Hello.

My name is Lou and I am here for, well, telling a story. Believe me or not, laugh or cry, I don't care anymore. I wish I could do something, turn back time, and undo the stupid things that led to it.

I wish I could tell someone, but that would come at the price of being admitted to some place where I can 'heal' and 'regain my sanity'.

I've even accepted that the police cannot do a thing.

All I want, all I need is to get rid of the heavy weight on my heart, to dump all my sorrow, and let it get elsewhere. Take it, take all of it, I beg you.

Is it survivor's guilt? I guess. And even though it was not even my idea, had I used my big head for a second I could have saved us. Them. Oh God. Oh fuck.

What am I even saying?

Why, the idea was not really mine. It was my friends'. But I could not begin here.

I should first tell a story that is not mine.

I should begin with the murder of Aspen Brooke.

Aspen Brooke was an 18-year-old high school boy whose dead body was found a few months ago. Weirdly enough, it was not really in any newspapers except the one of his town. A writer of our local newspapers has family there, it seems, and that must be the reason it was in ours as well.

When I asked my grandparents about it, they did not even know the name 'Aspen Brooke', especially not the town he lived in.

I'd rather not share its name online since I'm sure some stupid morons might try to get there. And I cannot take responsibility for that.

Especially, I do not want my mind, already so full of guilt, to once more take the blame for such a misfortune.

No, don't even try asking me.

Well, back to Aspen.

He was murdered in a forest near his school, it seems. It was not mentioned what school he goes to but I doubt anyone would willingly go to some strange school in the woods at night alone.

He had his chessboard and pieces with him, it was speculated he might have lost or forgotten them there and tried to retrieve them, and thus broke into the school. Actually, that would make sense. Would there be signs of forceful entry into the school?

However, don't mind that now. No, don't.

Aspen was found some morning after having just disappeared from life for a long time, it seems.

His family did not find him. No one did, but the forest. And some unfortunate soul.

Just one Monday morning he lay there between the leaves, his hands folded into each other. His skin was not fouling, there were no maggots, nothing. It was just he was dead. For a long time, as a puzzled policeman claimed.

He would have looked like a dead angel had his fancy clothing not been ripped open at multiple places, his hair not been so white and of a faded color, his skin not bloody and his right eye... His right eye was missing. There was no gaping hole, no, a bloody, crusty hole.

Fuck, I have even seen the photo. It was horrible.

My mom asked me to burn it. She had horrible nightmares afterward. Little does she know that I had kept it.

Because it just all was so weird. I could not sleep at night either, not because of the photo showing Aspen, but because if the killer continues running around it could be me, my family, my friends next. Dead. With one eye missing. Looking so pitiful.

I could not sleep any longer before I knew more. So I started doing my research.

At first, it was difficult. I asked random people in the town, but no one seemed to know him. A few people knew him as the winner of chess tournaments or the boy who disappeared and was found dead days later.

An old lady, however, told me that he had been a sweet boy, his family incredibly poor and he had tried to make money by winning in chess tournaments. It seems that he was very intelligent. Sly. Cunning.

Especially, calculating.

She told me that even if nothing of his body remains, his merits will remain printed in the newspaper. I asked her to show me and she willingly gave me one, but only for a quick look.

There he was, but this time with both eyes. His androgynous face full of delight, his pale blonde hair as if he had just moved quickly, his grey eyes full of surprising warmth. He looked like a real angel this time.

The paper bore the headline 'Another Spectacular Win by Aspen Brooke', yet the article did not contain much information about him.

Only his age and that he always won.

'Aspen', the lady said, 'has not had it easy. I heard he was bullied really bad for his somewhat feminine looks, for his unusual name, for his social status and - weirdly enough - for his intellect. He, on the other hand, accepted it all and refused to move elsewhere so he could continue these tournaments and support his mother with money. Family.... Treasure it while it still remains.'

