Better Off Graduated: Campfire Ghost-Story Contest
A ghost story about a high-school camp trip gone wrong, that simultaneously pays tribute to the characters in my debut novel: Better Off Guilty. (Without any spoilers of course)
"The cabin in the woods had been abandoned for years, but one night, a candle burned in the window."
I couldn’t tell if it was the fire or the rasp in Adaline’s theatre voice that cracked dramatically over the story. High School officially ends on Friday, but with Senior Campout being today and tomorrow, nobody will even be on campus until graduation Friday night.
Cloudcroft Class of ‘22 only yielded eight people. The Class of ‘21 had a strong eleven last year, leaving Samuel Freeman the only person who didn’t make the top ten. Ironically and admirably, he was the one to get the furthest away from our southern mountain-town for college.
“Jessie approached the cracked glass,” Adaline coughed again, inhaling smoke that danced off the tips of the fire into her lungs. Everyone was pretty much over the story, but Adaline was in the Cloudcroft Theatre Club that met downtown once a month. With only two other members, she rarely got the chance to perform. All seven of us understood this enough to allow her the production moment. “She put her forehead against the window with bravery, eyes darting toward the candlelight. Suddenly, the candle was blown out, and out of nowhere, a woman covered in sand appeared in the frame - staring back at her.”
“Spooky!” Bryce interjected Adaline’s production. He was sitting on a picnic blanket near the fire, braiding glass blades into one another. Known as the class clown and overstimulated-ADHD-sufferer-whose-parents-don’t-believe-in-medicine, it was nearly unheard of for him not to interrupt a dialogue.
“It is spooky.” Adaline pushed a curl behind her ear dramatically before letting out another dry choke from her throat. “And tonight we’re going to see the cabin! Deep into the woods.”
“That actually sounds like a pretty bad idea.” I instantly offered. “Mrs. Blake is already asleep in her tent and we’ve got like…no cell service.”
I finished first in the class, which I don’t consider as the accomplishment everyone else in Cloudcroft seemed to. Being valedictorian came with a lot of things. Primarily being consistently invalidated because everyone thinks you’re a stick-in-the-mud for taking life somewhat rationally and turning in your homework. Mrs. Blake, our history teacher, school counselor, and Senior Campout chaperone, was over sixty years old. Considering it was black-bear season, none of us had bear spray, and our chaperone was old enough to qualify for a retirement home - frolicking into the dark woods sounded pretty stupid on my cynical account.
“That’s what makes it fun. Two days left of Senior Year! We’ve gotta have an adventure.” Bryce fist-pumped a handful of grass into the air. Jean, the quiet girl who I suspected has had a crush on Bryce for the past six years nodded. “I agree.”
“See Maya!” Adaline leaned dangerously over the fire in my direction, her long black curls barely missing the orangey tip. “Even Jean is coming!”
Diego, Cloudcroft’s only known stoner, rolled over in his sleeping bag with eyes barely open. “I’m in. Whatever.”
“This is going to be so fun! Denise from the theater club told me it’s just a few miles south of the Lodge woods. I sketched up a rough map.”
I watched Adaline lace up her boots with an all-abandon enthusiasm and my gut twisted. I didn’t know what the most moral choice was - going with them or staying behind. Bryce dusted the blades of grass off him as he stood up, leaving Jean to quickly follow.
“Does anyone have a flashlight?” I heard myself say.
Diego clicked his tongue across the fire. “Yeah. I’ve got a headlamp for my Go-Pro.”
“We should totally Go-Pro it,” Adaline called out cheerily. “That’s great cinema.”
I wrapped a scarf around my neck and stood up with a reluctant sigh. “Alright then. Let’s get this over with.”
We’d walked through the woods for almost an hour, Adaline still loudly recounting the ghost-story performance even without the permission of a campfire. Diego was walking behind her to illuminate the path, while Bryce and Jean brought up the back. I took the strategy of the middle group, who all seemed indifferent to the activity at hand. When Adaline finally stopped speaking, a faint walkway of gravel had appeared between the neverending lines of trees.
“This must be it.” Adaline gasped.
“This is so sick.” Diego echoed. “We’re like Lindy and Clark.”
“Louis, actually.” I heard the counsel of my own voice. “Are we sure this is a good idea? Do we even know how to get back?”
Despite my concerns, the group ignorantly prevailed along the dark gravel pathway. My heart quickened as I felt the sky get darker. A gust of wind carried over my head like a warning to turn back now. Diego’s hardworking headlamp began to uncover a wooden structure at the end of the path. Rusted wind chimes hung from a nearby tree singing a cautionary lullaby.
“Whoaaaah. This is creepy.” Bryce shouted from the back.
The group inched closer to the wooden frame. There was a junk pile browned-porcelain bathtub sitting next to the shack-like structure. Unlit lanterns hung off a tin roof, while a singular broken clock was nailed to what appeared to be a door.
