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The hike was long; nearly six miles. The first five were easy enough, but the last mile was a series of constant switchbacks on a steep slope that left me gasping for air with each step. We were exhausted and drenched in sweat, but in good spirits when we finally arrived at the top of the ridge shortly before sunset. My friends seemed eager to explore the nearby landscape, and I shared their enthusiasm. From what we had heard, the view here was stunning.
It was our annual summer camping trip, a rigid tradition that had endured since childhood. My family, and the families of my three best friends (who also happened to be my neighbors) spent a week in this park every summer. It was a serene environment that allowed one to shed their stress, their worries, and all the troubles of the previous year. Here, next to the sprawling forests of pines and under the shadow of the Appalachian Mountains, we came to forget the problems of life and simply enjoyed ourselves. I had many fond memories of this place that spanned throughout my childhood; fishing and swimming in lakes, marshmallows and ghost stories over the campfire, hiking along the many trails that covered the park. I looked forward to this trip each and every year.
However, this year was slightly different. Our families had stayed at the usual campgrounds while Tony, Astor, Margaret and I hiked onward to a different area. For many years we had been told that there was a campground on top of a ridge that offered an absolutely incredible view of the valley below. On more than a few occasions my friends and I had begged our parents to take us there, but we could never convince them to make the long hike. For our younger siblings, six miles was simply too far to walk (at least, that was the excuse they used).
Nevertheless, we had collectively convinced our parents to allow us to make the hike alone this year. They had agreed that we were definitely old enough to camp out on our own, and wished us well on our journey. Here we were, five hours later, on top of the heavily forested ridge and excited to pitch our tents.
As soon as we reached the top of the ridge, the dirt path leveled off. There were pine trees on either side of the path that cast long shadows in the evening sun. About a hundred yards ahead, the other edge of the ridge could be seen and we picked up our pace in anticipation of the view. I noticed that there was a small building at the edge of the path that was built very close to the cliff. It looked like a house, and I curiously wondered who would be living up here.
Turning my mind back towards the reason we were here, I hurried past the house with my friends and arrived at the opposite end of the ridge.
The view was everything we had anticipated.
The setting sun illuminated the valley below us. The August grass shown gold and waved with the light breeze that swept through the valley. A few wisps of clouds gently floated through the sky and were illuminated red by the dying beams of sunlight. I heard Astor and Margaret gasp in awe as they admired the landscape. Tony and I stood in silent appreciation, taking in the beauty.
We must have stood there for close to ten minutes as the sun sank ever lower towards the horizon. We were so hypnotized that we failed to notice the man behind us.
As soon as I turned around I saw him. An old man, he looked perhaps seventy, and he sat in a chair, smoking a cigarette on the porch of the building I had seen earlier. He was looking at us with an amused expression on his face as he puffed away.
Feeling a little embarrassed that all four of us had walked past him without so much as saying “good evening”, I decided to approach him and introduce myself. His eyes locked on me as I walked up to his front porch.
“Good evening,” I said in a friendly tone.
“Damn right it is,” the old man immediately responded, taking another drag on his cigarette. I was a little startled by his forwardness, but I smiled and introduced myself.
“My name’s Chris Harding,” I said as I extended a hand to him. The old man pulled a tobacco stained hand out of his right pocket and gave me a good, firm handshake.
“Walter. Walter McNeal,” he said with a smile.
“And these are my friends, Astor, Tony, and Margaret,” I said, pointing to each of them. “Sorry for not noticing you earlier.”
Walter waved his hand in a dismissive manner. “ ’s alright. That view is a lot prettier ’n me,” he chuckled. My friends and I chuckled along with him. I liked his sense of humor.
“We’ve never been up here before. And we didn’t know anybody had a house up here. What makes you live here?” I asked.
Walter held out his hand, palm upwards, pointing towards the scenery behind us. His eyebrows were raised in amusement. I immediately felt incredibly stupid for asking such a question.
“Oh, yeah, that’s some view, isn’t it?” I said.
“It is, ain’t it. Best time of the whole damn year actually. You wouldn't want to be here in January. Winters are somethin’ fierce,” he stated.
“Do you live here alone?”
“Aye, just me. Been here my whole life and I don’t ever plan on movin’.”
“So you grew up around here?”
“Sure did. Used to be a little town down in that valley. That’s where I was born n’ raised.”
“What happened to it?” I inquired. “The town, why isn’t it there anymore?”
“Well, nothin' happened to it s’much as it just withered away. All the young folk of my time moved on. Didn’t want to live their lives in a tiny little town in the middle o’ nowhere,” Walter said, with a touch of sadness in his voice.
“But not you? You didn’t want to go anywhere?”
“Naw, not me. Perfectly happy to be here ’til I’m dead.”
Walter said nothing further and seemed to go into deep thought.
We stood around awkwardly for close to a minute before finally deciding to say goodbye and head to the camping area. We were tired from our hike and needed to pitch our tents and sleep.
“Excuse me,” I said, waking Walter from his silent contemplations. “How do we get to the campgrounds from here?”
