At 14 years old, there wasn’t a lot for my friends and I to do that didn’t involve the woods near our neighborhood. We were too young to drive, and yet we felt too old to be restricted to playing sports in our parents’ yards. The woods were basically the perfect place for us to hang out, as most of our parents had made them off-limits when we were younger. Being able to freely go there felt like a rite of passage, and we could do basically whatever we wanted there with no one around to tell us otherwise.
Now that I think about it, I guess it wasn’t exactly the best thing for our parents to allow of a bunch of kids that were barely teenagers, though I have never blamed any of them for lack of proper parenting.
The first of us that was allowed to go into the woods was Jerry. His parents gave him that freedom when he turned 13, but no one else was allowed to go yet, so he only went once or twice with his older brother to hunt for rabbits with a pellet gun.
Turning 14 was like a magical age. I don’t know why, but it seemed like once the rest of us hit that age, our parents finally gave in to our begging and let us venture out into places that were previously forbidden. I turned 14 first, then Frank, then Darren, then Melissa, then Jerry. When Melissa’s birthday rolled around and she got permission to go into the woods, we suddenly realized that we’d surmounted the last barrier since Jerry was already allowed. We immediately made plans for the next weekend to go to the woods and explore.
It was exactly like we’d hoped it would be. Nothing but trees for what seemed like miles. Lots of sticks to grab and hit things with. Plenty of leaves blanketing the floor to kick around. The occasional snap of a twig or cry of a small animal to creep us out. It was fantastic.
Almost every weekend from that point on, you could find us in the woods. We’d usually meet at Jerry’s at a predetermined time, then trek over there with whatever we wanted to bring, if anything. We brought a tarp and nailed it up to some trees for shade and shelter in case the weather got bad. We constructed a makeshift hammock out of some burlap sacks, rope, and a couple of two by fours. Darren wanted to make a swing, but we’d used all of the rope we could find on the hammock, and rope was more expensive than we thought it was, so we abandoned that idea.
Months passed of us hanging out like that basically every chance we got. We’d explored and memorized most every part of the woods up until a wooden fence with a bunch of “NO TRESPASSING” signs on it blocked us from going any farther. We never really got too curious about what was on the other side of the fence, but we did follow it for at least a mile one time and there was no end of it in sight.
By that point, we didn’t know every inch of the woods, but I can pretty much guarantee that any one of us couldn’t get lost there, which had been a legitimate concern in the beginning. We’d become accustomed to certain landmarks, like the pile of rusted metal scraps that someone had likely dumped there a decade ago, or like the tree that had been splintered right down the middle, probably by lightning. There were lots of little things like that that we could recognize and immediately know where we were, at least in relation to the tarp shelter we’d set up.
It was a Saturday afternoon that Melissa showed up with a girl named Jamie. This was surprising to us for at least two reasons: the first was that Melissa was a tomboy, which was lucky for her, since she was the only girl our age in the neighborhood and would have to either hang out with us boys or just be alone. The second reason it was surprising was because Jamie seemed very girlish, and to be hanging out with a tomboy like Melissa didn’t immediately make a lot of sense. However, they both assured us boys that Jamie wanted to go to the woods with us, and that she wasn’t afraid to get a little dirty.
Now, Melissa was pretty, despite the way she dressed, but Jamie was prettier. There was basically no way that a bunch of 14 year old boys were going to turn down a pretty girl’s request to hang out, so that was that, as far as we were concerned.
We headed to the woods as we usually did, only plus one. We found the trail at the edge that we’d gently worn down over the past few months and followed it a couple hundred yards to a clearing. Here, we’d determined that we didn’t want to make the path to our tarp shelter obvious, and that if we didn’t beat the brush around the clearing down too obviously, any explorer would probably just figure the trail ended at the clearing. We’d even set up some stones in a circle and made it look like a campfire site.
Continuing on another hundred or so yards, we arrived at the familiar site of our tarp shelter. It was just as we’d left it, which we’d come to expect. If anyone had ever found it, they’d never touched it or messed with it in any noticeable way. Jamie looked around with a glimmer of genuine curiosity in her eyes. I’d have never pegged her for it judging by her looks, but she obviously liked exploring.
“This is perfect!” she said, giving a nod of approval to Melissa.
“We have a lot of fun out here,” Melissa said.
Jamie examined the hammock and picked a few leaves off of it, admiring the last one before she tossed it on the ground. “So cool.”
