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The Volunteer

Comes in Threes

By Dana StewartPublished 2 years ago 9 min read
The Volunteer
Photo by Denys Nevozhai on Unsplash

“The cabin in the woods had been abandoned for years, but one night, a candle burned in the window.”

“Ooooh,” the group of kids chanted in unison. The cadence of their ensuing laughter makes the corner of my mouth tilt upwards. Telling ghost stories and eating roasted marshmallows around the campfire is the kind of memories these kids need. It’s why I volunteer as a troop master in the first place. To make a difference.

“Time for one more story. Then lights out,” I interrupt their giggling and give a nod towards Jack to proceed. Jack presses the rim of his eyeglasses up the bridge of his nose. He clears his throat. “Last one,” he promises, his voice deeper.

“Many years ago, some friends and I thought we’d explore the woods,” Jack began. “I was the same age as many of you are now.”

The children quiet, he has their attention. Bobby and Trey sit open mouthed with their knees pressed to their chests. Maggie sits close to Emily as Emily bites her nails.

“It was a full moon, the harvest moon, so it glowed like a fireball in the dark. Clusters of stars were vivid in the night sky. Creatures of the forest lurked in the shadows, their glowing eyes followed us as we walked -” Jack began, only to be interrupted.

“Your parents let you go exploring whenever you wanted?” Sam deadpanned, unimpressed and grieved by the supervisory permissions afflicted on him and the group.

“You got to walk around the woods by yourself when you were twelve?” Scottie chimes in, his nose scrunched up.

I pick up another piece of firewood as I step between children. “That’s the club’s policy, Scottie. There’s safety in numbers,” I repeat my mantra as I toss another log onto the fire. The fresh wood makes new smoke billow. Michael coughs as he swats to clear the air in front of him. I pat his head as I make my way out of the campfire circle. So dramatic, I think to myself. Maybe these kids will get the point. Stay together.

“I’m thirteen,” Megan quips.

Mark raises his hand like he’s in the classroom and blurts out “What were you looking for in the woods?”

Jack is unfazed with their interruptions. “My cousin, Tommy and I were visiting family that summer. The boy that lived up the street from my grandmother, Eddie McMann, became a friend. He had heard rumors of bear poachers in the forest. Campers had found animal parts throughout the woods. We wanted to catch them in the act,” Jack tells them.

“Eeeew,” Maggie cried, her nose crinkled in disgust.

Trey makes a fist with both of his hands. “I could handle some mean old poachers,” he says bobbing his head as he jabbed the air in front of him.

Katie, seated closest to Jack, intervenes. “Let him tell the story!”

“I was the oldest, so I thought I’d chaperone them. Couldn’t have them finding trouble on their own. We thought we knew everything back then,” Jack continues.

Mark smirks. Mark was the shit head in the troop.

“Who was in the cabin? Was it a camper?” Trey asked as he scratched his nose.

Jack shook his head. “My friends and I didn’t know. It was weird. We had walked for miles in the forest,” he said, his eyes fixed on the campfire. “We were in the middle of nowhere,” he whispered as he stared into the flames of the fire.

Kind of like us.

“I remember none of us wanted to be the one to find out,” Jack said, shaking his head. “But we wanted to know what was in there,” he continued. The flames of the fire flickered in the reflection of his glasses. “We argued about who would go.”

“You were scared,” Megan stated, chewing her gum as she twirled a blonde lock of hair in her fingers.

Jack nodded. “Yes, I was. We all were.”

“Who was man enough to find out?” Mark asks.

One side of Jack’s mouth twitches. “We played Roshambo for it.”

“You won?” Michael and Emily ask in unison.

“Jinx,” Emily tells Michael. He rolls his eyes at her. “You owe me a Coke,” she says pointing a finger at him.

Jack's eyes survey each child. His gaze fixes on each of them, commanding their attention. He pauses until they comply.

“I lost,” he admits, his voice low. The children’s facial expressions skewed in confusion. His answer surprised them. The fire crackled as the distant cicadas chirped. I fold my arms over my chest. Jack was a new hire, part-time, a drama major at the local college. The club couldn’t afford to pay much but Jack was earning his money keeping this crowd engaged.

He’s a good storyteller.

“I made my way through the belly of the forest. The ground cover was overgrown. Weeds and saplings were as tall as I was. There was no clear path. I could have easily gotten lost if not for the candle burning in the window of the cabin. That light was a beacon, urging me towards it.”

“I took sure steps, and little by little, I made my way through the brush,” Jack said.

“I’d gone so far that I couldn’t turn back. Besides, my friends would never let me live it down.” Jack’s tone is resentful, bitter.

“My skin itched as I made my way through the weeds. I felt bugs crawling on my body, crawling up my pants leg,” he said, pointing to his bare leg below his denim shorts. “I still have the scars from the bug bites.” Mark and Bobby lean in for a closer inspection of Jack’s legs. Maggie rolls her shoulders and shivers. Bugs were that girl’s enemy.

“My heart beat so loud, the sound of it pounded in my ears. Ba boom. Ba boom Ba boom,” Jack said, thumping his chest with both hands. “My feet would snap a branch every so often. Every time the wood cracked a cold breeze kissed my face.“

“The closer I got to the cabin, the colder it got. The cabin was silent. There was no skuttling noise of life inside. It was quiet, so very quiet,” Jack said, lowering his voice to a whisper. “So cold. I could see my own breath as I exhaled. My feet were heavy as I climbed the wood stairs to the cabin, my pulse racing the whole time. I reminded myself to be brave,” Jack confessed.

