.
“Eli,” I slurred. “I don’ think I’mm, uh, doin’ too well.”
“That’s ok Alex. I think you’ll find in a few minutes that you are doing just swell.”
I blinked again, the image of Eli clearing a little bit. Except it wasn’t Eli; not entirely.
The thing had Eli’s face, sure. But it’s skin looked almost… greenish. His hands could hardly be called hands. The flesh of his arms peeled away at the wrists, leaving bare skeleton exposed. Except his bones looked inexplicably like twisted, gnarled tree roots. They were the color of a birch tree. Out of Eli’s forehead sprouted two graceful, ivory antlers.
“Wha’ the hell– I thin’ I hit ma head haard,” I said, swallowing hard to try and make the words come out clearer.
“Oh, I know you hit your head. I pounced on you; did you expect a soft landing? I have to say, you have been the funnest mortal I’ve played with in a long time. Ever since you moved here, you’ve been a tough cookie. Hell, even after you thought the Leshy existed, you wanted to go out and find it. Most people would have shit their pants and left town. No, you’re a special kind of mortal. Gullible, like the rest, but special.”
“You were a Leshy alluhlong? Thought you were ma friennn,” I muttered. My thoughts raced as fast as my heartbeat.
“Aw. Come now Alex. I’m a trickster spirit. Do you really think I have friends?” Eli laughed a wicked laugh. His old charming smile twisted into a wicked mockery, showing off Eli’s now insanely sharp canine teeth.
“Wha do you want fromme?” I asked, still laying helplessly against a tree trunk.
“I just want to have a good time. You know, I might have left out some details when I told you the old stories about the Leshy. I think I forgot to mention how we Leshen love to torture those that we take into the woods, how your screams are like ambrosia to my kind. How we love the taste of flesh, the juices of human fat and muscle. You are going to make one fine meal,” Eli said.
I closed my eyes again, feeing the pull of my weary mind, just wanting this to be over.
“Get the hell away from him!” I heard someone scream.
Snapping open my eyes, I saw Kate enter the Leshy’s small clearing, grabbing a burning stick from Eli’s campfire. He let out a loud growl as Kate smacked at Eli with the flaming branch. Eli slashed back with his root-claws, but Kate was fast. She beat him back one step, then another. And then she made contact, whacking Eli across the eyes with her weapon and causing ashes and blueish blood to fly. Eli clutched his head, his seared eyeballs sizzling with the heat. He shrieked and howled terribly, retreating from the clearing and blindly into the woods.
“Alex!” She screamed, running to me. The last thing I saw before slipping back into sweet sleep was Kate standing over me, covered in the Leshy’s blue-black blood.
I woke up again in the hospital sometime that night. It was late; the window in my room was dark. Kate was with me, sleeping in a chair beside my bed. I sank back against my bed, snuggling my head against my pillows. I drifted back off to sleep, listening to my heart-beat monitor. Somewhere, far away, in the woods a million miles from my hospital bed, I swear I could hear an unearthly braying shriek. It was a howl of pain.