I have a lot of fond memories from my teenage years. This is not one of them.
I’d just finished my sophomore year of high school. To celebrate the start of our summer freedom, my younger brother and I spent the evening around a bonfire in the backyard, burning old homework assignments and roasting marshmallows over their ashes. I don’t recall which of us suggested abandoning the fire and hiking through the woods behind our property. It was a stupid idea, and if it was mine then I’d like to apologize to my brother now. If you can read this, Dan, I’m sorry.
We’d been back there plenty of times during the day. The forest floor stretched more or less level for several yards before suddenly plunging into a broad gully. A stony brook trickled along the bottom. As far as we knew, that brook had no name, and we couldn’t identify its source or its destination. It was simply The Brook. On warm summer nights we could hear frogs singing along its banks, and after a heavy rain we could hear its swollen current rushing through the gully.
But tonight it was quiet. There’d been no rain for a couple weeks, so any remaining water was stagnant. Even the frogs were still, although now and then we heard a lonely thunk or peep. We were cautious. Our post-school, s’more-fueled euphoria hadn’t completely clouded our judgment; we knew not to stray too deeply into the woods, to walk parallel to the tree line so as not to risk tumbling into the gully. But if you’ve never been in a forest at night, you have no idea how dark it is, how easy it is to get disoriented. It’s nothing like the movies; there’s no luminous blue fog to light your way. It can be pitch black even with a full moon overhead, and we didn’t have even that small luxury. After maybe fifteen minutes of laughing at our own daring, then laughing at the way our laughter echoed back at us off the trees, we found ourselves sliding down the steep bank toward the brook.
If that had been the worst of our misfortunes, this would’ve been one of those fond memories I mentioned earlier. Neither of us were hurt, and we weren’t afraid of getting lost. The gully was a constant landmark; all we had to do was march back up the hill and we’d be home in a matter of minutes. And now that we were at the bottom, the greatest danger was already past. So rather than take our tumble as a warning, we laughed it off and took it as an excuse to keep exploring.
As I mentioned before, this wasn’t our first time exploring the gully, just our first time after dark. We knew that gully and that little brook. We knew all the notable trees and oddities in the landscape. We’d practically grown up in those woods. So when we saw the light glowing out of the hillside ahead of us, we were surprised to say the least.
Dan and I both stopped. The light was dim, an orange shimmer in the darkness, like firelight cast from an unseen source.
“What do you think it is?” asked Dan.
I shrugged, although Dan couldn’t see me. “Let’s find out.” I started forward, but Dan held me back.
“Wait,” he said. “What if it’s someone else?”
I hesitated and listened. Nothing but the wind in the leaves overhead, but even that was fading. The chorus of crickets and frogs had fallen silent.
“If it was other people,” I said at last, “they’d have already heard us coming, and we would have seen them.” I took a few more steps and eventually heard Dan following behind. The terrain around the light gradually resolved itself. There was a rectangular opening cut into the wall of the gully, framed in roughly cut stones. The light flickered from inside. I approached the opening and peered around the stonework.
It was a tunnel, crudely dug. Dirt floor and dirt walls, layers of bedrock running through it all. A few feet in, a small fire burned. What it burned I couldn’t tell. Not wood. Something small and dark with a loose, organic shape. Beyond the strange fire, the tunnel reached into the hillside and ended, just beyond the reach of the firelight, at a closed door made of lashed branches set into a wall of solid rock. A potent, moldy smell washed over me.
“What do you see?”
I jumped at Dan’s voice. “Look for yourself,” I said.
He crept around to peer inside. “I’ve never seen this place before. How long were we walking?”
Not long. We couldn’t have wandered much farther beyond our property line, and we’d certainly explored farther in the past. But we’d never encountered this odd cave before.
Dan and I both moved to enter the tunnel at the same time. The entrance was just wide enough for us to squeeze through side-by-side. We passed the fire, which, looking back on it now, didn’t seem to give off any heat. We came to the little wooden door. Here, for some reason, my desire to explore wavered. There were enough gaps between the irregular branches that I could glimpse the other side—I saw only darkness, and was quite content to leave it at that.
Dan, however, tugged on one of the branches. The door rattled, but didn’t open. Some primitive mechanism must have held it shut, although I couldn’t find a lock or handle or anything like that.
“I wonder what’s back there,” said Dan, leaning his face close so he could look inside. I wished he wouldn’t, but I didn’t say anything. It wasn’t warm in the tunnel, but I could feel a thin film of sweat on my neck. That moldy smell was suffocating, like a damp cloth stuffed up my nose; I wondered how Dan didn’t seem to notice it.
I turned back to look at the fire again, at the dark form that burned within. Maybe I imagined it, but I thought the black shape twitched. “Let’s get out of here.”
Dan joined me as we left the door behind. We were maybe halfway to the exit when, from out in the dark woods, we heard a distant thump-thump, thump-thu-thump. The noise stopped us both, then repeated itself. Thump-thump, thump-thu-thump.
An answering CRACK broke the silence behind us. We spun and saw one of the branches that made up the door had been split in half. Its broken ends lay in the dirt.
Dan and I were pressed close together. I could feel the goose bumps on his arms brushing against my own. My eyes were fixed on the dark gap between the branches, and the hairs on my back prickled. The fire, which burned at our feet, dimmed. The flames shrank, and with them went the light. It became nothing more than a red mirage on the floor in front of us, then it vanished completely. The cave was filled with blackness.
For a moment, we stood there in frozen silence. Then I felt the pressure of Dan’s arm pull quickly away toward the back of the tunnel. He gave a short cry. There was a whump as he hit the ground, than a fast scraping through the dirt. I heard him scream my name, but already it seemed to come from a great distance, fading out of hearing even as I registered the panic in his voice. I started to chase after him, but in the complete darkness I was disoriented. Instead of running straight down the tunnel, I veered off and collided with the wall. As I recovered myself, I heard a distinct thump-thump, thump-thu-thump.
It was louder than before. Closer. My heart slammed against my ribs. I whirled around in the tunnel for a few precious seconds, torn. Dan was back there somewhere, dragged away by, by—thumpthump, thumpthuthump. They were getting faster, and closer with every heartbeat. What could I do? I couldn’t leave Dan, I couldn’t stay—
I bolted from the tunnel. As soon as I was outside, the thumping stopped, but I didn’t. I scrambled up the bank of the gully, tripping, crawling, sliding back down, regaining my feet and climbing again. After what seemed an eternity, I reached the top and sprinted as fast as I dared through the trees. I finally emerged in a neighbor’s backyard, and from there followed the dying embers of our old campfire back to our house.
I have many fond memories of my teenage years, both before and after that event. But those that came after were always tainted by Dan’s absence. He was never found. I told the story to my parents, and again to the police. They searched the woods and the gully. I even went back myself, after years had passed and much of the terror had faded. There was no trace of that tunnel in the hillside. Of course, that was during the day. I told the police to look at night, but they didn’t believe me. As for myself, I would never again set foot beyond the tree line after dark.
Dan was eventually declared dead. I hope that was the truth, that whatever ripped him from my side killed him quickly. Because otherwise, those last few years I spent in that house, lying awake at night, hearing him scream for help from somewhere deep under the foundations…if that wasn’t his ghost, I could never forgive myself.