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It was a silly request, my parents knew, since everything they ever warned me against I would by nature do the opposite. I wasn't a complicated child. My parents should have known better.
It was the summer between 6th and 7th grade, when you leave your childhood behind. Everyone seemed to be drifting away from each other. Even my best friend, Ben, started to take an interest in girls — one named Hanna, to be specific — and I hadn't seen him hardly at all anymore, not since they began seeing each other a few months back. My other pals were discovering new cliques to hang out with, and with each passing day we were becoming more jocks and dweebs and gamers than just “us.” We all noticed this, and decided that before we began our first year of junior high, we'd have one last adventure together.
There was no question. The lumber mill.
We'd heard the stories of old farmhands from back around the turn of the century, from just before the mill closed. Some entrepreneur had made a fortune on creosote back East, and decided to "spread the wealth" by harvesting the woodlands here in his hometown. It went well, until whispers of disappearing workers and mysterious accidents proved real. Within four months, the mill shuttered its doors-- more like abandoned, as no one knew anyone left to operate it-- and soon it was reclaimed by the landscape as it stood rotting in the darkened forest for a hundred years, untouched and avoided by the locals.
Over time, its legend had grown amongst the teenagers. "Our Little Roanoke," they'd call it, referencing the strange story we'd all read in our American History class every semester. An abandoned colony in the Carolinas. An abandoned mill in the woods. In both, their residents vanished without warning, like haunted memories of half-remembered nightmares.
That night, we packed our gear. It was a long hike. By midnight, we'd gotten turned around several times, and Ben was starting to worry we were lost. The woods were sprawling and unpopulated, and we were on private land so no one would know we were out here.
Finally, we saw it, glowing faintly in the moonlight like some Aztec ruin. We could make out the crumbling stone walls overgrown with kudzu and some rusted hulks in the shadows, covered in weeds. When we snuck closer, the rusted things became more clear-- ancient saw blades and machinery, now silent, once meant for the trees that long since towered over them. No one had lived here for a very, very long time.
The silence. God, the silence. Even the crickets and nightingales seemed to know to avoid this awful place.
Ben tried to spook us, insisting that the parallels between the mill and the original Roanoke were not coincidental. That the original Roanoke colony, the one that disappeared when early settlers came with extra supplies to find the village completely abandoned without warning or explanation, had not really disappeared.
“They just moved inland, in secret,” Ben said. They did it because they'd found something that drew them into the forest, the forest we were now in. Something powerful. Something in the darkness.
I'd like to say his teasing didn't work, but when the moon finally dipped below the horizon and the shade of the ancient dead elms surrounding us turned even our flashlights into weak useless beams against the pitch blackness of that place, Ben's words began to sink in. We trudged onward in the dark under the pall of his echoing words, the four of us stunned into a panicky quietude.
"Croatoan is all the settlers found on Roanoke when the settlers vanished. A word carved hastily into the bark of a tree, a meaningless word, nothing more," Ben said. "Croatoan is what they found. It's what drew them here."
"Shut up," our other friend Craig said meekly. Still, we ventured deeper.
The inside of the mill was somehow even darker, like it was eating up the glow of our flashlights. Feeding off it, growing bolder. Craig was too scared to enter and said he'd wait outside in what starlight still shone. We weren't so scared. We weren't. We should have been.
There was a shout of excitement up ahead. As if by fate, Ben discovered a hidden chamber near the back of the mill, one that was obscured by kudzu. He was already challenging our other friend, Nigel.
“Do it, Nigel. You can almost see the bottom. Don’t be a pussy,” Ben said.
“I’m not jumping down there! Stop it, man!” Nigel shot back, his quavering voice betraying his fear.
As I followed behind them, I nearly tripped into a gaping shaft that seemed to appear beneath us from nowhere. The one Ben wanted Nigel to jump into. Surely he was kidding. But Ben had turned deadly serious.
"This shaft leads to a mine. A cave. This is where they did it. This is what brought them here," he intoned with sudden gravity.
“Did what?” I sneered unconvincingly. He didn’t respond.
The shaft was an abyss. A bottomless nothing. Squinting as hard as we could, we could see only emptiness. Well,almost nothing. As my eyes adjusted, I thought I could make out... a grey shape. A rock perhaps, on the distant earthen floor below. I could swear I felt a faint, mildewed breeze blowing up from the cavern, puffing sickeningly on my face. And then the grey shape… did it move?
"When did you become such an expert on the mill, Ben?" I jeered. He didn't respond or change his expression, which remained graven. I wasn't expecting that. It was unsettling.
I decided to go back and check on Craig, who was no doubt feeling regretful over not joining us inside. I also wanted to get away from that horrible shaft, that seemed to breathe hungrily as I gazed within. And Ben. He was starting to get to me with that talk of Roanoke.
When I stumbled my way back to the exterior of the mill, I called out.
“Craig?” There was no answer. I thought he might have gone around the side of the mill. As I took a step forward to continue my search, I gasped and nearly lost my footing. At first I thought it was Craig himself, lurking in the weeds to trip me, to frighten me. I caught myself and wheeled around to find... a flashlight. Craig's flashlight. The batteries were gone.
My heart began to pound. As if on cue, the inky blackness intensified around my vision as it blurred with the first of many tears. This was no place to be without a light, especially alone. I whirled back to the mill.
The blood surging through my chest throbbed heavily in my ears, creating a rapid chuff-chuff, chuff-chuff that made it seem as if the lumberyard had sprung to life around me without the aid of its former, long-dead masters. I leapt over another old saw blade, but in my haste I cut my leg on its rusted teeth and shredded my jeans, crying out in pain. I could have sworn I heard a cry that was not my own echo back.
The stinging in my leg was dulled by sheer adrenaline. I needed to find Ben. I needed to find Craig. We needed to leave.
I heard him before I saw him. A rhythm, in time with my hammering heartbeat. Was he singing? Why was the chorus so short?
Three syllables. No, two. Da-dudum. Da-dudum.
"Ben?!" I shouted. The chant paused, but barely enough to notice. He was ignoring me.
I followed his voice. It was clearer now what he was saying. It was what he had been saying all night, but more concisely. It wasn't a chorus, but a word.
I finally understood him, just as I saw him shove Nigel into the shaft.
"Ben! What are you--" He whirled around. Ben was gone. His eyes may as well have been hollow stalks on a snail's head, empty of comprehension.
His lips formed the word once again, three syllables mashed into two. Da-dudum.
Strangely, as I reeled from the horror unfolding before me, my thoughts turned elsewhere. To earlier that summer. How I'd never seen Ben’s new girlfriend after that first June night they spent together, when they left to explore the woods. And how he never said where he was going those many summer evenings after, when he snuck out alone, and I covered for him so he could be with “her.” Back when he began acting strange. When we began to drift apart.
And then there was the grey shape at the bottom of the shaft. With Nigel, now there were two. perhaps three, with Craig.
It might have been the terror swirling through my veins and leaking from the wound in my leg. But I swear I saw something the color of burnt firewood crawl up from the abyss behind him. Reaching out into the night. Made from it. With a grey shape in its teeth.
"I found it," Ben croaked quietly, interrupting his mantra. As if compelled against his will, his lips curled again into the ominous word, slavering wildly like a ravenous dog. Carved into his forehead, the same word, dark rivulets running down his screaming face like crimson tears.