The cabin in the woods had been abandoned for years, but one night, a candle burned in the window. A mischievous cacophony of laughter could also be heard, if one were close enough and young enough, to pick up on the high octave tones emitted from inside. A night of mayhem was officially underway.
The woods then became silent in a way a forest would never be. There were no nocturnal animals foraging, no birds communicating, no insects or amphibians sending out amorous calls to potential mates. It was ominous and a clear sign something insidious was going on.
The towering trees, densely and haphazardly arranged, were anything but neutral. From great heights, they looked upon the inhabitants below with apathy while keeping impediments in their way.
The menacing structures blocked out what minimal illumination was provided from the moon and stars with their heavy foliage. Their discarded branches and twigs created inadvertent snares and booby traps. Large boughs appeared as outstretched limbs waiting to embrace the fallen. “Try your best,” they seemed to say. “We are waiting for you.”
The darkness was unyielding, a malevolent entity on its own. Finding one’s way through the dense forest was nearly impossible. An outstretched hand could get lost in the inky black, unseen even by its owner. The air was also thick with humidity and a lack of air movement, again thanks to trees heavy with leaves and new growth.
With every step forward, the forest mocked her. Each crunchy leaf was a betrayal of her anonymity and her desperation to remain hidden. It was as if the darkness, the silence, and those foreboding trees wanted to give her up to what was stalking her so everything could go back to normal.
Lenora crouched behind a dead tree trunk to catch her breath. She’d been in this forest for hours. A wheeze threatened to emerge from her overworked respiratory system. It had desperately tried to work with the heavy humid air she’d been inhaling but was finding it too difficult.
Every inch of exposed skin itched or burned. Her ankle had been twisted beyond its accepted limits and it throbbed now. She dared not give in to the sensations of pain and discomfort her body was desperate for her to acknowledge.
As much as the silence and the darkness made Lenora nervous, she much preferred it to the malevolent laughing she’d heard earlier. The multiple layers of mirth that came in waves of high and low frequencies were deadly and more frightening than anything else she had ever dealt with.
She thought about Derrick, remembering as he was dragged from the main trail by the group who had gone looking for him. His entire right arm was missing with the shoulder being a messy stump of torn and tattered flesh oozing copious amounts of blood. He’d had a look of terror in his eyes and he rambled over and over that “evil kids” had made him do it.
When the ambulance finally arrived, the EMTs did not balk at Derricks's statement, at least not initially. They said they were aware of the ‘Forest Children’. Everyone who lived in the area knew about them. But the residents considered Forest Children peaceful. There had never been any violent encounters with them. The Forest Children just wanted to be left alone.
Something else, perhaps a bear, they suggested, must have been responsible for the detached arm.
Derrick had been adamant. There was no bear. The children had coerced him, threatened him, and made him do something his will would have never allowed.
Police responded to the incident at the former camp as well. The officers, however, dismissed any strange notions of ‘Forest Children’ and the like. They were ready to dismiss the entire incident.
They referred to inconsistencies in his story. It was pointed out that there was no heavy machinery nearby. This was a lake resort, after all, no industry for miles. Derrick must have been in shock, they concluded.
The officers did almost no investigating. A severed arm was still missing despite their disbelief about the circumstances. The police simply told the rest of the group to lay off the “funny stuff and mushrooms and maybe stay clear of the forest from now on”.
Protestations from the group were ignored and the police insisted reports would be filed and that would be sufficient.
Later that early morning, everyone at the resort, including Lenora, had retraced some of Derrick's steps. The blood was gone and they could not determine where the machinery capable of shredding a human arm would be located.
The most obvious place was the abandoned strip mall. There was a gas station, convenience store, and a landscaping business that had gone out of business, and in less than a decade the forest had reclaimed the land. Even the road that serviced it was long hidden under decaying brush and layers of new plants. The abandoned structures were almost unrecognizable as if left to rot for centuries, instead of just a few years.
Nothing had been found there. No bloody trail, no mangled body parts. There was no way to prove Derricks's story. The group decided to question Derrick again when he was in a better state of mind.