That was all. She politely refused to give me any of her treasured newspapers. She seemed to have thought him a hero, or maybe she was just mourning for the sweet boy of the neighbourhood. Not only once or twice I wondered if he had done some part-time work for her, that both could profit from. Money for running errands? Cleaning her kitchen?

While he did not let people push him around, Aspen sure let fate push him around and knelt down for every dollar.

I'm almost feeling sorry for the lad.

No, I really am, just some part of me tells me that it is a waste.

I always wondered what was the matter with these tournaments until I found it in the newspapers: the different schools in the surrounding towns played host and only people living in these could participate to win money for their school, their good cause of choice, and lastly themselves.

It was not easy finding someone who could give me the papers, and in most Aspen is only briefly mentioned as a winner. His school is never mentioned, but to me, it does not make a difference.

But what else I got from them is that he has a way of... well, just being that makes him stand out: The usual shy and sad-looking boy is unnaturally fierce and sassy when winning. While his family socially stands lower than most others, his sudden self-confidence can make him seem like an ancient nobility and when his features are distorted haughtily, the girls are all over him. He does not care about any luxuries and has a shabby school bag while wearing fancy and elegant clothing to tournaments and on some occasions to school. His chessboard is new, but his chess pieces are a family heirloom.

He sold the old board, which also was an heirloom and when an interviewer asked him if he'd sell the pieces, too, he just replied 'No, no, not the pieces. Why, you see, the chessboard is merely a board yet the pieces are family. This Pawn, I can remember my grandfather using it alone to win against me when I was just a kid. I can remember his gleeful, ancient face, that one time smiling kindly and telling me that I really did do good but I should keep my eyes everywhere. The next time he drew a few pairs of eyes on a paper, cut them out, and put them on all pieces in danger every time such was the case and told me why that is and what I can, should or should not do.

You see, selling my pieces is like selling my late grandfather. While it is not only illegal, it also is something only someone out of their mind could do without the guilt tearing their heart. Family, while it remains, should always be treasured. Regardless of what is left behind.'

He was a sentimental boy, Aspen.

He had a good heart, a sharp mind, and good looks.

But what remained of him was fright in others.

The school had to close a few days after the corpse was discovered because the students and teachers could not bring themselves to enter. They felt horrible in there, they got nightmares and the soft whisper of the wind never seemed to stop and followed them even to the bathroom cabins, whispering them the story of a dead man. The dead man who once was nothing but a loser among them. Who no one bothered to save from his misery.

Except if he smirked when he won a round of chess.

It would be summer vacation soon enough and all examinations were over so the headmaster and probably a lot of important people in the background decided to let them all go.

That, too, was only in two local newspapers.

Now, that was Aspen's side of the story.

But now it is time for mine, and while I don't want to be reminded of any of it, much less by myself, I know I need to let it out of my soul, my heart, my mind, my life.

My name is Louis. I am called Lou by most people, and I am a 16-year-old teenager.

My five best friends and I wanted to spend vacation together. One friend proposed going camping in a specific forest because he heard it was haunted. None of us knew any of that, and none of us cared.

We did not even know if what we were doing was legal.

Still, we packed our tents, sleeping bags, food, a flashlight, a bunch of matches.... The normal things. But also a Ouija board.

And yesterday morning at 1 PM we idiots met to take the train to the town and wandered off into the woods. To never be seen again?

Well....

I think I should stop telling everything in such a confusing way. No, this will just be a story. The story of stupid me and my stupid ways.

At about 1:30 PM we entered the forest. It was a warm day and the sky was deprived of clouds. Yet under the high trees, the chilly darkness was such a contrast that it was overwhelming.

We entered through a street that led from a side street to a bunch of old, uninhabited houses covered in cobwebs, plants, and funghi.

At first, we even wanted to investigate those, for Terry had even got us a Ouija board. Terry, the boy who also had urged us to go camping here.

I should have thought it weird that he told us so much about ghosts in the forest but refused to search for ghosts in a few abandoned houses. But never mind that now.

