Won’t you sit down and stay a minute? Grab a mug of something warm, relax for a few–and thanks for reading!
Into the Out There
D. Lara Smith
“Vines, vines, vines… the planet is being eaten up by them.”
Derek Ross kicked at the leafy undergrowth while roughly thwacking away at tendrils that grasped at his face and clothing.
Thompson Peters was two paces behind him, sticking close because the vines were no sooner trampled down by Derek’s boot before they snapped back up in defiance. He eased his glasses to the top of his nose. It was a repetitious, habitual movement he did even when his face wasn’t sweat-slicked—and sometimes when he had already taken his glasses off before bed. He wanted to get contact lenses before he started high school, but he would have to ask his mom to spring for them after she’d just bought these glasses six months ago. Not likely.
“It’s kudzu, and it is theorized that global warming—”
“Seriously, dude?” Derek stopped and turned around. “You keep talking like that, and every senior in high school is going to want to beat you up.”
“What are you talking about? Wait until they find out you’re a Mensa candidate.”
Derek shook a fist at him but kept moving, his emo-black-dyed hair in spike-jutting clumps.
“Besides, seniors don’t pay as much attention to freshmen as you think they do. That’s what my mom said.”
“Thompson, your mom is old as dirt, so what does she remember about school from back in the dinosaur age?”
Thompson felt his cheeks flush. He slapped a reaching vine away from his face. “Don’t talk about my mom.”
Derek stopped and glanced back at him. “Just playing.” He shrugged an apology as he unscrewed the cap from his water bottle, tilting his head back and taking a long swig.
“So, how far in did your brother say this old cemetery was again?” Thompson asked.
Derek tapped the remaining drops of water into his mouth. “That stoner? He had no idea, just said he and his bunch of stoner friends walked and walked… like that tells me anything.”
“Um, Derek, did you just finish all your water?”
“Yeah, man, I’m thirsty!” Derek wiped droplets of perspiration from his upper lip. “We aren’t going to be out here that long.”
“You still need some for the rest of the walk. We’re not even there yet! And I only have one bottle with me.” Thompson reached behind his back and reassured himself that the bottle’s sloshy weight was still tucked into the elastic band of his shorts.
“So you’ll share it,” Derek replied in what he considered his menacing tone.
Thompson ignored it and changed the subject. He’d known Derek since they’d been just out of diapers. “How often does your brother and his friends come out here?”
Derek laughed so loud that it was like a sharp crack in the air, scaring a bird from the tree cover above. Thompson jumped, and was startled again when Derek turned on his heel and suddenly walked back toward him. Thompson straightened his shoulders, mentally kicking his own butt. You’re already creeped out and you haven’t even seen the graveyard yet.
Derek stopped in front of him and then turned so he could walk in step with him. They quickly got into a simultaneous rhythm of whacking at and stomping on vines as Derek talked.
“They came out here exactly one time,” Derek said, his arms now animated to punctuate his story. “They obviously weren’t stoned enough, because my brother said the place gave him the heebies. Check it out… Devon said there was this old broken-down church that looked like the hammer of God came out of the sky and smashed it up like it was made of Lego’s. He also said there are some old tombstones, all crooked and broken like no one has come out in a long time on Mother’s Day or any of those other happy-crappy holidays to leave any flowers.”
“So what’s so scary about that?” Thompson asked. A knobby tree branch caught him in the face, knocking his glasses askew.
“Hey, you all right?”
“Yes. I guess I’m not a very good bushwhacker,” Thompson said, rubbing at the spot where the branch had thwacked him good. It stung, and his eyes were tearing up.
“They were scared because they’re a bunch of pansy-ass stoners. Besides that, they said the place just felt weird, had an eerie vibe. They thought they heard something, or saw something.”
Derek gave him a light punch in the shoulder. “Don’t know, but I think you’re about to find out—look right through there…” Derek pointed ahead and off to the right.
Thompson squinted. His new glasses weren’t as good as his old ones; he still felt visually-challenged. “What am I looking at?”
“The stone building?”
Thompson was silent until his eyes adjusted to the light beyond the shadowed tree line. “Oh, man! There it is… that has to be it. Do you see gravestones?” His pace picked up along with his excitement, and next thing he knew, he had greenery and dirt in his mouth along with the sensation of his head being used as a gong.
“Dude, are you okay?” Derek knelt beside him.
“I can’t see anything… I think I hit my head.”
“Well, your glasses fell off. Here you go. Oh, yep, looks like you smacked your head. You’ve got what looks like a red bump there, or maybe that’s blood. How many fingers am I holding up?”
Thompson pushed Derek’s hand away. He felt embarrassed for tripping like that. Damn vines! He got up and brushed off his clothes. His mom would be so mad if he came home with his new back-to-school clothes all stained up. Thompson looked down and saw a grass and dirt stain on his new white polo shirt. He kicked at the vines in anger and spit the dirt out of his mouth. His water bottle had shot free from its elastic bonds, and as he bent over to retrieve it, his head swam. After a quick swig, he shoved the bottle back inside his waistband.