Looking back, Lenora wished they had left afterward. The whole episode had been unnerving but not enough to detract anyone from their reasons for coming to this place in the middle of nowhere. The weekend reunion would continue, mostly motivated by greed and for some, lust. Lenora had come for a different reason altogether and her reason had not materialized. She should have gone home. It was too late now.
Lenora thought she heard something now. She willed her ears to discern the sound and it should have been easy to do in the strange silence. But the noise was intermittent. She thought she heard it and then there was nothing.
Lenora dared not move. She could barely see anything and hoped whatever was out there was equally blinded by the darkness.
Then she heard it again.
The crunch of breaking leaves, the sound of bushes being pushed apart. Lenore hoped it was an animal.
Her eyes strained to see as she stood up straight and pushed herself against the dead trunk, hoping to become one with it. Her legs were like jelly, tired and threatening to collapse but she begged them to stay firm.
A slight breeze moved an opening in the layers of foliage in the sky and a slight stream of light was let in. Lenora could see the figure coming closer. It was Counselor Freddie, it had to be. No one else dressed so ridiculously.
Of all the people she’d hoped to find in the darkness Counselor Freddie wasn’t her first choice but he was deemed acceptable for now, given the alternative.
During their days at camp in 2005, Counselor Freddie had given off a creepy vibe to Lenora. He had an obvious affinity for 12-year-old girls that he did nothing to hide. He’d especially stare at Lisa and Hana with a big goofy smile on his face and probably a tightness in his already tight white counselor shorts.
Making his way irregularly through the forest, he was still wearing those same counselor shorts. He had mismatched tube socks with stripes around his calves (red stripes on the left and yellow stripes on the right). He wore that stupid headband and his head still sported the mullet he was so proud of back in the day. It was more sparse now, with a hairline that could no longer maintain any semblance of a mullet but the remnants were there.
Freddie had never left the camp, it seemed. He lived nearby in a trailer of sorts and did maintenance work at the resort the camp had been sold to. He had peaked at 18 and to Lenora, this weekend was probably a chance to relive those glory days. She almost felt sorry for him.
Since he’d grown up around this area and because he still lived nearby, Lenora assumed that Freddie probably had a good working knowledge of the forest. Even though it appeared he was struggling at the moment, Lenora assumed he was because he was distracted by the trauma he had witnessed, trauma they had all witnessed. She reached out to him as he slowly snuck his way between the trees.
He initially jumped but seemed relieved to see Lenora.
“Have you heard any of that cackling?” he asked.
Lenora shook her head and whispered that they should remain quiet.
“I think we’re Ok for now,” he countered. “I heard them laughing back there.” He pointed north.
Lenore worried about what that meant for whoever was in the north.
“Where are you trying to go?” she asked. “I thought camp was back that way.” She pointed southeast.
“I'm looking for the cabin,” he said. “It’s not on any of the maps and I wondered why. I just have a feeling whatever joker set this whole thing up might be there. Where were you going, by the way?”
“I'm trying to make my way back to the resort. I got lost a while ago and I think I'm going in circles.”
“Well, yeah,” he laughed, with a little bit of snark. “Camp, I mean the resort, is over that way.” He said it in such a condescending way as if he weren’t lost in the woods himself.
“Hey,” he asked. “Do you have your scavenger map with you? Can I see it?”
Lenora was disappointed. Why did he need the map? But she moved her sling bag around and opened a compartment on the side.
She took out a handful of papers. The outermost paper, acting as a folder for the rest, was made up of thick cardstock. It was the invitation to the ten-year reunion of Lake Heron Camp 2005, Platoon C.
The large invite had arrived in the mail in a large red envelope. It promised a “summer camp for adults” with spa tents, world-class catering, a floating bar on the lake, and a chance to reconnect with old camp pals. The highlight of the weekend, however, was a scavenger hunt.
The scavenger hunt promised large prizes, including $500,000 bonus for the first person to complete the list. Anyone completing the list would be the recipient of at least $450,000 in cash and gifts that included jewelry and vacation vouchers. Just finding the first item came with a $1000 win. The promise of found money was enough reason for most of the guests to RSVP.
The map was tucked into the invite and she handed it over to Freddie. He flicked a hidden switch on his terry cloth headband. A thin beam of light emanated from a headlamp in the headband and he was able to view the paper which he compared to his own.
