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1994 was the year that started it all for me, I believe. That year was so full of remorse, mental decay, and trauma that I truly believe it to have been the catalyst for the direction my life has taken in the two decades since, with directions of both the morosely self-destructive and outlandishly horrifying. I was only fourteen years of age, but in my emotional suffering, I thought that I must surely be older—too old to live. It was that year that I saw the true face of my idol and my hero: my grandfather, Uriah Jewell. And in the process, I saw the grotesque face of evil, the epitome of cruel intent. But I don’t even believe that it was then that the course of my life took hold.

Really, it started the night that my mother left me that dreadful summer in mid-June. I was guilty at the time of being in the post-school year daze that seems to infect most children—especially ones who had to face daily torment from the school’s elite squad of harassers—and so, me and my only two friends, Clay Shingle and James Greene, had spent the evening at Clay’s house behaving like absolute barbarians along with a bountiful feast provided by Clay’s loving parents. It was after this that his mother dropped me off at home, where I saw that the windows were strangely dark and hollow.

I turned the key to the back door and crept in, hoping that my mother had gone to sleep and that I could avoid her distant face. The house was cold, unusually so. But I dared not touch the thermostat, lest I be awoken the next morning by the shrill shrieks of my mother condemning me to hell for messing up her carefully planned electric bill. She needed that money for clothes and makeup.

I turned right into the kitchen and flipped on the light switch, ready to have a late-night Pepsi. As I was walking towards the fridge, I saw a yellow note with a pen lying atop it. Out of my ingrained sense of curiosity, I flicked the pen aside and saw that it was simply addressed to “Mike.” I wasn’t unused to these blunt letters left for me. But as I read, my limbs became numb and my breath halted.

She had gone.

She said that she had taken a plane with a wealthy businessman she had apparently been seeing for the past two weeks to Vancouver and that she wouldn’t be coming back.

I stayed that night at Clay’s house, where I stayed in the guest bedroom, and the next morning I called my grandfather, who refused to take me in but said that he would talk to my alcoholic uncle, Max. Within the day, I had packed up my belongings and was being shown my new room in Max’s house, who was in a quiet demeanor that whole day, the kind that radiates anger and contempt. I had gone from one emotionally negligent household to another.

That summer was a dark one for me. I fell into a harrowing depression, the kind that sapped the life out of life itself. By day, I tried to enjoy the summer with my two friends (luckily Max lived in the same area as I already had, a small Tennessee town by the name of Maysburg), but by night I would sneak my uncle’s liquor and drink myself into a stupor, waking up to shouts and slamming doors. He tried to keep finding places to hide it, but I would always find it before the night’s end.

The summer sizzled on, and eventually the school year came creeping back like a great black cloud in the shape of a tier, one in which the bottom rung would swallow me up whole and shit my bones back out into the sea nine suffocating months later. It was in the early months of this ashy suffocation, the month of October, that my uncle, out of a surprise act of generosity, told me that as an early fifteenth birthday present, we would be going camping with my grandfather over the fall break, and that James and Clay could come with me if they wanted to. I was absolutely stunned. Not only was my burly grim-faced uncle actually doing something nice for me, but I would get to see my grandfather for the first time in years. All growing up, my mother would tell me heartwarming stories of his kindness and fatherliness, to the point to where he had become a shining champion upon a golden pedestal. My dusty yellow nostalgic memories of camping and hunting with him in the forests of Tennessee rose up from the sea of hopelessness and filled me with an excitement and vigor I had forgotten could even exist. I told my friends, and for the next couple of weeks, all we could do was pine over how far away the fall vacation seemed to be. Until, at last, those shining rays of light burst over our faces as school let out in a glorious breath of fresh air.

“Goddamnit James, you just spilled your mayonnaise all over my fucking pants, dude!”

“Sorry, Mike,” James smirked as he took another bite from his hot dog, his bright-red messy hair glinting in the bright autumn sunlight as the highway rushed past us.

“Yeah man, quit squirting your mayonnaise all over people,” Clay remarked.

James found this so hilarious that a chunk of hot dog shot out of his nose onto Clay’s sweater, landing right in the center of the blue anchor that was printed on it.

“Oh, God!” he said, pushing himself into the seat as if trying to get away from the snotty piece of meat on his shirt. “That’s disgusting!”

“Here, take these,” my Uncle Max said dryly as he reached into an empty Dingle Burger bag and grabbed a greasy wad of napkins. As he was reaching back towards us, his hand hit the stack of backpacks in the front seat (which for some reason none of us had wanted to occupy) and ended up knocking them onto the floor, which was already littered with trash and empty cigarette packs.

