It was around dusk when the family van finally arrived at the lake.
By that time, my sister and I were going stir crazy. "Car Bingo" had turned to "Punch Buggy", which slowly descended into random and unannounced slaps across the face. Despite Mom's displeasure, neither of us wanted to be the first to admit defeat.
Dad didn't want any part of the chaos. He steered that old, rusty tank with the detached thousand-yard stare of some shell-shocked veteran. If not for the occasional cigarette lit and clasped between gnashing teeth, we could've taken him for a stiffened corpse that died of aggravation somewhere around Raleigh.
"Home again, home again, jiggidy-jig!" Mom sang as we caught sight of the lake house. It was a bit of a tradition, though only in her mind.
Sis and I were out of the van before it stopped rolling. Dad had suddenly sprung to life, growling out a stern "Hey!" that slowed our pace. Still, we regretted nothing.
The lake glittered orange in the light of a beautiful sunset. Tall old pines lined the horizon, giving the impression that this body of water belonged to us. It was OUR hidden spot — holy ground upon which no other would dare tread.
The first thing I did was check the old picnic table beside the water. The thing was bug-eaten and weather-beaten, something no upstanding family would actually use. However, it served a new purpose as a sort of log book for teens like me.
Sure, it felt like this was our spot... but of course there were others at different points during the summer.
"TUCKER" was still etched into the gray wood, accompanied by the usual "KISS" and "YUCK FOU" I had puzzled over in my earlier days. A couple new messages included "NIN" with the second 'N' reversed, and "PAULY + MAE".
Sis was less interested in the archaic communication system. She'd secretly worn a bathing suit under her clothes and was in the water within seconds.
"No swimming!" Dad bellowed, hauling bags from the van's sliding door. "Get your stuff in the house!"
He shot me a harsh gaze, and within moments I found a suitcase in my hands, my feet pumping up the walkway and front steps as if they'd become completely autonomous.
"I wasn't gonna go swimming yet," I insisted. "Pauly brought a girl here. How come I can't bring any friends?"
The answer never came.
Mom swung the front door open as Dad and I looked on. The folks who had been there before us hadn't even locked it. We walked in cautiously, though none of us was probably sure why.
"Well this is some shit," Dad mumbled. Hearing him curse was rare, but it happened.
We looked around the living room, staring quizzically at the luggage and clothing strewn about. Not only had the previous occupants left the door open... it looked like they were still staying there!
"Linda must've gotten the dates mixed up," Mom offered, "Or did we?"
I took the opportunity to drop my bag to the floor. Mom did the same, though Dad just stood there, luggage in hand, working his jaw back and forth in the way that told us he was pissed.
Dad walked around the side of the house and found a station wagon covered in pine needles and berry-laden bird shit.
The four of us sat outside and waited for the others. Mom figured they must've gone hiking, while Sis gleefully insisted an escaped cannibal had eaten them. Dad supposed that there were no cannibals around those parts, though he could believe there were maybe one or two sexual predators.
Eventually, Sis and I started walking the lakeshore to see if there was any sign of footprints or even a boat out on the water.
"What if they're dead?" Sis asked absently, kicking a stone into the lake.
"They're not," I snapped back. "Don't be such a freak."
"What if they're dead and gross and all like..." she clawed at her face and lolled her tongue out, "BLLLEEEEHHHHHH!"
I stopped about halfway through our trek and peered off into the tree line.
"What?" Sis asked, "What is it?"
The sun was rapidly disappearing, taking with it any sliver of light needed to penetrate the leafy barrier. I reached for the flashlight Sis had taken, then yanked it away from her when she jokingly refused to let go.
The flashlight beam shone bright due to fresh batteries. I cast it into the forest and aimed for a single tree that had caught my attention.
"The woods are black and I can't turn back." I narrowed my eyes and read the letters carved into the bark.
"Wow." Sis' eyes widened and she stepped closer to me. "Okay, that's actually spooky."
I took a few steps toward the trees before I felt Sis' hand clasp down on my shoulder. Brushing her off, I straddled a tall, wild shrub and awkwardly launched myself into the underbrush.
"What're you doing?" Sis called after me.
"Just checking it out. Jesus, stop being a girl."
The blood-red sap around the crude letters had hardened over. The etching wasn't fresh. I broke off a glistening droplet and squeezed the sticky mass between my fingers. The whole thing seemed odd, but for some reason I didn't find it particularly frightening.
My foot came down on something hard. When I angled the flashlight downward, a ray of light shot back into my eyes.
I'd found a knife. Probably the knife used to carve that tree. Its blade was a bit rusted, and the green plastic handle was sun-faded, but it still seemed sharp. I picked the thing up and sliced a section of bark, bringing forth more of the crimson sap.
"Look." I tossed the blade toward Sis' feet as she jumped out of the way.
"Watch it! You'll give me AIDS or something!" she squealed.
"You already have it, sleaze," I retorted cruelly. "Wait here, I wanna see something."
"I don't have AIDS!" Sis screamed angrily as I disappeared into the trees, "You take that back! Do you hear me?"
I didn't intend on going far into the forest, figuring I'd find something interesting mere feet away from the lakeshore. When I saw nothing of interest, I figured it couldn't hurt to go a few more feet... then a few more.
