The next morning, still a little unsettled by his encounter near the woods, Barnaby researched his Bible for any occurrences of spirits or ghosts. He hoped to find evidence either proving or disproving their existence and a way to deal with them if available. Faith filled Barnaby and he believed with the power of God, that a trip into the woods could do nothing to shake his courage. If ghosts were indeed there, they would have to submit to the power of the Lord.
He could find no concrete evidence in the Bible suggesting ghosts existed and though Jesus used the word “Ghost”, religious critics online asserted he used a term of fable with which his disciples could identify. Jesus did not actually confirm the existence of ghosts. A couple of instances suggested a person had come back from the dead but these people did not haunt a place; they were brought forth to provide consultation. This confused Barnaby but he was content to conclude the alleged ghosts of Old House Woods weren’t spirits of loved ones or individuals inhabiting the woods for any Christian reason. According to his research, they could be demons which Barnaby found a bit unsettling. He welcomed the idea of garden variety ghosts more so than the confounding possibility of dealing with demons. If ghosts were nothing more than the cunning tricks of hellish fiends, what business would they have in Old House Woods?
Upon returning home from church with Jules the following day, Barnaby searched online for any information he could regarding Old House Woods. He found a team of paranormal investigators in Hampton Roads who had visited the Old House Woods site among other haunted places. Apprehensive still about a foray into the woods, especially one infested with demons, Barnaby decided to contact the investigators to discover what if anything their research discovered.
He did not consider this group to be experts of any kind despite the equipment they claimed to use to detect ghosts and figured he could learn as much using his own senses. He assumed if you went to what you believed to be a haunted forest and wanted to see ghosts, your mind wouldn’t disappoint you. This paranormal team in all likelihood went to the woods lacking objectivity and saw what any rational person would consider natural phenomena. As his mind led him to believe people were charging through the woods towards him, so too did he guess these investigators for the sake of publicity, also saw and heard supernatural occurrences.
Barnaby emailed them hoping to receive a response in several days and smiled when they replied only a few hours later.
“What are you reading honey?” his wife asked as she walked into their little office they both shared. Barnaby worked a forty hour a week job at a local bank, and worked from his home office on writing in his spare time while Jules used their office as a base for selling makeup.
“Just an email. Do you need to use the computer?”
“No. You’ve been in here since we got home from church so I wondered what you were so interested in. You don’t usually spend so much time on the web.”
“I found a team of paranormal investigators online who have been down to Old House Woods,” he said while still reading the email he had received back from them.
“Really?” she asked interested. “Do they say anything?”
Barnaby leaned back in his chair and looked up at his wife, “No. I mean they’ve gone down there but other than giving a background history I already know, they don’t offer much. I emailed one of the contacts on their website and the guy emailed me back.”
“What did he say?” she asked displaying a genuine interest Barnaby appreciated.
“He said they went a couple of times and the last time they went they saw the ghost ship but it mesmerized him so much he neglected to hold up his camera and get it on film.”
“Seriously?” Jules replied frowning. “What are the odds you go down there armed with a video camera, see a floating pirate ship, and can’t think to record it?”
“That’s kind of how I feel. The guy sees a pirate ship one of the two times he’s visited and still doesn’t get it on tape. I think he’s full of it.”
“Sounds that way,” Jules replied opening a filing cabinet.
Barnaby’s childhood friend, Mistletoe the koala bear, sat staring at her. Most of his back and part of his ear were missing with charred fabric at the edges. His father had thrown him in the fireplace out of spite one night and laughed as his fur burned like fuses. Fortunately the fire had all but expired and Barnaby managed to rescue Mistletoe with a pair of tongs. His only confidant since his Father threw his mother from home, Barnaby ran screaming upstairs with the smoking koala in his arms. His father drunk and satisfied with himself, gave no pursuit. Barnaby hid his burned buddy until he left home.
Jules patted Mistletoe on the head and began thumbing through client files, “Are you going back?”
Barnaby sighed, “Yes. I need to know what the woods look like from the inside.” He spun around in his chair to face her. “I’m a little concerned about what’s in there or what could be in there.”
She looked down at him dumbfounded. “Are you kidding?”
“The old woman sounded convincing,” Barnaby replied.