“Thanks,” I said as I picked them up and handed them to Clay, who hurriedly scraped the hot dog off his shirt and threw it at James, who in turned shrieked like a little girl, flailing his arms sporadically until the wad of napkins fell onto the floor, where he kicked them under the seat.

“Can’t say I blame you, James,” my uncle remarked. “Stuff’s absolute garbage. I don’t how people eat this stuff.” Max was used to a strict diet of Jack Daniel’s, everything that didn’t tend to clog arteries, and a healthy dose of bench-pressing.

“Sorry, Clay,” James sheepishly said, his cheeks blushing a deep red as he awkwardly looked at his hot dog.

“And stop cussing, Mike,” Max continued. “I heard that f-bomb you dropped a second ago.”

“Yes, sir,” I replied.

“Yeah, Mike, quit cussing,” Clay smirked as he casually took a sip of his drink, his eyes boring mischievously into mine.

“Shut up,” I retaliated with a smart jab into his shoulder.

Damn, that hurt dude!”

“I literally just said to stop swearing!” Max yelled from the front.

“My bad, Mr. Jewell,” Clay politely apologized.

“Mr. Jewell?” James exclaimed in confusion. “But Mike’s last name is Erikson.”

My disappointment was immeasurable.

“It’s called having one side of the family with a different last name, Einstein.”

“Oh. Er, right.” James commenced to hurriedly shovel down his hot-dog.

“Yeah, scarf that weenie down, fat boy,” Clay taunted in a mock-Southern accent, not unlike that of James’ father, though likely unintentional.

“You’re one to talk, you sure love scarfing weenies in your spare time,” James mumbled through a mouthful of food.

Clay held his gaze on James and slowly leaned his head into James’ ear and grumbled, “Dadgum straight I like scarfin’ them weenies.”

In the rearview mirror, I thought I saw Max smirk a little bit as he turned up the song on the radio, “Don’t Fear the Reaper.”

“Hey,” Clay started after a moment, “so, uh, what’s your grandad like?”

“He’s cool,” I answered. “He’s kind of weird, and he farts a lot. But he’s like the nicest guy in the world. And he’d do anything to help people out, so don’t feel awkward around him.”

“Except help you when Trisha ran off,” Max said curtly from the front. My abdomen began to tighten. Nervously, I took off my glasses and began to vigorously wipe them with my shirt.

“I’m sorry?” Clay asked in confusion.

“What, did Mike not tell you? That after my sister ran off with that sleazebag he refused to help Mike whatsoever? Probably for the best anyways.”

“Oh, uh… how come?”

“Didn’t want to. But don’t bring it up to him, I’m not trying to have any drama, we’re just here to have a good time.”

“Yeah,” I murmured, not wanting to think ill of my grandfather. I’d been determined that there must have been some stoic reason for it, that maybe he just thought that it would be best for me to stay in the same town, or maybe he couldn’t quite provide as much as Max could since Max ran his own instrument shop where he also did repairs, whereas my grandad worked minimum wage at a Home Depot.

I looked over at Clay and could tell that he wanted to ask me something but didn’t quite know how to.

“What’s up?” I asked.

He looked at me with uncertainty, and I met his eyes and saw a familiar pain behind them. I had a feeling I knew what he was going to ask.

“Your grandad, he’s not, like…. He’d be cool with me, right?”

Clay didn’t have to tell me what he meant by that, and I couldn’t blame him for feeling the need to ask. The people of Maysburg weren’t exactly known for their… progressiveness. It was a small town in the middle of nowhere and combine that with having a population of almost entirely white people, Clay and his family weren’t looked upon too kindly, being one of the few African-American families there.

Maysburg was probably twenty years behind the rest of the South, if not more. These attitudes would eventually start to shift a few years later as swarms of middle-class families started to come to the area around the start of the 2000’s along with large minority populations, but at the time, racism was still the norm, and still would be in the older generations for another decade or so.

And it was for this reason that Clay was in our tiny clique within the school outcasts, shunned for being who we were. It had been a shock for him when he moved there from Nashville in the sixth grade to suddenly find himself hated so vehemently by the other students, whereas at his old school he had been relatively popular. We’d become friends for this reason, actually. We shared several classes together, and after a few weeks of trying to stay out of the racist abuse, I found myself going off on another kid for calling him a “jigaboo” when the teacher stepped out of the class for a moment. We then became each other’s best and only friends.

“Nah, man, he’s cool,” I reassured him. “For a while, he was a hippy out in San Francisco in the sixties, and my mom used to tell me stories about how he was all involved in civil rights stuff. Right, Max?”

He gave a noncommittal grunt as Clay nodded his head.

