This novel is limited to 100 free copies due to its part in Inkitt’s Novel Contest.
When Charlie Matheson woke, a dark form was leaning over his bed. He opened his mouth to cry out, but a finger on his lips quieted him.
“Shh...” came his brother’s familiar voice. “Be quiet.”
Charlie sat up in bed, rubbing his eyes. Their shared bedroom was pitch black. Wind dragged past the windows, making the pine branches outside tap on the glass. He was a small boy for his nine years, with the Matheson family’s trademark features – fair hair and a pointed nose. Unlike his brother, he had a spattering of freckles across his cheeks and large, inquisitive eyes.
“What are you doing up?” the boy whispered, frowning. Their clock read 11:26.
“Shh!” Johnny hissed. “I’m borrowing your flashlight. Go back to sleep.”
Charlie was quiet a moment. His brother was four years older and diagnosed as schizophrenic among other things. Be careful around Johnny, mother always said. He loves you, he just doesn’t always have a grip on reality. He gets confused. On a dime, Johnny could go from the big brother that defended him during playground skirmishes to the bully himself.
Johnny took something from Charlie’s nightstand, walking back and sitting on his bed. Charlie squinted through the darkness, then reached over and turned on his lamp. Piercing yellow light filled the room. Both boys cringed.
“Turn that off!” Johnny snapped. He was half-way through tying his shoes, a jacket on the unmade bed beside him.
Charlie turned it off, then tumbled out of bed and began scrounging for clothes. “Where are you going?” he asked eagerly. “Can I come with?”
“No. Get back in bed.”
“Please? Where are you going?”
Johnny put one foot back on the floor before lifting the other and slipping on his second shoe. “I’m going to go for a walk with some friends.”
In a haze of enthusiasm, Charlie tore off his Spiderman pajamas, slipping into a shirt – which he later discovered to be backwards – and pants. “Oh, please can I come? They’re so much fun. I promise that I won’t be a bother. Please? You never let me go out with you at night...”
Johnny stood and folded his arms. He was little more than a shape in the darkness, but Charlie sensed his brother’s displeasure.
He added, “If you let me go with, I won’t tell mama.”
There was a long moment of silence. Charlie waited with his socks clenched in his hands. The heater in the house switched on with a loud whir, making him jump. Johnny walked forward until he was right in front of him.
You’ve got to be patient with Johnny, mother had said. If you have any problems, let us deal with it. He’s just got to work through some things.
“Fine,” Johnny whispered. “You can come with me. But don’t you dare get us caught, Charlie. I don’t even want to know that you’re there.”
He nodded quickly.
“Hurry up.” Johnny started toward the door, flashlight and jacket in hand.
Charlie scrambled to put on his socks. “Wait!” He lowered his voice, “Wait! I’m almost ready.” Shoes untied, he ran after his brother.
The house was quiet besides the distant growling of the heater. Their parents’ bedroom was down the hall, far enough that they didn’t hear Johnny’s nightly escapades. Charlie had never known where he went because when he caught him, Johnny waited him out and left once he was asleep. The soft carpet upstairs hushed their footsteps. Johnny wasn’t far ahead, following the staircase down to the front room. A chandelier hung from the ceiling, glinting in the shadows. Their footsteps were louder against the tile, so they tiptoed into the kitchen. Johnny dug through several cupboards without turning on the light.
Charlie rocked on his heels, looking through the doorway toward the living room, where the entertainment center and plush couches loomed. Their father, Charles Matheson, was a lawyer who made good money. Both boys attended the best private school in their area. Mrs. Matheson hadn’t worked in seven years.
Rustling around, Johnny pulled a granola bar from the cabinet and stuffed it into his pocket.
“Can I have one, Johnny?”
Johnny shot him a glare, leaving the kitchen and pulling on his jacket. Charlie ran ahead to retrieve his jacket from the closet. Moments later, they slipped through the double doors into the cold night air. The porch light illuminated their path, sending shadows across the lawn.
The Matheson family lived in a small forest community close to two hours from civilization. Half a dozen other houses surrounded theirs, some even grander, windows dark and gardens full of odd shapes. A full moon shone above, but black clouds obscured the rest of the sky. Charlie shivered, sticking close to his brother.
