Jennifer Howard looked up. Was that an owl
? How could it be that late already?
She kept moving, but she could feel a nervous knot growing tighter in her throat. She knew she shouldn’t be out in the woods so late, all alone.
And yet she couldn’t turn back. It was as if something were leading her—pulling her even—steadily down the trail, the very same one she’d hiked with her five bunkmates earlier that day. Yes, there was the fallen tree on which Sam had somehow done a whole balance beam routine. And there was the amazing giant mushroom that her twin sister, Ali, had kicked. It lay there now, bruised and broken, and for an instant made Jennifer annoyed at her bunkmate all over again.
And then suddenly she noticed something she hadn’t seen before. Right there, where the trail veered right at the stone marker, overgrown with ferns and other twisting, gnarled weeds, another path went straight. It was much narrower than the Old Stump Trail, but there was no doubt it was a path . . . and Jennifer’s feet, at least, thought it was the path she ought to take.
But where did it lead? The brush was so wild and dense that Jennifer could barely see where it was safe to step. Plus whatever light was left in the sky was quickly draining away. There was nothing ahead of her but eerie, ominous shadows—and soon behind her as well. She pulled out her compass to try to get her bearings. Her hands were trembling and she fought against her nerves to keep them still. She waited for the needle to steady and find its way north. It finally stopped, and she discovered north was exactly the way that the trail led. Hey,
she thought, her mood suddenly brightening. Directly north was Camp Hiawatha, their brother camp across the lake! What if the trail was a shortcut to the boys’ camp? That would be the find of the century. Wait till she told the other girls! Now she had
to keep going, she told herself, if only to see if the trail took her there.
She picked up her pace and pushed through the branches, trying not to get too tangled or scratched in the jutting roots or dead tree limbs. At last she burst out of the woods and into a clearing. She stopped at once and looked around.
The clearing, she could see, was about the size of a softball diamond and bathed in a misty, greenish light. The only structure was a lonely-looking, small log cabin that had to have been a hundred years old. Jennifer briefly wondered about the person who built it and why. The door dangled, cockeyed, from its hinges beneath a roof that looked ready to fall in. Of the two windows that she could see, one was broken and one was roughly boarded up. Clearly, nobody had occupied this cabin for a very long time.
And yet it somehow didn’t seem empty.
Jennifer took a half step toward the cabin.
Then paused. Something didn’t feel right.
Her blood felt cold all of a sudden, as if her heart had turned to ice. I shouldn’t go any farther,
she told herself, backing up, and before she knew it she was running away. But wait! She slid to a halt and her head whipped around in search of the path. All she could see was a solid black wall of trees.
The trail had disappeared.
Plus it was fully night now, she realized. Way too dark to see into the woods. The clearing was somehow still glowing, but all around it there was nothing but shadows and the dark spaces between the trees. Jennifer could only imagine what was in there, watching her. One step in the wrong direction could mean getting lost, or injured, or worse. And who knew how long it would be until someone found her. It could be too late by the time they did. Okay. No problem,
Jennifer thought, holding up her compass and trying her best to keep her head. South.
That was all she needed to know. But when she looked down, the needle was spinning. She guessed it was just her trembling hands. But no. Her hands weren’t shaking any worse than before. In fact they were still, she realized. The needle was spinning all by itself.
Anxious, she tapped the side of the compass, but that didn’t seem to help. She gave it a shake and willed it to stop
already and do what it needed to do. But the harder she stared at the needle, the faster and faster it turned. Jennifer listened and could even hear it making a tiny, frantic whirr
her hands were trembling. Her whole body was, in fact.
Startled, she jumped. Then she closed her eyes and caught her breath. It was the owl from the trail. “Whooo.”
Or was it?
She slowly turned back toward the cabin, not sure if her ears were playing tricks. Could it be that the call was coming from it
“He-hello?” she softly called. She took another step into the clearing, and this time she didn’t stop. There wasn’t just something in the cabin. There was someone
. Maybe that someone could help her find her way back to camp!
“Hello?” she called again as she reached the door. She listened, but there was no answer. She waited and almost knocked. But then she noticed the broken window there right beside her. What if she simply peeked in? She leaned over. What remained of the glass was too caked with dirt and grime to actually see through. But the jagged hole would work, she guessed. She leaned in closer and peered through.
Was it? Yes, it was!
There was a person sitting in there with his back to her and a hooded sweatshirt pulled down low over his head. It was a boy. At least she thought so, but she wasn’t completely sure. . . .
That is until he pulled the sweatshirt back and slowly turned.
His face was pale and boyishly handsome, but it was his eyes—or lack of them, really—that Jennifer saw first. Where his eyes should have been, there were laserlike beams of greenish light. They shot straight toward her, and she shrank back. She tried to scream, but nothing came out. Her blood, her lungs, her whole body felt numb. Run!
she tried to tell herself.
But she was too terrified to move.
Finally she managed to scramble away from the window, not knowing or caring which way she went. It didn’t matter to her anymore what might be lurking out in the dark woods. She needed to get out of that clearing, she knew, as fast as she possibly could. But she’d barely run ten yards when she felt a sharp tug on the back of her shirt.
She stumbled back, afraid to turn, but she could feel a laserlike burn on the back of her head.
“Don’t ever come back,” said a low, haunting voice in her ear.
And that’s when the scream finally spilled out of her throat.