“Huh, the campgrounds? Oh, just follow that trail there for ‘bout half a mile. It goes along the ridge and it’ll lead you straight to a clearing where you can set up camp. You’ll have the place all to yourselves, hardly anybody comes up here anymore.” Walter pointed to the right of his house and our eyes followed his finger. There was a thin dirt path leading into the trees.
“Okay, thanks for your help Mr. McNeal,” I said. We waved goodbye to him and started to turn towards the trail. Just as my head turned away from the house, something caught my eye. It was another trail, even thinner, that led into the trees on the left side of the house.
“Where does that trail lead?” I asked, nodding my head towards the other path.
Walter glanced over towards it, and a smile crept onto his lips. He took a drag on his cigarette and responded.
“Oh, that trail? It leads to the stairway,” he said casually.
“The stairway. That’s what everyone calls it. I don’t think it has a proper name.”
“What’s the stairway?” I inquired, genuinely curious.
“It’s the damn strangest thing I ever saw. Just a set o’ stairs, carved outta rock. Goes right out o’er the cliff. Been there just about forever.”
“What?!” I said incredulously. “A… a stairway made out of rock, right over the cliff?”
“Aye, exactly that. You gotta see it to believe it, but it’s there.”
“Who built it? Why would anyone build something like that?”
“Well, ‘bout ten years ago these archaeologists come up here to look at it. They got a load o’ fancy tools n’ such. One of them tells me that it’s nearly nine hundred years old, if you can believe it. So I guess the Injuns musta built it. There sure as hell wasn’t anybody else here nine hundred years ago.”
“I see. Why did the Inju- err, Native Americans build it?” I asked.
“Ain’t nobody got a clue. Hell, those archaeologists couldn’t even tell how they built it. Said it looked like the staircase was carved straight outta the rock. But the way it sticks over the side of the ridge, there couldna been any mountain to carve it out of. In fact, it’s a damned miracle it hasn’t fallen over. Shouldn’t even be standin’, with how it is,” Walter explained. “At least, that’s what the archaeologists say.”
The way he emphasized the word “archaeologists” made it clear that Walter was not telling the full story, and was merely waiting for us to ask him to elaborate. I decided to humor him. After all, he clearly didn’t get many visitors.
“What do other people say?”
Walter’s face lit up in honest excitement as he was given the opportunity to tell a story. His cigarette was nearly gone, and he threw the butt on the ground and pulled a new one from his pocket. As he lit it with a match, he looked at us and asked:
“You kids like ghost stories?”
“Sure, we love ghost stories!” Astor exclaimed. The rest of us nodded in agreement. Many ghost stories had been swapped between our families over a campfire, and a fresh one was always welcome.
“Well pull up your pants and get ready, ‘cause I got one helluva story for you,” Walter said as he puffed his new cigarette.
“So there’s this God, you see. It rules over this land and-”
“Is this a Native American legend?” Margaret cut him off.
“To tell you the truth miss, I don’t know. Very well could be, but I don’t got a clue where it came from. This is just a story I heard as a boy. Jimmy Dwight’s granddad used to tell it when he was drunk as hell and couldn’t keep his old mouth shut.” Walter laughed hard, and his laughter turned into a wheeze, which turned into a coughing fit that lasted several minutes. When he had finally composed himself, he continued with the story.
“So anyways, there’s a God that rules over this land. And he’s got these spirits under his command. And these spirits, they got a job. When somebody is close to death, when their time has come so to speak, these spirits go to the dying man and they help him along. They take him and show him the way to the next life. So they’re good spirits, you see. They help people go peacefully.”
Walter ruminated for a moment. It looked as if he was having trouble remembering the story.
“So... er… anyways. What was I sayin’? Oh yeah, there’s the good spirits that take dying people away. ‘Cept, one of these spirits was actually no good. He didn’t do his job right. He liked it when people died, you see. There was somethin’ about it, somethin’ about death he liked. So he starts takin’ people when it ain’t their time. Healthy people, young people. People that got no business dyin’. And this bad spirit, he’s killin’ them. Just for the sake of killin’. Ain’t that awful?”
“Yeah, sounds real bad,” Tony agreed.
“This mean spirit, he goes around killin’ people for no good reason. And the killin’ seems to give him power. Makes him stronger. So the God figures that this can’t go on any longer, so he banishes him. The bad spirit gets thrown outta God’s realm, heaven you could call it. He lands on his ass, right in this area. And most o’ his power is gone too. But not all.”
“So the evil spirit is still here, roaming around? Is that it?” Astor asked.
“You’re ahead o’ me, young lady,” Walter responded. “As I said, most o’ the bad spirit’s power is gone, but not all. He’s still got some juice left. And like I said, killin’ makes him stronger, so he keeps on killin’. ‘Cept he doesn’t bother with individuals no more. That ain’t no fun. He likes groups o’ people. Groups he can play with. He taunts em’, like a cat taunts a mouse before killing it. And the more the people suffer before they die, the more power he gets. And what does he use his power for, you ask? Well, he uses it to build that damned stairway. Ev’ry time he does some poor group o’ people in, he heads on over to that stairway and uses the power to add an extra step to it. In fact, it's his power that keeps the stairway from fallin’ over. He’s been buildin’ that stairway for close to a thousand years. He’s a patient little bastard. He’s buildin’ it upwards so that one day, he can get back to heaven and have his revenge.”
