Evan tossed a log onto the fire and thought about the sin he planned to commit tonight.
He grinned when a large cloud of sparks bloomed into the air. His smile grew wider when Melissa jumped back in alarm.
“God, Evan,” she said, casting him an irritated look. “Watch what you’re doing.”
He hid the smile, replacing it with an innocent expression.
“What?” he asked.
Melissa’s look softened somewhat and Evan knew she would forgive him. She always did.
“For starters, those sparks touched my clothes,” she said. “I don’t want to turn into a flaming torch. But more than that, I don’t want you to light the whole forest on fire.”
Evan looked at the trees crowding around them. He knew it was just his imagination, but it felt like the branches were closer than when they’d made camp. He could see only a bare sliver of sky through the thick canopy of forest above them.
He jumped when a voice spoke behind him.
“Remember, Evan,” Gavin said in a gruff tone, “Only you can prevent forest fires.”
“Thanks, Smokey,” Evan replied.
He watched as Gavin and Alice emerged from the trees carrying stacks of wood and dropped them on the pile. Alice gave Evan a quick glance and then looked away. He was tempted to smile again, but didn’t.
“Now can I start with the ghost story?” Evan asked.
“I don’t know,” Melissa said. “I’m already freaked out.”
“It’s a good one, trust me,” Gavin said.
“It’d better be great,” Alice said. “And not too long. I’m already exhausted from kayaking here. I have a meeting with my thesis adviser on Monday, so I’d prefer not to be wiped out when this weekend is over.”
Alice sat down on a nearby log and Gavin took a seat next to her. Evan’s eyes lingered as Gavin took Alice’s hand. When he looked away, he noticed Melissa watching him. He tried to appear nonchalant.
“I’ll give you the short version,” Evan said.
He took a deep breath before he started, looking at each of them in turn.
“During the Civil War, there was a Confederate soldier named Samuel Mitchell who fought in some of the skirmishes around here,” he said. “He claimed that when he camped nearby, he discovered the remains of an abandoned town called Bethlehem.
“Mitchell was part of a small scouting unit that was looking for signs of Union activity along the Chickahominy and James rivers. He said they stayed one night in the hollowed out ruins of some of Bethlehem’s buildings. According to his official report, there was an incident.
“They started hearing voices first. Mitchell heard someone calling his name, ‘Samuel,’ over and over. He initially thought it was one of his men. But others said they also heard someone in the forest calling their own names. The soldiers lit torches, drew their weapons, and headed out into the night. Mitchell was convinced it was Union troops playing some kind of trick. But out in the woods, they didn’t find men — they found ghosts.”
“This is getting too creepy,” Melissa said.
Evan flashed her a wicked grin that appeared menacing in the glow of the campfire.
“Keep that up and I’m going to sleep in Gavin and Alice’s tent,” Melissa said.
In the firelight, Evan thought she looked younger than her age, almost like the girl he had first met three years ago, when they were both in college. She ran a hand quickly through her frizzy brown hair and then unconsciously began chewing on her finger nails. It was hard not to contrast her scared countenance with that of Alice, who appeared unperturbed.
He’d only known Alice the past six months since Gavin started dating her, but she always seemed like she was game for anything. Even now, Alice was listening to the story with a skeptical look in her green eyes and a half smile on her dimpled face. When she noticed him watching, she winked. He loved her boldness and the way she challenged him. But he resisted responding, knowing Melissa was keeping a close eye on him.
“He started with twelve men,” Evan continued. “But as they explored the ruined town, Mitchell started losing soldiers one by one. At first he thought they had just stumbled in the dark or stepped out of the torch light. But when they regrouped, they couldn’t find the missing men. When they called their names, all they heard were their own names whispered back at them.
“Mitchell ordered a retreat, but the men turned to find ‘spirits and devils’ waiting for them, according to his report. Some of the men fired their weapons, others tried to surrender. Mitchell made the smart move; he ran.”
“Coward,” Gavin said.
“Well, out of the twelve men there that night, he was the only one to survive,” Evan said. “The rest were declared ‘missing in action’ and were never heard from again.”
“Could you just stop now?” Melissa asked. “I’ve heard enough. If it wasn’t so dark, I’d vote to go home.”
“It’s just a story,” Gavin said.
He reached out to pat Melissa gently on the arm and Evan worked to hide his annoyance. Gavin was tall, broad-shouldered and muscular, and he made Evan feel self-conscious. He knew that next to Gavin, he seemed skinny and short, though he preferred to think of himself as lean and spry.