“Care for a bath anyone?” Adaline chuckled. We carefully made an oval around the abandoned tub to find it filled with sticks from the overhead trees and used matches.
“Dee-doo-dee-doo.” Diego enunciated an alien-type-beat to lighten the mood. Bryce laughed and Jean of course followed.
“You’ve been smoking out here Diego?” Bryce smirked.
“No way man. This place is whack.”
“That was neat,” I said after another gust of wind rustled the eerie chimes above. “Let’s head back.”
“Not A. Chance.” Adaline countered. “We’re finishing the story inside the cabin.”
The group exchanged looks across the tub. I could tell there was hesitation around me, but I already knew Adaline had won. Nobody ever sides with the valedictorian.
Diego slid his palms together, creating friction between them in an act of fearful excitement. I closed my eyes and thought about the odds of getting back to the tents alone without a flashlight or a bear encounter.
“Can we make it quick, Adaline? I really don’t have a good feeling about this.”
“Oh, Maya!” Adaline exhaled. “You’ve got to live a little. But, the story is almost over.”
My hands wrung together aggressively as I tried to keep further commentary out of my mouth. I forced myself to suck it up with an enormous inhale and a nod.
Inside the cabin, there were loose boards, cobwebs, and rot out on the display of every wall. An old couch that was stained with unidentifiable brown spots, propped up against the back wall with only three legs. Adaline took the position of center stage, in front of the couch while the rest of us plopped into the wobbly cushion. Diego sat in the middle, giving Adaline the perfect glow of white.
Adaline cleared her throat: “Gabriel, Gabriel, where might you be? Abril, Abril, it’s time to show yourself to me.”
My spine went cold as I quickly pieced together where Adaline was headed. Abril Hart was New Mexico’s most famous murderer. A female arsonist, born into the family business of burning people alive for money. She killed people by locking them in their homes or cars and setting them to wildfire. Gabriel, from what I know, was her only Achilles heel and long-lost lover. I started to read a book about her, but never quite finished.
“What are you doing? Stop that!” I shouted at Adaline. “Seriously. I don’t believe in that stuff. And that woman killed so many people. It’s not funny.”
The room was quiet with anticipation for her response. She ignored me and raised her voice an octave.
“Gabriel, Gabriel, where might you be? Abril, Abril it’s time to show yourself to me!”
“I’m leaving. Screw this.” I stood up from the couch and headed toward the wooden door and a huge gust of wind rattled the windows.
“GABRIEL, GABRIEL, WHERE MIGHT YOU BE? ABRIL, ABRIL, IT’S TIME TO SHOW YOURSELF TO ME.” Adaline was screaming now with an ignorant smile on her face and her hands in the air as if she was at a Baptist worship service.
“Yeah…okay.” Diego’s headlamp moved to point at the door. “Imma head out with Maya. This is getting weird.”
I nodded his way and leaned my body weight against the door as another gust of wind pounded against the house. Others got up off the couch to follow, uncomfortable with Adaline’s outward witch calls. I pushed against the door again, but the wind was too strong.
“Can someone help me with this door?”
Diego and Bryce pushed against the frame behind me in an effort to open the exit. The windows rattled again with the sounds of the outdoor wind chimes mocking our effort. The door was blown shut against the force of the wind.
“What the…” Bryce’s voice lowered.
“Let’s try the window,” I suggested. Adaline was mesmerized by something now, staring at the ceiling with a smile in the center of the small cabin.
“It’s working…” She whispered.
“If you kill me before my mom sees me, graduate, I’m gonna turn over my grave and mess you up.” Diego pointed his light at her with a sarcastic but nervous look on his face.
“This is totally safe.” Adaline put her palms out toward us. “I do Tarot.”
“That’s not the same thing.” I huffed as I went to the window. The rusted window lock barely fumbled back and forth. I twisted it with force hoping to get the frame open, but the lock simply broke off.
“You’ve got to be kidding me.” Diego smacked his lips before finishing the thought.
I covered my eyes with my hands in frustration when a flicker of light outside illuminated a soft glow through the window out of nowhere. An orange tint took over the room.
The glow was coming from the old bathtub outside.
“She’s here.” Adaline gasped as if in awe. I looked at the group, enveloped in my own fear. Jean was holding Bryce’s hand, which would be the nicest thing to come out of this. Everyone else looked on the verge of tears.
Diego’s overhead lamp began to flicker on his head. “Low battery. Ahhh man…This can’t be real.” I watched his overhead light fade with the rest of my confidence that I would make it to graduation.
A low humming began to come from outside, followed by voices whispering.
“Well, I definitely should’ve gone to church last week.” Bryce’s voice shook into the air.
The bathtub was fully on fire now and the humming was louder. I swore I could make out the beat of Franz Ferdinand’s Darts of Pleasure and the soft whispering of the words: ‘I know that you will surrender’
“Does anyone else hear that?” I asked the group.
