Campfire Ghost Story Contest Entry
The cabin in the woods had been abandoned for years, but one night, a candle burned in the window. A single canoe rested half-pulled up onto the shore, lit only by a sliver of a waning crescent moon rising above the tree line. Its two paddles were propped up against the gunwales and barely visible in the dark of night.
Ramsey and Jen snuck away from summer camp where they both worked and decided to commandeer a canoe of their own. Not just any canoe, but the one claimed by the Canoeing Director, Mills. The trouble they would get into for sneaking away would pale in comparison to what they’d experience at the hands of Mills for taking his most prized possession. In a moment of clarity, they left his paddle behind and instead took two generic ones off the rack. It was a small gesture in the grand scheme of things, but one they felt necessary.
They'd been paddling for a solid twenty minutes, enough time to escape the camp property and the prying eyes and keen ears of its residents. Their destination was a secluded bay with a sandy bottom, a rare feature for this part of the Canadian Shield wilderness, and very little seaweed making it an optimal skinny dipping locale. On the floor of their canoe sat two beach towels with the camp crest on them. They were barefoot and wearing only bathing suits and life jackets and planned on shedding them both within seconds of beaching their canoe.
The candle in the window caught their attention. The staff at the camp called it the murder cabin to scare the campers and discourage offsite visits. Its windows had been boarded up decades ago and staff avoided it not out of any irrational fear, but practical health reasons. Camp legend has it that the last person to step foot inside got tetanus when they scraped their arm on a rusty nail. If the building had been anywhere near anything it would have been condemned and torn down, but as it was it sat fifty feet back from the shore of a deserted lake, save the few hundred campers and staff at the far end.
Ramsey, Ram as he was called by friends, and Jen paddled toward the empty canoe. As they approached, they could see a life jacket on each of the seats. The canoe didn't bear the camp insignia on either end. It could have been a couple of people fishing on a nearby lake that got turned around during a portage and ended up on Sparrow Lake. That happened from time to time and they usually made it to camp and were redirected back the way they came. It was late, though, well past midnight, and even the most amateur outdoors people knew enough to make camp before dark.
Ram, manning the stern steered them to shore. “They might need help. Skinny dipping will have to wait.”
Jen didn’t respond. There was no response necessary. If someone was in trouble, they couldn’t in good conscience paddle away.
The canoe bumped into the rocks by the shore and they carefully exited, pulling it up half onto the shore beside the other. They ditched their life jackets and placed them on the seats with their paddles resting on the bottom.
“Hello?” Jen called up to the cabin. It was as much of an announcement of their presence on the property as it was an attempt to convey an air of concern. There was no reply and no movement except for the slow flicker of the candle in the only window with its board removed.
Ram dug the tiny flashlight out of the bailing bucket kit in the canoe and turned it on. Its feeble beam barely reached the ground but shed enough light that they could walk in reasonable safety on their bare feet. Still, their steps were slow and methodical. At the halfway point between the water and the cabin, he called out as Jen did and was met with the same deafening silence.
Slowly they stepped with Ram leading the way, pitiful flashlight in hand and Jen following with one hand on his back. As they approached the door, they could see that it was also freed from its two-by-four bindings and slightly ajar. A metal ladder stood between the window and the doorframe. More evidence that someone was there.
Crack! A sound reminiscent of a large tree branch broke the silence. Its origin seemed to come from behind the cabin and not from the inside. It was immediately followed by a solid whomp! like a dead tree falling onto a pine straw forest floor.
They both flinched. Frozen in place and feigning confidence, Ram repeated more strongly, “Hello? Are you okay?” Silence.
He reached out and eased the door open. When combined with the candle in the window, what little illumination his flashlight provided was enough to see the main area of the small cabin was empty. A rusted axe leaned against the back wall. He quickly poked his head in and looked to his left, then his right, holding the light at arm’s length mimicking a SWAT team leader clearing a room. No one was there.
He and Jen stood back-to-back and surveyed their surroundings. The cabin reeked of mildew, rot, and animal crap, probably raccoons or mice or a combination of the two. A grotesque brown stain grew like a giant amoeba on the wall opposite what once passed for a simple kitchen, the sink now collapsed into the splintered and decaying pine countertop. A round wooden table for two lay broken on the floor, the remains of an old chair beside it.
On Jen’s side of the cabin a ratty old chair, full of holes, stuffing long since harvested by mice for nests sat in the corner. It looked wet. In front of it was a coffee table right out of the seventies, complete with hole in the middle for a large ashtray long since lost and forgotten. A hunting magazine, practically in shreds, shared space on top with a fungus of some sort and a waterlogged Playboy, swollen, discolored, and wrinkled. The candle on the window was pure white and rested in an old-fashioned-style candle holder. It reminded her of the one Ebenezer Scrooge used in the old Christmas Carol film. Both looked brand new. There were no matches in sight and the drippings from the candle gave the impression that it hadn’t been burning long.
