Every small town has its closely held secrets, I think. Sometimes they're rumors and gossip, or an old scandal. Sometimes an urban legend most of the townsfolk will swear by, yet have most likely never seen for themselves. Sometimes it's a story about a ghost or some equally sinister creature, and sometimes it's a combination of these things. Most of the time, these whisperings aren't true, of course; people just get bored when local entertainment consists of nothing more than a movie theater and a pizza parlor. Every now and then, though, it's more than just verbal smoke and mirrors. I know of one such story, and it's true; I know it is. I lost my best friend to it, a friend who may have been more than a friend one day.
His name was Darren. He was a sweetheart, and he confessed his love for me way back in kindergarten. He proposed to me with a strawberry ring pop. “Will you be my best girlfriend,” he asked me, nose stuffy from hay fever; the memory still puts a smile on my face. I know he always held on to those feelings, and those feelings are exactly what killed him. The least I can do for him now is to explain what happened. After all, even though he'll never know it now, I loved him, too.
I live in a small town, just like the kind I described. Or, at least, it used to be. It's never been the kind of place where you know everyone by name, but you would recognize most people on any given day. For whatever reason, the population has grown quite a bit in recent years, and more unfamiliar faces move in all the time. This place used to be quiet and cozy, but the modern world eventually made its way here.
A lot of big franchises have set up shop, too, and landscaping contractors from neighboring cities paved over many of the familiar landmarks to make room. The locals didn't like it, of course, but the mayor found the good of the state economy well worth the sacrifice of our personal history. They tried to soften the blow by saying that it was for a better future for the children. Still, when all was said and done, no remorse was shown and no apologies were made.
The renovations that stirred up the most outrage were usually sentimental places. They chopped down quite a few trees older than the town itself. A few abandoned farmlands, which once belonged to founding families, used to stand at the rural edges. The properties were turned over to the state after the old handlers passed away and no next-of-kin stepped forward to claim inheritance. They were sold off and demolished.
One site in particular raised a stink among the local schools: the old Sherman Library on Baker Street, built back in 1907. It was privately owned, run by monthly subscription, and it had lost most of its business since the internet made print obsolete. Just about every home has high-speed internet nowadays, and their inability to stock new reading material certainly didn't help. The state claimed the property on unpaid back-taxes, and it was supposed to be auctioned off. That is, until a few notably reputable corporate executives made some attractive offers for the building and a few of its surrounding empty lots. The library was brought down a few months ago, and they're now building a new shopping center to take its place.
Don't get me wrong, I don't really care about any of this. It's just shop talk and political nagging I've overheard from my parents and in diners and such. I'm only sixteen, and I've never really had any love for my home town. In fact, after I graduate, I plan on getting out of here as soon as possible and attending college out of state. Still, even I know that there are certain places that should be left alone. Some places have local history for a reason, because some places are infamous. Some places are evil.
Just before the the Interstate ramp on the north end of town, the road used to split off into a gravel foot-path that led into an untamed patch of woods. The road bends around a tall rock shelf and over a man made hill before the ramp, and there have been quite a few businesses along the west side of the road over the years to service visitors and passers-through. Nobody had touched the woods on the east side in over a century, though, and only the locals know why.
The woods weren't peaceful; they looked gnarled and wrong, as though the land itself held some sort of grudge. All of the old growth seemed to overlap in a violent struggle, and as far as anyone could tell, there were no fresh saplings, sprouts or buds; it was nothing more than ancient wood and weeds that refused to die. If you dared to enter, you'd have no choice but to stick to the gravel path as closely as possible if you ever intended to find your way back. Those woods ensnared and choked the living, and you'd never hear so much as the song of a cricket in or around them.
I, personally, have never been near those woods, much less in them, but you hear of these things more than once in a small town. Who knows exactly how much of it has been exaggerated? People have a tendency to dramatize ghost stories more with every telling, especially when telling them for fun and thrills. Whatever the case, the sight and story were apparently enough to keep people out, and everyone here knows the story.
This town was founded in the early 1800s. The first family to settle here, the ones to build the first farmhouse, were the McClures. Seamus McClure, their eldest and patriarch, became the first town mayor once the neighbors and farmhands started taking root. Theirs was one of the few estates left untouched, bought by our previous mayor and preserved.
Seamus was known to frequently take long walks through the northern woods, which were only a stone throw from his home. He made the trip even more often as he entered his golden years and left the town leadership to his children. When he passed away, the townsfolk buried him a few miles down one of his favorite paths, and the widow McClure joined him some years later, side-by-side beneath the shade of a towering oak. A few decades down the line, Seamus gained the company of three cousins, a niece, a nephew, and a grandson lost to leukemia.
The humble McClure family burial plot remained a peaceful place for many years. It didn't gain its infamy until the scandal of 1859, and the death of young Bethany McClure. By then, the McClures had built a strong relationship with the second oldest family in town – the Clancey family, founders of the first Catholic church. Since their first meeting, there had been several arranged marriages between the two families, and Bethany was to wed the son of the local priest, a childhood friend by the name of Samuel.
Even from the earliest years of their lives, Bethany and Samuel had a sweet and flirtatious relationship. The story goes that he had saved her from a wolf that had wandered through her favorite flower glade one evening, and he swore to protect her from anything or anyone else who would ever think to do her harm. Even she knew that nobody would dare to harm the daughter of the most respected family in town, but his valiant act and promise meant the world to her all the same. They had been inseparable ever since.
Bethany and Samuel were rarely seen apart, but that changed dramatically during the end of their teen years. They were to be married at the age of twenty-one, but Bethany had fallen gravely ill at eighteen. Her health and beauty waned over the next few years, and she became bedridden. Samuel stayed by her side every hour he had to spare, but as her mind began to fade, she seemed aware of his presence only in fleeting instants. A few times, as though in a haze of dementia, she even forgot his name. Those may have been the first moments that turned his heart.