Walter laughed hard again, but thankfully his laughter did not degenerate into another coughing fit. “How’s that for a stairway to heaven?”
I chuckled at the reference to the song, but I was also impressed by Walter’s story. It certainly was a rather creepy tale. It seemed perfectly tailored to scare them. An evil spirit roaming these lands, only preying on groups of people such as themselves. An excellent ghost story!
“And how many steps are on this stairway now? How many groups have come up here and met with a terrible fate?” I asked with an amused tone.
“There’s... uh... there’s…” Walter trailed off. “Well I’ll be damned if I haven’t forgot! I went out on that stairway when I was young and counted the steps, but that was so long ago. I can’t remember at all how many steps there are. Of course, you’re free to go and find out.”
Walter’s coy offer piqued my interest, and I found that it also interested my friends. He told us that the trail leading to the stairway was only a few hundred yards long, and that we would still have time to see it before the sun set. It didn’t take much convincing to get us on the path to see the legendary set of stairs.
My mouth hung open in shock. It was exactly as Walter had described it. Even so, I was still completely blown away by what I saw. A large staircase, made entirely of grey rock, jutting out over the edge of the ridge. It was steep and had no support as far as I could tell. It looked as if it should fall over at any second. I could tell that my friends were as amazed as I was; I had never seen anything like it in my life. Walter had understated when he called it “the damn strangest thing he ever saw.”
We silently stared at the stone monstrosity for a long time. The sun was starting to touch the horizon when Tony spoke.
“How many what?” I responded.
“How many steps are there? Count them. I’m sure as hell not walking out on that thing.”
All four of us began counting the stone steps in our heads as the remaining rays of sunlight illuminated the stairway. I lost count once and had to start over.
“Thirty-nine,” Margaret declared.
Tony and Astor agreed with her count. I was the last one to finish my tally of the stairs, and I arrived at the same conclusion.
“Thirty-nine,” I agreed.
“Thirty-nine groups of people, killed by the evil spirit that haunts these lands!” Tony said in an overdone spooky voice. We laughed, and Astor mentioned that we should all tell our parents about this place as soon as the week was over. We had a great ghost story to share.
The sun finally dipped below the horizon and left behind only a blood red sky. We decided to head back towards Walter’s house and take the path to the campground, promising ourselves that we would come back to see the stairway at least once before the week was over.
The walk to the campground was fairly uneventful. We saw Walter again as we passed by his house, and told him that there were thirty-nine steps on the stairway. He mumbled something along the lines of “sounds ‘bout right” before bidding us goodnight and heading into his house.
It took less than fifteen minutes to walk the half-mile path to the camping area. In the fading twilight we chatted and did our best to spook each other with dreadful stories of the evil spirit that lurked in these woods. About halfway through the walk Tony had spotted the dirty skeleton of a squirrel laying just off the path. Astor, the most squeamish member of our group, had been unwilling to so much as look at it, so Tony had picked up the skull and chased her with it, laughing as she let out angry cries of disgust. Margaret scolded him like a mother, warning him that he could get “all sorts of diseases” from animal carcasses, but Tony didn’t seem to care. He chased Astor with the skull for most of the walk before finally tossing it on the ground and kicking it into the trees. It was these types of antics that I missed, and so dearly looked forward to each year as I camped with my friends.
The campground was merely a clearing in the woods. It was uneven ground, a long and narrow scar in the woods that followed the high ridge we were upon. There were three fire pits lined up in a nice row, along with room for three groups to set up camp. We had the entire place to ourselves.
We were seasoned experts at pitching tents, and Tony and I had a race against Astor and Margaret to see who could pitch their tents faster. Tony and I won by just a few seconds, and the girls cried foul because the ground beneath their tent was “rockier and harder to drive a stake into." We all had a good laugh over it.
The tent that Tony and I were using was closest to the trail, and Margaret and Astor’s tent was directly opposite to ours, with a fire pit between us. In the cool night air, we built a bright campfire and cooked hotdogs on sticks, each taking turns coming up with new ghost stories. From the position of the moon, I could tell that it was easily past midnight when we finally decided to crawl into our tents and drift into sleep, exhausted from the long hike.
The next day was wonderful. There were no clouds in the sky, and a gentle breeze swept through the trees, keeping us cool with the hot August sun above. We passed the time in bliss, exploring the nearby woods. Margaret stumbled upon a small, pretty stream not far from the camp, and we must have spent two hours sitting with our feet in the refreshing, cold water. Nobody said anything; nobody needed to say anything. We were as content as we had ever been. The day, so far, had been perfect.
Unfortunately that perfection would not last.
It was evening, and Tony was building the campfire. Margaret had gone into the woods to go to the bathroom, and Astor sat directly behind Tony, watching him toss wood into the fire. I had just entered our tent to retrieve the hotdogs for our evening meal when I heard Tony scream. It was a clear scream of pain that echoed throughout the woods and jolted me upright. Rushing outside, I saw Tony laying on the ground next to the roaring fire. His cries of agony had ceased, and he now clutched his left hand to his chest, biting his lower lip and taking deep breaths. I could see that the side of his left hand, from his pinky finger to his wrist, was an angry shade of red and covered with blisters.