We carried on this way for the rest of the trip, goofing around to our heart’s content until we finally reached my grandfather’s house about an hour and a half later, all exhausted from being idle for so long. We pulled into the gravel driveway, the bright sun beating down on us. Climbing out of the car, we all ambled our way over to the front door, avoiding random debris strewn about the yard and walking past my grandfather’s dirty tan truck with a garbage bag for a back window. I hurried up to the door, but before I could even knock on it, the front door was yanked back, and the screen door came bursting open, narrowly avoiding my face as I leaped back.

“Well, if it ain’t the birthday boy himself!” my grandad bellowed, his dark grey beard bristling with excitement. Before I knew what was coming, I was suddenly ensnared into a monstrous hug, my ribcage groaning under his force.

“Hey, grandpa,” I croaked as a hot blast of air exploded from his rear.

I looked over to the screen door and saw that about two inches away from my face was a black, oozing, pulsating slug—a true behemoth in size. A ripple of repulsion and terror flooded through me as I squirmed my way free from my grandfather’s stink-hug.

“You alright there, Mike?” he asked in confusion. I pointed to the slug and he let out a groan of disgust and smacked it off the door with his hand, wiping the slime on his shorts. “Nasty little fucker. Anyways, how you boys doin’?”

“Doin’ alright,” I said, followed by an agreement from everyone else.

“Well, that’s good. Hope y’all are ready for some real fun over the next couple o’ days, ha-ha!” he thundered, looking at us in joviality, his eye lingering for a moment on Clay. “Well, let’s all get inside ‘fore these kittens get out.”

“Ooh, kittens?” James said as we walked through the door.

“Yep. Missy had a litter a short while ago. Sweet ‘lil bunch. Shit like the fuckin’ devil, though. Think they’re all in the living room right now.”

As I entered, the smell of shit, piss, and cigarette smoke hit my nose while I scanned the living room eagerly for the cats. The house was old, though it had gone through some minor renovations during the seventies, the most significant being that the living room walls were replaced with wood paneling and the carpets with an ugly shag that looked like dark urine. It was heavily cluttered, and my grandmother’s nicotine-stained doilies covered the surfaces of all the furniture. My grandfather was never much a fan of them, but he couldn’t bring himself to get rid of them ever since she had died shortly after my birth. A picture of her as a young woman hung above the old television, which was currently playing the old Tootsie-Pop commercial with the owl getting to the center of the candy.

Mrow!”

I looked down to see a swarm of small furballs twirling around our feet.

Hello,” I grunted painfully as a small white kitten began to ferociously climb up my leg.

“Ah, she does that,” my grandfather said dismissively as I picked the kitten up and placed him on my shoulder where he patted my face and yowled into my ear. I had the strange idea that he sounded like he was trying to warn me about something.

“He’s the friendliest one,” he continued. “The runt, too. Like to call him Jumbo. Feel bad for him, ‘cause all the others keep beatin’ up on him. Can have him when he’s a little older if you want.”

He glanced over at James and Clay. James was ecstatically playing with the kittens and petting a purring Missy, while Clay was standing awkwardly by the door, taking in his surroundings.

“So, you boys got names? Mine’s Uriah. Don’t call me Mr. Jewell or any of that nonsense. I’m not my dad, ha!’”

“Hey, I’m James. I didn’t know you were named after your grandad, Mike.”

I nodded my head, as my mother had made my middle name Uriah in honor of him.

“Er, my name’s Clay. It’s good to meet you, Mr. Jewe—uh, I mean Uriah.”

He nervously extended his hand, which was soon wrapped in the hairy fist of my grandfather, who stared him in the eye and said, “Ha! You almost slipped up there.”

Clay’s eyes averted his gaze as he chuckled politely. I’d never seen him fail to meet someone in the eye before.

“Uh, hey dad?” Max asked.

“Yeah, son?”

“Where do you want me to put all our stuff?”

“Uh, I guess you can put the presents on the kitchen table, and the camping stuff can just go in here. So, Mikey, got any idea for what you wanna be when you grow up? Still wanna be one of them rock and roll stars?”

“Nah, I’m thinking that I wanna be a physicist, maybe even work for NASA,” I answered enthusiastically, as I had recently become absorbed in reading physics textbooks that I’d steal from the physics teacher.

“NASA, eh? Psh, I never was one for all that science crap. All I need in life is Jesus and cigarettes, I’ll leave that other nonsense for the eggheads.”

“W-what’s wrong with liking science?” I asked as blood rushed to my ears. I felt as though I were back in school, where the other kids would beat me up and call me names just for being interested in school, even if the pace was excruciatingly slow.