“But a true one,” Evan said. “Samuel Mitchell escaped, filed his report and did his best to forget about that night. But after the war, he was approached by a Union officer who obtained Mitchell’s record. The officer demanded that Mitchell lead a search party to the area. He had heard some locals talk about a treasure buried in the forest near the remains of Bethlehem. But the officer couldn’t find where the town was — he needed Mitchell to help him.”
“What kind of treasure are we talking about?” Alice asked.
“Some said it was gold, but the Union officer thought it was jewels, probably from a wealthy southerner hoping to stay that way when the war ended,” Evan said.
“Did they find it?” Melissa asked.
Evan looked at each of his friends carefully before answering.
“They were never seen again.”
Silence hung in the air until the snap of a nearby branch caused Melissa to let out a startled scream.
“What the hell?” Gavin said.
He looked at Evan, who was standing on top of a broken piece of kindling.
“You did that on purpose, asshole,” Gavin said.
Evan laughed while Melissa looked furious.
“Your story doesn’t hold up,” Alice said. Unlike Gavin and Melissa, she sounded completely calm.
“What part?” Evan replied.
“Who hides treasure in the woods and then doesn’t come back for it?” she asked.
“That’s what I thought,” Evan said. “But I recently found a document that indicated they were onto something. Bethlehem was founded by some crazy ex-preacher. Apparently he stole or somehow obtained rare jewels and buried them on the property.”
“Oh yeah, what document?” Alice asked skeptically.
“Mitchell’s journal,” Evan said. “A first-hand account of the Civil War. It’s part of my thesis research. When I got to the bit about Bethlehem, I had to do some more digging. I found other references to the same story. I think Mitchell was on the right track. The treasure is still out here.”
Alice started laughing.
“You’re crazy, you know that?” she said. “Only you could drag the three of us to the middle of some stupid forest to go treasure hunting.”
She pointed at a large bag lying near Evan and Melissa’s tent.
“Are those metal detectors?”
“Really? Great plan, Sherlock,” Alice replied. “A metal detector can’t find jewels.”
“Supposedly, they were buried inside a lead box,” he responded. “I know what I’m doing. And I’ve had some help. We’re right where we need to be.”
“What kind of help?” Melissa asked.
“They wanted to be anonymous,” Evan said, shrugging his shoulders. “But they told me where to go. You’ll see. I’ve got it all planned out.”
Evan dropped another log on the fire and glanced at the remaining pile of wood.
“Except for the firewood, unfortunately,” he said. “I’ll go and get more.”
He turned away from the fire and walked a few steps to the tents. He opened one and rummaged inside until he emerged with a flashlight.
“I’ll be back in a few minutes,” he said before leering at them dramatically. “Don’t let any ghosts get you.”
He stepped into the forest before they could respond. He picked his trail carefully, trying to get far enough away from the campsite without becoming completely lost. He knew she’d picked a spot out this way, but wasn’t sure where.
After a moment, he spotted a red piece of clothing hanging from a nearby branch. When he picked it up, he laughed softly. It was a pair of lace underwear.
He shut off his flashlight and waited. It was possible she would decide not to meet him, but he wasn’t too worried about that. Something in the way her eyes had been watching him while he told his story assured him she would show.
“Evan!” a voice rang out, startling him.
He turned the flashlight back on and used it to sweep the perimeter.
“Yeah?” he whispered, keeping his voice low.
But there was no answer. When he thought about it, he wasn’t even sure it had been Alice’s voice. It could have been Gavin or Melissa calling him. His flashlight searched back and forth, but caught only trees and misshapen shadows. There was no sound at all.
It was only then that he realized how odd that was. He should be hearing something in the forest, at least crickets or an owl. But the night seemed eerily silent. It was unnerving because somehow the woods didn’t feel empty. Evan had the sense of something out there in the dark, a sinister presence that was quietly watching him.
“Boo!” a voice said, and Evan jumped in the air. He whirled to face his attacker, ready to use his flashlight as a weapon.
He stopped when he saw Alice’s grinning face.
“Shit!” he said, but he lowered his voice.
“Got ya, didn’t I?” she asked.
“How the hell did you sneak up on me? You were silent,” Evan said.
Alice put her hands on her hips and cocked her head to the side. She smiled slyly.
“Do you really want to stand here in the dark and talk?” she asked. “We don’t have a lot of time, you know.”
