A short time later, Curt sat on a log just off the narrow path, his lantern at his feet, questioning his decision to bring the tour group into the woods. With a shaking hand, he brought a cigarette to his lips and took a long drag. As he slowly exhaled a cloud of smoke, he listened to the voices coming from all directions.
“Hello? My name is Tina. Is there anyone here with us?”
“Did you live in this cabin? What happened the night you disappeared?”
“Did you see that? That was an EMF spike, right there!”
“If you’re one of the Grimm family, make this flashlight turn on.”
Curt shook his head at the stupidity. What were they playing at? What was he playing at? Who knew what kind of spirit would respond to their questions? He didn’t know any more than they did what had really happened here. The only one who seemed to know anything was…
Evelyn sat on her own log a short distance away, hunched down in her coat, arms crossed tightly in front of her. What had started as a fun night out with Sean to celebrate their six-month anniversary had turned into a nightmare. After dinner at her favorite restaurant, he had surprised her with tickets to tonight’s ghost tour. Even after learning that they would be going to Grimm’s Woods, she had swallowed her objections and gamely agreed to go. However, she had drawn the line at accompanying the rest of the group into the woods for a ghost hunt, thinking Sean would give in and take her back to town. Instead, they’d gotten into a heated argument, during which he’d called her a wuss and then issued an ultimatum: either suck it up and stay with the group, or walk back to town by herself.
Now here she sat in the heart of Grimm’s Woods, cold and miserable and afraid, while Sean investigated with Brody and another young couple somewhere near the Carpenters’ cabin. In the silent darkness, her heart pounded in her chest as her eyes darted in all directions, watching for the unsettled souls that she could sense, but not see. Can’t they feel it? she wondered. Aren’t they afraid of what they might awaken?
Suddenly, her gaze landed on the tour guide. In the dim light of his lantern, it was hard to read his expression, but she was sure he was pleased with himself. Hoping for another five-star rating, Mr. Tour Guide? She watched the tip of his cigarette glow a brighter orange as he took a drag. The wraithlike ribbon of smoke he blew out hid his face for a moment; when it cleared, he was looking directly at her. With a curl of her lip, she turned away.
Seeing the young woman’s animosity directed at him, Curt made his move. He dropped his cigarette butt on the ground and crushed it with his heel, then got up and crunched through the leaves toward her.
Evelyn was on her feet before he even reached her, now more angry than afraid, and ready for a confrontation. “Why did you have to bring us out here? You could have just taken us back to town and let them investigate somewhere”—she was going to say safer—“else.”
“Yeah, right, and miss out on leading the first ghost hunt in these woods?” He let out a short laugh, trying to convince himself, if not her, that he’d been justified in bringing the group here. “Listen to them. They’re having a blast.”
Her face contorted with disgust and disbelief. She’d certainly read him right, hadn’t she? “Anything for a five-star review, right Curt?” She reached out to flick his nametag. “This should read Curt the Creep.”
Just in time, he stopped himself from slapping her hand away. It wouldn’t do to have it on record that he’d struck a customer, especially a female, even if it was justified. “What is with you anyway? Are you just a wuss, like your boyfriend said, or do you know something about this place that I don’t?”
As soon as the words left his lips, her demeanor went from combative to apprehensive, as though he’d just reminded her where she was. She took a step back and began looking around wildly, as though she’d heard something. Meeting his eyes again, she asked low, “You mean, you really don’t know?”
“Know what?” Curt exploded, throwing his arms wide. “For God’s sake, woman, if you know something about this place, then tell me! What happened out her that has you so scared?”
“No one really knows,” she said, mocking his earlier line. When he glared at her, she elaborated. “No, Curt, no one knows what happened to the Grimm family, but it’s well documented that the Carpenters found more than an abandoned homestead that morning.”
The sensation of ice water being poured down his back made Curt shiver. “What…what did they—”
A scream from the direction of the Carpenters’ cabin cut him off. “What was that? Did you see that?”
“That wasn’t human,” another voice answered. “I don’t know what it was.”
Curt had just snatched up his lantern and bolted into the trees toward the first scream when another cry came from a different direction, further off. Then a third voice cried out from the vicinity of the Grimm’s homestead. “Something scratched me!” Soon, screams—both human and non-human—came from every direction, along with the sound of crashing trees, snapping branches, and bodies being struck by…by what?
With the light from Curt’s lantern gone, Evelyn was left alone in the pitch black woods. She stood frozen, listening to the horrific sounds all around her, too frightened to even switch on her flashlight. Is that a wise thing to do anyway? I don’t really want to draw attention to myself—she swallowed hard—or see what’s out there.
As she stood contemplating whether she should stay where she was or strike out on her own to find Sean, she realized that everything had gone eerily, deathly silent. The screams and shouts had ceased, along with the sounds of death and destruction. Not even a breath of wind stirred the leaves that still clung to the branches.
“H-hello?” Though her voice came out as little more than a whisper, it was loud in her ears, and she shrank back, startled.
There was no answer.