Johnny led the way across the lawn and toward the gate surrounding the complex.
“We’re not supposed to leave the gate, Johnny. Not without mom and dad.”
“What, you wimping out already?” Johnny said with an eye-roll.
Charlie shook his head.
Two other boys waited outside the gate, flashlights in hand. Charlie recognized them as Carl and Marcus Williams, their neighbors. His heart sank. He had hoped Johnny was meeting the Conroy boys and perhaps their sister. These two tended to be a nuisance. While Johnny was quiet and contained, they were loud and often mean.
“About time,” Marcus said, the flashlights illuminating his impish face. “We were going to leave without you.”
Carl watched with a slow, distant smile until his eyes drifted to Charlie. He was the biggest in the group, with a thatch of red hair. “What’s he doin’ here?”
“I had to bring him to keep him quiet,” Johnny muttered.
The boys rolled their eyes, then started down the dirt road leading through the woods. Charlie scampered after them, gazing about. The trees loomed high above, black giants in the darkness. Everything was bathed in pale, pearly moonlight. Wisps of steam appeared before his lips each time he exhaled. A cold shiver ran down his spine. He suddenly wished he had worn a heavier coat.
He glanced back at the gate, which was fading in the trees. The boys ahead didn’t seem worried, but it felt like they were leaving their safe haven.
“Where are we going?” Charlie called, trying to catch up.
The boys spoke among themselves but not in words that he understood. So he followed quietly.
Then, they cut off the dirt road and followed a narrow path through the forest. Ferns and blackberry briers crept up all around in massive piles. Normally, the crickets would be starting their orchestra, but tonight they were silent. The trees were packed so close together that little moonlight shone through. Then, the path opened into a small clearing. It was bare with tufts of grass sticking through the dirt. In the center was an old fire pit. Burnt logs lay abandoned, stacked on one another. The three older boys set to work, pulling chopped wood from beneath a large bush. It took a few minutes to start a fire. Charlie pranced about, grabbing leaves and twigs as his contribution. Soon, the blaze illuminated the clearing, pushing against the darkness.
Carl and Marcus sat by the fire, taking a deep breath. Johnny was sprawled out, staring at the sky with his hands folded behind his head. Charlie watched for a moment, confused. He had thought his brother went out for fun. This was nothing more than a bonding moment with some friends?
“What are we going to do?” Charlie probed.
Carl rolled his eyes, shooting Johnny a glance.
Marcus was silent, his brow scrunching as he poked the fire. Then he looked at Charlie, sweeping the flashlight under his face to create grave contours in his eye sockets and mouth. “We’re going to go ghost hunting.”
Carl snickered, but Johnny didn’t react, staring at the moon. A cool breeze swept through the trees.
Charlie laughed. “Oh, come on, silly. Ghosts aren’t real.”
“Yes they are,” Marcus returned. “In fact, this was the birthplace of a ghost.”
“Yep. An old man used to live out here in the woods. He was quiet and minded his own business, living off the land. This is where he had his fires. His cabin was right over there.” Marcus pointed toward the undergrowth. Charlie could almost see the looming walls, patched with broken windows, a door barely hanging from its hinges.
“Let me guess, did a witch live across from him?” Carl snorted, leaning back.
“Of course not! Witchcraft is nonsense.” Marcus returned his gaze to Charlie. “He lived out here for years and years after his family died in a fire. Until he started hearing things at night. You know what he heard, Charlie?”
“What?” Charlie leaned forward, eyes round. “What did he hear?”
Marcus pitched his head back with a bloodcurdling scream. Charlie yelped, jumping back, and Carl let out a stream of obscenities. “Dude, shut up!”
Marcus laughed, and Carl shook his head. Charlie’s heart was pounding, but he tried to join in, forcing a weak chuckle.
“Gawd! You guys are so easy!” Once he had regained control, Marcus turned back to Charlie, hints of a smile on his face. “He heard screams. Echoing through the woods night after night. At first he thought it was just his imagination. Maybe some sort of nightmare. They started out quiet, then got louder and louder. Finally, it began to wear on him. So he decided to check it out. It was pitch black that night, so he locked the door and took a torch with him. There was a full moon, just like tonight.”