No, we went into the forest.

The moment we entered through a small opening between the bushes and even some over-grown hedges of the houses around, the whole atmosphere changed.

I felt like my body had been drenched deep into my bones with the most icy water. The air was clean and fresh but also felt unnaturally cold. The ancient trees threw giant shadows onto the ground so covered in dead leaves that we could barely make out the small path that we took to not get lost in this vast space.

It was gigantic, overwhelming and it was slightly unwelcoming.

But I believe we all told ourselves that was only in our minds, for we went on and on.

The further we went, the colder the air got, the higher the trees, the longer the shadows, the more silent the forest.

At first, there were a few birds singing, and at one point Justin had sworn to us all he just saw a fox but suddenly it was like everything had faded.

Sound, color, smell... even warmth.

Everything seemed dead and lifeless.

The only sign that I had not suddenly become deaf was the sound of our footsteps on the leaves, leaves that so spitefully covered every inch now as if to tell us something.

To leave? That we'd never return? That we'd lay among them for brainless kids to walk on us, crush us while we crunch and crinkle upon contact with their shoes?

The only other thing that still remained was the sound of wind.

The rustling of leaves. The whisper of the trees.

The further we went, the stronger it grew.

At one point Mike felt so uncomfortable he asked for a small break so he could sit down and eat, as he claimed he wanted, but we had a huge lunch at the train station and I think I could read in his face the fear of continuing going. There was a clearing right in front of us and John said we should just go there and put up our camp.

Terry, however, was not pleased with this.

He told us that this part of the forest is not where the ghost dwells, yet Justin told him to go search his 'stupid ghost-fuck' on his own then.

In the end, he was okay with it.

We decided to look for wood and Mike and Justin volunteered for this. I put up the tents, John got the food and the matches, waiting eagerly and Terry bored us all with his 'ghost.'

After about 20 minutes Justin returned with one or two slightly larger pieces of wood. John asked him politely if this was all he could find, but Justin snapped at him that it was 'difficult to even find as much as a damned twig in this shithole' and gave him a look that spelled 'die.'

We all were baffled that the usually cheerful and polite Justin, who had blabbered happily about the fox he had seen a few hours ago, had become so exaggeratedly aggressive.

His bad mood persisted the whole evening.

We had waited for maybe 30 more minutes until we decided that Mike must have gotten lost.

I said that we must search for him but Paul said it was too dangerous to stroll around here alone and we should wait.

In the end, we cleared a patch of soil and the area around it and burned the bit of wood we had and some of our other wooden properties, such as tissues.

Sitting around a minuscule campfire and eating our sausages, we dreaded that Mike might never return.

Terry, of course, told us that the ghost had gotten him.

Justin said we should ask the 'stupid' ghost then what he did to our friend.

Ten minutes later we sat around the Ouija board and asked the 'ghost' questions. It, however, replied in French. Only Paul could speak French since he had a lot of family in Quebec.

We still had not asked what happened to Mike, were too busy asking moronic questions such as 'What color were the panties you died in?' and eagerly awaiting its reply.

Terry kept telling us to be careful since the spirit already made fun of us by replying in French since it obviously understood English quite well.

It replied to every question honestly and I guess we all were scared to ask what now had happened to dear Mike.

However, Terry kept telling us to and when an annoyed John finally gave in, the spirit just said something that Paul translated as 'I do not want to say it.' A mad look appeared on John's moonlit face, making his huge eyes appear even bigger and madder than usual as he said in an exaggeratedly dramatic voice, 'Why don't you show us, then?'

Terry had already opened his mouth as to tell him off for his stupidity when he suddenly gagged, yelped and collapsed on the floor.

All eyes were on Terry now as he began to twitch.

I dared a quick glance at the others to see the shock in their face. Paul still had his hand in his mouth, the cracker already melting into a puddle of spit and a soaked something that trickled down his chin.

