This story is by Lola Johns and was part of our 2022 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
There were legends about the forest. Of witches luring people in, never to be seen again. Some believed in the legends. But others…
To Serena they were spooky stories to tell around a campfire.
The street lamps cast eerie stripes of light onto the street. Few cars were out, adding to the emptiness.
She honestly would’ve rather stayed home that night, but her friends had insisted she go to the harvest festival. It hadn’t been as bad as she’d expected, but she was ready for her cozy blanket and a Hallmark movie.
“Serena!” Someone called out from behind her. She turned. It was Grayson, her best friend. His dark, curly hair bounced as he jogged to catch up with her. “What the heck are you doing, walking home by yourself?” he asked as he came up beside her.
“Grayson, you know I’m more than capable of walking home.” She started walking again.
“During the day, yes, but you’re on the path that’s right next to the forest.“
“You don’t actually believe those stories, do-“
Something rustled in the bushes beside them. A ball of light floated through the leaves, around Serena’s boots, and into the trees.
“What was that?” Serena asked, her voice trembling slightly.
“I don’t know.” Grayson crouched, hoping for another look. “D’you think it was a ghost?”
“Why are you wanting more information?! That’s gotta be the creepiest thing I’ve ever seen!” She backed away from the forest.
“Don’t you want to know what it was?” He leaned closer to the bush, reaching out to move some of the branches, hoping to get a better look.
She snatched his hand away. “No, I don’t. I would much rather get out of the cold.”
“But if we go now we might see it again,” he said as he looked over his shoulder. “Don’t tell me you’re not curious.”
“Not in the slightest.” She tugged on his hand. “Please. Let’s just go make some popcorn and-“
Grayson caught another glimpse of the light deeper into the trees. He smirked over his shoulder to Serena, who was practically frozen to the spot. “I’m going after it.” He raced into the brambles, his curly hair disappearing immediately.
Serena sighed in exasperation. “This kid is going to be the death of me,” she said to herself. She shook her head and ran after him.
The trees blotted out the moon as they jumped over logs and raced through bushes. The branches clawed at Serena’s hair and tugged on Grayson’s hoodie as if warning them to turn back.
She lost track of how far they’d gone.
“Grayson!” Serena tried to get his attention. “Gray, come on, it’s-“ She nearly barreled into him. He’d suddenly stopped.
They stood in a clearing. In the middle was an old wood cabin with a brick chimney and a garden peaking around from the back.
The ball of light floated up to the porch and morphed into a cat. It stretched, its ghostly glow sending shadows across the wood as it watched them expectantly.
“What do you think’s in there?” He asked, his eyes glued to the door.
“Why are you enjoying this?” She knew he was spontaneous, but this was borderline reckless.
“How many times have you seen something like that?” He gestured to the cat still watching them, its tail flicking back and forth. He tugged on her sleeve, forcing her to follow.
“No. Grayson. Stop.” She whispered as she resisted, pulling her coat from his grasp, but he didn’t wait for her. “Ugh. You’re impossible,” she grumbled. She hesitated a moment before following.
The porch creaked as they walked up the steps. He paused at the top and watched the cat. Serena hid behind him.
The cat hopped down from the railing and walked to the door. It looked back at them before walking through it. Grayson stepped forward, reaching for the knob.
“No, what are you doing?” Serena hissed; but he didn’t stop – didn’t even pause. He grabbed the doorknob and turned.
The door screeched, its hinges old and rusty. The cabin was covered with a thin layer of dust; autumn leaves had gathered in the corners.
There were cabinets filled with bottles, dried herbs hung from the ceiling. They looked in the next room, where a work bench in front of a fireplace. The ashes looked as cold as snow.
In the fireplace was a huge black pot. Dangerously similar to a cauldron.
She crept closer and cautiously peeked over the rim. Remnants of whatever had been made had gathered at the bottom; a mixture of burnt leaves and powders.
“Uhm, now can we go home?” she asked, voice trembling.
Grayson opened his mouth to respond, but was cut off by the creek of the door. His eyes bulged. They turned.
Standing in the main room was a woman. Cloaked in black, her dark hair peeking out from under a pointed hat. Her muddy boots thumped the floorboards as she entered the cabin. The cat they’d followed appeared and rubbed against her ankles, though it passed through them, and she bent down to greet it.
They didn’t dare move. She hadn’t seen them yet, but the slightest movement would give them away.
Grayson put a finger to his lips.
No duh, Sherlock. Serena thought.
The woman straightened and moved deeper into the cabin, disappearing from view. He tiptoed towards the door, matching her steps. The footsteps stopped. He paused and waved for Serena to follow.
They made it to the doorway leading to the main room. Grayson peeked around the corner, and immediately pulled back. Serena held her breath.
Her heartbeat pounded in her ears. She willed it to calm, sure it could be heard for miles.
An eerie light suddenly filled the room. Confused, she turned to look for the source-
And nearly jumped out of her skin. The cat had walked through the wall and was now watching her.
She tugged on Grayson’s sleeve to get his attention. When he turned, she felt him start.
“What are you doing here?”
They turned. Serena screamed.
“Oh please. There’s no need for that.” The woman’s voice was silky, like moonlight on water. She was gorgeous. But it wasn’t the kind of beauty Serena was used to. Her’s was sharp. The kind that would cut you if you got too close.
She’d taken off her cloak, revealing a black dress with blood red roses embroidered along the collar. Around her neck hung a pendant of moonstone. Her black pointed hat still rested atop her curls.
She studied them, her eyes like stars: bright, golden orbs in the darkness. “Who are you?”
Grayson found his voice first. “I-I’m Grayson. This is Serena.” He gestured to where she was tucked behind him. “Who are you?” Serena heard only the slightest quiver as he spoke.
“My name is Claudia.” She looked from Grayson, to Serena, and back to Grayson, lingering there. “Would you like to stay for dinner?”
Grayson turned and threw her a worried glance. “We really should be going.”
“No! You must stay! It’s not often I have guests. And it’s so cold outside, you’ll freeze.” She looked hungrily at Grayson, her eyes full of desire.
That sparked something in Serena. She stepped from behind him and said, “Um excuse me, but, just because he’s all tall, dark, and handsome, does not mean he’s your plaything. You literally live in a hut in the woods. Which, by the way, isn’t in the best condition.” She crossed her arms. “I don’t think you’ve got much going for you.”
Claudia blinked. Blinked again. Then she straightened and said, “Well, then, you’ve outstayed your welcome.” She moved her arms as if lifting something; the ground rumbled.
“Run!” Grayson grabbed Serena’s wrist and bolted from the hut. They stumbled down the steps and into the forest.
Roots tripped them. Leaves blinded them. But still, they ran.
They broke through the trees, but didn’t stop at the sidewalk. They kept running, not daring to stop until they reached Serena’s house.
They rushed inside. Serena slammed the door closed and braced her back against it, sliding to the floor. Grayson stood in front of her, bent over with his hands on his knees.
Through his labored breaths he said, “So, tall, dark, and handsome, huh?”
She glared at him. At the smirk that played on his face. “Don’t let it go to your head,” she said, gulping down air. “Your ego is already too big.”
Grayson broke out laughing. He slumped to the floor, holding his belly. She couldn’t help it. She joined him. The laugh they shared was unlike any other. It was a laugh that could only be shared by best friends. Best friends who’d just escaped something wild.
Serena leaning her head back, her heart finally slowing from its frantic pace in the forest.
Maybe some stories weren’t just for campfires.