Evan regained his composure and quickly moved in for a kiss. Her response was urgent and passionate. Her tongue brushed against his and Evan forgot about Samuel Mitchell, the phantoms in the forest, and his girlfriend sitting at the campsite nearby. He wrapped his arm around Alice and pulled her body against his. His left hand still held the flashlight, now pointed at the ground. When they pulled away, they were both breathing heavily.
“Wow,” Evan managed. “You are the best kisser I’ve ever known.”
“I’m the best at a lot of things,” Alice said. “You just haven’t had a chance to find out yet.”
Evan leaned in and kissed her neck. She tasted of sweat and insect repellent, but he didn’t care.
“I can’t wait,” he said.
With his right hand, he gently pushed her backward until she was up against the trunk of a large tree.
“We are not going to do it out here, Evan,” Alice said.
But whatever her mouth was saying, her body was sending different signals. She wrapped a leg around him.
“We can’t,” she whispered. “They’ll hear us. They’ll know.”
Evan no longer cared. He had waited too long for this moment. After a minute, Alice seemed to give up the fight as well. Her kisses grew more insistent until he felt her reach down and unbuckle his jeans.
“We have to be quick,” she said.
He nodded, but a voice interrupted them.
“Evan!” it said, and it sounded nearby.
Both Evan and Alice started at the sound, quickly pulling away from each other. Evan hurried to buckle up his jeans.
“Evan!” the voice came again, and Evan raised his flashlight, still clutched in his left hand. He was about to call back when Alice put a hand on his mouth.
“He’s calling my name, you idiot,” she hissed. “He can’t find us together.”
Evan looked at her in genuine confusion.
“No, he called my name,” he said.
He could barely make out the expression on her face, but he thought the fear on his own was reflected there.
“That’s not funny,” she said.
“Evan!” the voice said again, much more insistently. It was so near, Evan instinctively put Alice behind him and used his flashlight to search the area where the sound had come from.
A figure in a white robe stood five feet away. Evan almost screamed when his beam caught sight of the man standing in the woods. He was so sure the voice had been Gavin’s that his brain couldn’t process the surprisingly different face that stared at him from the darkness. The man stood there watching them. Evan opened his mouth to ask who he was when he realized he already knew.
“That’s impossible,” Alice said from behind him.
The man raised an arm and pointed at them.
“You shouldn’t be here,” he said, his tone strangely flat. “You have been judged.”
From far away in the woods, they heard a piercing scream.
“Melissa,” Evan said.
He grabbed Alice’s hand and pulled her away, ignoring the figure in front of them and plunging through the forest. He didn’t understand what was happening, but it didn’t matter. All he wanted was to get back to the campfire.
They ran through the woods, the thin beam of his flashlight guiding the way. They heard another scream in front of them.
“Gavin,” Alice said.
The two of them sprinted as fast as they could while avoiding the roots and branches that threatened to send them sprawling onto the ground. Evan momentarily lost his bearings when Alice shouted, “Over there.”
He saw her pointing at a small spot of orange in the distance — the campfire. They ran towards it, still holding hands for fear of losing each other in the surrounding darkness.
“Melissa!” Evan shouted. “Are you okay?”
Even then, his mind insisted it was a prank. But when they arrived at the campsite, those thoughts quickly fell apart.
A circle of people dressed in long white robes were standing by the fire, their faces vacant and expressionless. In the black forest, they seemed to faintly glow. But what disturbed Evan more was that he was sure he could see through the figures as if they weren’t really there. He didn’t see Gavin or Melissa anywhere.
One of the figures stepped forward from the group and leveled an accusing finger past Evan, pointing at Alice.
“We are born in sin, we die in sin,” the man said. “Take the harlot.”
More figures in white emerged from the forest behind Evan and Alice. They seemed to spring into existence; their sudden appearance was jarring and unnatural. Evan turned to see two men grab Alice. He struggled to keep a grip on her hand, but they ripped her away from his grasp even as she began screaming. They pulled her into the darkness and Evan couldn’t see her any longer. It was as if she had vanished completely along with her two abductors. Alice’s scream was abruptly cut short.
Evan stared at the ring of figures surrounding him. The leader looked directly at him. While those eyes were on him, Evan seemed to remember every ill deed he had ever done, and a wave of regret washed over him.
“Behold the fruits of your transgressions,” the leader said, gesturing above him.