'Dude, you okay?', John asked and knelt down beside Terry with a look of terror all across his now even more mad-looking face, as his eyeballs appeared to desire nothing more than leaving the eye sockets.

It all happened so fast. Suddenly there was a fist around his neck and we heard it snap.

The sound was disgusting and seemed to resonate in the whole forest. We all just sat there. All but Paul.

He had gotten up, spit his cracker and the wet remains of it in Terry's expressionless face as Terry eyed John who still looked so caring and worried, not a sign of surprise on his lifeless face.

Terry, however, seemed not to notice.

As if that had been the signal Justin got up, too, and roared in anger.

Terry still looked perfectly unbothered, as if such things happened every day, yet drew nearer.

Justin ran away and Terry ran behind him, yet suddenly Paul hit him hard in the face and made him fall onto the cold ground.

Terry got up and now he was running away. Paul caught up with him soon, hate etched onto every corner of his pointy and serious face. There was a flash of red as Paul grabbed onto Terry's shoulders and rammed his foot onto Terry's nose.

Blood splattered everywhere and Terry's nose looked weirdly disfigured. As if he had just awoken from a nightmare, he yelped again and moved a hand to examine his nose.

It seemed to happen in slow-motion: Terry fell down onto the ground again, looking apologetically into Paul's usually cool blue eyes, that seemed to emit an unusual warmth now.

As if they had understood something. As if they had known.

Before Paul could extend his arm to help Terry up, before he could crack an apologetic smile, however, two wolves appeared out of nowhere. Probably it was the smell of blood that had lured them.

A split second passed and the only thing I saw was even more blood. The wolves hungrily dug into the raw meat.

Now that I think about it, I'm not even sure if that's how wolves are supposed to behave, even when hungry.

My body seemed to unfreeze and I ran for my life.

Justin at my heels, screaming at me for being a coward, for not helping anyone.

Justin.

He was the only one left.

The only one of my beloved friends, the people I had shared so many memories with.

Yet while his body, large and short, clearly belonged to Justin,

I knew that this was, in fact, not him.

I sought shelter in an abandoned large building I found.

There was no graffiti, the windows were not broken anywhere, only the door was wide open as to tell me to come in there.

I should have seen the bad omen back then but I ran for my life and could not think straight.

To be honest, I could not think at all.

I tried to run up the stairs as quickly yet silently as possible, found a somewhat hidden room with a window, crawled on all fours, for my legs could not keep me up, in the direction of a cupboard.

It was dark and the only light source was the bit of moonlight that managed to break through the carpet of tall treetops.

My shivering hand could barely open the cupboard and just when I had crawled into the cramped space behind a moldy, high stack of old books I already heard Justin yelling, 'Where are you, little shit? Hiding like you always do? Come and face me if you are a man, come and get a whole new face!' Then 'You ass, you fucker. I gave you a chance. Now get here in 10, 9, 8...,' he counted down.

'Fine', he screamed as he reached 0, 'I'll kill you, you coward. Crybaby. Son of a bitch.'

The list of insults continued as I heard Justin burst into room after room, sometimes accompanied by a mad cackle.

I knew I was doomed then.

Or at least I thought so.

Breathing what I thought were the last breaths of my life, alone in a moldy cupboard between moldy books and spiders crawling over my hair, my hand, my head.

Before my eyes, I saw my life going backward. I saw my friends sitting on a dead tree in the clearing, us on the train, my mom, the newspapers, the old lady.... Suddenly, it all made sense. At least a bit. Because I remembered where this was, why this school was closed, and who was found here.

But that did not make things better.

So deep in thought I almost entirely forgot about the fact that I sat in a moldy cupboard and even more so the reason why I sat in it.

I exclaimed, 'Ha,' which, even though it was as a sound might not even have told Justin my whereabouts.

But as I exclaimed, I intuitively sat up, hid my head, and wailed in pain and confusion.

Justin burst into the room, looking like a hungry animal that had at last cornered its prey.

I, as the idiot I am, had forgotten to close the cupboard again.