“All I hear is the sound of my momma being REAL pissed off with Adaline.” Diego taunted a threat with his head against the window, staring out at the fire.
Adaline sat criss-cross in the middle of the room, smiling in a state of total calm.
“We’ve gotta get out of here.” Jean whispered to the rest of us.
Bryce and Diego went to body slam the door again. I put my hands across the wall boards, hoping to find one loose enough to pull open. My fingers caught on one of the boards and it came off the wall about three feet down.
“Someone help me with this.”
Jean rushed to my side and her frail hands grabbed onto another board. We pushed down further with little success. The boys were slamming against the door and the others were fumbling at the window again. Adaline was still smiling in the center of the room.
“Adaline. Seriously? Come help.”
“You’re too worried. You’ve got to trust the process.” She said with eyes closed.
I rolled my eyes disregarding the urge to comment on her hippy-dippy-B.S. simply because it wasn’t worth the oxygen. This place was about to be up in flames. Jean and I were unsuccessful in stripping the board so I desperately announced the idea for people to join our effort and the boys fled over to help. Everyone else soon followed.
The Class of ‘22 was bustling for a way out of here, pulling the loose wall board with a full-body strength that actually yielded significant progress. I looked back at the fire to see how close it was from escaping the tub, when I caught sight of the view that would chill my bones for the rest of my life.
Inside the tub of flames was an ethereal-looking blonde woman. She was holding a young boy, dipping him into the fire as if it was a bath, smiling and cooing toward him. They were both wearing wool sweaters and neither seemed to catch flame. My legs went weak as I stepped closer to the window.
“Oliver.” Her lips read as she touched her nose to the small boy. He laughed, completely unaware that he could burn.
“Guys…” I said so faintly that no one could hear me. The wind chimes rattled back. I stood mesmerized as the ghostly woman stood up from the fiery tub, child on her hip. She was walking straight toward me.
“Guys.” I said a little louder. They were almost done removing the first board behind me. Nobody turned around.
The blonde lady came up to the window with a debutante smile stretched across her face. The small child waved at me with a toothless giggle. My stomach dropped. A manicured finger soon met the glass of the window. With ash on the tip of the woman’s nail, she wrote seven letters backward to face me.
I shuddered and fell down to the floor, nearly hitting my head. Adaline rushed up behind me. “Maya, it’s alright.” She put her hand on my stomach. “CALL IT OFF!” Adaline then screamed. That’s when I heard the sound of the plywood collapse to the ground. They’d gotten a board off.
Diego was already pulling the next board when dance music suddenly erupted from the outside of the house, as if on a handheld speaker, and the door riggled open. The orange flame faded as water from a hose dripped over it.
Diego’s mother suddenly appeared in the doorway with a toothy smile. “How’s that for a Senior Prank?”
Mrs. Blake stood behind her with a smile and winked in Adaline’s direction, nodding her head good-job.
“You’re no longer getting ANY visits from me in college.” Diego snapped before wrapping his mom in a hug. “That was…something.”
In unison, everyone breathed a heavy sigh of relief as everyone’s parents suddenly appeared around the cabin as if it were a surprise party. My dad appeared by the tub with a hose in his hand and enveloped me in a hug.
“Sorry kiddo. I had to join in on the fun. It’s apparently tradition.” I rolled my eyes and hugged him back.
“You’re paying for my therapy.”
I scanned the scene to see Adaline doing a bow for everyone at the front of the cabin and noticed that everyone’s hair was dark. Nobody had a blonde mom.
“Who wore the wig?” I asked my dad as he let go of me with a chuckle.
“Wig?” He said.
“Yeah. How’d you pull off the woman and kid in the bathtub? The fire looked real.”
His face squished into a crunch before shaking his head in disappointment, the smile in his eyes evaporating. “The fire was real. And I let it go on too long. You weren’t supposed to whiff any fumes. It’ll mess with your head.”
I took a moment to consider this and nodded. It must’ve been some state of hallucination and fear. That happens when you’re adrenaline is too high and you think you’re in a near-death experience. I took a deep breath and crouched over my knees. Everyone was heading back up the trail now, arm in arm with their family members. And it was obvious the woman I’d seen was not one of them. I’d just made her up.
My dad placed his arm around my shoulder and we walked up the path to follow the group back, feeling the prank payback for Senior Skip Day last week. I smiled in gratitude before turning to look back once more at the carefully constructed prank scene. My head felt normal again and the delusion I experienced had faded.
I was almost back to resting heart rate when I saw it still printed on the window in ash:
A strange feeling came over me. In an instant, I knew Samuel Freeman had the right idea by getting out of Cloudcroft. Something was wrong in this place and this town. I followed my dad back on the trail with the others and heard the slight hum of Franz Ferdinand again in tune with the wind chimes. I knew I’d have to keep it to myself. Nobody else would hear it. All I can do is hold out for a new chapter where I’m out of here, where ghosts don’t linger, and where I’m better off: