Elizabeth stood in the murky shadows watching the car bounce along the rough dirt track. She glanced at the brown-and-white flecked teddy bear tucked under her arm.
“Maybe this is the one,” she murmured, but he didn’t answer.
Halloween spent in nature was a Buckley family tradition.
Every year, during the last week of October, Ken, Janice, Oliver, and Emily slept in tents, cooked meals over open fires, and traded electronics for outdoor activities, like hiking and canoeing. They usually went to the same campground, but this year Ken had a surprise.
“Gravenwell Lake,” Janice read out loud as they passed under the crosspiece of the old wooden entranceway. The name burned into the wood was barely visible under overhanging branches. The pole on the left leaned precariously, held up by a combination of tightly-wound wild vines and luck.
Ken pulled the car into the empty car park and switched off the engine. Emily was out first.
“Where is everybody, Mr Trunkenstein?” she asked, turning circles and holding up her grey toy elephant so he could see. Emily had a lot of soft toys but Mr Trunkenstein was the special one that went everywhere with her.
Janice looked in dismay at the overgrown grassy clearing surrounded by a tumbledown wooden fence. Large black and red ants scurried about on the bare patches left behind by historical campfires.
Ken walked over to an old shack. The door hung on by the skin of one nail and the sole window was broken. A small pile of faded-grey wood was stacked haphazardly on one side and a plastic water tank leaned against the wall on the other.
“Well, there’s a toilet,” he called. “But I hope no one wants a shower over the next few days.”
“Why don’t you kids go and look around while we set up the tents?” sighed Janice, turning to the car. “There’s a track over there. Go and see if you can find the lake.”
Gravenwell Lake had once been a popular family camping spot but not anymore. Families these days wanted everything easy, like proper toilet blocks with showers, and activities with paid guides and instructors. The only people who came here now were lone fishermen or groups of men out for an alcohol-fuelled binge weekend. No one brought children here anymore.
Elizabeth couldn’t take her eyes off Emily. She was perfect.
Elizabeth smiled down at her teddy bear then faded into the undergrowth.
Oliver’s eyes widened when he saw Gravenwell Lake. It was huge. Under the overcast sky, it was a rippling black mirror waiting to swallow souls. An old swimming platform bobbed and dipped a long way out as the wind ruffled the water.
Emily squealed. There was a playground! She tucked Mr Trunkenstein under her arm and ran.
Oliver wandered over to inspect two faded canoes abandoned on the pebbly shore, leaving Emily to explore the playground on her own.
Once covered in soft bark, the playground was now patchy and bare in spots, as if it was sick and its hair was falling out in clumps. Emily ran around and touched every piece of neglected equipment, chattering nonstop to Mr Trunkenstein.
She ran to the tall metal slide. It was taller than Oliver and, in summer, would burn your legs as you slid down it. The metal rungs of the ladder were spaced widely so little kids couldn’t climb up unaided and risk falling.
She pushed down on one side of the old-fashioned wooden seesaw. Its once brilliant yellow paint was now flaking and splinters spiked up like porcupine quills.
She climbed aboard the wooden horse but the huge car spring it was sitting on was too rusted and the horse wouldn’t bounce like it was supposed to.
She left the swing till last. Swings were her favourite. On the upswing, it felt like she was no longer anchored to the world and, if she let go, she could simply float away. Then the downswing was like the ground was dragging her back down again.
She sat the elephant on the cracked, black plastic seat of the swing and pushed him gently. The rusty chains groaned in complaint. The seat was the type that folded around your legs and held you uncomfortably tight while you swung.
She turned around and drew in a sharp breath. A girl was standing by the tree behind the swing. Or was she imagining it? She thought she could see the gnarly tree trunk through the girl’s body. She closed her eyes, then opened them again. The see-through girl wasn’t there but there was something propped against the tree trunk.
“Oh,” Emily breathed softly. “Where did you come from?”
A teddy bear sat silently on the tree roots, watching the empty playground, waiting for someone who clearly wasn’t coming back. Emily felt sad for him. She knew how it felt to be lonely and forgotten. Her mother had once driven off from the shopping mall, not realising Emily wasn’t in the car. Emily was sure she’d never see her again. That was the most scared she’d ever been in her life.
Instead of happy laughter and cuddles, all this teddy had was creaking rusty chains and the mournful moan of the wind playing around the abandoned structures.
Emily tucked Mr Trunkenstein under her arm and picked up the lonely teddy. She held him up to eye level. His brown-and-white flecked fur was ragged and damp, his hard brown eyes were scratched, and he had dirt streaks on his face that made it look like he’d been crying. She tried to judge his character as she did with all her soft toys. A toy’s character was crucial to determining its name.
She transferred Mr Trunkenstein to her other hand and held the elephant up so he and the bear were looking at each other.
“Mr Trunkenstein, this is Frederick. Frederick, this is Mr Trunkenstein.”
She hugged both toys tightly to her chest, then frowned. For a second it felt like the bear had its own heartbeat thumping slightly out of time with her own.
She went back to the swing and climbed awkwardly onto the cold seat. As expected, the seat gripped her legs tightly. The two toys sat squished together in her lap. Her heart fluttered. For a moment, she felt trapped, as if the swing was never going to let her go.
She couldn’t reach the ground to push off. She wished her legs would grow quicker. She hated being short and having to look up at people all the time. Holding onto the rusty chains, she wriggled, trying to get the swing to start moving.
“Olly,” she called. “Push me?”
Oliver was standing by the lake with his back to her. She saw him bend down and pick up a handful of stones. He tried to skim them across the water like Dad always did but Oliver wasn’t very good at it. Stone after stone fell and drowned, leaving only a small ripple, soon gone, to mark the final resting place of each one.
Emily wriggled again but the swing stubbornly swayed side to side instead of front to back. The rusty chains clanked and groaned but refused to swing. She closed her eyes and tried to will the swing to move.
A strong hand suddenly pushed in the middle of her back and the swing swung forwards. Emily smiled but didn’t open her eyes.
“Thanks, Olly,” she said.
Oliver didn’t answer and she swung forwards and backwards with her eyes closed, enjoying the way her hair rushed forwards and backwards in time with the swing. Each time she swung back, Oliver’s strong hands made her feel safe as they pushed her forwards again.
The swing started to go higher and higher as the pushes turned into shoves. Emily gripped the chains so tightly her knuckles turned white. Her hands were starting to hurt and tears welled up in her eyes.
“Stop it, Olly” she sobbed, sure she was going to fall backwards as the swing reached its highest forward arc. “Stop it. You’re scaring me.”
She opened her eyes and screamed when she saw Oliver still standing by the lake.
Oliver turned around, dropped the stones he was still holding and sprinted to her. He grabbed one of the chains, causing the swing to veer wildly. He dragged his feet in the dirt, slowing the swing until it came to a stop.
Oliver lifted Emily off the seat and the two toys dropped to the ground. She sobbed into his collar, her arms wrapped tightly around his neck and her legs around his waist.
Her sobs soon became sniffles and she let him put her down.
“What happened?” he asked, kneeling. She loved this about Olly. That he would always talk to her on her level.
“I don’t know,” she sniffed. “I thought you were pushing me. But then it got higher and faster and wouldn’t stop. I was really scared.”
Emily bent down and picked up Mr Trunkenstein and Frederick. She hugged them tightly and then held Frederick up so Oliver could see him. The ordeal of the swing was already fading from her mind.
“Look who I found,” she said with a small smile. “This is Frederick.”
“Hi Frederick,” Oliver said to the bear. “Welcome to the Buckley family. Where every day is fun and games.”
Elizabeth stood by the track and watched the family, with their big blazing fire and foil-wrapped potatoes baking in the hot ashes. She smiled, remembering…then her smile turned upside down. It was no good thinking about the before time. There was only the now time. This might be her only chance.
“Marshmallows, anyone?” asked Janice.
“I’ll get the sticks,” yelled Emily. She ran to the trees and hunted through the undergrowth for long sticks they could use to stab the marshmallows and melt them in the fire.
She found one and spun around, but her excited yell came out as a faint squeak. On the other side of the camp, at the entrance to the track that led to the playground and the lake, she saw the see-through girl. The girl was barefoot, wearing what looked like a white nightgown. Her long black hair was tangled and messy, her eyes were rimmed with purple that looked like bruises, and her face was grimy.
The see-through girl was looking at Emily’s family by the fire. Emily felt a pang of jealousy then immediately felt guilty. She wasn’t normally a jealous child, but this girl made her feel uncomfortable and slightly sick.
She looked at her family, then back at the girl, but the girl was gone. Emily quickly grabbed another three marshmallow sticks and hurried back to the fire. She kept looking at the spot where the girl had been but she didn’t reappear.
Emily woke up and lay there silently, listening. A twig cracked outside and she heard snuffling noises. She held her breath. A shadow, like a hand, moved along the wall of the tent. She didn’t want to call out or wake Oliver who was snoring lightly on the other side of the tent. She wasn’t a baby anymore. She hugged Mr Trunkenstein and Frederick and snuggled down further into the sleeping bag, almost covering her head. If she couldn’t see it or hear it, then it wasn’t real.
She was still awake when she felt a cool breeze, then a hand gently stroking her hair. She could hardly breathe but she refused to open her eyes, telling herself it must be her mother. The repetitive movement was calming and she eventually relaxed and dozed off again.
“Where’s Frederick?” she asked Mr Trunkenstein in the morning. She looked in the bottom of her sleeping bag but he wasn’t there. She looked all around the inside of the tent, but he wasn’t anywhere.
The morning was foggy with water droplets hanging heavy in the air. After breakfast, the fog started to clear and the four of them walked down the path to Gravenwell Lake.
It was too cold to swim so Ken and Oliver pushed the abandoned canoes into the lake to see if they were usable. One floated but the other one rapidly filled up with water. They pulled that one back out and took turns in the one that didn’t sink, paddling out to the swimming platform and back again.
Emily ran over to the tree near the swing. Frederick was sitting there, damp from the fog, watching the empty playground again.
“How did you get here?” she chided and picked him up.
Emily created an elaborate game with Mr Trunkenstein and Frederick while Janice sat nearby with one eye on her book and one eye on her daughter.
After about an hour, Janice decided to head back to the camp. Emily sat the toys on the old seesaw and told them to wait there for her. She skipped off after her mother.
Emily grabbed some cookies then ran back to the playground. She skidded to a halt when she saw the see-through girl sitting on the swing holding Frederick.
“Hello,” Emily said.
“Hello,” the see-through girl replied.
“Is Frederick yours?” asked Emily, pointing to the bear.
“Do you live around here?”
“I’m Elizabeth. Do you want to play?”
Over the next few days, Emily and Elizabeth played together. They chased each other and jumped on and off the equipment.
Emily assumed Elizabeth was shy because she always ran off into the woods whenever any of Emily’s family members were nearby.
Elizabeth also kept fake-falling over and holding out her hand, asking Emily to help her up. Every instinct in Emily’s body told her not to touch this girl’s hand so, even though she felt bad, she refused every time.
Every evening, when Emily went back to camp, Elizabeth pushed Frederick onto her and told her he wanted to stay with her.
Every morning, Frederick disappeared and ended up back under the tree.
Tonight was Halloween and their last night of camping. Normally they’d be sitting around a campfire with other families telling scary stories, but tonight it was just the four of them. A storm had been brewing all day and they all went to bed early.
Emily woke in the middle of the night. She was still annoyed that no one believed Elizabeth was real. They laughed and said Elizabeth was just a figman.
The wind howled around the clearing, pulling at the tent, making the walls bulge and shiver like it was breathing. Huge raindrops plopped heavily, leaving streaks down the sides of the tent.
Emily felt around in her sleeping bag but Mr Trunkenstein and Frederick were not there. She panicked for a minute then thought she must have left them out near the fire. She crawled out of her sleeping bag, careful not to wake Oliver, and stepped outside.
The twigs and stones hurt her bare feet as she walked over to the fire. They weren’t there. She started to cry and wracked her brain, trying to remember where she’d left them.
She turned around and jumped. Elizabeth was standing close behind her.
“I know where they are,” whispered Elizabeth.
“Where?” Emily whispered back.
Elizabeth held out her hand but Emily wouldn’t take it. Elizabeth shrugged.
“Follow me,” said Elizabeth, turning towards the lake track.
Emily assumed they were going to the playground, so she was confused when Elizabeth headed for the lake. The rain now contained hail which started stinging Emily’s bare arms and legs. Lightning flashed over the centre of the lake and thunder rumbled close behind.
Elizabeth led Emily to the canoes her father and brother had left on the shore. They’d pulled them up the beach, but the wind had turned the lake into an ocean, with waves sloshing in and out so they were now close to the water.
Elizabeth pointed to one of the canoes. “They’re playing hide and seek. They’re hiding in there.”
Emily looked in. Mr Trunkenstein and Frederick were in the middle of the canoe under the seat where she couldn’t reach them.
“You’ll have to get in,” said Elizabeth.
Emily climbed into the canoe, knelt, and reached for the toys. The canoe shifted and she fell forward, hitting her forehead on the seat. She tried to stand but another shove on the side of the canoe made her stumble again.
Emily screamed and clung onto the seat as the canoe started to float. She couldn’t see the shore in the darkness and her feet were now wet from water seeping in from an invisible hole. This was the canoe that had sunk when the boys put it in the water.
She continued screaming as the canoe bobbed crazily from side to side in the wind-whipped water. The canoe was half-filled with water now and Mr Trunkenstein and Frederick floated just out of reach. She lunged for them. The violently rocking canoe and a shove in the middle of her back sent her into the lake.
Shivering and tired, clinging desperately onto the side of the canoe, she looked up straight into Elizabeth's eyes.
Elizabeth held out her hand and Emily desperately grabbed onto it. As she touched Elizabeth’s hand, Emily felt a jolt right through her body, like she’d been hit by lightning. She felt a sucking sensation, then she didn’t feel anything.
Emily stood in the murky shadows watching the car bounce along the rough dirt track. The girl in the back seat held her teddy bear up to the window and made him wave. The boy looked at his phone, the father drove, and the mother looked up at the old wooden entranceway as they left.
Emily glanced at the grey elephant tucked under her arm, blurry through her tears.
“She’s not me,” she wept. But they didn’t look back.