I’d noticed that Frank had been eying Jamie the entire time, and not that Darren or Jerry or I weren’t doing the same, but his glances were far less discreet. I kind of wanted to tell him to cut it out because it was a little embarrassing, but it seemed like Jamie hadn’t noticed yet, so I kept my mouth shut.
Jamie’s eyes suddenly lit up, and she excitedly looked around, her gaze finding each of us as she spoke. “You guys want to build a fire and camp out here tonight?”
It wasn’t a new idea. We’d thought about it before, but there were a few reasons we hadn’t done it. The first one was obviously that our parents wouldn’t let us. We could get around it by lying and saying that we were sleeping over at someone’s house for the night, but there were more issues than just that. There were animals in the woods, and though maybe they would leave us alone at night as they did during the day, we weren’t sure, because honestly, we weren’t even sure what kinds of animals called those woods home. Then, there was the issue of the campire.
“We can’t build a fire here,” Jerry said.
“Why not?” Jamie’s eyelids fluttered.
“The smoke will be visible from outside of the woods,” I said. “People will know where we are.”
“So?” Jamie said.
“This is kind of our private place,” Darren explained. “That’s why we had the decoy campsite back at the clearing.”
“What’s the big deal?” Jamie said. “Camping out would be fun. No one would find us.”
It had always been understood among us, though it remained unspoken, that this part of the woods was something we didn’t want to just broadcast to everyone. But on that day, a pretty girl came with us to our hideaway, and that changed.
“Come on guys, she’s right. It would be fun,” Frank said. I knew exactly what was going through his mind. I’d seen him staring at Jamie. He just wanted to find a way to sleep next to, close to, anywhere in the same proximity as her. Maybe he even wanted more than that. Who knows for sure, but I could see as he looked at us desperately, begging with his eyes for us to agree with him, that he had an ulterior motive.
All of that aside though, sleeping in the woods with my friends did sound like fun. I wasn’t so worried about the animals, especially if we had a fire. And I knew Jerry could sneak his brother’s pellet gun out of the house – not that it could do much damage to anything that could actually hurt us, but maybe it could scare such a creature away with a well-aimed shot.
Darren was either thinking along the same lines as Frank or me, as he suddenly spoke up. “Well, I guess.”
Melissa bit her lip. “I can’t. There’s no way I can come up with a good enough excuse. Jamie is my only female friend, and she’s supposed to be staying over at my house. Whose house would I say I’m sleeping at?”
“Just tell your parents we went back to my house to spend the night,” Jamie said. “My parents think I’m over at your house, yours will think we’re over at my house.”
“What if one of them calls the other, though?” Melissa said.
Jamie dug in her pocket, then held out her cell phone. “Mine have no reason to call yours. If they need me, they can just call me.” We didn’t all have cell phones, but I had one. So did Darren and Frank. But not Jerry, and not Melissa.
“I don’t have a cell, though,” Melissa said.
“Call your parents from my phone, give them my number, and tell them if they need you to call you on it. Simple. If they ask to talk to my parents or for my parents’ number or something, make something up. Give the phone to me or one of the guys or something and we’ll impersonate your mom or dad.”
My impression of Jamie that was initially based entirely on her looks was quickly evolving to more adequately match who she actually was. She was this good at planning on how to trick parents? This innocent-looking girl?
Melissa sighed, defeated. “Fine.”
Each one of us took turns calling our parents on our phones and loaning them to others without phones. We all shared the same risk that Melissa shared, but none of our parents questioned what we told them. Mine only asked when I’d be back, then told me to have fun, and that was it. I felt bad for a moment that they trusted me well enough to not press me at all, when I was, in fact, betraying that very trust.
But it was harmless, right? I was only spending the night in the woods with my friends. It was a victimless betrayal.
We’d need supplies, and unfortunately, we didn’t think of that until after we’d already called our parents. No one could go home for blankets or chips or a lighter or anything like that, so instead, we pooled the cash we had on us and gave it to Darren and Jerry, who set off by themselves to the closest gas station to buy at least a lighter and however much food and drinks they could with the $28 we collectively had and the two sets of arms they had to carry it all back.
The rest of us were left with two tasks: to gather firewood and to find something for us to cover ourselves with or sleep on top of or both. Melissa had an idea on how to solve the latter problem, and much to Frank’s dismay, she grabbed his arm and pulled him off with her, saying she needed a “man” to help her carry some stuff. And suddenly, I was left alone with Jamie.