Our eyes met and I'll never forget the senseless expression of his usually cheerful brown eyes, that now resembled more a muddy grey-brown than their usual friendly, glowing chocolate hue.

He looked almost dead, his skin looked slightly grey, like all life had evaporated and the only reason he did not lay motionless on the floor was the desire to hunt, hurt, murder.

I seemed to float, up high on a cloud of dread and panic, my soul seemed to leave my body as my eyes might have spelled the deepest regret for anything and everything.

Then he collapsed on the floor.

I had learnt and did not approach him. I was ready to jump out of the window, but I could not move a muscle while my hand involuntarily twitched.

I found my voice and I do not really know why, but I said 'Aspen.'

Then after a while, I said 'Sorry.'

The time moved forwards slower than an old snail but I am sure that several minutes passed before I started crying and apologizing, asking for forgiveness. For what?

The fuck, I don't know. I don't fucking know. I just wanted to get the fuck out of there, preferably alive, but even death seemed fine back then as long as I'd be away.

I suddenly heard a gasp and someone trying to breathe as fast and as deeply as possible at the same time.

Justin got up, looking blue everywhere.

He just breathed and stared at me, but that was fine, for I know it had not been him.

His eyes regained the soft, misleading weak expression but not their gleeful glow. His face was stern and that was even worse than him running after me and calling me names, threatening to kill me.

'Aspen,' he said.

'Aspen,' I replied.

He took an even deeper breath but breathed it out.

Then he took a very unelegant gulp of air and breathed out again as if he wanted to ask but neither had the spare oxygen nor the courage.

Finally, he asked, 'Who is that? I heard you telling him sorry.'

I held my face, as if that would help me keep my thoughts aligned and noticed that it was covered in tears.

I quickly and slightly embarrassedly wiped my face on my sleeve and considered my wording for a few seconds.

Finally, I answered, 'The one behind it all. I... I don't know what he wants. He is the boy who was found here months ago. The corpse without any signs of death. No fouling, no maggots. Nothing.' My voice began to crack 'He can't be dead. No. And I... I've got the feeling he's playing human chess with us. And I... I am the enemy team and you guys are... were his....'

Once the words were out of my mouth and I was about to find a lame excuse for what I said when Justin seemed to snap and excitedly yelled, 'Yes. Yes! I think so, too. Oh, Lou... Oh fuck, Lou....'

He too began to cry.

I tried to think of words of comfort when an idea quickly formed in my mind and before I knew what I said I did in fact say it: 'Let's burn him. He's dead yet alive... He... He ate Terry. And Paul. I'm sure of it. He's not a spirit... He must be.......... A wendigo.'

Justin nodded and now it was his turn to wipe his face.

'How funny. First you ridicule me, then you chase me, then I get my revenge, then you say sorry... I mean, I was about to let you go...,' said a whispery, yet slightly harsh, a cool, yet somewhat pleasant voice right beside me, right from next to the window.

I stared to where before only a dusty window had been.

He looked terrible.

His voice continued in a resentful, somewhat uncontrolled manner as his eye bore deep into mine.

'And now you compare me to a cannibal spirit and want to kill me?'

He stepped into the patch of moonlight, which illuminated not only his body, still looking the same as on the old photograph, but also two brownish-red antlers. I thought he looked quite a lot like a wendigo.

A sad smile, an unexpected sign of amusement on his before so resentful and bitter face, appeared, as if he had read my thoughts.

'Oh no, Lou', he said, 'those are on my head for a reason I too do not very much understand. But I can assure you I am no wendigo.

'No... I am the forest... The forest made me his... No, it made me its king. Animals do my bidding. The plants grow how I want them to. The wind blows when I want it, and that is.... As you already saw, surely not all. But I shall not show off to scum like you, I'm not as disgustingly self-adoring as you rich fucks....

'And well, now, these antlers... Don't they look like a crown, a majestic head-dress? You see, you see... The coronation is over, the king stands before you.