I immediately knew that Tony had burned himself. As an experienced camper I was accustomed to emergencies, and I quickly ran back into our tent. We had brought a first aid kit that included burn ointment. I was rummaging through my backpack, searching for the burn cream, when Tony began cussing.
“Astor, what the fuck did you do that for!” Tony cursed. There was clear anger in his voice.
“W-w-what...” I heard Astor stutter.
“Why the fuck did you push me!”
I found the burn cream and some bandages and stepped outside the tent to see what the problem was. Tony’s face had become red with rage, and Astor stood with a shocked expression on her face. Tony looked at me while pointing at Astor.
“Chris! That… that bitch tried to push me into the fire!”
I was extremely confused by the accusation that Tony was making. I turned my head to look at Astor, who was pale with shock, then looked back at Tony.
“Tony, what are you saying?” I asked as I walked over to him and bent down to apply ointment to his hand. I could see that there was no charring of the skin, which meant that the burns were only second-degree. That was good. The hand would heal fully.
“She pushed me. She fucking pushed me towards the fire and I got burned!” he hissed with venom in his voice.
Tony winced as I wrapped a bandage around his hand. I was disturbed by what he was saying. Tony had always been the most level-headed member of our group. I did not understand why he was accusing Astor of hurting him.
“You just fell down. You tripped and stuck your hand in the fire. That’s all that happened,” I said calmly. “Don’t blame Astor.”
“I was pushed! I felt it! Someone pushed me really hard, right in the back. I didn’t fucking trip, I know someone pushed me. Margaret isn’t here and you were in the tent, but Astor was right behind me the whole time. She definitely pushed me!”
I looked back at Astor and could tell that she was close to crying. I had known her since I was a toddler, and she was one of the sweetest people I had ever met. There was no way, absolutely no way, that she had tried to push Tony into the fire.
“Tony. Why would she do that? Why would Astor push you into a fire? Think about what you’re saying,” I rationalized.
“I don’t know. I don’t know. Maybe… maybe… she’s mad. Mad about the squirrel skull I chased her with. Yeah, she was mad about that and wanted revenge!”
Astor choked back a sob. “Tony, I... I would never do that! Push you into a fire... that’s horrible! I’m sorry about your hand but...”
“Yeah, sorry that my head didn’t go into the fire instead,” Tony sneered back. “I’m lucky I caught my balance and only touched some embers. I nearly lost my fucking face!”
Astor burst into tears and ran into her tent. I could hear her sobbing into her sleeping bag. Now I was angry, and I turned to Tony.
“What the hell is wrong with you? Why did you make Astor cry?” I asked Tony in an angry tone.
“Shut up. Shut up and think about it. You’ve known Astor as long as I have. Have you ever seen her do something mean? Even once?”
Tony’s face softened. His eyes fell down to the ground.
“Well, no. No I haven’t. But-”
“But nothing. You’re being ridiculous. Astor didn’t push you into the fire. Nobody pushed you. You just fell. Go apologize to Astor for making her cry. Immediately!”
I had always been the strong voice of command in our group. Tony capitulated and went into the tent to apologize to Astor, but not before insisting that somebody had indeed pushed him into that fire.
Margaret returned from the woods and we filled her in on what happened to Tony. She suggested that we should cut our trip short and get him to a doctor, but Tony was completely against the idea. He insisted that the burn was not serious. The ointment and bandages kept his hand from hurting badly and there was no point in ruining the trip, he said. And so, with Tony and Astor on good terms again, we fell asleep in our tents and spent another cool, pleasant night on the ridge.
I awoke to screaming. Not a scream of pain, but a scream of fear. It was high and shrill, jolting me upright from a deep sleep. Even before I stepped out of my tent I knew that it was Astor. Only she could produce such a sharp cry from her vocal chords.
The sun had just begun to rise, sending fresh beams of sunlight through the trees. I wearily stumbled out of the tent, rubbing the sleep from my eyes. Our tents and the grass were covered with sparkling dew, but I had no time to admire the beauty of early morning.
Becoming more alert, I noticed that Astor was standing in the entrance to her tent with her hands over her mouth. Margaret had been awakened by the sudden scream and stood behind her. Both of them looked down towards the ground in front of their tent. I followed their gaze and saw that something laid in the dirt.
I walked around the fire pit towards the girls’ tent in order to get a look at what had caused Astor to cry out. I approached the tent and focused on the object in the dirt. When I could clearly see what it was I recoiled in disgust.
It was a squirrel’s skull.
And not just the skull, to be precise. The entire skeleton was there as well, laid out in a sickening pose that made it appear to be dancing. It looked exactly like the squirrel skeleton we had seen on the first night; except this skeleton was clean. Its bones were bright white and did not have a single speck of dirt on them. As if somebody had rigorously scrubbed each and every one, carefully making sure that any impurities were removed, leaving a shiny white pile of bones perfectly laid out in front of Astor’s tent.
Astor continued to gasp in horror and disgust as Tony stepped out of our tent and walked towards us with a concerned look on his face.
“What’s wrong? What’s going on?” he asked.
Astor wrenched her gaze from the skeleton and looked at Tony as he approached. The expression on her faced turned from terror to anger.