“Well, I guess that means we’re in charge of gathering firewood,” I said.
She nodded and saluted me. “Sir, yes sir!”
I arched an eyebrow at her and laughed. This girl was full of surprises.
“First, we need to clear the leaves away from where we’re going to build the fire,” I said. “The ground needs to be nothing but dirt. No grass – not even if it’s alive.”
“Why not?” Jamie asked.
“If we build the fire on top of leaves or grass, it could catch the entire place on fire,” I said, motioning to the woods around us with my hands. “With all of these dead leaves and stuff, this entire place is a tinderbox. We have to be careful.”
Jamie nodded, seemingly impressed with this wisdom that I had assumed was common sense.
Fortunately, finding an area of dirt wasn’t that hard. When we’d built the hammock, we’d first tried using an old bed sheet instead of the burlap sack. The sheet wasn’t strong enough, of course, so we’d spread it out under the tarp as a sort of “indoors” area for us to relax on. This, however, proved to be a terrible idea, because when it rained, the sheet got soaking wet, and the combination of the tarp and the trees protected it from the sun, so it took forever to dry. We ended up putting the sheet in the clearing instead, and set rocks on top of it. It was better than laying on the ground, and we just had to pick it up and shake it off when it got full of leaves.
That is, until it killed the grass underneath, and the area underneath became dirt, which in combination with the rain muddied the sheet so much that we just avoided it.
Until I remembered that we needed an area that was just dirt. Jamie and I removed the rocks, lifted the filthy sheet, and found exactly the area we were looking for.
I turned around and scanned the treeline at the edge of the clearing in search of the source of the noise.
“Melissa? Frank?” I called out.
“Probably just an animal or something,” Jamie said.
I nodded, grabbed the small hand axe we had pilfered from Darren’s dad, and motioned for Jamie to follow me.
“Where are we going?” Jamie asked.
“To look for firewood,” I said.
“Why do we have to leave this area? There’s plenty of trees here.”
“We’ve already used all of the fallen branches here for random stuff,” I said.
“So just use the axe to chop some more down.”
“No, I can’t. We need dead branches. Live wood is moist on the inside and is impossible to burn in campfires.”
Jamie nodded thoughtfully and said, “Oh.” With that, we headed away from the tarp shelter and toward the center of the woods. I knew we’d gathered some branches a while back when we’d tried to make a lean-to, and we’d basically scavenged up everything in the area for it, only to abandon it in favor of just using a tarp. We could just use the branches from the lean-to, but there was a problem with that; I had no idea where it was. We’d built that thing our second or third trip into the woods before we knew them very well, and not once since then had we run across it. To be honest, I’m not sure how we ever made it out of the woods that time, since I knew every single path now, and none of the paths went by the lean-to.
It was strange, because we’d obviously used the branches in this area, so the lean-to should’ve been nearby, but I never thought too much of it. For all I knew, some stranger had stumbled upon it and used it for his own fire. Or maybe Jerry’s brother had found it while hunting and knocked it down as a mean joke, thus making it less noticeable by my quick scans of the area.
Regardless, I knew that once we passed the splintered tree, there would be wood we could use. The path there was pretty simple, but it was a five minute walk at a decent pace. Carrying back branches would be annoying, and over multiple trips, time-consuming.
“How far do we have to walk?” Jamie suddenly asked, interrupting my thoughts.
“Not too much farther,” I said.
I snapped my head in the direction of the noise. “Guys? Hello?”
“Probably another animal,” Jamie said. I shrugged and we continued walking, arriving at the splintered tree a couple minutes later.
There wasn’t really a path, per se, as that would imply an obvious beaten trail of some sort, but there was an area that had less brush and less obstacles to walk over or around, and at this point, that area split off in two directions. I knew the left trail ended at the fence, and I knew the right trail circled back somehow and would eventually lead you to the faux campsite we’d set up closer to the entrance we used to get into the woods. The harder trail was the one on the right, because it wasn’t as clear, and it also was easier to get lost on if you weren’t familiar with the layout of the woods.
“You take the left trail,” I said. “It’ll lead you to a fence. Gather the dead branches you can and bring them back to this area, and I will go down the right trail and do the same until we’ve gathered enough wood here for the fire.”
She didn’t look at all hesitant as she nodded. “Okay.”
“I say make three trips, then wait here so we can meet up and bring what we’ve gathered back.”