Just as she opened her mouth to call out again, something in the trees caught her eye. She took a step forward and squinted to see what it was. A tiny, yellow point of light winked on and then off. A moment later, it winked again, a few feet further away, and then again.
A firefly, Evelyn realized. It’s a firefly.
Forgetting her fear and whatever had just happened in the woods, she hurried after it, hoping against hope that maybe it would make its way out of the woods and into the field beyond. Then she could run back to Boos in the Burg and call for help, even though she was certain that Sean, Curt, and all the others were beyond help.
Unused to running through thickly-wooded deer paths in the dark, Evelyn was soon winded, and her face and hands bore scratches from branches and thorns she’d encountered, but still she doggedly followed the tiny beacon that continued to flash every few seconds. At times she’d lose sight of it, and then stand looking around wildly, uttering tearful prayers under her breath. When at last it appeared again, she’d resume the chase, seemingly always getting closer, but never able to catch up to it.
After what seemed like hours, she saw what appeared to be moonlight shining through a break in the trees up ahead. With renewed strength, she ran ahead even faster, heedless of the branches that snagged her clothes and her hair as though trying to keep her from reaching her destination. When at last she shoved her way through the remaining brush, she found herself not in the field close to town, but instead in a place where the trees had thinned just enough to allow the moon to shine through the branches.
As she looked around to get her bearings, she had the distinct feeling that she wasn’t alone. For the first time since she’d burst into the clearing, she saw the flashing yellow point of light that had led her here. Something about the light didn’t seem quite right, and she took a step back as her thoughts cleared. It suddenly occurred to her that it was the end of September, and the weather was too cold for fireflies. Then what is it?
Fear rose into her throat, threatening to choke her, as she sensed some sinister force gathering around her like a storm. All at once, the yellow light vanished, and in its place stood a dark, faceless form. It slipped out of the trees on the opposite side of the clearing and started toward her at an impossible speed.
She screamed and turned to run back into the trees. The moon suddenly disappeared behind a cloud, as though it couldn’t bear to watch the fate of the young woman who tried desperately to escape an unspeakable horror.
Curt thundered through the trees, heedless of the searing pain in his twisted ankle and the blood that kept trickling into his eye from a gash on his forehead. His mind was singularly focused on getting out of these demon-infested woods and finding the others. A glimpse of moonlight through the trees up ahead renewed his strength, and he pushed forward toward his goal. As he burst out of the woods and into the field, he came to an abrupt halt, bewildered, unable for a moment to get his bearings.
“There he is! Curt! Over here!”
Relief surged through his veins as he spotted his group in the middle of the field. Some lay sprawled on their backs, while others sat half-upright in the grass. All were breathing heavily, as though they’d been running for their lives, just as Curt had. It was obvious, even at first glance, that none had come out of their ordeal completely unscathed, but from what he could gather, no one was seriously injured.
Curt barely made it to the others before collapsing in a heap, his lungs burning, and his ankle throbbing unbearably. For a moment, he lay with his eyes squeezed shut, clutching his ankle and replaying in his mind the horrific events he’d just endured. When he could bear the memories no longer, he rolled onto his back and opened his eyes to stare up at the harvest moon, which had just peeked through the clouds almost directly overhead. He blinked in disbelief, recalling that the moon had just risen when they’d arrived at the edge of Grimm’s Woods. Dear God, how long were we in there?
Sitting up, he turned his attention to the others. He shuddered as he listened to their broken narratives of the terrors they’d experienced—glowing red eyes in the trees, the growls of some unknown beast, inhuman screams and tortured human cries, shadows roaming in and around the ruined foundation of the Grimm’s cabin…
He shook his head and squeezed his eyes shut once more, trying to banish the remembered image of the tall, hooded figure that had pursued him as he tried to escape the woods. Time and time again, it had fallen behind him only to reappear again in front of him, forcing him to change direction again and again until he was utterly lost and had given up hope of ever finding his way out.
It took a moment for the voice to break through his mental torment. “Wha…what?”
“Where is she? Where’s my girlfriend?” Sean had made his way on hands and knees over to Curt.
“I…I don’t know. I left her…by the log on the path…” Curt gestured helplessly toward the woods. He hadn’t given the timid young woman a thought since grabbing the lantern and running toward the ghost hunters’ screams.
“What do you mean you left her?” His glassy eyes blazed with worry, fear, and anger as he seized Curt by the throat and brought his face dangerously close. “You said you’d stay with her. You were supposed to keep her safe!”
Too exhausted and weak to even raise his hands to defend himself, Curt choked out, “I…I’m…sorry. I…”
“Evelyn!” Sean released the tour guide, letting him drop to the ground like a sack of potatoes. With a grief-stricken howl, he got to his feet and began half-staggering, half-sprinting toward the woods. Before he could make it ten yards, Brody and two other men had raced after him and wrestled him to the ground. Still struggling to free himself, Sean extended a hand toward the trees, screaming his girlfriend’s name over and over.
Curt lay on the ground in a daze, watching the scene before him, yet feeling it was all a dream, a horrible, far-away dream. The only thing that was real at that moment was the young woman’s voice echoing in his head. I…told…you…you’d…be…sorry…