“What’s wrong? What’s wrong!” Astor screamed hysterically. “As if you don’t fucking know!”
Tony looked confused. He stood next to me and peered down at the ground, seeing the skeleton for the first time.
“You’re such a fucking asshole Tony! I thought we made up last night! You said you were sorry for blaming me. What a fucking liar. Fuck you!”
I absolutely agreed with Astor. It was one thing for Tony to be paranoid and believe that he had been pushed into the fire. But now he had taken things too far. Taking the squirrel skeleton that he had tormented Astor with earlier and placing it outside her tent was cruel. It seemed clear to everyone that he had done so in a petty attempt to exact revenge for the perceived assault Astor had committed.
I became angry. Extremely angry. I turned to Tony. I was about to tell him off, to go on a tirade against him, to cuss him out for being such a thoughtless, paranoid asshole. I opened my mouth to begin my rant, and then immediately closed my lips and swallowed my words when I saw his face.
He had taken a step backwards from the skeleton. His face had gone pale and his hands were clenched into tight fists. I could see the tension in his arms and neck. He was afraid. Truly, sincerely afraid.
Astor continued to curse at Tony. After several moments he turned his wide eyes towards Astor and looked her in the face. All he could manage was a barely audible squeak.
“I didn’t… I didn’t do this,” Tony whispered as his voice cracked.
“Oh sure you didn’t,” Astor replied sarcastically. “No, that skeleton just walked up here on its own and sat itself down in front of my tent. You’re a lying asshole. That’s all you are. A lying asshole.”
Astor ran back into her tent sobbing. Margaret said nothing and only scowled at Tony before retuning to the tent to console Astor. And in that moment, I became afraid.
Tony was not lying. There was genuine fear etched across his face. He had not placed that skeleton outside of Astor and Margaret’s tent, that I felt sure of. I sure as hell hadn’t put the skeleton there, and Astor clearly didn’t. She wouldn’t so much as touch such a thing. That left only Margaret, but what motive did she have? She never liked practical jokes, and this had far exceeded what was appropriate for a “joke”.
I knew Tony was having the same thoughts that I was. He turned towards me and opened his mouth, but before he could speak I shook my head and said, “Don’t look at me. I didn’t put it there.”
Tony’s face grew whiter. He gave a short nod of understanding and went back to our tent, mumbling something about getting breakfast ready.
I stepped into the girls’ tent and tried to help calm Astor down. I told her that I honestly thought Tony hadn’t put the skeleton there, but she could not be reasoned with. In between bouts of crying she merely kept repeating:
“Somebody put it there. Somebody put it there.”
The rest of the day went by without more incidents, but the damage had already been done. Astor refused to speak to Tony and hardly left the tent. Margaret again suggested that we cut the trip short. This time I agreed. I was unsettled, to say the least, and wanted nothing more than to get the hell away from this place. There was something going on here, something no good, and I did not care to find out what it was.
That evening we ate our dinner in silence. Astor remained in her tent and spoke to only Margaret. Before the sun had set we were all in our tents, attempting to fall asleep. The plan was to wake at the crack of dawn, pack up our supplies, and leave. Nobody wanted to stay here any longer.
As I laid in the tent next to Tony, wrapped in my sleeping bag and waiting for sleep to take hold, my mind wandered in the manner that minds are prone to do. For a moment, just a brief moment, I allowed my mind to consider the unthinkable.
He likes groups o’ people. Groups he can play with. He taunts em’, like a cat taunts a mouse before killing it. And the more the people suffer before they die, the more power he gets.
That was what the old man, Walter McNeal, had said, wasn’t it? Well here they were. A group of four people, out in the woods. And there was certainly suffering going on. Tony’s hand looked like a fried lobster, Astor was an emotional wreck that couldn’t stop sobbing. Margaret and Astor were angry at Tony, and Tony and I were scared to death because we knew that we had not put the skeleton outside the tent.
I shivered and pushed the thought away. Here I was, letting an old man’s ghost story get to me. But no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t push it away completely. The subtle fear remained, the constant “what if…” in the back of my mind. I remembered what Astor had kept repeating this morning.
"Somebody put it there.”
And what had Tony said the day before?
“Somebody pushed me!”
Somebody, or something?
And with that thought, sleep took me.
There exists a sound so monstrous, so utterly horrid, that no human ears should ever suffer through it. A sound that woke me from my uneasy sleep and infected my soul, spreading absolute terror throughout every limb. The moment I heard it my entire body went numb. I was paralyzed with fear. Truly paralyzed; I could not move my body. To twitch even a muscle was a task as impossible as gliding through the air like a bird.
No words in the English language exist that can describe this sound. The closest description I can give is the noise of a hundred bloodthirsty wolves howling at the moon, sent through an audio distorter, such as the kind used at rock concerts, and then played back at maximum volume. The ground beneath my sleeping bag vibrated, and it felt as if the hounds of Hell walked the earth around me. Such was the sound that ended my slumber.
I felt Tony next to me, as rigid as I was. I could not so much as move my lips to cry out in fear.