“We all have different maps,” he remarked.
“Well, duh,” thought Lenora. Each person had a different list and was looking for different things.
Freddie noted the rolled eyes and explained, “I know the lists are different, but look at these maps, they're not even similar, even the legends are different.”
Lenora studied the two papers and saw what he was pointing out. Certain landmarks were highlighted in completely opposite locations. Some were missing altogether.
“Not only that,” said Freddie. “But look at the directions. My map says that the underground caves are north of the dock, yours says it's west.”
“Where is it really?” asked Lenora.
“It’s definitely north. I wonder why they wanted you to go west. Do you have a compass?”
Lenora nodded and dug around in her sling bag again. Freddie took one out of his pocket as well and looked at Lenora’s.
“I had a theory…” he said distantly.
The two compasses seemed to have difficulty coming to a consensus. The one in Lenora’s hand said they were pointed south while Freddies pointed west.
“This makes no sense,” said Lenora. “Maybe one of them is broken.”
Lenora started to walk around to see if anything changed with her compass. Freddie also walked in a small circle while carefully watching his.
Suddenly, the sound of children laughing could be heard. It quickly came closer, in a matter of seconds. Lenora was terrified and hid again behind a large rock.
The laughter almost sounded like buzzing as it approached their location. Freddie looked up from his compass in horror as a dark shadow emerged from the darkness of the forest. He raised his hand to switch off his headlamp but it was too late.
Hundreds of little beings surrounded him. From far away they probably did look like children, which is no doubt how they got their moniker, but these little creatures were not children at all.
Lenora dared to look up as the group surrounded her former counselor. He begged for his life which was horrifically greeted with more laughter. Thanks to the light from Freddie’s little lamp, she was able to make out some of their features.
They were small, the tallest was possibly three feet in height, but most of them were about two feet. They had skinny limbs and their fingers were like toothpicks. Where did they find the strength to do so much harm?
The Forest Children had overly large and bald heads. The faces Lenora saw were pockmarked and rough as if carved from lava stone. The eyes were tiny, hidden behind folds of leprosy-like lesions that, from a distance, appeared hard. Their faces did not seem to have the flexibility to move. The chuckling sounds they were known for belied their serious expressions.
From what Lenora was able to see with her limited vantage point and the thin beam of light thrashing around, they appeared very old.
Freddie was screaming. "Please," he begged. "I'll do anything you want!"
The Forest Children surrounded him in a dense pack. Many of them held hands and were somehow able to close their eyes.
Lenora heard a distinct buzzing sound mixed in with the laughing. She again peered around the large rock she was hiding behind to see a swarm of flying insects.
"You know what to do, pervert."
The voice sounded fake as if created by a computer trying to mimic a human voice. A few other words were said that Lenora couldn't make out.
There was more laughter, more buzzing. Some of the children seemed to be dancing.
As if in a trance, Freddie opened his yellow-stained counselor shorts. They dropped to the ground, as did his tighty-whitey underwear. Freddie's face turned to the sky. He was crying.
The insect entourage that followed the children immediately honed in on Freddie's privates. There were thousands of them flying into his crotch area, apparently taking bits and pieces with them.
Freddie said nothing, continuing to look up at the obliterated sky, allowing the inevitable to happen without intervention. He didn't even yell out in pain.
More of the Forest Children began dancing around him.
The dancing and that ever-present giggling made it appear that the Forest Children were happily partaking in the mutilation of Freddie’s genitals but their serious expressions and the way many of them bowed their heads contradicted this.
Lenore remained frozen where she was. It was horrifying to watch a man's reproductive organs being ripped apart in such a slow and painful way. She wondered if she were next.
After what felt like an eternity, the Forest Children collectively left in an instant. They seemed to almost float away, taking their well-fed insects with them. A humming kind of laughter vibrated through the forest.
When she was sure they were gone, she inched her way over to Freddie. He had collapsed to the ground.
"Hey," she whispered. "Can you talk?"
Freddie's face was covered in tears. A huge red cavern had been carved between his legs, resembling raw hamburger meat. He'd been made a eunuch.