“The porch floor was rotten. Wherever I stepped there was more cracking and creaking. I didn’t know what to do. If I should knock on the door or not.”

The kids are silent. Intrigue has cast away their questions and meaningless chatter. I glance at my wristwatch. It’s half past ten.

“Eddie tried to warn me. He shouted ‘the candle moved!’ Jack cups his hands beside his mouth. “The candle moved, the candle moved,” I heard Eddie say, over and over. Every time it sounded like he was further away. Like he was the one moving.”

Katie gasped as she covered her mouth with her hands.

“Why would they move the candle? That makes no sense,” Mark says.

I find a vacant log and sit on it, leaning my back onto the adjacent tree trunk.

“Secrets like to hide in the dark,” Jack said as he rubbed his throat. “Secrets and monsters.”

Maggie winces as she makes a whining noise. “Shh, don’t cry,” Katie reassures her.

Jack sits cross legged in front of the fire. “That’s when I heard the voice,” Jack tells them.

“What kind of voice?” Bobby asks, his own breathing labored.

Jack leans forward resting his elbows on his thighs. “It was a throaty voice, a deep voice. It made rumbling sounds, as though it couldn’t breathe,” Jack exhaled, his eyes blinking several times.

“What did the voice say?” Michael whispered his question.

Jack straightens his posture. He tilted his head. “Over and over the voice said ‘Let me in. Let me in. Let me in.’

Story time is a bad idea. These kids won’t ever be the same. I consider cutting off the session but I know there is no sleep tonight for any of us.

Maggie folds her arms across her chest, cradling herself. Trey’s eyes are wide. Bobby’s mouth is open.

“Was someone else on the porch? One of your friends messing with you?” Mark asks.

Jack shakes his head. “I could see my friends. They were across the weeds, right where I left them. Too far for a whisper to reach.”

“What’d you do?” Sam asks quietly.

Jack smiled. “I opened the cabin door and stepped inside.”

The kids gasped in unison.

Jack removed his eyeglasses, folds the end pieces together and places them on his leg.

His face looks much older without them.

“Inside the cabin was dark. The candle we saw from outside was nowhere to be seen.”

The camp fire crackles in the silence.

Shit. He’s good. We’ll never get these kids to camp again.

Jack waits for a reaction.

“What happened?” Katie asked, her voice shaky.

Jack leans back, resting his weight on his knuckles.

“I met the boogeyman.”

Two of the girls scream. Mark’s mouth drops open. Trey and Bobby adjust their position to sit on their knees. Michael pulls his hoodie over his head, hiding his face. The others are frozen in place, with no movement at all. It’s like watching an oil painting dry.

“Shhh,” Jack assures the kids, as his tongue wets his lips. He’s enjoying the limelight.

I will never hire an actor again.

“How do you know it was the boogeyman?” Michael asks.

Jack scoots closer to the fire. “It told me. It revealed itself to my mind. I felt the power of the demon’s fury,” Jack confesses. “I could taste the bitterness in my mouth.”

My own mouth tastes like metal as I try to swallow acidic saliva. I cough a few times, the tangent scent escapes and tickles my nostrils.

What is happening?

Jack smiles. “When I heard the voice on the porch saying ‘Let me in’- it was the boogeyman. It was telling me to let it inside me.”

“See, it told me it was a spirit but it needed a host. That the conditions were met. It would take one of us. It would take one of us or we would all die.”

The kids look at one another. “What were the conditions?” One of them asked. My heart was racing, my skin burned. My stomach felt strange. I felt ill. Like I had a fever.

Jack laughs as he exhales. “It was so simple. There are only three conditions for the takeover,” he says, as he grins. “Three small conditions, and the demon owns you.”

My skin is hot, I feel tingly all over.

“The first condition is sight of blood from an innocent,” Jack says, pointing to the scars on his legs. Katie slaps at her arm, killing a mosquito. She scratches her bicep, digging her nails into her flesh. I notice the blood pool on her arm from the bite.

That’s a coincidence. That’s all it is.

Jack laughs as he watches her. He squints his eyes on the trickle of red blood oozing from her bicep.

The other kids notice too. They tell Katie to knock it off. “It itches,” she says, as she continues to scratch her arm.

“She’s not innocent!” Mark shouts, as Katie throws a stick his way.

Jack laughs again. “The second condition is the blood has to be near a star.” The kids turn their gaze up to the moonless night.

“We side-stepped the curse, guys,” Trey states proudly. “It’s cloudy,” says another.

My breathing is heavy. The kids seem relieved that the second condition is unobtainable.

I look at Michael. His hoodie is from his baseball team. The team emblem is featured on the sweatshirt.

The Daly City Stars. Shit.

Jack cuts his eyes towards me, notices me looking at Michael’s hoodie. Jack grins. The kids haven’t noticed the star. They haven’t made the connection.

Jack rubs his palms together as he stands. He towers over the children in the campfire circle.

“The last condition is the most important. The host must volunteer. If not, everyone dies,” Jack promises, his eyes fixed on me.

My blood feels hot. Worn. I feel empty inside, as though part of me, the good part, has been sucked out.

“So you, like, agreed. To save your friends?” Bobby asked.

Jack nods, his gaze never leaving mine.

I don’t hesitate.

“Yes,” I answer, as I see my own breath in the coldness around me.

Jack tilts his head back, exhales deep as he says “Story time is over.”


About the Creator

Dana Stewart

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