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October 2005

Terror in the Trees

Ghost stories always seem scarier beside a flickering campfire. So, dim your headlamp and scoot up closer: our writer-at-large explores the ghoulish beginnings of these age-old tales and shares a few of his all-time favorite blood-curdlers. We dare you to read on.
terror in the trees 445x260(Illustration by Jackie McCaffrey)

“That seems complicated,” Melissa said as we got in the car. She hadn’t seen the scars. “What if we get lost?”

“We won’t get lost,” I said, trying to believe it. “And she seemed really nice. I’m sure it’ll all be fine.”

As we got into the car, I glanced back at the diner. Kath was sitting at the table with the guys in robes. Was it my imagination, or were they talking to her? And was she nodding? And were all of them smiling, looking out the window, straight into our car, as we pulled into the night? Would you believe me if I said it was the first time in my life people smiling made my fingertips icy?

Kath’s directions were perfect. The spot was perfect, a grassy piece of velvet beneath giant redwoods, just yards from a spunky stream. The stars were perfect. Melissa asked if we could sleep outside, she wanted to look at the stars, and the way she felt, nestled next to me, that was perfect, too. We stared at constellations and listened to the quiet rush of the creek and that’s when I heard it.

It was a soft, sibilant, caressing whisper that turned into a sharp crack, which was followed by the longest, most desolate moan I had ever heard in my life.

I imitated the sound for my sister one night, at her cabin in the mountains of Colorado. “If you can tell the story,” she had said, “maybe you can finally put it behind you. Maybe you can get off the meds and move on with your life.”

So I tried. “ssssssSSSSSSSSCRACK!, Oooooooooh,” I said to my sister, and she looked at me, wide-eyed with worry.

“What was it?” she asked, and before I could say anything, I heard a whimper and my sister got up and peered around the corner and there was her four-year-old boy, my nephew, who must have heard us. I don’t know how long he had been there. That was the night Izzy started wetting his bed and waking up screaming. He still hasn’t stopped. Just two weeks ago, my sister took him to a child psychologist, who told her it was a developmental thing, a natural part of the growing-up process, that it was only coincidence that it started the night he heard me make the sound. I have my doubts.

What was it? That’s what I asked myself that night. A bird, no doubt, or some rodent I had never heard before. That’s what I told myself, as I lay under the stars, but I couldn’t help imagining something else. Those moans!

“I want to thank you for bringing me here,” Melissa said. “I never would have gone into the wilderness by myself.”

“Uh-huh,” I murmured to her. Did she not hear the noise?

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