“Come on, let’s get this over with.”
They trudged into an open area where the abandoned church and gravestones were huddled in a close grouping. “One, two, three…” Derek began counting the crooked stones, voice trailing off as his finger worked the air. “There are only eighteen graves here. What kind of dinky cemetery is this?” He leaned down in front of a tilted headstone and began pulling a vine clinging to its rutted stone surface.
Thompson looked around and noticed there were no trees in the center area. There were trees on the outskirts, standing like silent sentinels, forming a perimeter. The vines weren’t as respectful, though, their tendrils and suckers grasping at everything within reach. It bothered Thompson to see that, and he began pulling at the encroaching invaders, yanking them with all of his strength to break free their tenacious grip.
“I can’t read this one. Can you read that?” Derek asked, pointing at the stone Thompson had just cleared off.
Thompson knelt down and tried to make sense of what looked like scratch marks on the stone, even running his fingers in the nicks and grooves to see if he could read it by touch. “I can’t tell what it says. It’s too worn down.”
The humidity was getting to them both. It had been somewhat cooler under the tree cover, but without it, the air was much warmer and had a cloying, slightly rotten smell. Both Thompson and Derek had beads of sweat on their forehead and upper lips. Their clothes clung in spots to their clammy skin.
Salty sweat droplets slid down into Thompson’s eyes, making his eyelids reflexively squeeze closed, and also into the wound on his forehead, making it sting anew. He took off his glasses to swipe at his entire face, then reached around to retrieve the bottle of water. He drank a good bit of it, trying to slake his thirst as well as remove the still-lingering taste of dirt from his mouth.
“Can I have a swig, man?” Derek asked, his hand outstretched.
Thompson rolled his eyes. “Don’t get any backwash in it.”
“Yeah, whatever man.” Derek snatched at the bottle. But he didn’t quite have a grip as Thompson let go, and the bottle dropped between them, spilling the remaining contents.
“Are you kidding me?” Thompson screeched, hands smacking up against his forehead.
“Ouch, ah,” he groaned as he struck the sore spot. His fingers gingerly explored the growing knot.
Derek grabbed the plastic bottle and stood up. “Sorry… but look, there’s about one sip in there. Here, hang on to it.”
Thompson sighed, shaking his head. “Go ahead and drink it. We won’t stay long. There’s really not much to see and I’m hot as an exploding star.”
Derek threw back the last sip of water, shook the bottle to confirm its emptiness, then heaved it.
“What?” he laughed. “This place is already all littered up. Look around—broken stones, fallen-down church, vines trying to eat everything. That bottle will be swallowed up, too, in no time.”
“This place should be considered a… a sacred site.” Thompson thought of his father’s grave. Every holiday, he and his mom took the long drive out to the cemetery, Thompson cradling a bouquet of flowers, careful not to crush their petals before they could be placed with solemn ceremony into the flower holder at the head of the grave. He was always careful not to step on the spot where his father’s face would be.
“Come on, let’s keep looking, see if we can read anything that tells us how old these dead people are.” Derek walked to the next stone and knelt down. Thompson went to another and did the same. They continued in silence, moving from stone to stone until they’d just about run out of stones to read.
“This place isn’t that creepy. I don’t know what my brother was so freaked out about. Probably trying to get one over on me. Hey, come here and look at this!” Derek yelled, waving excitedly.
Thompson hurried over. Derek was kneeling in front of a gravestone that was on an end closest to the tree line. “What is it?”
“I can read this one! It says, ‘She sleeps! Be still.’ What does that mean? And why put an exclamation mark? Bizarre-o, if you ask me.” Derek looked up at Thompson, his face distorted in puzzlement, and then he bent toward the top of the grave. “Hey! Wake up, lady! You’ve overslept!”
“Stop it!” Thompson hissed. It was creeping him out.
Derek laughed and shrugged in response and stood up. “Well, she’s asleep alright, taking a permanent dirt nap. I wonder who is supposed to be still? Us, or her?”
Thompson shook his head. “I don’t know, doesn’t make sense. Maybe they didn’t know what else to say. What’s her name?”
Derek bent down to read the stone. He leaned closer, then felt with his fingers. “I don’t see anything else. That’s weird. What kind of gravestone doesn’t even have the person’s name?”
“I don’t know… I need to sit down a minute.” Thompson sat on an especially cushy-looking entanglement of vines, clutching his head. “I have the worst headache.”
“Probably that big rock you’ve got growing out of your skull.” Derek walked over and peered closer. “It’s all purple-looking now. Nasty.” His face screwed up in disgust. “Scoot over, I need to sit down too. I would give anything for a soda right now. I shouldn’t have eaten all those chips earlier. My mouth feels like a salt shaker.”
