When I was a kid, my mom was scared of nothing. Or so I thought. She was the type of person who could watch scary movies and read Stephen King for hours and still have no problem walking through a strange, old house in the dark of night. I admired it, and hoped I would have the same fearless resolve she did when I grew up. Seeing her face in this unusual look of confusion and fear sent cold chills racing down my now exposed arms.
My step-dad was also standing in the room, though I could not read his expression as easily. I noted with relief that sunlight poured through the large windows behind the TV and flooded the room with life. I took a fleeting glance at the Christmas tree and presents before asking my mom what was going on. I want you to look at this, she said. In her hand was a square of plastic. I could only see the back, a black square bordered by white. She was holding a picture, a Polaroid by the look of it. She sat down by me and turned it over.
It was me. I was lying on the couch asleep. My head lay at the end closest to our Christmas tree. I was covered in my blankets and looked warm and comfortable; I looked at peace. The glass balls on the tree all had bright reflections on them from the flash despite the daylight seeping in through the windows. I realized that this had been taken recently; this had been taken today. Do you see? she asked. I looked again and noticed that my dog Bell was in the picture also, awake and raring to go. She stood on top of my quilt at my feet, staring upwards toward the door—no, not the door, something else.
Standing in front of the red door, right beside the end of the couch, was a figure. A man, white and so pale you could see through him, stood facing the camera. His right arm was raised and bent at the elbow as if waving. He wore a broad smile, and my dog was staring directly at him.
I jumped from the couch and ran across the room shivering. My step-dad was smiling then. It was a trick. Why they would want to terrify their child, I did not know, but it had to be a trick. Fleeting lights and far-off sounds were nothing in comparison to this. This would make everything real. My mom seemed to read my thoughts. No, she said, it wasn't Wesley in that picture. The chill down my spine grew deeper as I turned to look at him. He was still smiling.
I went with them to their closet not knowing what to expect. This could still be just an elaborate prank. They would open the closet and show me the light they had been turning on and off to scare me. They would show me a cutout of some white-washed man in a military suit, waving and smiling. Instead, my step-dad rummaged through an old box and pulled out a portrait. I followed them again to the kitchen where my mom placed the Polaroid on the table next to the portrait. It was the same man.
The man in the portrait was my step-dad's father; a man who had died a dozen years before my mom and Wesley had ever even known one another. My step-dad seemed pleased by all this. He and his dad were very close; they were best friends. He saw it as a good omen. He said that his dad must have come back to watch over me—to be my guardian angel. I was content with being left un-watched.
I stood there staring at the picture while my mom and step-dad talked about it. My mom seemed to be leaning towards the same thought process as my step-dad. They were both religious and had been all their lives. This was definitely a good thing, they claimed. That day I begged to spend the night with my grandma. I didn't come back for nearly a week.
Christmas came and went; New Year's flew by and ushered us into a new calendar, and I soon returned to school. After that night in the living room, I slept nowhere other than my room. If something was going to happen, I knew I could not stop it. The best I could hope for was being able to escape and wake my parents. My bedroom was the closest staging point for this plan.
Months passed by without interruption. Winter became spring, and spring blossomed into a welcomed summer. As the weeks had passed I once again grew brave. I told myself that everything had some reasonable explanation to it. Reminders of the events seemed to find their ways into hidden places and out of mind. The drum was moved out to the shed, replaced by a glass end table and lamp. The owl that seemed to turn on its own met the same fate. The picture that always seemed to put doubt in my theories found itself talked about less and less; it now rested between the pages of a book on a shelf. Everything was returning to normal.
I found myself playing video games in the den again. When school let out for summer break I once more began staying up later than my parents; I once again began to sleep on the couch. It is phenomenal how these things come and go. Evil seems to come and permeate a place with its presence, its residue lingering and putting doubt into one's heart far after the danger is gone, then as suddenly as the danger comes, it is gone.
Summer time when I was a kid was synonymous with the outdoors. I was outside from morning 'til night playing with cousins and friends. We'd run barefoot through my grandma's yard, staining the bottoms of our feet with mulberries. We climbed trees and played ball. We had races and explored the woods. The summers of my youth are a thing I will always miss and cherish. The summer of 1996 is one I wish I could forget.
My mom had a long weekend from work, and I took advantage. A friend of mine came over on Friday morning with the intent to stay through to Monday night. The first night we stayed up late playing video games and devouring the contents of the kitchen. We slept far into Saturday but awoke to find a tent outside the house, erected beside my trampoline. My step-dad had put it up for us while we were asleep. He and my mom were going to let my friend and I sleep out alone that night.
Sale Creek has always been a small town that seemed ten years behind everywhere else, back then even more so than now. It was a different world in that time. No one locked their doors. A person knew everyone they saw in town. And kids could camp out without fear. That night we ran a long orange extension cable from the porch to the tent. We played video games and watched movies; we ate grilled hot-dogs and gulped down soda. As it got late and we pushed ourselves into sleeping bags we began to talk. We told each other scary stories, some familiar and others new, always trying to top the other person.
The stories started off obviously fabricated; many of them resembling plots of scary books far too closely to be true. At some point, I grew the courage to tell my friend about all the creepy things that had happened in this house. I told him of the noises, the lights, and even the picture. Being a typical kid, I embellished heavily. I told him that people had been murdered in our kitchen long ago. I told him there were Indian burial grounds in the hills beyond the property. I scared him as much as I could, but it backfired. I brought whatever dormant fears from the past back into my heart.