“Stay here,” Ram said. “In case someone comes back. I’m going around back to see what’s what.”
“Do you think that’s a good idea?”
“Well, both of us going is a worse idea, and we definitely heard something that sounded like a fall. There’s someone here, the canoe and the candle are as much evidence as I need.”
“I don’t know...” her voice trailed off.
He didn’t wait for any further discussion, turned, and headed out, hinges creaking on the door as he nudged past.
“Be careful,” Jen cautioned.
“Don’t worry, I’ve got this massive flashlight to protect me.” He looked back over his shoulder to see his attempt at humor met with pursed lips and crossed arms.
Jen stood at the window and watched him walk around to the side of the cabin, leaving her alone in silence. That was the most disconcerting part for her. Normally the woods at night were full of rustling nocturnal critters scampering around looking for food or becoming food for something larger and hungrier.
Seconds passed, then minutes. How many she was not certain, but it had to be at least three or four. She could feel her heart beating in her chest and hear it in her ears.
Crack! She gasped and gave a jolt and felt a bit of pee escape into the crotch of her bathing suit. Then, immediately after, whomp!
Her body trembled.
Her trembles turned into shakes.
“Ramsay J. Robinson, I swear to God if you’re messing with me there won’t be another skinny dip for a very long time.”
Silence. Deafening silence.
She forced herself to take a step toward the window and peered through the cracked and dirty pane. The candlelight was only minimally useful, so she picked up the holder from the ornate curved end and crept toward the door. Her heart raced and her cheeks felt like they were on fire.
She walked soundlessly across the front of the cabin, placed her free hand on the deteriorating wood-plank siding, and with the candle leading the way peeked around the corner. She saw nothing. She heard nothing but the sound of the thump, thump, thump in her chest. She took a step and realized she was holding her breath. Steeling herself she inhaled deeply and continued forward into the silent darkness. A breeze brushed past and she could feel the goosebumps form on her arms and yet the flame didn’t so much as flicker. Her gut clenched.
She took another step and stopped to listen. Still no sound. No sign of Ram. No sign of the other canoeists. No sign of life of any kind.
She paused at the tree line and looked back. She could see faint outlines of the canoes, half on the shore half in the dead calm water. If she didn’t know they were there she’d think they were just fallen logs. Facing the trees again she took another deep breath and stepped into the woods.
* * * *
The moment Ram and Jen made their decision to investigate the abandoned canoe and candlelight, Mills made the decision to get out of bed. He couldn’t sleep on account of a nasty sunburn and had to escape his overheated sleeping quarters. He slid on a pair of flip-flops, scratched at the long blond mop of hair on his head, put on his tattered University of Guelph t-shirt, and stepped outside into the cool summer night air.
He wandered around the campground aimlessly for a few minutes before heading down to the waterfront where they kept the sailboats and canoes. As he stared out onto the dark lake something felt – off. He turned around to check the paddle board, a system of tags, one for each camper and staff member, and checked to make sure their numbers were all facing outwards. Every time a camper or staffer went out on the water the tag was flipped. Not one was out of pace.
He checked the paddle rack. His hand-crafted paddle that cost him almost a week’s wages was there, but after a quick count, he determined two were missing. He counted again. Two missing. Turning back to the water he scanned the shore counting the canoes. There should have been twenty-one canoes, including his. That one set him back a lot more than the paddle did, but it was worth every penny, and it was gone.
He muttered an expletive and went back to the paddleboard. He flipped his number around, grabbed his paddle and a lifejacket, and stormed back to the waterfront. Grabbing the first canoe in the row he slid it into the water, hopped into the center and kneeled on the starboard side.
The camp sat at the west end of the lake, so he paddled eastward along the north shore. His eyes, having adjusted somewhat to the darkness, scanned back and forth from shore to a few degrees off the bow of the boat. The lake looked like a black mirror and the only sound came from his paddle in the water.
The two people who stole the paddles and the canoe were either headed to the murder cabin or skinny dip bay. As he approached the cape with the murder cabin tucked in behind on the other side, he stopped paddling and let the canoe glide. He closed his eyes and tried to focus his hearing.
From around the cape, he heard a loud crack! followed shortly after by a whomp!
The shorefront came into view and he saw the silhouette of two canoes. He grabbed his flashlight from his bailing bucket kit and pointed it at the boats. The first one he didn’t recognize, but the second one bore the camp’s “SLC” logo on the portside stern. “Gotcha,” he whispered into the night. He turned off the flashlight and with the skill of an aquatic ninja landed his canoe and exited. He looked toward the forest and saw it.
The cabin in the woods had been abandoned for years, but tonight, a candle burned in the window.
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