“Nothin’, nothin’. I just think that life’s answers are in the Bible.”

“But I don’t believe in God.”

He looked at me as if I had ripped the head off of one of his cats. James was obliviously preoccupied with the kittens, but Clay had a dark expression on his face.

“How in the hell are you not gonna believe in God? How can you look around at the world and just not believe? It ain’t American, hell, it ain’t even human. You can’t have morals without God and Jesus. You can’t have purpose either. Does your uncle know ‘bout this? Max!”

Max, who was coming through the door with an armful of presents, stopped in his tracks and looked at him in confusion. For some reason, the Tootsie-Pop commercial was playing again, and James seemed to have finally noticed the conversation. Sweat rolled into my eyes.

“What do I know about?” he asked.

“That your nephew here is one of them atheists. I’ve been tryin’ to tell him he needs Jesus to have a sense of right and wrong, and how you need faith to have any sense of direction in life.”

“It’s a free country, Dad. He can believe whatever he wants. And he’s got direction, hasn’t he told you he wants to work for NASA?”

“Well, it just ain’t right. And do you really want your nephew growin’ up to be some Nancy-boy in a lab coat? No, Mike here needs to be a real God-fearin’ red-blooded American. And son, it’s your job to put that into him.”

I could see a fire starting to burn in Max’s eyes, but he kept his cool.

“He’s not you, Dad. He’s a good kid, and he doesn’t need Jesus to be a man. And there’s nothing wrong with scientists, they’re the whole reason you have that TV you love so much.”

“I-I mean… I think it’s pretty cool that he likes science and stuff,” James added.

“Yeah, I mean, he’s the smartest guy I know,” Clay said with a quavering strength in his voice that I only ever heard when one of us was being confronted by our school abusers.

Probably sensing that the odds weren’t in his favor, my grandad brushed away the conversation and went into the kitchen to grab a beer, grabbing a Newport along the way.

“You mind if I bum one?” my uncle asked as he set down the gifts. My grandad nodded as he took a long sip of his Budweiser.

“Oh, fuck!” I cried instinctually as Jumbo came rocketing back up my leg, yowling like a maniac.

“Michael Erikson!” Max said. “For the last time, please stop swearing! I know Trisha wasn’t around for you much, but—”

“Ah, we’re celebratin’ his birthday,” my grandfather sighed. “Ease up a bit, let him cuss if he wants to.”

Max sighed and nodded his head, his eyes darting down to his cigarette for a moment. He lit it and sighed again, smoke pluming out from his mouth towards me.

“Yeah. Sorry for bringing up your mom, Mike.”

“It’s fine,” I mumbled, an all-too familiar pit forming in my stomach.

“So,” my grandfather coughed awkwardly, “uh, how’s business with Miracle Max’s goin’?”

Miracle Max’s was the name of my uncle’s shop, a name given to him by his friends in honor of both my uncle’s ability to fix any instrument he wanted, as well as his favorite film, The Princess Bride.

“Oh, uh, it’s going good,” Max mumbled. “Lots of people breaking their instruments. Lots of people buying new ones. And used ones.”

“You guys wanna go out back?” I murmured to my friends. They nodded and followed me out the back door, which screeched violently.

“What’re you boys up to?” my grandad asked curiously.

“Oh, uh, I’m just showing them around,” I answered. He shrugged his shoulders and turned back to my uncle.

“So, why’d you bring us back here, exactly?” James asked a minute later, kicking over a moldy tire.

I wanted to tell them, but I couldn’t seem to find the words for it. My eyes found themselves locked on the tire James had flipped over. Black slugs were wriggling around on it, the same kinds as the one I’d seen on the screen door.

“You okay, man?” Clay asked.

“Yeah, I’m fine. It’s just….”

“Is it your mom?” James quietly finished for me. I looked up from the slug-ridden tire into James’ eyes. In them, I saw myself reflected back on me, and they held a similar pain to mine. But a pain that was stronger. And I thought about how we had met.

It had been about a year and a half before in seventh grade when Clay and I noticed a new kid sitting at one of the lunch tables by himself. At first, we were hesitant to approach him, the fear of judgement being present in our minds. I was about to back out, but Clay made the first move by going up to him and asking him if he was new. He took out his headphones and paused his Walkman, looking anxiously towards me as he told him that he was. Clay then introduced himself and the new kid told us that his name was James Greene. Not wanting Clay to think ill of me, I pushed myself to tell him my own name. We found out that he was from Huntsville and had just moved to Maysburg a few days before. I asked him what he was listening to, which was one of his older brother’s tapes, Black Sabbath’s Master of Reality. I had only ever heard their hits over the radio, so I asked if I could take a listen. I remembered putting the headphones over my ears and being blasted with the harsh rhythmical riffs of “Children of the Grave”. It was James that expanded my musical world beyond classic rock and into the world of hair metal and early nineties alternative, which would end up being a common bonding point for us, letting each other borrow records and tapes to listen to.

