A Campfire Tale first appeared in issue 18 of Dark Moon Digest Magazine. It was also chosen for the Best Horror Shorts 2015 anthology.
“Tell us a story Aunt Fran,” Lilly-Anne suggested.
“Yeah, Aunt Fran, please,” the other children chimed in.
Aunt Fran gave them each an apprising look. The sun was fading fast past the horizon, the last of the golden rays casting long shadows about the campgrounds. She looked over at her siblings, across the site with their spouses starting a large bonfire which they no doubt planned to drink by until all the wood was burnt and alcohol consumed, leaving her to watch their spawn.
“OK,” Aunt Fran conceded. “What kind of a story do you want?”
“A ghost story,” Lilly-Anne said.
“No, a scary ghost story,” Samantha said.
“How about I tell you a true-life horror story?” Aunt Fran asked. The children eagerly edged closer to the small campfire, their marshmallows abandoned in hopes of a good tale.
“Yeah, right,” Frankie said. “As if.”
Frankie, being eleven, was at the age where he was convinced he was too old and cool for any kid stuff. Aunt Fran remembered his father, Jeff, being the same way at that age too.
“Honestly,” Aunt Fran promised. “I’ll tell you about the most horrible, terrifying thing that’s ever happened to me.”
Frankie rolled his eyes but moved closer on his roughhewn log.
“Well,” Aunt Fran began, “When your parents and I were younger, our parents used to take us camping. Not like this.” She gestured around. “Not a picnic where you stay late, then drive home. No, they used to drive us way out into the woods, hours past civilization to the most secluded spots they could find, and that’s where we’d pitch our tents for the night.”
“Our parents would stay in one tent, and all us kids would stay in another. My parents would put a padlock on the zipper of our tent. They said it was to keep the bears out, but we all knew it was to keep us from sneaking out and roaming around the woods at night, which, given the opportunity, we would have done.”
“I was seven the year they drove us way out to the wilds of Canada to go camping. It was summertime, but I remember it still being so cold that you could see your breath in the air. They had zipped us up in our tent for the night, me and your parents, and we huddled together for warmth and fell asleep.”
“This is stupid,” Frankie interrupted.
The other children hushed him and returned their rapt attention to Aunt Fran.
“The thing about being in the woods,” Aunt Fran told them, “is that even though it’s quiet, it’s not.” She held up a hand to stop any questions, a signal that she would explain. “There are no noises from civilization in the woods, no sirens or car horns or barking dogs or blaring TVs. That’s why people go camping, for the peace and quiet. Only it’s not quiet. There are little noises everywhere. An animal chewing. A bug buzzing. Twigs cracking, branches bending, the wind blowing. And when you’re a little kid, it’s really quite spooky.”
“I was the last of us to fall asleep that night. I remember listening to the sounds of the woods, imagining every type of creepy crawly that might be prowling around in the dark on the other side of the thin fabric of the tent. Finally, I focused on everyone’s breathing, as one by one my brothers and sisters fell into the easy rhythm of sleep. It made me feel safe, knowing they were there with me, and eventually the thoughts of bears and wolves and snakes that I attributed all the noises to fell away and I joined them in sleep.”
“To this day I don’t know what woke me that night. I was sleeping soundly, and then I awakened suddenly in a complete fright.”
The children clustered closer, anticipating the good part of the story.
“I laid still, on my back, unable to see anything in the pitch dark, listening to the noises around me. For once there was silence outside. All I could hear was my siblings’ breathing, but something didn’t sound right. Not how it had before. Someone was breathing too hard, and, well . . . anyway. My heart was racing and the hairs on my arms were standing straight out. I was trying to lie still, to pretend to still be sleeping, but I was going crazy, being so afraid and not knowing why.”
“So, I whispered into the dark to my sister. I was so scared to make a sound. The first two times I tried nothing came out, but I worked up my nerve, and I called her name. I put the words out there into the night. But she didn’t answer.”
Aunt Fran looked around at the children, who were hanging on her every word. “I was terrified to move, frozen with fear. It took everything I had to move my fingers, inch by inch through the dark until I found her hand. I took her small, cold hand in mine and squeezed, trying to wake her up. But she didn’t respond. I squeezed again and again, but nothing.”