No sooner had the sound started before it ended, leaving behind a horrible silence. Then, a new sound took its place. Much quieter, much less bone chilling, but horrible nonetheless. It was the sound of Margaret’s screams.
I suddenly snapped out of my paralysis. My body was free again. I felt Tony bolt upright next to me. My left hand went down to the tent floor next to my sleeping bag, blindly searching for my flashlight. I always kept a flashlight right beside my sleeping bag. My hand finally found it, and I grabbed the flashlight, switched it on, and ran out of the tent.
Fire. That was the first thing I saw. The brown summer grass around us was on fire. I knew that we had left embers smoldering in the fire pit before we retired to our tents, but there was at least five feet of dirt surrounding the pit. Embers could not have accidentally started this blaze.
I looked across from our tent and saw that Margaret and Astor’s tent had collapsed. I ran straight towards it, running through the smoking, fiery grass that surrounded us. Margaret’s wails continued, but they seemed to be getting further away.
Astor was still in the tent, thrashing around and yelling for help. I got to the tent and picked up the fabric, allowing Astor to exit. When I raised the tent back up I saw that the backside of it had been torn to shreds. Four long gash marks ran across the entire side.
“It got her! It took Margaret. It took her!” Astor cried. Her words were barely understandable through her hysterical sobs of terror.
I shined my flashlight over the tent and across the clearing, and my blood ran cold. Margaret screamed as she was dragged across the ground. She was being pulled feet first into the forest, her head scraping against the rough, stony ground. I caught only a brief glimpse of the thing that held her leg. It was dark; pure black. It was a person, or a beast, or both. I couldn’t tell. It had no defined form. It was like a shadow, except even less than a shadow. It had no substance, no depth. It looked like a two dimensional drawing of a dark monster.
Margaret disappeared into the pine forest, but her screams continued.
Somehow, through all the fear, terror, and shock I felt, I was still able to run. A sort of blind fury overtook me. Now I wasn’t just afraid. Now, I was angry. Angry at that… that thing that tormented my friends and I, that had taken Margaret from her tent as she slept. I sprinted, faster than I had ever sprinted before. I sprinted after Margaret. I forgot about Tony, I forgot about Astor. The only thing that mattered was saving Margaret from the dark beast that had her.
I tore across the clearing and into the trees, following Margaret’s screams. I held my flashlight ahead of me. I could see her. She was still being dragged across the forest floor. I willed my legs to pump faster. I ducked under branches, leapt over logs, and narrowly avoided crashing into trees. Yet no matter how hard I worked my legs, no matter how much energy I expended in pursuit of the unknown beast, Margaret grew further and further away. After a while I could only see her head, still being smacked by the uneven ground. Soon, even her head disappeared and I had only her screams to guide me. But those grew ever fainter, and I realized that I would not be able to save her.
When I couldn’t run any longer, I stopped and bent over, gasping for air. Margaret’s screams continued to grow more and more distant.
Abruptly they ceased altogether.
My head perked upwards. I strained my ears, but I heard nothing. The forest was completely still.
I was alarmed. If Margaret were still screaming, that meant she was alive. But now there was only silence. Meaning…
I shook my head. I refused to let my mind consider that gruesome possibility. But deep down, in the back of my mind, I knew what had happened to Margaret. I just couldn’t admit it to myself.
I started jogging forward, calling out her name in a hoarse voice.
“Margaret! Margaret, where are you?” I cried out.
I suddenly noticed a new noise, one that was not there before. It was the sound of running water. I realized that I must be near the small stream that we had visited two days before. Picking up my pace, I walked towards the sound of the stream. My flashlight illuminated the path ahead, and I saw moving water.
And then I saw Margaret.
She was laying face down in the stream. Her black hair was waving gracefully in the eddies of the water.
“Margaret!” I yelled as I sprinted towards her.
As soon as I got within five feet of her, I stopped. The bright flashlight beam lit up her entire body. There were cuts and bruises along her legs and arms, and her clothes were tattered. Her right leg had four large cuts along it, no doubt where the beast had been holding her. And her head…
Her head was bashed in. A large rock laid next to the stream. It had bits of skin and brain on it, where it had been used to crush her temple. One look into her eyes told me there was no life there. A dark current of blood had started washing down the stream.
Margaret was dead. That thing, that beast straight out of Walter McNeal’s story, had crushed her skull. For a few seconds I stood motionless, my flashlight focused on the lifeless body of my friend.
Then I took a step backwards, turned around, and ran.
It got Margaret. It got Margaret. This was all I could think as I sprinted back towards the clearing. It got Margaret and now it’s going to get us. We have to get away.
The light from the grass fire guided me back towards the clearing. After what seemed like an eternity of sprinting (it was probably just a few minutes) I arrived back at camp. Dry grass burns quickly, and the fire had mostly burnt out in the time I had been gone.
Astor and Tony were huddled next to the ruined tent. Astor was rocking back and forth, and Tony sat next to her in a daze. His eyes were unfocused and foggy. I approached them, and they turned to look at me.
“Get up. Now. We have to go,” I ordered.
“Where’s Margaret?” Tony asked, in a voice that sounded very far away.
“Margaret’s gone. Let’s go.” It was a considerable effort to keep my voice calm.
“Gone? What do you mean gone?” Astor cried out.