He joined us as the third member of Clay and I’s little duo, but it wasn’t until a few weeks later, while Clay and I were staying at his place for the first time, that we learned that the reason he had come to Maysburg was that his mother had died of cancer. His father dealt with it by becoming a raging alcoholic, and the last months of his mother’s life had been filled with drunken abuses inflicted upon her and her family. After she passed they moved, his father not wanting to be in the same house that his “bitch of a wife” had lived in. Since then, his father had tormented him with beatings and insults, wondering why his youngest son was such a pussy and not a football player like he was in middle school and high school when he used to dream of being a pro on the Crimson Tide.

James dealt with it by hiding up in his brother’s room, who whenever he wasn’t working smoked weed and watched cartoons all day, a habit his brother had picked up after the diagnosis. Every now and then Clay and I would go over there and listen to records in James’ room.

“Um, she--she’s part of it,” I answered. “I just—ever since she left, it’s just…. I don’t know. But… what do you guys think of my grandad?”

“Are you talking about when he started going off on you?” James asked.

“Yeah.”

“I dunno, I think honestly he’s just old and set in his ways, maybe. Like, it was really weird and kind of dick-ish, but I don’t think it meant anything.”

“Eh, I get a weird vibe off him,” Clay said. “Just something about him sets me off, and yeah, that whole Jesus rant was definitely very… off-putting. But I like your uncle, he seems pretty cool. Quiet, though.”

“Yeah,” I answered blandly. “I’m sure he wasn’t really thinking about it. I’m sure it’s just him being upset about my mom.”

“Yeah, that could be it,” James affirmed. “But uh, how… how are you holding up? You haven’t really talked much about it.” His voice choked up a bit at the end and his eyes darted to the tire.

I took off my glasses and began to hectically wipe them off.

“It just—dude, I don’t know. It fucking sucks.”

I realized that my glasses were about as clean as they could get and put them back on. I looked at Clay, who I could tell wasn’t sure what to say.

“I know what you mean, Mike.” James was vigorously wringing his hands. “I know exactly what you mean.”

We both stared at the slugs on the tire for a moment. Even though I couldn’t find the words to my emotions, James had somehow known exactly what I meant, usually something Clay was better at doing. In retrospection, I can say that it had almost felt as though my mother had died. She hadn’t called me, hadn’t even sent any letters. She was just gone. In a way, I was going through grief. But I knew she wasn’t dead.

At the time, I just knew that she didn’t care about me. But even though she’d been distant for years, it somehow tipped me over the edge when she disappeared. It left me full of even more insecurities and feelings of worthlessness than I’d already had. And to leave matters worse, my father, Dick Erikson, had left my mother and I for a prostitute before I was born, which was an issue resurfacing in my mind, darkening my doubt even more. What kind of stain against humanity would I have to be for both of my parents to leave? What was so wrong with me to be worth so little? Would I be bad enough for even Max to one day leave me as well? What would I do then? Would my grandfather take me in? Would he, my idol, even find value in me, a filthy atheist? No, he didn’t know what he was doing. He didn’t mean it. He was still the man I’d grown to admire, he’d just made a mistake. Or had he? Was there something wrong with my interests or beliefs? Were our tormentors justified in their abuse? No, Clay was probably right. He was probably just upset with my mom and took it out on me momentarily without meaning to.

“Uh, hey,” Clay said, snapping me out of my thoughts as I realized that I’d been staring at the blue anchor on his shirt, “so did everybody… you know, bring the stuff?”

He looked at us expectantly.

“Stuff?” James and I asked, still a little lost in our own thoughts.

“You know, the weed and shit.”

“Oh!” James exclaimed. “Yeah, I’ve got some of my brother’s weed, plenty for—”

Shhh!’” Clay and I hissed, exchanging nervous glances towards the house.

“Plenty for us,” he continued quietly. “I’m surprised my brother let me have some, he’s never let me have any when it’s not with him before. What about you, Mike? Did you bring any alcohol?”

I nodded my head as I ran my hand through my hair. “Yup. Grabbed a whole bottle of Jack. How much weed did you say your brother gave you?”

“I’m not sure exactly, but it should fill a couple of bowls at least. Oh, and I borrowed one of his pipes, too. Man, oh man I wanna see you high, Mike!”

Clay’s eyes turned into saucers.

