A solitary man, tall and imposing in his heavy coat, separated from the group and turned to face the others. Their low, murmured conversations and nervous titters faded into silence as he stepped up onto the root of a gnarled, old oak tree. Leaning against the trunk for support, he raised his lantern to survey the faces before him, his eyes glittering in the yellow-orange light. Eighteen, he thought with satisfaction. My biggest tour yet. However, getting a head count wasn’t the only thing on the man’s agenda. As his gaze landed on a fresh-faced coed, his lips parted in a sneer. Bingo!
Curt Hampton had been a tour guide with Boos in the Burg for only a few months, but in that short time, he had gained a reputation of showing customers “a spooky good time.” In addition to possessing a deep, resonant voice and natural storytelling ability, he prided himself on his powers of observation. He had quickly learned that every tour group was made up of three types of people: skeptics, scaredy-cats, and those who were just there for a good time. Those who were in it for fun were usually easy to please; as long as they got a good story, they were happy, and any unexplained noises or shadows they might experience along the way were just an added bonus.
The skeptics were an entirely different story. That lot was difficult, if not impossible, to please. He had learned almost immediately not to tangle with them or to attempt to sway their beliefs; nothing short of a flaming demon from hell would ever penetrate the walls of their cynicism and make them believe in the supernatural. It was best to give polite answers to their questions and to ignore their heckling.
It was the third group that was his bread-and-butter. Curt had built the bulk of his reputation by targeting the scaredy-cats. He had learned to pinpoint the most gullible attendees and play upon their obvious fear of the supernatural. By watching their facial expressions and body language, he could determine how to play upon their fears and phobias until their nervousness spilled over into the rest of the group, making them ripe and ready to be deliciously frightened. Judging by the too-wide eyes and hunched shoulders of the young woman clinging to her boyfriend near the front of the group, he had found his target for this evening’s scare.
Evelyn Martin pressed closer to her boyfriend Sean, making it nearly impossible for either to walk without stumbling. When some fearsome creature with enormous wings appeared out of the darkness and fluttered past right in front of her face, she let out a loud squeal and jumped back, causing Sean to stagger and drop his flashlight. With a huff, he glared at his girlfriend as he bent down to snatch it up. “Evelyn, would you chill?” he hissed, swatting at the insect that had sought the warmth of his flashlight beam. “It’s a freakin’ moth, not the Mothman.”
“Sorry,” Evelyn mumbled as she took a step away from him, embarrassed by the snickers that erupted around them. She couldn’t help feeling jittery; for as long as she could remember, she’d heard her grandmother’s stories about Grimm’s Woods and the things that had happened there—things that still happened there. If she’d known before tonight that Grimm’s Woods was on the itinerary, she never would have agreed to this, but it was too late to back out now.
As the group approached the edge of the woods, her eyes darted this way and that, trying to see—but hoping she wouldn’t—what it was that had set her teeth on edge and made her insides turn to a quivering mass as soon as the trees had come into view. Was it just her own trepidation, fueled by her grandmother’s stories, that was making her tense, or was there indeed something waiting in the woods?
She pressed close to Sean once more, scrunching down into her coat to make herself smaller, less visible to whatever might be lurking deep within the dense copse of trees. Despite keeping herself as close to the center of the group as possible to avoid lagging behind, she still felt exposed and conspicuous, as though someone—or something—had fixed evil eyes on her and was watching, waiting to catch her alone.
Trying to dispel the unsettling notion, Evelyn swallowed hard and turned her attention back to the tour guide, who had begun speaking.
“This is Grimm’s Woods.” Curt extinguished his lantern, and the rest of the group likewise switched off flashlights and cell phones, plunging them into an inky darkness that the dim glow of the harvest moon on the horizon could barely penetrate. “The site gets its name not only from the Grimm family, who staked the first claim here in these woods”—He directed a laser pointer off into the woods behind him—“but also from the settlement’s grim ending.”
“So what happened to them?”
Curt’s eyes zeroed in on the silhouette of Brody, one of several skeptics in tonight’s group. Even though darkness masked the older man’s features, Curt could hear the smirk in his tone. Trying to keep his voice low and steady, he responded, “No one really knows.”
Scoffing laughter and derisive murmurs rose like a cloud of biting mosquitoes from the crowd, shaking his confidence and making him curse his decision to throw out such a trite line. Glad for the shadows that hid the bob of his Adam’s apple as he swallowed hard, Curt paused–he hoped—dramatically. Just give it a minute, he coached himself. Don’t get defensive, or you’ll lose ‘em.
As he waited for the group to settle, his gaze rested once more on the young woman. In the dim light, he could just make out her mouth, darker against the fair skin of her face, set in a straight line that suggested that Brody’s comment and the crowd’s resulting cynicism had alleviated some of her anxiety.
However, before he gave in to the fear that tonight’s tour was in danger of falling flat, he noticed that despite her outward expression of bravado, her eyes were still wide with apprehension. Certain he could bring her fear to the forefront once more and turn this crowd in his favor, he drew himself up taller and focused his attention on her as he continued his tale.
“No one really knows what happened to the Grimm family. Legend has it that the Carpenters, another family who’d settled nearby, about a quarter mile that way”—He directed his laser pointer behind him and off to his right—“came to call one morning and found the place abandoned. The cabin door stood wide open, and the ashes in the hearth were still warm as though a fire had been left to burn overnight. None of the family’s belongings were missing, including their wagon and a pair of spooked horses in the barn, but there was no trace of the family.”
Soft gasps and murmurs rose up around Evelyn, and a shiver of fear raced down her spine, displacing her moment of skeptical disbelief. Her gaze once again drifted behind the tour guide, to the trees that hid…what? Again she sensed some presence that watched and listened, waiting for someone foolish enough to enter the woods.
