by Tom Coombe
These boys are too old for ghost stories.
That’s what Jeff says anyway, and in cabin 8, Jeff’s opinion is law. Scary stories are for babies, not soon-to-be seventh graders.
Still, this is Camp Saint Michael’s, where the traditions are as old and rooted as the trees, and the last night of camp means ghost stories with Steve Rodrigo. The camp’s unofficial storyteller lumbers into cabin 8 just before 10 p.m. and parks himself in a metal folding chair in the center of the room.
“I’m scared already,” Jeff mutters, triggering a wave of giggles from 10 of the 11 other boys in the cabin. Eric, their chemistry major counselor, says nothing, nose buried in an Orson Scott Card novel.
The eleventh boy stays silent. This is the New Kid. He’s told them his name — Earl or Lyle or something with an L — but they call him New Kid.
They call him worse things when the counselors aren’t listening, this quiet, gangly sad sack who had a meltdown on the high dive and runs like a girl. The boys have plans for the New Kid. Tonight when the counselors sleep, they’ll teach him a lesson, something Jeff’s brother saw in a movie last year.
They look at him now. He’s actually interested in hearing Rodrigo’s stupid story.
“This happened 13 years ago, the winter of 1976. Bad winter that year, although you’re all too young to remember. The worst storm came on January 8, a blizzard so bad the state shut down the highways. But there was one car out on the road that night. Mark and Judy Cullen, a married couple from Scranton, expecting their first child. Her contractions began just as the storm reached its peak, and they had no choice but to get in their car and try to make their way to the hospital.
“They made it three miles before they were lost, the gas gauge resting just above E. The visibility on the highway was so bad that Mark had no idea that he’d driven off the interstate and onto a narrow country road…that led to a camp for Catholic boys.”
Eleven campers groan. The New Kid stays silent.
“By the time they realized their mistake, it was too late. Mark tried to turn the car around, and found himself stuck in a snowbank. Trapped and desperate, the couple abandoned their battered Volkswagen and made their way to the closest building they could find, the eighth cabin in a row of 10.
“Inside the cabin, Judy collapsed onto the nearest bunk, moaning and crying atop the bare mattress. Mark realized with horror that his new son or daughter would enter the world in this cold, dark place, miles from any doctor.
“‘It will be ok,’ Judy said. ‘Women gave birth on their own for centuries.’ And she was right. By some miracle, their baby arrived quickly and safely. The thing is, guys, not all miracles come from God.”
Eric glances up from Ender’s Game. “Steve…c’mon…”
Steve ignores him, deep in story mode now.
“The wind howled and the baby boy howled with it, wrapped in a thin blanket his dad found under one of the bunks.
“Mark curled up next to his wife and son as they tried to keep themselves and the baby warm. He decided he would let the storm die down before searching the camp. Every camp had an office and every office had a phone. He just had to let the storm calm down, he thought before drifting off.
“He woke to find the sun peeking through thick grey clouds. The wind had died and a new sound broke through the dawn. Thump. Thump. Thump. The deep bass of a drum, coming from the trees surrounding the cabin.
“It grew louder as the drum and the drummer emerged from the trees. He was a short, hunched-over figure wearing a Buster Brown suit, his skin the consistency of tree bark. The drummer chanted as he approached, over and over in a sickening frog voice.”
“‘Make way for the Father. Make way for the Father. Make way for the Father.’”
The boys are listening despite themselves, even Jeff.
“The chant continued as more figures walked out of the forest, each one further loosening Mark’s grip on sanity. He saw spindly men who leapt from tree to tree like apes and others that walked on all fours as easily as Mark did on two.
“All these things bowed their heads as a newcomer stepped from the pines. He stood at least seven feet tall, his face masked by a cloud of reddish brown locusts.
“‘We have to go, baby,’” Mark said, turning to Judy. His wife stared back with eyes that had gone snowy.’”
Steve makes his voice high and ghostly.
“‘It’s ok, darling. I dreamed of this. They want the baby. He’s going to be their new lamb.’
“Mark took Judy’s hand and tried pulling her to her feet, but she refused to budge. She began to scream and the baby joined in. Their wailing grew louder as the things outside began hammering the cabin door. Winter had turned the wood wet and brittle, and they were through the doorway within minutes. The creatures scuttled across the floor and surrounded Mark. The wind picked up again and covered his screams.
“A pair of snowmobilers found the baby the next day, wrapped in a blanket on the floor of the cabin, fat and happy. His parents were never seen again. The baby went to a Catholic orphanage and was adopted by a good Catholic family. He grew up with no idea of who his parents were and what happened to him on the day he was born.
“But the things who lived in the forest waited and watched. They spoke to him in his dreams, told him of his great and terrible destiny. One day he would return to the camp and take his place next to The Father. And that boy’s name was…”
Steve takes a long pause, looking around the cabin.
The boys hoot and applaud, teasing their leader. Jeff gives a little half smile. Steve bows and turns to leave. A small voice stops him.
The New Kid raises his hand.
“It’s Leonard, sir. I just had a question about the story.”
“Uh, sure, go ahead.”
“It’s just that, how could anyone know all that if the baby’s parents were never seen again? Or that he grew up to be called Jeffrey?”
The other campers laugh and groan.
“It’s…it’s a story, Leonard. I made it all up. And whenever I tell a story like this, I pick a random camper’s name as a little kicker. That’s all.”
“Yeah, way to step on my punchline, kiddo.”
“Retard,” Jeff whispers.
Steve walks outside, Eric the counselor following. The boys can hear them whispering and laughing.
“They’re laughing at you,” Jeff says to the New Kid.
Eric comes back, reads for a bit more before shutting off his little lamp. In 20 minutes, they can hear him snoring.
Jeff coughs three times, the signal to get ready. The boys reach under the covers, find the weapons they’d made earlier: bars of soap stolen from a supply closet, wrapped in bath towels. Their going away present for the New Kid. One whack each, Jeff’s brother had told him. Enough to hurt, not enough to mess him up for good.
He hops out of bed and pads to the New Kid’s bunk, ready to strike the first blow. The bed is empty. The boys scan the cabin, expecting to find him huddling in a corner or cowering under a bunk. It’s Chris, the closest thing Jeff has to a lieutenant, who spots him. The New Kid is walking away from the cabin, towards the flagpole at the center of the camp.
They put their sneakers on take off after him, waving their towel clubs like warrior dwarves. Where does this kid, this little shit, get the guts to sneak out? The New Kid hears their footsteps, turns and favors them with a mile-long grin. His eyes are entirely white.
The night is silent, save for the singing of the frogs. When the song stops all at once, a few of the boys jump.
“He got most of the story right,” the New Kid tells his cabin mates. “Everything but my name.”
“Fucking weirdo,” Jeff says, but his voice cracks.
“They’ll be here soon,” Leonard says. “Do you hear it?”
Deep in the woods, a drum begins to beat.
Tom Coombe is a journalist-turned-freelance writer who has loved horror since his first viewing of Poltergeist. He lives in Pennsylvania with his girlfriend and their cat. Find him online at tomcoombe.com or on Twitter at @CalmTomb.