“Wait, what?” Clay cried, lowering his voice after James gestured for him to do so. “You haven’t been high? I thought you smoked with us that one time we almost broke the TV?”

“I did, I just didn’t really feel anything,” I explained.

“Oh, man! Dude, it’s soooo fun! It’s like… it’s like, uh….”

“Like you’re in another world,” James finished. “And don’t worry, I brought some extra snacks in case we get, you know, the munchies.

“That’s cool. What’d you bring?” I asked.

“A bunch of chips and shit. Some snack cakes. And water, too. We’ll be wanting that, for sure.”

“Oh. Yeah, definitely want that,” I affirmed, thinking back to the first and only time I had smoked when the foul-tasting substance smoke scorched my lungs and parched my mouth, without even the benefits of getting high.

“And don’t worry,” I added, “I brought some cigarettes, as well.”

“Same,” James said. “Took ‘em from my dad, he’ll think he smoked a pack while he was drunk.”

“Sweet,” I said. I’d only smoked a couple of cigarettes before and was excited to feel the buzz of nicotine again. In fact, the whole idea of us getting hammered was enough to excite me for the trip.

“Hey, boys!” my grandad called from the house, the screen door groaning violently. “I heard you guys already had dinner, so let’s go ahead and do cake and shit so we can head out soon.”

“Yes, sir!” I cried back. I turned around to James and Clay. “Hey, your stuff is hidden, right? I mean, I don’t want them to pick up one of your bags and see a pipe rolling out onto the floor.”

“Yeah, I’ve got that shit tucked away,” James confirmed.

I nodded my head and motioned for them to follow me back into the house.

“—ever figure out who killed all those kids last year?” I heard my grandad ask Max as we came inside, the door screeching loudly again.

“Nah, they never did. Whoever it was, though, was a real psycho. I remember they said on the news that one kid, I think his last name was Johns, had his organs all chewed up. Looked like the bite marks were human, possibly even another kid’s.”

“Sweet Jesus, I never knew that,” my grandad exclaimed, leaning on the kitchen table. “So, the killer could’ve been a student with you fellas?”

“I guess,” I said, thinking back to the previous year when pretty much everyone in Maysburg was gripped in fear over the killings. It was all anyone could talk about for months, even after they stopped. “And pretty much all of the corpses were cannibalized.”

“But was it a kid doin’ all them killings?”

“That’s what it said on the news,” James said. “Some of the kids at school had a theory that it was this kid named Sullivan because he killed himself not too long afterwards, but he was the most mutilated of all, so that theory didn’t really hold up.”

“Yeah, that was seriously pissing me off,” I said. “Like, some of the kids were saying that he did it to himself, but that’s just insulting. I mean, the kid killed himself.”

“Well, sounds like a fucked-up situation,” my grandad said. “But we’re here to have a good time, so let’s have some cake before we lose our appetites. Uh, should be one in the fridge. Red velvet. Got some ice cream in the freezer, too.”

“What flavor” Max asked.

“Just the birthday flavor.”

“Uh, is this it under the beer case?” James asked.

“Yup. Mike, you wanna grab some plates and silverware?”

“Yes, sir,” I answered politely, trying to find the least filthy ones I could.

Finally, after having everything set up, my grandad pulled out a giant wad of candles from his pocket, lit them with his cigarette lighter, and turned off the lights. They sang Happy Birthday (much to my embarrassment), complete with my grandfather letting out a big greasy fart as the finale. Holding my nose and trying to not think about his fart fumes getting into my mouth, I leaned forward and blew out the candles, wishing for my mom to come back from Vancouver.

After we all had our fill of cake and ice cream, Max then brought out the presents, and everyone made a big deal out of them, making me feel even more awkward about being in the center of attention.

“Holy shit, it’s a bass!” I exclaimed after opening the biggest box first, which happened to be from Max.

“Yeah, and there’s an amp somewhere, too.”

“You’re not supposed to tell him, Max,” my grandad scolded.

“Mm.”

“Man, now you’ve got a guitar and a bass,” Clay admired. “Lucky!”

Max shrugged and said, “Shop helps. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be able to afford it.”

I opened the rest of my presents (the contents of which escape me besides the bass amp) and then we prepared to head out into the forest, the sun settling over the treetops with a distinct reddish sheen, the clouds reaching out like fingers over us, ready to grab us at any moment.

“So how far out are we going?” Clay asked me as we were getting the rest of the gear out of the car.

“Uh, pretty far, I think.  Grandpa said about two, two and a half miles, didn’t he, Max?”

“Somethin’ like that,” he grunted as he was unloading the tent.

“Two and a half miles? At night?” James exclaimed.