Jamie nodded once more.
“Stay on the trail and you won’t get lost,” I said. “As long as you turn around and backtrace as soon as you find the fence, it’s basically impossible for you to lose your way.”
We parted ways then and did as I’d instructed. There were plenty of dead tree branches to be found, and by the time I’d brought back my second pile of branches to the fork, still only my branches were there. My trail did have more trees though, so perhaps I’d given Jamie the less fair trail after all. I shrugged and went back to gather my final bundle. I figured if she hadn’t brought anything back by the time I returned, I’d set off down the left trail to help her out. If she was having that hard of a time, we could just both go down the right trail together and pick up what I hadn’t already gathered. It was a shame, because I figured us splitting up would’ve worked out faster, but in the end, I brought my third batch of branches back, and Jamie still hadn’t added to the pile.
I set off down the left trail, beginning to wonder if maybe she got lost, as I started to notice obvious firewood candidates laying strewn about the sides of the trail. But I kept on, as I was certain Jamie was not dumb enough to lose her way on this very simple trail. It did not branch out, did not fork or become unclear at any point unless you left the trail once you got to the fence.
Sure enough, she hadn’t lost her way, as I shortly thereafter found her walking toward me with a bundle of branches in her arms.
“Hey!” she said.
“Hey. What’s up?”
“Sorry, I got sidetracked.”
“By what?” I asked.
“Well, you didn’t tell me about the railroad tracks. I got curious and wanted to explore.”
I arched an eyebrow at her. “Railroad tracks?”
“Yeah, the ones down by the fence.”
“There’s no railroad tracks that run through these woods,” I said.
“I literally just came from checking them out,” Jamie said. “I will drop these branches right here and take you back there if you don’t believe me.”
What in the world could she be talking about? I knew this area well. I’d been here many times with the group and a couple of times by myself. Maybe, at some area of these woods, far, far away, there were railroad tracks, but not here. Not by the fence.
“Yeah, sure. Let’s go,” I said, hoping she would just laugh at me and say she was messing with me. But she immediately released her hold on the branches, dropping them as she stood, and turned back around while waving me over to her, all in one swift, fluid motion.
I followed her over the familiar trail, across areas that were etched into my mind like street name signs on the intersections of roads I’d traveled my entire life. We were getting close to the fence, and as it came into view, I literally felt a chill go down my spine as the train tracks also became clearly visible.
“What the hell…”
“See? I told you!” she said.
Words failed me at that moment. The tracks were real, they were obviously unused, and they were clearly decades and decades old. Weeds and vines had grown over the tracks in many places, and the resulting takeover of this manmade thing by nature was beautiful, almost artistic in a way. Man had tried to take this strip of land from nature, and nature was reclaiming it.
But it didn’t make any sense. These tracks shouldn’t be able to be “reclaimed” by nature, as they shouldn’t be here at all. I’d been to this area. I’d explored along the fence. Many times, even.
“Are you seriously trying to tell me that you’ve never seen these tracks before?” Jamie asked.
“It’s not that,” I said, with what must’ve been the most unusual look of bewilderment on my face. “I’ve been here before. Like, many times. To this exact spot. These train tracks were not here, and Melissa or anyone else can confirm that.”
Jamie looked at me for a second as if she was trying to decide whether or not she believed me.
“I’m not messing with you,” I said. “This is really screwing with my head.”
Once again, I was drawn to look toward a sound that did not have a clear source. But now I knew something was wrong. I was no longer in the mindset of ignoring things that didn’t seem right.
“Who’s there?” I said.
“It’s probably just-”
“No,” I interrupted. “It’s not an animal.” The words came out so forcefully and confidently that I believed them even more than I expected to.
“Who’s there?” I called out again. After a few moments, I spoke up again. “I know someone is there. Stop following us and come out.”
I said those words knowing what they meant, but saying that seemed to make them real, and suddenly, I realized that we were almost certainly being followed. In the middle of the woods. With no one around for what could be miles.
“Jerry, Darren, Melissa, Frank – if it’s one of you guys, cut it out and show yourself.”
The woods weren’t very thick in this area. You could maybe conceal yourself easily at night, but during the day, all you could do is hide behind a tree or duck down behind one of shrubs or bushes. I thought for a moment that maybe I was wrong; maybe no one was there because it would be so hard to hide, but I had a strange and unsettling feeling, and this feeling was sending a chill down my spine and making it so that my confidence in the fact that we were being followed was quickly turning into the resulting fear of a person that knew he was being followed. I held the axe tightly at my side.