“Honey do you think perhaps she wanted attention? You said she lived alone. Your conversation with her is probably the first real one she has had in quite a while. She saw your interest in the woods and decided that was the best way to talk with you. I’m sure she is lonely in that old home and probably mad as you put it. Alone all day with her thoughts gets her to thinking about a great deal of things especially when she lives near a patch of trees she believes is haunted. I’m sure she gets spooked about strange noises in the woods and assumes it must be ghosts.”
Barnaby thought about his kayaking trip and how he panicked when he heard something running through the woods. His wife had a point about permitting the imagination to take over. What he allowed his mind to think was a ghost, might have been a deer or dog.
“Honey do you think you can write a great story about this?” she asked unable to mask the impatience in her voice which put Barnaby a little on the defense.
He did not like when Jules questioned his writing ability because her lack of faith forced him to doubt the fruition of his dream and the strength of their relationship. If she could not believe in his dream and the future Barnaby thought it held for them, then how could she believe in the future of their marriage? He felt their relationship crumbling and he believed the security of their union rested on his ability to write this book and get it published. Accomplishing such a goal, in Barnaby’s mind, would provide his wife with numerous reasons about which she could be proud of Barnaby.
He needed her confidence and her affirmation. He received too little of it growing up and when he noticed how seldom his wife started to dish it out, he grew fearful she would begin looking elsewhere for the security a more successful man could provide.
He always believed or at least wanted to believe because he could hate him easier, that his father had cheated on his mother. He remembered his father stumbling through the doors late at night, too late. He over heard him talking, boasting to his friends about things that didn’t make sense at his young age. Now as an adult, he tried to piece together his father’s descriptions of women, and translate them into more than perhaps they were.
Jules frowned when she realized the impatient tone she used to ask her question. She did not intend to express such frustration. She appreciated her husband’s writing ability and knew not many people possessed the skill to craft lengthy stories as he could, but she thought of his pursuit as nothing more than a hobby that would provide for them no financial success. Barnaby had about as much luck getting drafted into the NFL and considering he weighed only 155 pounds, that was improbable.
Writing a book was one thing but having the connections to get it published in a market where the agents were already overwhelmed with manuscript submissions would prove more challenging. His chances were one in a thousand and she didn’t like to rest their future on such a long shot.
Also she was tired of scraping by and all her friends seemed to have husbands who made much more money. Part of her wanted Barnaby to get real and focus more of his time on building a career then on wandering through the woods and talking to crazy old women.
Still she loved her husband and hated to see his feelings hurt, so she put on an encouraging face. “I didn’t mean to say it that way,” she apologized. “I meant, is this story going to be good enough to write your novel about?”
Barnaby shrugged his shoulders, “Pirates, treasure, British soldiers, Ghost ships; it has all the elements of a good page turner. I think this could be a great story!”
“Well then go in there and get it!” she said with a comforting smile. “Who or what could have a problem with you looking at trees?” She went back to her filing cabinet and began once again rifling through her folders determined not to further reveal her lack of patience and faith.
Her lack of concern about the woods put Barnaby at ease. The woods left him uneasy but the woods were nothing but a group of trees. There lied within, nothing of which to be afraid.
The following weekend Barnaby drove to Old House Woods and parked in the empty lot where stood the ruins of the house for which the woods got its name. Nothing remained other than a few bricks from the chimney and foundation. The house burned to the ground and he found no recollection of how the fire started. Once destroyed, no one bothered to rebuild on the location but whether superstitious fear caused this or a lack of money, Barnaby couldn’t determine.
The ruins looked as non-threatening as they could during the day. Barnaby wondered at what time the woods obtained its name of “Old House” because at one time, the house was not old. Later the house must have become ruinous enough for the locals to name all of the woods in honor of the old haunt that dwelled at its edge.
A gravel road stretched past the house and down to other homes on the creek. Barnaby wondered how secluded this house might once have been. It intimidated him little sitting next to a sunny lane leading onward to the homes of playing children and backyard cookouts.
Across from the house stood the woods and further down the road a marsh nestled amongst the trees. Barnaby jogged across the lane with notebook in hand and jumped the ditch. He stumbled and grabbed a tree for support. A tickle of a whimper floated through the air and he spun. He saw nothing. It had to be a child. He scanned the house across the road.
The whimper grew into crying. He approached with worry that someone might jump out from the old foundation and yell “boo!”