“Did he find out what it was?”
Marcus continued like he hadn’t heard. “He went out into the forest and found strange notes. Just hung on the trees or lying on the ground. They said things he didn’t quite understand. Every time he found one, the screams came closer and closer. Finally, he decided that it wasn’t safe and that he should head back. The old man could hear things moving in the shadows, stalking him. He headed back to his cabin, but he couldn’t find his way and became lost in the woods. The trees were a maze.” Marcus stared at him, the firelight carving lines into his face.
Something touched Charlie’s neck, and he jumped. Carl snickered – he’d reached over and poked him with a stick.
“They found him the next day lying right here with a pocket full of those strange notes. His cabin had gone up in flames. They say that the screams he heard were the ghosts calling out...and now he’s one of them.”
“B—but...what got him?” Charlie asked.
“No one knows. They say it was a man with no face. And anyone who enters his domain never returns.” Marcus leaned back, propping his hand against the ground.
Carl burst into laughter, his voice piercing the quiet. “You ass! Not that old tale!”
Marcus smirked. “True story, bro.”
Charlie sat a moment, then crawled over to Johnny, who had closed his eyes. He gave his brother a shake. “Johnny, when can we go home?”
Johnny snorted, opening his eyes. “You’re the one that wanted to come, so you’re going to have to stay until we’re done.”
“Please? Please, Johnny?”
Charlie sat back on his heels, sighing. He should have known better. His parents had warned that the forest was no place for children, especially at night. A pang of irritation hit him. He looked past his brother and shrieked.
The three boys leaped to their feet with shouts of, “What the...?”
“Look! Look!” Charlie pointed.
On a tree, was a scrap of paper, wedged between loose strips of bark. After a moment of silent panic, Marcus let out an uneasy chuckle. “Oh, nice one, Johnny. Very funny.”
Johnny frowned. He walked forward and pulled the note from the tree. After a moment, Charlie hurried up beside him, tugging on his arm. “Let me see! Let me see!”
“What a dick,” Marcus said, elbowing a pallid Carl.
Johnny lowered his arm, and Charlie caught a glimpse of the note. Scribbled, almost child-like writing sprawled across it: Can you hear them?
Charlie asked, “Hear what?”
“I didn’t put that there,” Johnny said without turning.
The boys didn’t speak for a moment. Charlie grasped his brother’s arm, trembling. “It’s just like the story...” he whimpered. “I wanna go home.”
“Oh, whatever man. Don’t prank me.” Marcus put another log on the fire in an attempt at nonchalance.
“You said we were going to go ghost hunting, let’s go ghost hunting.” Johnny turned to them, that wild look in his eyes. The look that could mean abuse or adventure. He snatched up his flashlight and clicked it on.
“You’re joking, right?”
Marcus rolled his eyes. “Oh good grief. Fine. I’ll humor you. What else do you have hidden out there?” He stood and grabbed his flashlight, Carl following hesitantly.
Charlie whimpered, “Can we please just go home? I want to go back.”
“Quit whining,” Johnny snapped. “We’re going to go find them.” Then he started through the woods.
“What? Find what? Where are you going?” Carl called, frozen in the circle of firelight. “We’ll get lost!”
“No we won’t,” Marcus replied. “Don’t be a wuss.”
The undergrowth thinned as they went, but the trees pressed together tighter, making it difficult to see ahead. It was quiet aside from their struggles. Charlie tugged on Marcus’s sleeve, looking at him through wide eyes. “It’s just like the story! Are there ghosts?”
Marcus rolled his eyes. “Is that what this is about? Gawd. It’s just an old legend! I told it to scare you! You hear that, Johnny? I was just kidding!”
Marcus pushed ahead to where Johnny was trudging. “Man, what are you doing?”
“You said we were ghost hunting. Let’s ghost hunt.”
“There’s no such thing as ghosts!”
Johnny looked at him before speaking in a barely audible tone. “You haven’t heard them all this time? You didn’t come out here to listen?”
I know Johnny says odd things sometimes, mother had said. It doesn’t mean he’s crazy, it just means that he’s special. He’ll find his place in life if we steer him right.