Two bodies hung in the trees. It was dark, but Evan could barely make out their features. Melissa’s eyes stared at him as her body twisted in the breeze, her expression accusatory. But Evan knew that she was beyond recriminations. Gavin still struggled, his feet kicking furiously. His arms were tied fast behind his back.
Evan didn’t try to help his friend. Instead, he fled into the woods. He saw figures in white try to grab him, but their arms seemed to go right through him.
“The sinners will be saints,” Evan heard the leader shout at him. “You have been judged.”
Evan sprinted as if the Devil himself were at his heels, flying through the forest with only his flashlight to guide him. The woods that had been so silent only minutes earlier now felt alive and angry. Evan heard the sounds of several people pursuing him. Looking behind, he saw flashes of white in the darkness.
He ran with reckless abandon, plunging through undergrowth and leaping over any obstacle his beam caught sight of. He fell several times, but picked himself up and kept going, never noticing the scratches on his face and hands.
When he finally collapsed ten minutes later, he kept waiting for the people in white to appear around him. But the night was once again still.
After he caught his breath, Evan searched his pockets for his cell phone, only to remember he had left it back at the camp. He was exhausted and scared and no longer knew which direction to run. So he lay down on the ground, hoping his pursuers wouldn’t find him. When morning came, Evan didn’t dare try to return to the campsite, fearing what might be waiting for him. Instead, he stumbled forward, hoping to find a road that would lead him back to civilization.
He never saw the people in white, but Evan knew they were there.
He could still hear them calling his name.
I don’t know what devil made me go into the forest.
My father is a man of many rules, and I sometimes struggle to remember all of them. But the most important one, the one that stood above all others, is permanently etched into my soul: Do not go into the woods.
He has repeated it so often and for so long that, to my mind, it has become the Eleventh Commandment.
My father goes into the forest, as do many others of his congregation. But they make long preparations before they undertake the journey and do so in the most solemn of manners. I see them march in, rows of two walking quickly after my father, dressed in white and carrying torches in their hands. They are as silent as spirits and their faces betray nothing but iron determination. My father does not allow them to be afraid as they vanish into the sentries of pine and oak trees. He has forbade fear to come near him or those who follow in his wake.
Once, when I was younger, I stayed up to watch them return. I was past my ninth year but even then, I was burdened by an inquisitive mind. I had no proper schooling, but had taught myself to read and write by memorizing passages of The Holy Book and scribbling them in the dirt. I wonder if that was what started the trouble with my father. He had promised me this knowledge, had pledged to teach me these skills like Prometheus instructed the Greeks how to make fire. But when he saw I had learned them already on my own, he was not proud, but angry. It was his gift to bestow upon me, and I had stolen it from him. That was the first time he whipped me.
The second was when I watched his congregation return in the dead of night. I sneaked from my bedroom chamber, prepared to tell any who asked that I needed to make water, but there was no need. The rest of the house was quiet. I walked from my home and past the makeshift chapel just to the edge of the forbidden woods. I looked into the impenetrable thicket and saw only darkness with the barest hint of a path. I waited there, quietly, for what felt like hours, preventing myself from sleeping by propping myself in the most uncomfortable of positions.
When my father emerged, it was not with the torch-lit procession that I expected. Instead, they walked just as silently as they went in, but without the torches. Where he left those, I know not. They carried nothing in their hands. They passed so close to me, I felt sure I would be noticed and remarked upon. But my father’s face never glanced in my direction, and his followers stared resolutely at his back.
I was almost disappointed. After all that fearful praying, they came out of the forest looking exactly as they went in — almost. As the last two members of my father’s flock passed, the moonlight broke unexpectedly through the trees, casting a pale light onto the procession. When it did, I could clearly see stains on their white apparel, streaks of darkish red. My father’s congregation was baptized in blood.
Despite the sudden jolt of fear that gripped me, I stayed where I was, terrified that any movement would betray my unauthorized vigil. When they had gone back to their homes, I sneaked back, moving through the house like a cat. It was all for naught. My father was waiting for me in my room.
His face was a mask of stone, but his eyes shone in the small lamplight with a fury I had never seen before. He said nothing, but grabbed my arm and led me out of the house and into the stables. My impassive countenance broke when he took down the whip, but my tears and crying only seemed to enrage him further. As the whip touched my back, I vowed never again to go against my father’s wishes.
And yet tonight I found myself walking through the forest.