“I suppose so,” I answered. “I haven’t really been out here since I was younger, though. Even then, it was just a couple of times.”

“There’s some creeks and stuff. A pretty big pond, too, but I think we’ll be going a bit past that. And it gets pretty dark out there, so you’ll need a flashlight. Just don’t break ‘em, we’ve only got a few. Can somebody help me out instead of just standing around?”

“That sounds pretty cool,” James responded as Clay and I began to unload stuff.

When Max’s back was turned, he displayed his real interest by making an exaggerated impression of someone smoking a joint. Jokingly, I gave him the finger, which seemed to confuse him.

“Alright, boys,” my grandad proclaimed half an hour later after everything was packed. “You got everything you need?”

“Yes, sir,” we all answered.

“Got your flashlights?”

“Yup.”

“All right, then. Don’t go wandering off, now, I wanna try to get there quick as we can. I’ve been up since five, so I’m pretty pooped. Oh, and watch for spider webs. Snakes, too.”

James looked a bit uncomfortable at the mention of snakes in the woods.

“S-snakes?” he gulped.

My grandad smirked at him mischievously.

“Yep. So, watch your step.”

“You’re bringing guns?” Max asked, picking up a rifle.

“Yep. Figured we’d do a bit o’ huntin’.”

Max shot me a nervous glance but didn’t say anything.

The hike into the woods felt long, but it was relatively uneventful. The only interesting points were when somebody decided to break the silence with some brief small-talk, or the several times James accidentally traipsed into a web and flailed around like a mad-man. The moon was bright that night, but after about a mile or so, the overhead trees had become so dense that there might as well have been no moon. The wind was still, and every twig and leaf that crunched underneath was loud and crisp. But it was nice. The air was relatively warm for October, the terrain wasn’t too bad, and despite our silence, we all seemed to be in a good mood. I think that we were all simply in a reflective state of mind, probably a symptom of the dark, still night.

We finally arrived about an hour later. We knew we had arrived because my grandfather, without saying a word, had flung his gear aside and threw himself onto the ground.

“We here?” Max asked, seemingly unfazed. James and Clay were still behind us a bit.

“Yep. Can tell by that big ol’ oak right there. See it? Dead as a doornail.”

He pointed up at a gigantic oak tree that stood on a sort of shelf that ran above a flat area, which itself was next to a creek on our left which ran somewhat parallel to the upper shelf. The tree was very much dead, not to mention slightly unnerving, its long, gnarled branches hovering over the bank like great beastly claws.

I heard a clatter of rocks behind me and turned around to see a flashlight waving around in the creek a ways back.

“Damn, this creek’s dry as bone!” yelled Clay from afar.

“Get the hell back over here, boy! Need to pitch this tent, whenever I can get my old ass up.”

“Yes, sir!”

After Clay and James managed to catch up, we all rested for a bit, taking in the stillness of the night, the only sound being that of the crickets. Nobody spoke, and I had begun to wonder if my granddad and uncle had fallen asleep, but this was proven false as my grandad yawned and announced that we needed to set up the tent. Both James and Clay, who had never been camping before, seemed to struggle immensely with the concept of setting up a tent, as well as how to hold a flashlight steady so that people could see what they were doing. Eventually, we finally managed to set up our campsite, complete with fire-pit, tent, and areas to dump our waste, from both garbage and body.

“Alright, guys,” my grandad said after he and Max had prepared for bed, “we’re gonna go to bed, but if you wanna stay up and sit around the fire for a bit, that’s fine. Just don’t be too loud.”

“Thanks.”

As he was opening the tent, he turned back around towards us. “’Night, boys.”

“Goodnight, Grandpa.”

“Good night, Uriah,” Clay and James mumbled politely.

“Don’t let that ol’ Witch getcha,” my grandad hollered from inside the tent, cackling to himself.

James and Clay both looked at me in mild confusion. “Witch?”

“The Bell Witch,” I clarified. “He’s just trying to scare us.”

Clay chuckled to himself, but James had an odd look on his face.

“Oh, I don’t even like talking about her, man. My family was always real superstitious about it—her, I mean.”

“Nah, it’s just an old ghost story,” Clay said, waving it off.

James shrugged his shoulders and scratched his head, though I saw his eyes dart around the trees behind his dark red hair.

“Well, I think I’m gonna head to bed as well,” I announced with a yawn.

“Yeah, me too,” Clay agreed as he threw off his sweater with the blue anchor on it. “You comin’, man?”

“Yeah,” James answered, already taking off his shoes and getting into the tent.