“She’s fucking gone! Get up and go!”
This seemed to motivate Tony. He jumped to his feet and bolted towards the path that led back to Walter’s house. I struggled to help Astor stand. Her knees were too weak to support her weight, and she had to lean on my shoulder.
“Tony, wait!” Astor sobbed.
“Just let him go. We need to leave. Walk with me,” I commanded her.
Slowly but surely we managed our way towards the path. My eyes darted back and forth, searching for any danger, any sign of it. My anger was back. It had killed my friend. One of my best friends since childhood. And I hated it for that. I hated it with all my soul. But now was not the time for hate. I needed to ensure our survival. Margaret was gone, but we could still save ourselves.
We entered the dark trail. I held my flashlight in my left hand as my right side supported Astor. The dirt path took a sharp curve, and we rounded it as quickly as we could. When we came fully around the corner, the bright beam of light from my flashlight revealed a grisly sight.
Tony was up in one of the pine trees. His feet dangled about four feet from the ground. He had been completely impaled on the many branches that grew from the tree. Thinner, weaker branches had snapped off, but the thicker, sturdier ones had held strong and penetrated his body. He had been forced completely up to the trunk of the tree. One branch protruded directly through the center of his neck. Another stuck out through the right side of his chest, revealing a horribly bent ribcage. His head hung downwards at an odd angle. All the pine needles nearby were speckled with blood, and a steady drip, drip, drip could be heard as warm liquid spilled from his fresh corpse.
I felt puke climb into my throat, but I forced it back down. I grabbed Astor by the arm and gave her a rough pull.
“Just keep walking, don’t look at him,” I said in a shaky voice.
But Astor would not move. She stood rooted to the spot, her face deathly white and her eyes wide with shock.
“Astor, we need to go now. We can still get away!” I pleaded with her.
She took two steps toward the body of Tony, and then ran the other way.
“Stop! You’re going the wrong way!” I cried out as I began to chase her.
She didn’t seem to hear me. Panic had taken hold of her, and no amount of instructions or logic could get through to her. I tore after her, but I was already exhausted from chasing after Margaret and I couldn’t keep up. Astor had always been a better runner than me.
She sprinted across the camp clearing in a blind panic as I begged her to stop. When she disappeared into the woods at the opposite end of the camp, I followed her in. I ran after Astor in the same way I had run after Margaret. I called out her name and asked her to wait.
I had a sudden, terrible realization. Astor was in complete panic mode, following no clear path. The ridge we were upon was only about a hundred yards wide, and had steep cliffs on both ends. With the overhead foliage blocking the moon and stars, a person who was running quickly might not see the edge in time to stop completely.
I put my head down and ran faster than I had ever run before. Astor seemed to be slowing down now, perhaps becoming tired. I was gaining on her, but now I saw something else through the trees ahead.
My gut sank when I realized that my fears had been correct. The cliff was no more than twenty yards in front of Astor. I was at least ten yards behind her. I put every bit of energy I still had into running after her, and screamed:
“Astor you’re going off the cliff!”
Astor understood the danger now, but it was too late. She attempted to stop herself, but her shoes slipped on the rocky ground and she tumbled forward. I slowed down as fast as I could, no more than two feet from the edge of the cliff. I reached my hand out and swiped at Astor’s torso, attempting to grab her arm. My hand smacked against her shoulder, hard, and spun her around, but I had nothing to grab onto. Her terrified eyes met mine and she opened her mouth to scream.
But her scream was taken by the wind, and she was gone.
I stood on the edge of the cliff. I didn’t dare look over the side.
Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit. I was alone now. All of my friends were gone. I was alone in the forest. Alone with it.
Somehow, I still had the energy to run. I ran back towards camp as fast as my legs could carry me. I was determined to escape, to survive. Through all this, I still had my flashlight. It was a miracle I hadn’t dropped it.
I arrived back at the clearing. The grass fire had completely gone out. I made a straight line for the path that led out of the campgrounds, a swell of panic rising in my stomach. But something stood in my way, directly in the entrance to the path.
It was Tony.
Tony stood in the path. His body had been taken down from the pine. The branches through his throat and chest were still there - they had been snapped off the tree. Blood still ran from the open wounds on his body.
Behind him, I could see it. The thing that had dragged Margaret to her death. The thing that had impaled Tony upon the tree. The black, two dimensional being that had terrorized us. Strangely, it was somehow transparent. I could see it, but I could also see everything behind it.
It held Tony’s body up like a puppet. His head lolled to one side, and then turned upwards and looked at me with blank, dead eyes. Tony’s mouth curved into a grin, but it was not a grin of his own. It looked as if his cheeks had merely been forced upwards by an outside force.
Then Tony laughed. It wasn’t a real laugh. It sounded as if air was simply being forced through his mangled vocal chords by the thing holding him up. His smile dropped, and then he spoke. Except it wasn’t Tony speaking, it was that thing speaking through Tony. The voice was so garbled that I could hardly understand it, but I made out a single word:
The thing dropped Tony’s body on the dirt path and disappeared. Tony crumpled into a heap of useless flesh. He looked like an action figure that some angry toddler had crushed and stomped into the ground.