“I didn’t know what to do. I was afraid to wake anyone else up, afraid they would think I was being silly, just their dumb little sister. I felt that if only I could see, could look around for a moment, I’d feel better. I had stolen a lighter from Jeff, your dad,” she pointed to Frankie, “earlier that day. I could feel it in my pocket, heavy with the weight of the guilt of stolen goods. I moved my hand, ever so slowly, fearful of making any movement fast enough to be detected in the gloom where God knows what lurked, until I had my hand in my pocket. I wrapped the lighter in my sweaty palm and began the painfully slow process of bringing it up.”
“I don’t know if it took minutes or hours, but it seemed like an eternity. Finally, I had it, in my hand, right up by my face. I was so scared to light it. To discover what it was that was in the tent with me, concealed by the dark, making me feel so frightened. But then I rolled my thumb on the lighter, the flint sparked, the fluid lit, and I could see.”
Aunt Fran paused for a moment, taking a deep breath. The children gathered even closer, clutching at each other, waiting for the moment when the adult yells “Boo” and they all got to scream and laugh.
“What did you see?” Lilly-Anne asked, biting her nails.
“I saw,” Aunt Fran said. “I saw my sister Georgia.” Her voice faltered.
“Yes, Georgia,” Aunt Fran snapped. “There used to be seven of us, but I’m sure your parents never told you that.” She closed her eyes for a moment, lost in the memory. When she opened them again, she had regained her composure. “I saw my little, baby sister Georgia, laying there in the dark beside me. Her eyes were open,” Aunt Fran recalled. “Those beautiful gray eyes. They were open, but they weren’t blinking.”
The children shifted uncomfortably, feeling awkward. They exchanged nervous glances.
“I screamed. I screamed like I have never screamed before or since. Everyone woke up. Our parents came running over with a flashlight, opened the tent, and then they saw too.” Fran sniffed and wiped at her eyes. “My mother scooped me up and carried me out of the tent. She made the other kids come with her. But not before I saw. Not before I knew.”
“What did she die of?” Frankie asked, curiosity overcoming his need to be aloof.
“My parents said it was just one of those things. Like Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. That it was just her time.”
“Why did you tell us this?” Samantha asked.
“Because that wasn’t the truth. I saw with my own eyes, the bruises around her neck. Someone had strangled her. We were locked in that tent. No one could get in or out. One of your parents killed her.”
The kids recoiled in shock. One of the younger ones started crying.
“That’s bull,” Frankie challenged.
“Believe what you want, but it’s the truth,” Aunt Fran said. “If you don’t believe me, tell your parents you met a little girl named Georgia with curly blonde hair and pale gray eyes and see how they react.”
“Who . . . who do you think did it?” Lilly-Anne whispered.
“I wish I knew for sure.” Aunt Fran swallowed hard. “At first I thought it was your dad,” she said, pointing at Frankie. “I thought he may have believed that Georgia was the one who stole his lighter. But to be honest, it could have been any one of them. Your mom, or your mom, or your dad, or yours.” She pointed at each of the children in turn. “They all have anger issues, I’m sure you’ve seen that. All I know for sure is that one of your parents killed my baby sister.”
Aunt Fran rose from her seat by the campfire. “I’ve got to go. It was nice seeing you all. You guys be good. And be careful,” she added as an afterthought over her shoulder. She exchanged distant waves with the adults as she made her hasty exit, forcing a smile to her lips before she got in her car.
The thought that none of their kids would sleep that night, or possible ever look at them the same way again, provided her with little solace. She started the engine and backed slowly out of her parking spot. She would never forgive her siblings. Not any of them. She drove down the narrow dirt road that led back to the highway. One of them had killed her little sister, making her the youngest. If Georgia was still alive, she’d be the one stuck living at home, caring for their invalid parents, not Fran.
The children were silent until the taillights from Aunt Fran’s car were swallowed by the darkness. “Do you think she was telling the truth?” Lilly-Anne asked, eyes wide with fright.
Samantha picked up a photograph from the spot where Aunt Fran had been sitting. It was faded, well-worn with time and use. She looked at it closely. “I think maybe she was,” she said in a hushed tone, showing the picture to the others. The image was of their grandparents, much younger but still recognizable. Before them stood seven children, the smallest of which was a young girl with blonde curls.
“What do we do?” Lilly-Anne asked. She looked at the younger children, feeling suddenly burdened with the task of their safety.
“Sleep in shifts and watch each other’s backs,” Frankie said, taking the photo from Samantha. He balled it up and threw it in the fire. “And never say a word of this to any of them.”
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