“Heard what?” Marcus demanded. “Man, you’re insane. Let’s get out of here.”
Johnny stopped, fists clenching. Marcus opened his mouth to continue, but Johnny whirled. His face was red and scrunched with rage. “I’m not insane!” he bellowed. “I’m not!”
Charlie shrunk back. This was around the time father would take Johnny into another room.
Marcus rubbed his hand against his face, taking a deep breath. Johnny’s hands snapped open and closed rhythmically, his face going from red to purple. He turned and stomped away.
“Fine, fine! I’m sorry! But this whole thing is just stupid! You’re not going to find anything out here!”
“Yeah?” Johnny growled. “Then what’s that?”
His flashlight beam focused on something sticking to a tree several feet away. Marcus paled. “Dude, what the hell is going on? Did you put that there?”
Johnny hurried forward and pulled the note down. More strange writing. This time it made Charlie’s blood go cold. I see you.
Charlie looked around, shaking, and whimpered, “What sees us? What’s going on...?”
Johnny stuffed the note into his pocket, whirling excitedly. “They’re louder here. I’ve never been able to find them, but they’re louder.” He started off again.
Marcus followed, looking all the more concerned, and Carl was white as a sheet. “What’s louder?” he shouted. “Johnny!”
Charlie ran to catch up with his brother. “Johnny, I want to go home. Why can’t we go?”
Johnny shook his head, eyes scanning their surroundings and flashlight beam roving. It stopped on a distant group of trees. Charlie couldn’t see anything, but he felt a buzzing in the back of his skull, and sudden nausea washed over him. Unseen eyes pierced them through the blackness, and he shook with terror.
Marcus whispered, “W—we have to get out of here.”
Johnny stared, then cringed away and turned, plunging deeper into the woods. Charlie dashed after him. The sound of movement surrounded them. He felt like prey, chased and cornered. When he caught up with his brother, he grabbed his jacket with both hands and pulled with all his might. “We have to go home! PLEASE, let’s go home! Why do we have to keep going?”
“Shut up!” Johnny shouted, grabbing a handful of his shirt and shaking Charlie so hard his head snapped back and forth. “Why can’t you just shut up!”
“Stop it, stop it!” Charlie wailed, tears streaming down his face.
Marcus frowned. “Dude, what the hell?”
Carl started to cry, clapping his pudgy hands over his eyes. The sound cut through the chaos. Marcus watched in a stunned silence before pleading, “Carl, stop. Don’t cry. We’re going to be fine.”
It was no use.
Johnny’s eyes drifted.
Charlie took the opportunity to wrench free of Johnny’s grip, his heart quavering.
Something brushed through the fallen needles nearby, and the boys froze, staring into the darkness. The flashlights revealed nothing. Carl shook like a leaf, his eyes the size of saucers. His words were barely audible, “I—I...I can’t...” Then he bolted.
“Carl, come back!” Marcus gave chase, Charlie and Johnny close behind, but they quickly lost him in the blackness. When they stopped, they were all panting. Charlie thought his heart might explode out of his chest.
Marcus took a heaving gasp of air and shouted, “Carl! Carl?”
Only silence. Marcus searched the ground with his flashlight, lips pressed together, then scanned the surrounding trees. Another note. Charlie and Marcus cringed at the sight, but Johnny didn’t hesitate to pull it down. “′You are mine’... What do you think that means?”
As his head lifted, Charlie looked up and saw the thing standing behind the tree. A man. Faceless and featureless and staring through empty eye sockets. A distinct red splatter marred his dark clothing.
Johnny stared back without emotion. “I’ve found you.”
Charlie shrieked, clapping his hands over his eyes.
“You did this,” Johnny snarled. “You make them scream.”
The faceless man reached toward him.
All at once, Marcus’s arm locked around Charlie’s middle and lifted him off the ground. Charlie screamed, pounding on him. “Johnny!” He caught a last glimpse of his brother, standing in front of the man with his fists clenched. Charlie’s body jerked up and down, and the forest rushed past.