It had told me to run, but Tony’s body in the center of the path sent another clear message:
Don’t take the trail.
So I ran. I ran into the woods next to the path. I planned on turning back towards the trail when I could, determined to make my way out of this forest from hell. But there it was, right beside me.
It followed along with me, keeping pace with me. Every time I tried to turn in the direction of the path, it was there. It was not going to let me escape.
Like a dog herding sheep, it ran beside me. It kept itself between me and the trail, ensuring that I could not make my way onto the dirt that led to safety. I knew, I absolutely knew, that if I ever crossed its path I would be dead. I had no choice but to continue straight ahead, through the thick forest of pines.
It had changed now. It took on a more definite form. It was no longer transparent, but pure black, as it was when it had taken Margaret. It was a beast. A beast with four long, thin legs that ended in huge claws. Its snout was lengthy and pointed, and its back was horribly arched. It lumbered along beside me, mad with thirst for the kill.
I looked ahead and saw stars. I was nearing the other edge of the ridge, and if I did not change direction soon I would go over the edge, just as Astor had. I curved my path to the left, away from the trail, but it was there too. It had disappeared from my right side and appeared on my left, continuing to herd me straight ahead. There was only one direction it wanted me to go.
He taunts em’, like a cat taunts a mouse before killing it.
The words of Walter McNeal echoed through my mind as I ground to a halt mere inches from the cliff. I turned around to face the horror that pursued me. My mind was completely empty. I had no more sense left in me. There was nothing I could do to protect myself.
It stayed in the trees, several feet from the edge of the ridge, prowling back and forth like a giant cat as its hideously long claws scraped against the rocks on the ground. I didn’t dare try to run anymore. Every potential path of escape was blocked.
I saw its mouth open wide to reveal a set of monstrous black teeth. It curled back onto its hind legs, and looked like a spring that was waiting to be set loose.
Its hind legs thrusted forward with enormous power, and it leapt at me from the trees. Sharp teeth bit into my chest as it crashed into my torso and took me over the ledge.
Walter McNeal awoke with the sun creeping over the horizon. He hadn’t slept well. Not well at all. Halfway through the night he had heard something awful, a horrible noise that seemed to come from the direction of the camp where those kids were staying. He thought he had dreamt it, but he wasn’t completely sure.
Stepping out onto his front porch, he pulled a cigarette from his pocket and lit it. He felt uneasy. He couldn’t quite place his finger on it, but something was throwing him off.
For some reason, on this morning, he felt drawn to it. Drawn to that damned stairway that stood so defiantly over the ridge. Perhaps it was the horrible noise that had awakened him in the night. Perhaps it was the fact that there was no smoke creeping up over the nearby campgrounds, as it had the past two mornings while those kids were camping.
Walter walked along the short, narrow path that led to the stairway. The rising sun illuminated it, and to him, it was beautiful. It looked just like it had when he was a boy. It was exactly how he remembered it.
Walter placed his foot on the first step and began climbing. In his mind he counted the steps.
One, two, three, four…
Any other man would be afraid to do such a thing, to climb out on an impossible stairway over a large cliff that looked as if it should fall over at any moment.
But Walter knew it was safe. It had been there for nine hundred years and had not fallen over. At least, that’s what those archaeologists claimed. And he had climbed out on it when he was a boy, hadn’t he? It hadn’t fallen over then. No, the stairway would not falter to the weight of Walter McNeal. It had been there when he was born, and it would remain long after he had died.
Walter hesitated before taking the last step. Carefully he raised himself onto the final step and peered out over the valley. It was a beautiful view, better than the one he enjoyed from his porch. The sun illuminated the valley below in a splendid swirl of colors.
But suddenly a darkness came over him. His skin tightened up, and goosebumps broke out over his arms. This place was no good. He could feel that. For the first time in his life, he could tell that the stairway was not something he should disturb.
Walter quickly rushed down the steps, taking them two at a time. It wasn’t until he was back on the trail to his house that he felt better. When the sense of darkness finally left him, he laughed out loud in the morning air. What an old fool he was! Scared of a stupid hunk of rock that some crazy Injuns built a thousand years ago.
Nevertheless, his mind returned to that feeling of dread that had overcome him on the top step of the stairway. He thought back to the story he had told those kids a few days before. Walter shuddered, and decided not to think about it any longer. He had lived in that house for nearly fifty years and had not had a single whiff of the supernatural.
Because it doesn’t go after individual people. Only groups, his subconscious goaded him.
He shoved the thought out of his mind. That ridiculous story came from a superstitious old drunkard. It wasn’t even worth considering.
Stairway to heaven my ass!
But in his heart he knew that nothing could completely wash away the fear he now felt towards that place. The fear that had invaded his soul and taken root, like a weed, as soon as he arrived at the final step of the stairway. He could ignore it, rationalize it, explain it away as best he could, but the seed of doubt would never leave.
Kids these days. Can’t even count right. What good is school anyways? he thought to himself.
“Yeah, that’s it. They just miscounted. Couldn’t see it right, in the settin’ sun. That’s what happened. That must be it,” he said out loud, attempting to console himself.
That must be it.
Because there were exactly forty steps on that damned stairway.
Written by Cdaley