"Can you walk?" She persisted. "Let's get out of here, in case they come back."
"They won't come back," he said slowly. "At least not for me."
Lenora wondered why he was so sure.
"Didn't you hear them?" He asked. "This is what they wanted to do, 'for Myra' they said. They said they were doing this for Myra."
Lenora felt a stabbing sensation in her abdomen. Myra? How was Myra involved?
Most of the surviving members of Platoon C had gone to the reunion with hopes of getting much-needed cash through the scavenger hunt. Lisa Gomez had gone because her influencer social media was in need of new material. Aaron had RSVP'd to hook up with Lisa. Hana had gone to get away from her jealous girlfriend and Manny was hiding from acquaintances he owed money to.
Lenora had come here to see Myra and, perhaps, make amends.
At summer camp that year, Myra had been desperate to make friends. She didn't know it at the time, but Lenora found out later that Myra had been bullied in school and was hoping her luck had changed when she'd been sent off to camp. Unfortunately, it hadn't.
Her first encounter with Lisa set her up to be ignored or tormented by the others.
Lisa hated the idea of camp. She was a girly girl who shuddered at the idea of swimming in a lake with fish, getting dirty, having no air-conditioning, and being in close proximity to insects. Alternatives had been vehemently suggested for the summer, such as staying with her grandmother or with the families of her friends, but her parents enrolled her in camp nonetheless.
It was unfortunate, but Myra bore the brunt of Lisa’s displeasure about being at camp by sheer proximity and chance. Myra’s friendly introduction was dismissed with an upturned nose as Lisa referred to Myra in the third person as a “fat four-eyed moron”.
This quick retort garnered much laughing and further jokes at Myra’s expense. She ran off into the woods crying.
Lenora had felt awful about the exchange. She had been bullied herself in grammar school and was horrified to see its effects on someone else. Lenora knew how it felt to be alone and ganged up on. Poor Myra had been so nice and to be greeted with mean-spirited hostility was shameful.
The exchange had made Lisa an instant celebrity among the other campers and not long after, Lisa began enjoying camp because of it. It may have been a turning point for her, in fact, as she went on to become a popular social media influencer. Her video style was often predicated on mocking the style of others.
For Lenora, it ensured she’d have a miserable summer. She metaphorically looked over her shoulder for the entire six weeks, expecting to be the next target of their despicable pleasure.
At the time, Lenora felt that she was powerless to do anything about it. Actually, after later introspection, she realized she’d said nothing in fear that the children would turn on her as well. As an adult, she deeply regretted her inaction and wanted to apologize in person.
She’d tried her best to contact her when the invite had arrived. Not much information could be found about Myra, especially since Lenora had little information to go on. Myra left camp on the second day after her glasses had broken and her clothes were ripped apart ‘by an animal’, or so the story they told went.
Lenora felt that most of the group had probably forgotten about Myra but she never did. The guilt had bothered her a great deal. Thinking about that period in her life when she was tormented and harassed by her classmates made her sad but thinking about what happened to Myra made her feel worse because she’d done nothing.
Perhaps it was dehydration or her general exhaustion but Lenora considered that she possibly deserved this nightmare in the woods as penance for her cowardice ten years ago. She had come to the reunion specifically for atonement but was this it?
“Did you do anything to Myra?” Lenora asked.
“Not at all!” Freddie insisted. “I treated her just as I treated all you girls! In fact, I was going to take her under my wing if she stayed!”
Lenora was instantly disgusted, remembering the flirty-touchy way Freddie was with the female campers. The girls had their own cabin with their own female counselor and yet she recalled that Freddie had spent an inordinate amount of time with them. Even the Forest Children had called him a “pervert”.
Lenora started to walk away.
“Wait,” said Freddie, in his regular voice. “Where are you going?”
“I'm going to look for the cabin.”
“Good luck. It might not even be standing anymore.”
“I have to do something,” she noted. Trying to make her way back to the resort wasn't working. As tired as she was, she couldn’t sit still.
Something in her attitude toward her situation in the woods had changed. She was still frightened, still leery, but now there was something else to consider. She still didn't know what she was doing, and still had no idea where she was, but the destination of the cabin gave her more purpose than simply getting back to the resort so she could drive off as fast as she could.
