Brandon and Jamie shone their lights up into the treetops. The night air was sweltering and David could swear he heard a sound coming from up there. His breathing was bordering on hyperventilation.
“Chicken, as usual,” Jamie sighed, letting her backpack fall to the ground. A dust cloud rose up around it. Brandon shuddered. He was thinking of the ghost story. The old legend that brought them here on this night.
“Well, whatever,” David crumpled into a heap, backpack and all. The dust around him doubled the amount the pack created. “This is the place.” He shone his light upward again as if he were trying to reach his beam to the moon.
Brandon chugged from his canteen and nodded in agreement. He swirled some of the refreshing water around in his mouth before swallowing. “Better start a fire then.”
Jamie was already collecting kindling.
Later on, after a dinner consisting of chips, neon yellow soda, a random baked potato, and king sized candy bars for dessert, the three sat silently by their small fire. David was close to dozing off when Brandon pulled out a book from his pack.
“You don’t need to read it again.” Jamie said.
“I just want to make sure we’re in the right spot.”
“Aww, man,” David groaned. “Like there’s even a right spot! Every part of these woods looks exactly the same.”
“Shut up, you tool,” Jamie reprimanded him. “I told you both that this is the spot. It’s the only place these types of trees grow.”
“Well, while we’re waiting for something to happen, I don’t see any harm in reading.” Brandon pointed his beam at the book in his lap and started flipping through the old sepia tome.
David rolled his eyes and settled back down, using his backpack to rest his head on. The trio sat in silence for nearly fifteen minutes. Somewhere in the distance, a night bird of some sort squawked. The crickets crooned their nocturnal lullaby.
Suddenly, the quiet broke with the sound of three gasps in unison. An odd addition to the forest’s symphony along with the ethereal tinkling of faint laughter. They were hearing it at just the right time the old ghost story they all knew by heart said they would.
“You guys are screwing with me,” whispered David.
“No-shh!” Brandon is on his feet and staring off into the direction of the light laughter, which can only be accurately described as ghostly. There was a part of Brandon that wanted to remain skeptical. Then there was another part of him that was deathly afraid. That was the part that wanted to run. He’d never hear the end of it from his friends if he did, so he swallowed his fear and focused on the part of his brain that was able to stay rooted in the logical.
Jamie jumped to her feet, fumbling with her flashlight. Her face appeared paler in the moonlight. Brandon’s hand steadied hers so her beam would stop making those extra shadows dance through the trees.
“Story says we follow it,” Jamie’s voice was monotone.
“Come on,” David whined. “That’s enough proof for me.”
“You said we were in this together!” cried Jamie.
“Will you two shut up!?” Brandon shushed them, still staring off into the depths of the woods, his heart pounding loudly in his head.
The laughter sounded as if it were drifting away from their mini campsite.
“If the other part is true about those were-witches, or whatever they are, hiding out in there, then you guys can forget it-“
“David, seriously, shut your trap.” Jamie flicked off her flashlight and pointed straight ahead with a trembling finger.
They all saw her then. She was standing right in front of them. A woman in white. She was laughing, but the sound of it still sounded so much further away. To their shock, she had drifted closer to them. Brandon’s brain struggled to find a reasonable explanation, but came up empty.
“Stop right there!” he yelled. Some kind of action movie courage invaded him and it seemed like the appropriate thing to do.
The woman in white stunned them by listening to him. She stopped moving. She stopped laughing. Her dark hair was covering her face just as the old legend described.
David panicked then and attempted to turn around and run, but he stumbled. Panting heavily, he spun his head around and saw that the woman had disappeared.
“Where did she go?” Brandon sounded more upset than scared. He hadn’t thought of snapping a picture of her for proof she existed until then. “Great. What do we do now?”
“Check it out,” Jamie turned her flashlight back on and started walking toward where the woman appeared at the edge of a shadowed copse just out of the moonlight’s direct path.
“I’m staying right here,” David insisted.
Jamie was shining her light into the forest. “Oh wow. Come here, you guys,” she called behind her and at that moment her flashlight began to dim. She banged it against her palm.”Hurry! I’m losing light!” She kept moving, much to their dismay.
“Chicks,” David shook his head and Brandon agreed with a sigh. Manning up seemed to be a better option than admitting to each other that they were on the verge of wetting themselves. Not to mention the fact that the “chick” in their group was showing more bravery than they were.
The two trembling boys made their way over to where Jamie was desperately trying to force her flashlight’s bulb back to life. Brandon’s flashlight started to lose power too the closer he got to her. He banged against it with his hand, taking Jamie’s cue, and turned to David to make sure his was working. David’s hands were in his pockets, no flashlight in sight.
“Oh, it’s back there-” he gestured back toward their gear with a tilt of his head.
“Forget it,” said Jamie as they approached. “We know where the fire is. If I can see it, you can too. Way to leave it unattended, you morons.”
“You called us over here!” Brandon protested. “What’d you want us to see?” He squinted to try to see what she was looking at so intently, as if she were in some kind of trance.
“I think you’re both just crazy and we should definitely get out of here.”
Those were the last words of young David.
The woman in white appeared again behind the three and broke David’s neck in one snap. Before Brandon could even try to make a run for it his neck was broken in the same way.
Jamie clicked her flashlight back on and shone the beam upon their horrified expressions. She heard the bristling of many white dresses behind her as the other women in flowing gowns made their way into the clearing. The first woman in white stood before her smiling, her blackened eyes shining in the lunar glow.
“Very well, Daughter. You did very well. Run along now. The rest of the ritual you will learn and experience as each new year passes until your Induction Ceremony. We can handle the rest from here.”
Jamie didn’t argue. “See you next year, Mother.”
The woman smiled and was joined by four other women all smiling at Jamie with the same sense of gratitude.
Jamie walked back and extinguished the fire. She picked up her backpack, readying to make her trek out of the forest.
She glanced back and the shimmering women were still staring at her, making sure she exited their home safely.
Halfway back to civilization, Jamie could still hear the sounds of hungry howling and tearing flesh sloshing in her ears.
Jennifer Patino is an Ojibwe poet living in Las Vegas. She has had work featured in both online and print, including A Cornered Gurl, Half Mystic Press, Font Magazine, and L’Éphémère Review. She shares poetry at www.thistlethoughts.com and on Twitter @thoughtthistles.