“Oh my gawd, oh my gawd...” Marcus gasped
Charlie clung to him, squeezing his eyes shut. After what could have been seconds or eternities, the boys stopped, hiding behind a tree. They gulped air in silence. Charlie’s head pounded, and sweat ran down Marcus’s face in streams. The forest was alive around them. After a long moment of breathing, Marcus managed, “What...on earth...was that?”
Charlie slumped back, wrapping his arms around himself and sobbing. “Johnny...”
Marcus glanced back, then turned his head toward Charlie. “He just...stood there.”
“I wanna go home...”
“Shh... I don’t know what’s after us, but it’ll hear you if you keep it up.”
“B—but how are we going to find our way back?” Charlie looked up at him through wide eyes.
Marcus rubbed his hand against his face, trembling. “I...I don’t know.”
The flashlight in Marcus’s hand flickered. “No... Oh, no...” Marcus slapped it against his palm a few times, but the batteries were giving out. For a few seconds, it continued flickering. Then it went out completely and plunged them into darkness. Everything was silent. All Charlie heard was his own sniffles and Marcus’s unsteady breathing.
Charlie pointed with a shaking hand to the tree opposite them. Even in the shadows, he was sure he saw the pale form of a note.
Marcus stiffened beside him but said nothing.
They stared at it for a long moment. It was Charlie that moved, taking small, tentative steps. He had to stretch onto his toes to grab the note, but he managed to grab it, squinting. The word NO was scrawled across it innumerable times, some small and precise, others larger and frantic. A splatter on the page was just beginning to get tacky.
“M—Marcus, look, it...” But when he turned no one was there. He was utterly alone.
Charlie froze in a haze of horror and confusion. He wanted to call Marcus – perhaps he’d moved around the tree – but he couldn’t summon his voice. Something dark lay on the ground where Marcus had been standing. His heart pounding inside his throat and temple, Charlie stooped. It was the flashlight. And the cold metal was damp with something warm and sticky. He dropped it and jumped back, tears streaking his face.
This couldn’t be happening. It couldn’t! Why had he left the house with his insane brother in the first place?
Charlie buried his face in his hands, letting out a muffled, frustrated yell.
Johnny’s not insane, mother would say. He just—
There was a movement in the trees nearby. Charlie turned and ran without looking back. The trees and undergrowth blurred around him in a long streak. It was impossible to keep his bearings as he tripped and stumbled and tumbled. Several times, he crashed into the trees, but he quickly disentangled himself. All he could think was that it wouldn’t get him. It wouldn’t! Cuts speckled his arms and face as low branches whipped him. Everything hurt. His body tingled with a rush of adrenaline. The forest grew darker as he went. He could barely see.
Finally, he careened to a halt, gripping his knees and gulping air. There was nothing for it. He couldn’t keep going. He scanned the blackness around him. Eyes pried into him on every side. He thought he heard thin wails filling the air around him...but it could have been the wind whistling above the trees.
He looked up and whimpered. Another note.
It was all he could do to force himself to grab it. He wanted to run again, but he was exhausted, and horrible curiosity held him captive. The wailing grew louder, battering his eardrums.
Charlie cringed and looked at the note in his hands.
His heart sank into his shoes. It was a lost child poster. The name was Charles Matheson Junior. All at once, he felt hot air on the back of his neck, a presence bearing down on him, the eyeless face hovering above in the darkness.
His scream pierced the night, joining the hundred others.
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AJDay: Hello JaimePAvane,So, this is my first review on this site, and I am glad I found your story. I like where you are going with it and I am curious to see what future chapters look like. Firstly, your narrator; I love that she is describing not just her life but the world around her. Obviously a wo...
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Deleted User: You put a lot of effort into this story, and in some places the detail is lovely. The beginning is really good. There is a lot of good detail in the first paragraphs. I get a good feel for his confusion.But I am lost in the back story. I have no idea where this is going. Perhaps mention someone y...
FreakyPoet: "you made me laugh, made me cry, both are hard to do. I spent most of the night reading your story, captivated. This is why you get full stars from me. Thanks for the great story!"
Sara Joy Bailey: "Full of depth and life. The plot was thrilling. The author's style flows naturally and the reader can easily slip into the pages of the story. Very well done."