She remembered that Derrick had shoved Myra. It had been something of an accident. Manny had shoved Derrick so that he'd end up pushing Myra, but they'd all laughed when Myra fell. It was his right arm that day, that had pushed Myra. Now that arm was gone.
Nigel had pushed Myra into the lake in 2005. Now, in 2015 he was paralyzed, having fallen into the lake the day Derrick lost his arm. He'd been on a ridge next to the lake looking for item #3 on his scavenger list. Large rocks under the water had broken his spine in two. He'd nearly drowned but former Counselor Tracy rescued him.
This trip featured everyone who had made life hell for Myra during those two days she'd been at camp. The two counselors and the surviving members of the two Platoon C cabins. It seemed to Lenora that there was a malevolent plan going on with Myra being the common denominator.
She was considering that these circumstances could also just be one big coincidence when she heard more sounds nearby.
The giggling and the buzzing were in the distance coming closer very quickly. Lenora dropped behind a kind of trench made by a fallen tree. There was a slight hole in the tree cover so some light came through in the direction of the laughter.
"Please, stop it!"
Lenora tried to recognize the voice. It sounded like Aaron.
"Can't you leave me alone?"
He sounded like he was in agony. His pleas were met with a humming kind of chuckling.
To Lenora, who was a considerable distance away, it seemed as if the Forest Children were surrounding their prey, dancing and tormenting, but doing nothing in particular. Perhaps they changed their modus operandi.
After some time, it seemed like ten minutes at least, the Forest Children disappeared again, leaving the same way they came. Lenora made her way over to Aaron.
"Who's there?" he whispered. "What do you want? Leave me alone!"
"It's me, Lenora," she said quietly as she made her way over.
Aaron spun around trying to find her. His arms reached out too. "Where?" he asked.
Lenora was practically next to him but he didn't see her. When he turned around again, his head moved and a slightly better lighting angle gave Lenora a view of his face.
Both of his eyes had been gouged out.
The sockets were deep and filled with the same uneven, torn-apart flesh she'd seen in what was left of Freddie's genitals.
"Did the children do this to you?" asked Lenora.
"Sort of," he replied. "They had these bees with them. Or maybe they were mosquitos. I don't know. Flying bugs. They picked out my eyes. It took hours. I was paralyzed, I couldn't even wave my arms."
It sounded like he was trying to cry. Lenora patted him on the back.
"You're not the only one."
"What did they do to you," he asked.
Lenora felt somewhat guilty but she wasn't out of the woods yet.
"I've avoided them so far. I have no idea what they'll do to me when they find me."
"When they want to, they'll find you. You're not hiding from them. Trust me."
Lenora considered this was probably right.
They walked together for a short time, neither of them saying anything. Although Lenora tried to guide him through the nuances of tangled twigs and uneven ground, Arron seemed to be doing remarkably well. She told him so.
"Myra said that too." He said.
"Myra?" Lenora was incredulous. "Myra was here?"
"Yes, she said she lives around here, somewhere. She seemed happy."
"Really? Why didn't she meet us at the resort?"
"She said she's shy, had mixed feelings about seeing the rest of us. Something like that."
"Did you apologize?"
"For what?" He asked.
"Breaking her glasses."
It took Aaron some time to answer. Finally, he said, "I totally forgot about that. Totally forgot. Wow. That's why she had to leave, wasn't it? Because she needed new glasses?"
"Yes," Lenora sighed.
"She went through this whole story about giving the Forest Children peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, she said they liked peanut butter and jelly. She explained how she couldn't see them well because she didn't have her glasses and she thought they were actual children. I thought it was just a cute story. I didn't realize she was trying to make me out to be an idiot."
Neither said anything for a while.
"I must have been such a monster back then," he remarked quietly after more than an hour of walking slowly through the forest. "We were horrible kids."
Lenora said nothing, feeling similarly contrite.
Then they stopped. They both heard it. There was yelling in the distance.
"That's Lisa," said Aaron and he pivoted to be in the direction of the yelling.
They reached her after more than 15 minutes of navigating through especially rocky terrain.