And I shall grant a peasant like you a wish, for a change, you know.

It's not only you rich bastards who have power....'

His eye rested on Justin for a while.

'You have money, but money won't help you controlling your temper. Or saving you from wolves.'

For the second time his mouth twitched upwards, but now it was a gruesome grimace, apparently flaunting a mouth full of sharp, white teeth, growing in rows, like a shark's.

'Not only you rich fucks can descend from your high position and be benevolent. No, no.'

The smile got even wider. 'Fire, you say?'

He stepped even more forward and paused. I could count his freckles. One on the eyelid of his missing eye, one on the same side below his lips and one under his remaining eye.

He was even born to look incredibly distinguishable, and such a fate in a world where trendy uniformity was a duty must have been rough.

Even though he killed my friends, I could not help but feel a sudden rush of pity and affection, which however evaporated rather quickly as Aspen drew nearer and nearer and I now saw the five or so cans of gasoline in his hands. Hands that ended in claws. One can was almost empty, the others were full.

He resumed his sad smile, but his voice was haughty, fierce.

The atmosphere was so sinister that I could not move, even had I wanted, yet Aspen whispered softly, 'Dear, perhaps you'll stop shivering so violently. Nothing else could warm you. They even took away the carpet... I liked the carpet,' and then, 'Now it is but an ugly building full of ugly memories. And I want to remove the ugliness from here. You two, you're an ugly memory, too. But soon you'll be but a memory, since ashes don't look pleasant nor unpleasant.'

'No.', Justin retorted. 'You can't-'

'Do not tell me what I can and what I can not. You're at my mercy,' and with that, Aspen emptied the bottles near the door, the desks, the chairs.... And with some difficulty he extracted a box of matches from his pockets. The same box of matches I had brought here.

I knew it, it was gonna be my fault. At least to me.

And a split second later I felt like my body was boiled alive. I instinctively ran for the window as Justin, still immobilized, began to yell for me. I half expected him to tell me to just leave him there, but for the most part it was nothing but a frantic hope.

He screamed at me to take him with me, but I had already jumped from the second story, my hand seeking support on a fallen tree branch that, now looking back, was too conveniently placed there. As my hand slipped I fell down and landed on a huge stack of leaves, without wounds or broken bones, while just behind me Justin cried for the last time in his life, out of horror and immeasurable pain, and, I am dreading it, disappointment in me.

I got up, but did not run, merely looked behind me.

There stood Aspen. A tall and thin, illuminated figure amidst the flames, flames that did not even touch his seemingly real body. Flames that still devoured every quarter of the school building, with the moldy books and a not a bit moldy Justin.

Now I think I understood what happened there.

He's not a ghost, but not a living being. He's too attached to this world, his body too resentful and bitter to let go.

He wanted me, but I do not know what for.

The school building was made out of stone walls on the outside and only the inside and roof were not fire-proof yet I ran for my life.

Aspen would have killed me had he wanted, but he did not.

There was no rational reason for me to run, but my dread and grief made me want to release the pressure on my whole body. And leave this forest. To never come back.

I don't really remember much after, you see.

I think I told my mother that something horrible happened, but there are so large gaps in my memories and only unidentifiable snippets of this and that.

But now I am quite safe, at home, in front of my computer and I am waiting for Mike. I thought him dead, but today he messaged me. He wants to talk it over once and for all, he said. Finish the chapter and never go near it again.

I am so happy that he, too, escaped and that Aspen did not harm him.

He's coming here at 12 AM. I spent most of my time waiting with typing this out. I don't think I can tell him the truth so bluntly. Actually, I did not even spend much time typing this out while waiting, I even created an image. I originally planned to ask him if he saw someone like this, but I also think I could attach it here....

It is almost 12 AM, just one minute left. My heart is beating like crazy and I think I still hear the wind. Just like yesterday.

I am very paranoid, you know. Just ten more seconds now.

Aspen.png



Written by Damiana Rose
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