Eventually, Sis' occasional shouts were soft and distant. When I almost couldn't make out her voice through the chirp of crickets and whirring of cicadas, I came across another landmark.
"The woods are black…" I read off of another carved tree, "… and I can't turn back."
At that point, fear caught up with my pigheaded need for adventure. It wasn't so much the sight of another identical message as the fact it wasn't entirely identical. The letters were carved more carefully. They were curved a bit, not angular and shallow like the previous instance.
I turned back at that point, no longer hearing Sis at all.
The sound of scraping stopped me in my tracks.
I couldn't see a thing outside the flashlight beam. The sun had well and truly set. That thin beam darted across my surroundings as I tried to search out the source of that sound.
It was barely audible, but unmistakable. The sound of a pointed edge moving across wood. Someone, I deduced, was still carving messages in the trees.
"Hello?" I called out, focusing my beam on a clearing some distance further into the thick forest. "Hey, is someone lost out here?"
The noise ceased almost immediately, followed closely by complete, chilling silence from the crickets and cicadas. All at once, I found myself feeling nearly blind and deaf.
"Pauly?" I called out, walking slowly toward the clearing, "Mae? Missus... uh, Linda?"
As I reached the clearing, I heard the crunch of dry, brown grass beneath my shoes. Dread filled the pit of my stomach as I questioned whether I had actually heard the scraping of wood... or the sound of something walking across the dead grass.
The flashlight caught another glimmering object at the center of the clearing. Careful to periodically check my surroundings, I approached the thing and lifted it from the dirt. It was a silver crucifix on a chain, tarnished and dotted with the same sap I'd seen before.
"Weird," I whispered.
All at once, I felt a cold sting at the back of my throat. My muscles seized and the crucifix dropped from my quickly retracting hand. Someone else, someone close, had mimicked me in the same whispered tone.
Again, the whisper hissed from the darkness around me. I whirled in place, spinning with an off-kilter unsteadiness that made the whole clearing seem like it was rotating as opposed to my body.
All around me, forming a perfect circle, the flashlight illuminated a cluster of dark, segmented poles. It was as if I'd been surrounded by firmly planted bamboo rods while my attention had been misplaced.
"WHAT THE FUCK!" I screamed out.
Stopping suddenly, nearly falling on my face, I focused the beam of light on one pole, slowly following it upward.
Up, up, up, to the top... to the black, featureless orb that connected each of the twelve rods... the twelve legs.
"WHAT THE FUCK!" the orb screamed in the bone-chilling voice of an unearthly thing... something never meant to utter the words of man...
"WHAT!" it shouted again as I darted between its legs, not entirely sure if I was heading in the right direction.
"WHAT THE," it screamed, whispering "weird." immediately after. "WHAT THE weird. THE. Weird WHAT!"
Before I escaped the clearing and hurtled back into the thorns and broken branches, my light caught more carvings on the trees encircling the area. Each tree had been carved with one giant letter, higher than any man could reach. Though there were hundreds of carvings, the letters all lined up in the same way.
I ran. I fell. I bled. I let none of it slow my progress, and I never turned to see if the thing was following. I wouldn't have stopped until I reached the lake, if not for the gleam of something lying in the pine needles about halfway back.
A rusted knife. Green handle.
Carved into the tree above, a message coated over in fresh, rolling beads of sap...
"The woods are black and I can't turn back."
We searched for hours that night. Then we searched for days afterward. Mom and Dad were worried sick, and both of them called out for Sis until they were hoarse. It turned out Sis wasn't the first to disappear near the lake. In fact, the family that had been there before us weren't even close to the first.
Many people in the general area would get lost over the years, only to eventually be rescued. It was normal enough for locals to write off any disappearance as normal human stupidity.
The fear within me was so great that I couldn't go back to that clearing. I couldn't direct my parents back to that place. I told them Sis had disappeared somewhere else entirely.
This is my confession. I've let the terror of that experience rule my life. Every day I didn't correct the lie was another day I gave my only sibling over to an unknowable, unspeakable fate.
This decision destroyed my family. It wasn't long before Mom drove out to the lake on her own, sure the police must have missed something. She didn't tell anyone she was going, and by the time Dad and I traveled out there, she was nowhere to be found.
The only way I knew where she'd be was the note absently dropped to the kitchen floor.
"The woods are black and I can't turn back."
I'd never told either of them about that message. I'd been with them throughout the entire search, and I was sure she hadn't seen it.
Dad never gave up. I wouldn't have expected him to. Those woods took his girls away from him, and he was never one to let anyone or anything get the best of him. On the second anniversary of Sis' disappearance, he went out to put a wreath by the lake.
I would have gone with him, but by that point I was staying with an aunt. The two of us weren't on the best of terms due to Dad's obsession and my overwhelming hidden guilt.
He called us that morning, when I'd been dragged to church, and he left a message on the machine. He didn't say hello, didn't ask how I was, and didn't tell us what he was doing.
"The woods are black... and... I can't turn back."
I've been alone ever since. Extended family aside, of course. My family is missing, and... I guess from what I've seen, I can only assume they're dead. I spend most every night awake, unable to stop thinking about what it would mean if they aren't. What's worse, all of it... ALL OF IT... is my fault.
I don't know why I felt the need to get all of this off my chest, nor why I've chosen this, of all things, as my way of doing it.
All I know at this point is I feel as
The woods are black and I can't turn back.