“I said SHOW YOURSELF!” I shouted. I had meant for it to sound frustrated. I hoped that it was just one of my friends playing a joke, and that frustrated me, because this joke wasn’t very funny at all, but when the words escaped my lips, they sounded only angry.
Before I could get a response though, I felt the ground beneath me begin to shake.
“What the…” I said.
“What is this?” Jamie said, suddenly grabbing onto my shoulder.
“Earthquake?” I said. But there were no earthquakes here. That was silly. Something was making the earth rumble though, and I couldn’t figure out what. It would have to be pretty big though.
And that’s when it hit me.
“No…that’s impossible,” I said.
“What’s impossible?” Jamie asked.
“A train,” I said. “A train would make the earth rumble like this.”
“But these tracks haven’t been used in years.” Jamie’s face showed an obvious concern.
“Get away from the tracks!” I yelled, yanking at Jamie’s arm and pulling her back toward the trail. Whether I’d seen the tracks before or not, that was a real train whistle, and standing anywhere nearby sounded like a terrible idea.
The earth shook harder as the train slowly came into view.
“You’ve gotta be kidding me…” Jamie said.
My thoughts were a mess. This was impossible. There weren’t supposed to be tracks here, much less an active train. Was there even a train that passed through town that could go through this woods? I couldn’t think of one, but I could barely think at all.
The train chugged toward us, and as it zoomed past, the resulting wind rushed over my body and Jamie’s, and we stood in awe at what we were witnessing.
It was a short train, or maybe it was long and the time just seemed to pass quickly as we watched it. It continued on down the tracks and slowly disappeared into the distance, hidden by the trees.
Jamie didn’t say a word, and I wanted to, because there were so many things to say, but I kept my mouth shut.
Until I looked down at the tracks.
They were no longer covered in growth. In fact, they looked new. The rails were shining even without an abundance of sun, and the creosote that treated the wood underneath permeated the air and filled my nose.
“What in the world is going on?” I said.
She remained silent for a moment before responding. “What happened to the fence?”
I looked up to discern what she meant, and was met with yet another unbelievable sight. The fence was dilapidated and falling apart. It had never been new since I’d known of it, but it wasn’t in disrepair. But now, parts of it were completely gone, and other parts were hanging on a single nail, just waiting to fall to the ground.
I was shaking now. There was nothing about this situation that didn’t terrify me.
“Jamie, let’s get out of here.”
She didn’t argue or provide any resistance as I grabbed her hand and pulled her back down the trail. I didn’t let go as we raced down the trail back to the beaten path, back past the splintered tree, back to where our tarp shelter was.
Or should’ve been.
Nothing was like it should’ve been. The tarp was gone. The hammock was rotten and muddied on the ground. The dirt area that we’d uncovered to build the fire was overgrown with grass. In fact, the whole area was overgrown.
We stopped there for only a bit, took all of this in, and kept running. My friends weren’t there. I hoped they were safe, but waiting there for them wasn’t an option. We ran back past the fake campsite, through the trails, and darted out of the woods as fast as I could run while holding onto Jamie.
It wasn’t far to my house, so we ran there first. Melissa’s was not far, and I’d have to bring Jamie there. We’d have to make up a story about canceling the sleepover, but it could work, hopefully without them ever finding out that we’d lied in the first place.
I went to open the back door to my parents’ house, but it was locked. I found that to be pretty weird, since they never locked the back door, but weirder things have happened. Just 10 or 15 minutes before, actually.
I knocked and waited for my mom. She was also faster at answering doors than my dad, after all.
The wave of confusion that passed over me when my mom finally did open the door is difficult to describe. There she was, my mom that I knew and loved, but she looked…different. Her hair had grayed a little and was much shorter. There were wrinkles on her face that hadn’t been there before, and the look she displayed when she saw me probably nearly matched the one I had.
“W…Warren?” she stammered.
“Yeah mom, it’s me.” I didn’t know what else to say.
She reached a hand forward and cautiously touched my face. “Is it really you?”
I nodded. “You look different, mom.”
Her warm hand didn’t falter as she began to cry.
“Mom, what’s the matter?”
Jamie just stood there, not understanding what was wrong. After all, she had no idea what my mom normally looked like.
“Son,” she forced through tears. “Where have you been for the past 10 years?”