Samuel's visits grew shorter and less frequent over time, and his mood changed. His concern turned to depression and resignation, which turned to impatience, and eventually to resentment. He wished to be a married man, married to her, and he had staked his happiness on it. In his eyes, she had abandoned him. He began to see his daily visits as a burden, and he made the minimal effort only out of some unspoken responsibility to his family.
On Bethany's twenty-first birthday, Samuel had finally had enough. It became clear that the wedding would never happen, and in a fit of anger, he admitted to having lost his love for her long ago. He admitted that he had been seeing another girl for the past year, and that he intended to propose to her later that evening. He confessed that he didn't care about tradition, that he wasn't about to sacrifice his happiness for it, and that he would be leaving the town with his new bride-to-be as soon as he could.
Hurt and distressed, Bethany begged him to stay. She said that she had accepted her death months ago, and she only held on as long as she had because she wanted to spend every moment that she could muster with him. She declared her love for him as though it were the first time she had ever done so, but Samuel would not listen. He expressed his hatred for her, and his grudge for tying him down in misery for so long. Before Bethany could utter another word, he stormed out of her bedroom. Still, in spite of her failing lungs, she yelled after him. She promised that she would not allow him to leave, and that she would not die lonely and unloved.
Bethany died that night, and she was buried the following morning. Samuel did not attend the funeral, nor did any of the friends with whom she had lost contact since she fell ill. It was a small, somber affair. Her ex-fiancee had also made good on his promise; he proposed to his new love that day, and she accepted. They planned to leave town within the week, but it never came to pass. Several nights later, Samuel disappeared without a trace, having left behind an open and half-packed suitcase on his bed, his engagement ring left atop a stack of folded shirts. He was never heard from again.
That's the end of the official story, the part to which the local authorities and the families involved will admit. Those in the know remain tight-lipped over 150 years, and remain so even now. Still, over time, enough whispers passed around to spell out the secret, more sinister details. Those would be the details that keep the locals away from the woods, and far away from the McClure burial plot.
Though the search party found nothing, the story goes that he was found sometime later in the least likely place imaginable. They say that Bethany's mother returned in the spring to visit her daughter's grave, and the soil had been disturbed. Though, it didn't appear that any shovel had touched it. Rather, the ground was upturned and cracked, freshly moist and black visible beneath the topsoil left cold, hardened and grayed from the recent winter chill. It appeared as though someone, or something, had attempted to claw its way out rather than dig its way in. In fact, from the look of things, the unknown thing had nearly escaped.
Reluctantly, Mrs. McClure had the coffin uncovered. The idea of disturbing her daughter's rest brought her to tears, but she had to know if the grave had in any way been desecrated. Unexpectedly, they found the coffin nailed shut just as it had been on the day of the burial, but it wasn't thorough enough for Mrs. McClure. She ordered the coffin to be opened, and therein lay a chilling discovery that haunts the family and the town to this day. Where there had once been one corpse, there were now two. There, with an expression of horror frozen upon his face, lay the missing Samuel Clancey trapped in the late Bethany's loving embrace.
I wish that I could say that's the end of the story. I wish that I could say the forest was officially closed off to the public once and for all. Unfortunately, the government doesn't like to endorse ghost stories and urban legends. So, people here just stayed away, took the story to heart and kept the whole thing secret from the outside world as best they could. Even so, there were bound to be at least a few too curious for their own good; and there have been.
The next known victim didn't come until the mid 1960s, some liberal arts student location scouting for a photography project. He came looking for old graveyards, of course. The whole town suggested the New Clancey Cemetery on the south side, the only burial plot used for traditional locals since the incident. He considered the idea, even paid it a visit, and the town believed they had narrowly escaped what was sure to be another disappearance.
No such luck. The kid insisted on paying a visit to the smaller burial plot to the north because he'd read about it in some book written by nosy interlopers. A few desperate townsfolk tried to warn him, but their words only fed his curiosity. In the end, they found nothing left of him except for two items placed mysteriously on a stump just outside the forest path entrance: a camera and a wedding ring.
Nobody searched the woods. Bethany had already claimed her prize; what was the sense in giving her another? The mayor personally bought that plot of land shortly after the college boy's disappearance, fenced it off and threatened strict punishment for trespassers. I'm sure it prevented quite a few unnecessary losses, but not all. Missing persons reports still surfaced every now and then stating the last known location somewhere nearby, but nobody in the town searched for long. And nobody ever searched the woods.
That's how things went until recently, but through some legal loophole, ownership of any land estates purchased by seats of government authority were returned to the state when those officials passed away. The northern woods, along the McClure plot, were returned to the state sometime in the early 90s. The current mayor sold a huge section of the woods to another stuffed suit with deep pockets, including the McClure burial plot. It didn't take long for them to draw up plans to level the land for a shopping mall and parking lot.
Some of the people here were actually relieved to hear this. If the grave was gone, they supposed, then was the curse; they would be happy to be rid of it. Some, however, believed that disturbing the grave would only make things worse. Much to everyone's relief, the construction crew had put in work on the site for weeks without incident. Everything seemed much more peaceful than expected, but the peace didn't last.
Darren worked for that crew part time for the summer. He died last night. They found him buried alive at the north end of the lot, his fingers just barely jutting out from under the soil. I cried for hours when I heard the news, and I've been chilled to the bone ever since. I wonder now how many wives, fiancees and girlfriends suffered like I am right this moment. I wonder how many wedding rings they found on that forest floor. This morning, I found a ring pop laying on the carpet outside my bedroom door.
It was strawberry.