Lenora tried to contain her revulsion over the scene presented to her. Aaron, unable to witness the shocking state Lisa was in, smiled broadly and appeared to assume a sort of rescuer stance.
"Do something!" Lisa yelled. "Get me outta here! Hurry. Those fucking demented kids! Those kids!"
Lenora was stunned and was unable to answer her.
Lisa was propped up against a tree. Both of her arms and both of her legs had been gnawed off. The stumps were oozing blood and it reminded Lenora a little of Derrick's shoulder but Lisa's open joints were much more exposed. There were no shoulders to speak of.
The missing limbs were nowhere to be found either. There was only minimal blood on what was left of Lisa's clothing.
"What did they do?" She asked quietly.
"What the fuck does it look like, Rocket Scientist? For fucks sake..." Lisa was still her charming self, despite being horribly disfigured.
"Well, you're gonna have to explain it to me, ' said Aaron.
He seemed to be in good spirits all of a sudden. Lenora concluded that he really was infatuated with this woman he knew for six weeks.
"Bugs!" She screamed. If she was worried about the Forest Children returning, she wasn't making any effort to hide. "They got these bugs to eat my fucking legs. And my arms! Fuuuuccckkk! How am I supposed to do anything? How am I supposed to move? They paralyzed me! It was like FIVE hours of bugs just eating my flesh! And I had to just sit there! Do you know how creepy that is, how disgusting that feels? Imagine bugs crawling all over you, now make that a thousand times, no, a million times worse!"
Lenora couldn't imagine it. She couldn't imagine standing by while hoards of vile insects removed complete limbs, mouthful by tiny mouthful. What happened when they came across major vessels? What about the bones? She dared not ask.
"You've got no arms and legs?" asked Aaron. "Don't worry, we'll get you out of here." He seemed to be in good spirits. Perhaps, compared to losing four limbs, losing your eyes wasn't so awful.
"You can't do shit, Aaron. You don't have any eyes! What can you do?"
"Well, for one thing, I can walk."
Lenora smiled. He sure knew how to handle this girl.
"Lenora, how about you get some help and send them this way. I'll wait with Lisa. I'm just holding you back out there. I'll stay here."
Lisa looked both shocked and angry but she said nothing.
Lenora had no idea where they were and she said so. How would she know where to find them?
"Just tell them we're by the cabin. It's right behind that little meadow over there." Lisa looked over in the direction of a small open field.
"The cabin? There's really a cabin?"
"It was on my map," said Lisa.
"The cabin!" said Aaron. "Myra did say something about a cabin. She said the game ended there. I think that's what she said."
"What are you talking about?" Said Lisa.
"Myra was in the woods and she helped me for a while. I guess she was doing the scavenger hunt too."
"Asshole," said Lisa. "Myra's dead. How could she have helped you?"
"Myra's dead?" Aaron and Lenora asked simultaneously.
Lisa looked at them with surprise. "Yeah," she said. "A few months ago. Didn't you guys see her name on the 'Gone but Not Forgotten ' list that came with the invitation?"
A Gone but Not Forgotten list had been omitted from Lenora and Aaron's invite package.
"Who else could that have been?" Aaron seemed very introspective.
"I'm going to go to the cabin." Lenora wanted to get away from them.
She was hoping the end of this whole incident would happen when she got there. Maybe the mastermind lived there, maybe it was nothing. She couldn't explain why but the cabin seemed important.
She knew she could be walking into a trap, maybe the Forest Kids lived there, so many possible outcomes but something had to get resolved by going there. Maybe Myra lived there, and she put her name on that list. The only way to know would be to go there.
Lenora walked with determination. She didn't care about listening to laughter or buzzing sounds. She didn't care that the forest was relatively silent and it had been all night. She didn't care that she was exhausted and hadn't eaten in hours. She just knew she had to get to the cabin.
When she reached the small meadow she saw it in the distance. It was a small, nondescript cabin that looked run-down but appeared structurally sound, at least for the time being. A candle burned in the window.
Lenora felt strongly that the cabin was the key to everything. She was happy to have found it. As she continued to the cabin, she realized she was unafraid. Whatever was inside couldn't be as callous and terrible as everything that was already out there in the woods.
When she got to the window, the candle went out.