Among the Trees | Weird Fiction by Michael Whitehouse

I grew up on campfire ghost stories. Loved them in fact. I used to sit there as a kid by the fire, listening to my Uncle tell tales of crazed killers and vengeful ghosts as we huddled around a dancing flame, all the while keeping one eye on the darkness over my shoulder. That was what made it exciting, being out there, remote, where many of the stories took place. Safe but not safe. Those are warm memories for me, and I cherish them, but my own experience of a campfire ghost story is anything but happy.

I was 32 years old at the time and had decided to do a spot of wild camping in the countryside with two friends. All three of us were adventurous, but it was Jack who was the most intrepid, while Derek and I were a little more cautious — cowardly or sensible, take your pick.

We had hiked into a thick web of forest thinking we’d be able to find somewhere flat and comfortable to camp for the night, but it proved much more difficult than we’d anticipated. Initially, we followed a thin sliver of dirt track for a few miles. The forest grew darker as we progressed, and I was fascinated by how close together the trees had grown, blocking out much of the light above.

We had been hoping to pass a clearing at the side of the track, but as it narrowed Jack grew restless. Suddenly, he stepped off to the side and disappeared between two trees. Derek shouted on him but no reply was given. I laughed nervously, looking around me at the strangeness of the place. The thin track stretching off in a straight line for some distance.

Derek called out again seemingly just as nervous as I was. We peered into the dim light of the forest and waited. Silence. Broken only by the occasional leaf or branch being moved by the cold air, which seemed to whisper out from within like a silent breath.

Finally, Jack answered: “I thought I saw something.”

His voice seemed distant, as if he had wandered farther than I would have thought possible in the short few minutes since he left the track. I started looking back the way we came and noticed that the long path must have curved slightly in the distance. There was no light from the outside like I would have expected — a pinpoint in the distance at the end of a woodland tunnel.

The place began to feel claustrophobic to me and, I’m sure I imagined this, but it was as if the forest had closed in slightly, the light dimming overhead, partially obscured by the canopy above.

“I thought I saw something.” Those words have always stuck in my mind because they seemed genuine.

Derek and I stood for another few seconds, waiting for Jack to expand on what he’d seen from wherever he was behind the tree line; but again we only found silence. After calling out several times and waiting for a few minutes, I decided that I was going to go in and find Jack. I knew deep down that he was probably playing a prank, as he often did when he got bored, but in the pit of my stomach, I felt that there was something off about the entire situation.

I dropped my bag to the ground and took out my torch. The light barely penetrated the trees and was stopped as the forest grew even thicker a few metres in. I took a deep breath and stepped forward off the track, but as I did so Derek grabbed hold of my arm. He didn’t say a word and just pointed ahead down the path. It was Jack. He was standing about 20 metres away. I was confused by how he had managed it. The forest was so thick where he had entered, we should have heard him breaking through branches as he moved in that direction. But we had heard nothing since he shouted he had seen something, his voice sounding distant and much farther away from where he now stood.
What was left of the light broke through the trees above as a breeze swayed the canopy overhead.

Jack was standing with his back to us, motionless. We called his name, but he never responded. At this point Derek started to laugh and was sure our friend was just messing around, but when I started to walk towards Jack, Derek stayed where he was, still laughing but his eyes appearing apprehensive.
I must admit, I was certainly feeling nervous. The entire situation felt strange, something was not right but I couldn’t figure out what it was. I drew closer, and as I did I asked Jack how he’d got over there without making a sound, but he didn’t turn around. He just stood there with his back to me.

Finally I reached him, standing directly behind. “Jack”, I said.”Stop messing about, it’ll be dark soon and we need to find somewhere to camp.” Again, no answer. He was as quiet as the forest. My heart began to race, and as it did I started to get angry. “Jack! Stop being an idiot!” And with that I put my hand on his left shoulder and spun him around towards me.

Two things I have never forgotten happened to me at that moment. When I touched his shoulder I felt a cold sting arc across my hand, like placing your hand in frozen water. The second occurrence has always stayed with me and still haunts me when I think of it. For the briefest of seconds, a flicker, the man who faced me was not Jack. I know how that sounds, and he did look like Jack, but there was something about his eyes which made me shudder. A moment where I looked into my friend’s face and saw a stranger.

Of course I passed it off as a ridiculous notion. Jack started laughing hysterically, and as he did I began to persuade myself that everything was fine and that it was just another prank. The three of us continued on and in fact we made it out of the forest on the other side, where we set up camp next to a river. Jack seemed fine, his usual adventurous self, and so I thought nothing of it… For a while.
We camped for another four nights in different places. Thankfully, on the way back to where we had parked our car, we were able to avoid the forest entirely, which I wished we had done in the first place. It was when I suggested taking a different route that Jack began to seem annoyed: more than annoyed in fact. He flew into a rage and stormed off ahead of us as if leading us back there, but I was always able to talk Derek around to my way of thinking, and so we outvoted Jack and followed the river to where we started instead.

On the way home Jack sat in the car in silence for most of the journey, which took a few hours. Derek was driving and dropped me off at my house first, but as I said goodbye to both of them, Jack leaned in from behind my seat and placed his hand on my shoulder before saying: “See you later, mate”
The same chill which I had felt in the forest ran across my shoulder and up my neck. I will not lie when I say I was glad to be out of the car.

Over the next few months Jack seemed to continue his grievance with me, at least that was the way it felt. He would leave me out of meet-ups and nights out, inviting Derek but not me. It didn’t entirely bother me as the experience at the forest had left me uncomfortable around him. Even though I knew logically that it was probably all in my mind, I kept coming back to that feeling I had when he first turned around to face me on that lonely path.

As of this writing it’s been a year since we went on our trip, and the real reason why I’ve written my experience down. You see, Jack managed to persuade Derek to go back to the forest with him, and he’s never been the same since. I’ve spoken to him, we’ve laughed and spent time together, in fact the three of us have, Jack’s grudge seemingly disappearing when they returned. I know this all seems ridiculous, and more than a small part of me thinks I have just exaggerated this whole thing and jumped to unrealistic conclusions; but there are moments between the laughter and good times, when the three of us are together and I feel like I am in the company of two strangers.

They continually ask me when we’re going to go on our next camping trip. I keep making excuses, and, imagination or not, that’s a habit I intend to maintain.



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Michael Whitehouse: Among the Trees | Weird Fiction by Michael Whitehouse
Among the Trees | Weird Fiction by Michael Whitehouse
Michael Whitehouse
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