James and I followed suit after brushing our teeth and changing clothes, which had seemingly escaped James’ mind. After an hour or so of trying to ignore my grandfather’s farts, I finally managed to delve into a restless sleep, during which I dreamed of a well that emitted some kind of low, earthy hum that for some reason filled me with a sense of dread.

***

I was sharply awoken by the sound of what could only be best be described as the tortured ghost of an old woman screaming from the depths of Hell not too far away from the tent.

“What the fuck was that?” I heard Max exclaim from across the tent as he fumbled with something and rushed out of the tent, followed by my grandfather.

Hesitantly opening my eyes, I could see Clay and James’s pale blurry faces in the dark, wide eyes staring at me in terror as I scrambled to find my glasses, though I had to wipe some of the humidity off of them. The heat of the tent had become stifling, though goosebumps and shivers ran down my sweat-soaked body. I caught myself trying to bite my fingernails, a nervous tic I hadn’t had since I was much younger.

Outside of the tent, two flashlights could be seen waving around in the dark, both racing in the direction of the ungodly noise.

Clay leaned towards me and mouthed, “What the fuck was that?

I shrugged and shook my head, sweat trickling into my eyes and down my nose. I looked back towards the open tent flap, the empty sounds of the night looming overhead.

“See anything?” Clay whispered, his voice barely audible.

“No,” I answered, scooting up next to the opening and peering out in the direction they had gone. “I just see their flashlights.”

None of us spoke. We could only sit in the watchful darkness, surrounded by the malevolent forest that had just earlier seemed so welcoming.

“What do you thi—” Clay started, but I held up my hand, as right then I could hear them stomping back towards the tent with flashlights off. I brought my head back inside the tent, and Clay and I put our ears against the tent wall in order to hear whatever they might say while James sat curled up in the corner, his blanket pulled up to his quivering mouth.

“I’m telling you, that was the Witch,” my grandad hissed from several feet away. I could hear them stop in their tracks before my uncle spoke.

“Goddamnit, Dad, I’m telling you, it was a fucking bobcat.”

“And I’m telling you, it was the Witch.”

“Dad, it’s not the Bell fucking Witch. Shit, next you’ll be saying it’s those Satanists you used to tell me about. It was a fucking bobcat.”

“Max, don’t be an idiot. That Devil cult is just an old story, but that Witch business is serious. And don’t say her name like that, show some damn respect. I’ve lived here almost all my life ‘sides that stretch in San Francisco back in the sixties, and trust me, I’ve heard a lot of stories and I’ve seen a lot of things. A lot of things in these woods. Hell, I’ve probably spent half my damn life in these woods. We have bobcats, and I’ve heard more’n I can count. And that wasn’t no fucking ‘cat.”

I felt a chill rush down my spine as I heard Max shuffle his feet nervously.

“Dad, the Bell Witch is just a story. The only rational explanation is that it was just an animal, and the closest thing it sounded like was a bobcat. Could’ve been a fox, I guess, but like I said, it sounded closest to a bobcat. So, what? You suggest we put Mike’s birthday trip to an end after less than a night just because we heard a damn bobcat?”

“No. But Max, would you say that sounded like any bobcat you’ve ever heard? Sure, it was closest to a bobcat, and call me crazy, but it didn’t really sound like one to me.”

Max sighed. “Yeah, it did sound different.”

“Exactly. And I still say it’s the Witch. And I’m not jokin’. I think the best thing to do would be to just ignore whatever it is. If it is a bobcat, which I hope it is, then it’ll leave us alone. If it’s the Witch, then we won’t give it what it wants, and it might just leave us alone. The more attention you give it, the worse it’ll get.”

“Alright, whatever. I still think it was a bobcat, though.” That was when I noticed that my uncle had been talking with a suppressed tone of fear in his voice. “Let’s get to bed. Hope that didn’t wake them up.”

All three of us flung ourselves into our sleeping bags as quickly as we could, just barely managing to look asleep right before my grandad came back into the tent.

“Ah, hell, Max. You left the tent open,” he whispered in annoyance.

“You were the last one out, Dad.”

“Oh. Whoops. Hope no spiders got in.”

“Spiders get in anyways.”

“I’m talkin’ ‘bout bigger spiders. Oh, well. Think I’m gonna stay up for a bit anyways.”

Max sighed as he got into his sleeping bag next to me.

“You’re bringing your gun?” he asked in exasperation.

“Yep.”

“Dad….”

“Shut up, boy.”

“Whatever. Have fun.”

“I said, shut up, boy.” There was an unsettling menace in his voice.

Max huffed and turned over in his bag as my grandad lit the fire and grabbed a chair. For the rest of the night that I was awake, I didn’t see him move an inch.

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