I am not sure what made me do it. It has been more than six years since the whipping and I had long ago surrendered any wish to join my father’s forays. In his eyes, I was not worthy to take part. I had run too far with my reading, devouring everything I could acquire. I soon knew enough to question my father’s interpretations of Holy Scripture, even as I kept his rules. But the forest holds a strange fascination for me. I often look at it at night, watching it safely from my window. I sometimes behold odd lights and dark shapes. Once, I heard the distinct sound of a woman screaming.
One of the acolytes told me the forest is haunted. She said my father is trying to cleanse it of unholiness. But I fear that whatever possesses this place, it is beyond my father’s ability to redeem.
Tonight it called to me. I do not know how to say it any plainer than that. All these years of watching it, I thought I was immune to the siren song that seemed to grip so many others. Yet just as dusk was falling, I stepped into its arms and vanished among the trees. I walked as if in a dream. It was unlike any place I’d seen before. Even in the fading light, the colors of the forest seemed brighter, and the wind whistling through the leaves was almost speaking to me. I heard whispers that seemed to call my name.
I walked for only a few minutes when I saw the man lurching toward me. He appeared as if from thin air and his sudden presence startled me from my reverie. I was acutely aware that I had violated my father’s primary tenet, the first of the Eleventh Commandments. The man in front of me stumbled forward and leaned against a tree. He was breathing quickly as if he had been running and his eyes swept over the forest. He appeared to be looking for someone.
His eyes alighted on me and even before he spoke, I could see the spark of recognition in them. I had never seen this man before and yet he looked at me as if I were a long-awaited friend.
“Edolphus,” he said.
I stood rooted to the spot as he took a step forward. Only then did I accept what I was seeing. The man’s face was blackened, but he was no slave or free Negro. His flesh was horribly charred, his clothes still smoking from the fire that must have consumed him.
“Edolphus, where is she?” the man asked.
He tramped through the woods toward me, moving with an uncertain gait. His dark, black eyes looked at me like I was salvation.
I took a step backward.
“Where is she, Edolphus?” he said again.
I couldn’t speak words but shook my head violently from side to side. As he crossed the distance between us, I suddenly knew I could not bear him to touch me. He held his hands out toward me and they too were blackened and charred.
He was almost on top of me before I turned and ran. I heard him scream in dismay as I did so, the cry of someone who has just let something very precious fall from his grasp.
“Edolphus, no!” he yelled. “How am I supposed to find her? I can’t do this without you!”
I ran through the trees, heedless of the direction in which I fled. But I could feel his dark eyes on me and I was desperate to escape. In all my years, I had assumed that my father was keeping me out of the forest because of his own petty desires. I couldn’t understand why he let others in while I was kept out. In that moment, the knowledge that my father had been protecting me came crashing down upon me with startling clarity.
I heard the man pursuing me, bellowing my name as the day’s light vanished and turned into night. I was desperate that he not lay his hands on me. I jumped over logs and forded through a stream that I did not remember crossing. But I couldn’t afford to pay any heed to where I was headed, sure that the man behind me was at my back.
I emerged suddenly from a thicket and into my village. I almost gasped in relief but then I felt hands upon me, shoving me to the ground. I started to scream, and I turned over to look upon my attacker. It wasn’t my pursuer, but my father.
“You were in the forest,” he said, and the horror in his voice must have matched the expression in my face.
“I’m sorry, father,” I said, sure that now some terrible punishment awaited me. It wouldn’t be a whipping this time.
“Did you see him?” my father said urgently, his voice barely above a whisper. He spared a look behind us into the forest beyond.
There was no doubt of whom he was speaking.
“Yes,” I said, as I fought for breath.
My father looked back at me and studied me intently.
“Did he follow you?” he asked.
“He tried, but…”
My voice trailed off. My father was once again looking behind us.
“You evaded him,” he said.
There was no movement from the trees in front of me. I could no longer hear the sound of the mysterious man’s voice. My father collapsed on the ground and then pulled me toward him. I was sure he was going to hit me, but instead he threw his arms around me.
“Don’t you understand the danger you could have brought with you?”
“Who was he, father? Who was that?”
My father withdrew his hasty embrace and stared at me. I thought he was pleased to see me, but his look was so cold that I felt as if ice were spreading down my spine. He didn’t answer my question.
“He must never find us,” he said. “The Charred Man must never come to this village.”
“Why?” I asked. It was all I could manage to say.
“Because he will kill us,” my father finished. “He will kill us all.”
— Edolphus Coakley