With some difficulty, she tore her gaze away from the woods and focused again on the tour guide’s face…and immediately wished she hadn’t. Milky moonlight shone on his visage, and she imagined for a moment that it was no longer the tour guide from Boos in the Burg who spoke, but rather one of the ill-fated members of the Grimm family come back from the grave to tell of his fate.
She gave her head a shake to banish both the image of a spectral storyteller and her urge to turn and run back toward town. Her scalp prickled as the tour guide glossed over the Carpenters’ findings, leaving out the grisly details she’d overheard her grandmother sharing when she thought the children were asleep. Either he didn’t know or he simply chose not to share reports of the strange markings gouged into the door of the cabin, or the way the barn doors hung askew, as though someone or something had attempted to enter.
A woman in the back interrupted the narrative to ask sensibly, “Well, what did the Carpenters do? Did they go looking for the family?”
“Indeed, they did,” the tour guide acknowledged, fixing his gaze once more on Evelyn. “They spent the better part of the day combing these woods, looking for any trace of the missing family, any clues to their whereabouts, but they found nothing.”
Nothing but some blood-stained shreds of clothing and a single child’s shoe, Evelyn thought, her eyes trained once more on the dark thicket behind the tour guide, where she was certain she had just seen a darker shadow pacing back and forth.
“Come nightfall, the Carpenter family locked themselves inside their own cabin, barricading the door and securing the shutters over their windows, fearful of whatever unseen evil had befallen their neighbors.” As he spoke, the back of his neck began prickling as though he felt someone watching him, unseen, from the cover of the trees. His eyes sought the young woman whose fears he’d been provoking all evening, and he once again found her attention focused on the woods behind him, as though she saw something there. Beads of cold sweat formed on his forehead as it occurred to him that this didn’t look like the run-of-the-mill, scared-by-a-ghost-story fear he was used to seeing. Running his tongue across lips that had gone suddenly dry, he rationalized that he’d done so good a job of scaring her that he’d made himself jumpy in the process…Or else she knows something I don’t.
A jolt went through him as he recalled his boss’ initial hesitation in allowing him to add Grimm’s Woods to his rotation. In fact, he was well aware that the only reason she’d agreed at all was because he’d hinted, maybe a little less than truthfully, that their biggest competitor was already considering the location for Halloween. Eager to get the jump on her rival, she’d reluctantly given him the go-ahead. I just hope this doesn’t come back to bite me, she’d said, giving him a pointed look. Or you.
Swallowing hard, he realized that in his haste to seal the deal and be the first guide to lead a ghost tour into Grimm’s Woods, he had neglected to do his usual research on the location. What if there was more to the story than he’d heard from the local teens? What if the timid young woman in the tour group knew something about the family’s fate that he didn’t?
Suddenly feeling threatened by the darkness, he picked up his lantern and relit it with trembling fingers. Tearing his eyes away from the nervous young woman before him, he rushed to conclude his story with a shaky voice. “The story goes that many times that night, the Carpenters heard blood-curdling shrieks from deep within the woods. More than once, the doors and shutters banged and shook as though something was trying to get in. When morning came, the family scrambled to throw together their belongings and supplies, and they abandoned their cabin. When they stopped in the nearest town a couple hours east and related what had happened, many of the old-timers crossed themselves against the evil that inhabited Grimm’s Woods. To this day, on a crisp, cold, autumn night, when the harvest moon is full, you can still hear the tortured cries of the Grimm family deep within this very wood.”
Chancing a brief glance over his shoulder, Curt stepped down from the tree root and gave a tight smile to his audience. “I hope you’ve all enjoyed tonight’s Boos in the Burg ghost tour. Please stay together as we make our way back to town.”
That’s it? As the tour guide held up his lantern and made his way back through the group, Evelyn’s knees went weak with relief. She’d been certain that he’d take them into the woods to investigate whatever remained of the small settlement, but she’d been wrong, wonderfully wrong. The tour was over, and no evil had befallen them. She beamed up at Sean, about to tell him how much she’d enjoyed their spooky date night, but froze at his expression.
“That’s it?” Sean’s words might have echoed her thoughts, but his attitude was decidedly different.
“I thought we were going to investigate in the woods,” a woman behind Evelyn whined. “I bought a new voice recorder especially for tonight.”
“This is bogus.”
“What a rip-off!”
“I told you we should have gone with Gary’s Ghost Tours. They guarantee a ghost hunt.”
As protests flew all around her, Evelyn met the tour guide’s eyes. For the briefest instant, she was certain she saw a bit of her own dread reflected on his face, as though he, too, had sensed something sinister lurking just beyond the tree line. She held his gaze for a moment, silently pleading with him to ignore the jeers and take the group back to the safety of town. Just when she thought she’d convinced him, another voice spoke above the others.
“What’d I tell you?” Brody sneered. “All these ghost tour places are fake, and this guy and his company are the fakest of the fake. At least they got the name right—Boos in the Burg. Boo! BOO!”
When Evelyn saw the tour guide’s jaw tighten amid the chorus of boos, she knew it was hopeless. With one final, apologetic glance in her direction, he forced out a laugh and turned back toward the woods. “Gotcha! Of course we’re going to investigate the settlement. Follow me, but watch your step. The site is for the most part overgrown and hasn’t been kept up or improved. There are roots, rocks, and branches everywhere.”
Evelyn narrowed her eyes reproachfully as he pushed past her. “If you take this group into Grimm’s Woods, you’ll be sorry,” she hissed. “We’ll all be sorry.”
….to be continued.