“I told you not to drink all your water.”
“Okay, mom, thanks for that advice. Little late now.” Derek pulled at the leaves around him, breaking them free of their stems. He got a devilish look on his face, his mouth twisting into a wicked grin. He whispered, “Do you think this place is haunted?”
“Shut… shut the hell up, man.”
“Whoa, foul language! But that won’t stop… the ghosts!” he bellowed.
Birds squawked out of the treetops, startling them both. “I’m going to have a heart attack. Would you cut it out?” Thompson blew out a breath and squeezed his eyes shut.
Something moved behind them, and they both jerked around in unison.
“What the hell was that?” Derek whispered.
Thompson scanned the woods around them. “I don’t know… maybe a deer? Or a really big squirrel? I’m not a Boy Scout.”
Shhh hehhh ahhhh…
“Did you hear that!” Derek semi-shrieked.
Thompson felt a chill whoosh over him, turning his sweat into a myriad of icicles the length of his body. The sky had gone overcast.
“Look, it just got real cloudy,” he whispered, pointing up.
“Clouds don’t make sound,” Derek retorted.
“Unless it was thunder.” But it hadn’t been thunder. Thompson looked around for the source of the noise. He pointed again.
“What?” Derek jumped back as if someone had thrown water on him.
“Will you calm down? I’m just trying to show you—the trees are blowing around. It’s the leaves making the sound.”
Derek visibly relaxed, heaving a deep breath. “Just wind. Okay.”
Both boys scrambled to their feet. Thompson felt his head and vision roll separately, his equilibrium thrown off. Derek grabbed his arm and hissed, “You see that?”
About twelve feet in front of where they stood, a mist was forming above the vine cover. It swirled lazily, growing taller as it filled out. Derek and Thompson stood, mesmerized. Thompson was only vaguely conscious of Derek’s vise-like grip on his upper arm. It hurt, but in a distant sort of way.
Now a crack of thunder did sound directly overhead, and a zip of lightning shot out of the now-heavy dark-cloud formation, striking a tree and sending sparks shooting like fireworks.
The mist morphed into the figure of a woman. A dress formed, then arms. Hands reached, the fingers both beseeching and beckoning. The head took shape, then a face developed with distinctive features: mournful eyes, a slash of cheekbones, mouth, lips. The lips parted and yawned wide, stretching into an elongated jaw line that looked wolfen.
A keening issued from that chasm, then a moan joined the keening and grew louder before an immediate ratcheting up into a shriek that pained Thompson’s eardrums. The boys simultaneously clapped their hands over their ears. Thompson’s hair stood up and adrenaline flooded his hormonal pathways. Instinct took over as rational thought stopped.
In unison, they turned and crashed into the closest opening in the tree line.
Approximately twenty-nine hours later, a search and rescue team discovered the boys, who were now seated on a log, shivering despite the heat.
“Shock,” said Freddie Wilkins, EMT-trained and wilderness medicine certified. “You hear that gibberish they were talking?”
The team’s lead, Reverend Dave Carson, nodded. Wilkins shook his head, laughing. “An abandoned church and cemetery. I’ll tell you, we’ve all been all through these woods. Never seen any such thing, and there’s no structures like that on our map. My guess is, both are dehydrated, and the one has that nasty bump on his head, says he doesn’t even remember how he got it.”
Reverend Carson was chewing on a small stick he had fashioned into a toothbrush. He believed in keeping the weight of his pack to a minimum, but he valued clean teeth. “You hear that bit about the ghost woman? Said a warning was right there on her gravestone, “be still” or some-such. They think they disturbed her because they pulled some vines off the stones. They think this ghost haunts the graveyard and won’t allow anyone in to take care of it. Asked if I knew any legends.”
Wilkins rubbed at his chin. “Hallucinating, drug side effects, who knows what. Scaring themselves and each other mostly.” Wilkins grinned expectantly. “So, what’d you tell them?”
Reverend Carson pulled his cap off his head and wiped a line of sweat from his forehead. “Same thing I tell all these kids that come out here to do drugs and end up getting lost. Don’t know any legends offhand, but I’d make it my first priority to find out as soon as I got back to my base. Seems to satisfy them enough they can relax.”
Wilkins shook his head. “Everyone who gets lost out here says the same thing. Must be some kind of urban legend they pass around along with the communal bong.”
“That’s what I’m figuring. Well, I manage to get a lot of new members this way, it seems. I give them my card and tell them to come to services, and maybe they’ll find answers to their questions. They seem open to the message. So, I guess every cloud has its silver lining.”
Wilkins slapped him on the back. “See you next call-out, Reverend.”
Reverend Carson gave him a wry smile. “Keep the peace, my friend, and make sure you color within the lines.”