He said he didn’t believe me; that there was no way I had a picture of a real ghost. I would prove him wrong. We snuck into the house, and I vaguely noted it was rounding 2 AM. I crept over to the aged bookshelf against the wall and pulled out my step-dad’s old Bible. I flipped through the pages, getting stuck momentarily on various bookmarks and papers, until I got to the picture. We ran back out to the tent, and I shined a flashlight onto the plastic image. There it was, glistening under the light.
He claimed to still not believe it, but the goose pimples on his arms told a different story. We stayed up the rest of the night quietly watching comedy movies to try to forget our fears; it did not work. When dawn finally came back unto the world, we relaxed and let our eyelids pull us to sleep.
We awoke a few hours later to the sound of the tent unzipping; it was my mom. She asked us how everything went, and of course, we told her everything was fine. I hastily covered up the Polaroid and followed her out of the ever warming tent, across the yard, and into the house. My friend and I sat at the glass dining room table soon after and had a late breakfast of cereal. We never spoke of the picture or our stories, but despite knowing my tale of murder in that room was a lie, we both kept cautiously looking around the kitchen. After we finished eating, we made plans to go exploring for the rest of the day.
We climbed an old, rusted barrel which stood beside a barbed-wire fence, then cautiously jumped into the neighboring field. We adjusted our packs and set out through thick, tick-infested pasture. We didn’t talk much as we crested small hills and snaked through tiny valleys. We cautiously rounded the sparse herds of cattle and kept an eye out for cow patties. Before long, we made it to the tree line.
Whether by the design of man or nature, the border where field became forest was sudden. At the roots of the first trees was a small marsh, overflow from a large pond further south. As we trudged out of the muck and into the forest, everything dimmed. It was mid-day by now, but the thickness of the canopy provided a welcomed, cool shade from the summer sun.
We zig-zagged our way through maple, oak, and pine until we passed the wide pond where a few cows stood with their heads down, drinking. The trees seemed to be spread further apart here, though they grew wider and tall, their branches twisting into the heavens. We crossed down through a small, dry creek bed and came across the halfway point of our trip—another old barbed fence. My friend held the wires apart as I squeezed through, then I did the same for him. Immediately after, we found ourselves walking down a steep hill. As suddenly as we had come upon the second fence, we stepped through a row of trees and onto an old logging road. This was the furthest I had ever gone in this direction, but being among a peer made me brave; it made me want to show him how far I could go. We followed the logging road for a mile or more as it became increasingly overgrown with shrubs and saplings; it was obviously not used for many years. The thick new growth was harder to traverse than walking through the alleyways of trees, so we crept back into the unknown woods and continued.
Suddenly I noticed something that seemed impossible. I stopped and nudged my friend in the side, pointing in the direction. He gave me a look of confusion, and wordlessly we walked toward the mossy rock. I could feel my heart beating nervously inside my chest as we approached. The closer we came, the more I knew my fears were true; it was a tombstone. What the hell was it doing out here in the backwoods of Sale Creek?
The old gravestone stood in a small, round clearing. No trees seemed to grow here, and in fact, few weeds or shrubs seemed to shoot more than a few inches from the ground. It seemed peaceful, but out of place. I knelt down to see if I could read the letters, but it was no use; the stone was half covered in moss. I nearly startled when I heard a voice, but it was only my friend. Go on, he said. Pull the moss off. See what it says.
And with the kind of dumb courage that only comes from not wanting to look scared in front of a friend, I began to peel away the clinging green mass. As the grainy material pushed under my fingernails and the aroma of dirt drifted into my nose, words began to form. There was no name. Engraved in the old, thick stone was a single sentence and a date.
IN MEMORY OF THE MORE THAN 300 LOST GRAVES OF SALE CREEK CEMETERY. 1860 – 1865
I couldn’t believe it; it was unreal. Less than three miles from my bedroom, buried in the cool ground of an old pasture, lay over three-hundred unmarked graves—lost graves. My heartbeat quickened, and I began to sweat. I shivered despite the heat and looked over at my friend who seemed nearly as white as the clouds above the canopy’s hole.
We stood and backed away from the clearing slowly, nearly tripping over thick roots a half-dozen times. A breeze cooler than any that should exist in a southern summer tickled across my neck, creeping its way to my ears and whispering warnings only heard in my soul, half-imagined. I quickly turned toward the way we had come and began to run. In my heart, I knew there was nothing behind us. I knew that there were only trees, roots, and cows. There was nothing chasing us; there was no need to run. My mind told a different story, and every step I took seemed only an inch away from being grabbed by some corpse, some long-lost dead—some specter, confused and wanting.
We ran for what felt like a long time, until our breaths were more like gasps for air, and our legs burned. I stopped next to a huge, black, oak tree and fell to my knees; my friend followed suit. I took a sport’s drink out of my bag and furiously drank from it between breaths. I drank too much, and the liquid came back up fast and warm through my throat, soaking the enormous, dead tree. How had I not noticed this thing on the way? It was a mammoth; its cracking, barren limbs stretching far above the surrounding trees. I hadn’t noticed it because it wasn’t the way we had come. This was not the way home. This was not the way to safety—we were lost.Two young boys, lost in the foothills of an unpopulated mountain with none of the amenities of today. We had no cell phone to call my mom. We had no tablet to punch in a map or GPS. All we had were two bags of snacks and an ever worsening fear of the unfamiliar, darkening woods that surrounded us.