The crying burst into an unseen fit of despair. He stepped back and felt uneasy like the day he heard the rustling through the woods. It’s just a child playing somewhere. Don’t be so jittery. Where is she though? The crying continued but began to lessen. Maybe she’s hurt. He ran across the road and the moment he stepped onto the property of the old house a breeze blew past his ears and took with it the child’s desperation. Silence.
Nothing. He crept towards one of the foundations from where he heard the sound. He looked up. The sun shot warm friendly rays through the trees and yet he still felt on edge. Not a good sign. He peeked around the crumbled bricks. Nothing.
Whoever he heard must have run off without him seeing or hearing. That didn’t make sense but he wanted to believe it. He backed away from the ruins, turned and jogged into the woods.
The suns rays struggled to pierce the tree’s cover and the gloom added to the apprehension that had set in his heart. He pivoted and looked towards the ruins hoping to catch a glimpse of the child watching him but he saw and heard nothing. Where was the child? He hid behind a tree and watched a few moments more believing whoever hid would soon come out but nothing happened. Feeling foolish as doubt set in that he heard anything, he turned and began his walk.
The woods were not as dense as he imagined they would be. He maneuvered through the trees without the trouble of climbing over fallen trunks or navigation around thick briars.
This common patch of pine trees had a thick bed of straw. A great deal of large holly trees were present as well. As he moved further into the woods he came upon a pond which he had been unable to see from the road and he followed this pond as he walked through the woods. At its widest the pond may have extended fifty yards across though who knew how deep?
He had never heard any mention of a pond in the old ghost stories, but other than a spot called the “old cow hole”, he couldn’t recall reading any specific descriptions of the woods. Green algae covered the pond’s surface and it looked not fit for humans to swim in but appeared rather inviting if he were an amphibian or reptile.
Several minutes later he came upon a structure in the trees similar to a tree house on the edge of the pond. The appearance gave no indication the owners built it for children rather the lock on the door implied adult use only. It sat a few feet above the earth with a pair of wooden steps leading up to the door. Given its close proximity to the small pond, Barnaby deducted that hunters used the fort but for what they hunted didn’t seem obvious. Ducks or other small fowl.
Barnaby grew self-conscious of the fact he was trespassing on another person’s property. The possibility a resident of the community owned the haunted forest never occurred to him. He assumed haunted forests like haunted houses remained abandoned.
He scanned the trees to see if he could see the roads running along the south side from which he entered and the east side. If he couldn’t see the roads, chances are anyone traveling on them couldn’t see him.
The existence of this hunting structure discouraged him. His next logical step, despite his trepidation, was to spend the night in the woods but he felt less comfortable doing so on another person’s property. Also the presence of the hunting bluff somewhat diluted the spookiness of the woods because clearly people entered during hunting season. Should ghosts and specters exist, he doubted hunters would spend much time in the woods among them. The presence of hunters would also explain the noises near the woods Barnaby heard while kayaking. This too deflated him because he enjoyed the exhilaration of the unknown.
All at once the mystery revealed a logical explanation and the possibility of ghosts felt faint. A week ago the prospect of encountering ghosts or demons disturbed him but now he had conflicting emotions. He did not want to be terrorized but he also had a curious hope to see one.
He decided to wish for the uneventful for as the Bible instructed him, pursuing the occult or supernatural was unwise. He resigned to search for the truth of the woods as it existed in the real world; that is to say he wanted to get the best possible description of the environment and not worry about the ridiculous notions of spirits.
He began once again taking notes, noting the trees, the pond, the sounds of the wind and so forth as he trudged through. The mosquitoes swarmed him. No doubt the pond supplied them with fresh breeding grounds. Two hundred years ago, with the lack of insecticides and mosquito catching machines that existed today, the mosquito’s pestilence would have been worse. Fighting a war or even burying a treasure in the midst of their intolerable biting and buzzing must have been maddening.
Minutes later, he exited the woods onto a private lane whose entrance opened on an east side road that led to the beach. Barnaby had noticed the lane before on his trips to the beach and his discussion with the old woman but had not given much consideration to where it led. Steel cable blocked the entrance and he figured whatever stood at the end belonged to the county as he assumed no person could live in the woods.
Now with the discovery of the hunting bluff he determined the owner of the bluff must live at the end of the lane; perhaps only during hunting season which would account for the blocked entrance.
Emboldened by his courageous trip through the woods, Barnaby decided to see what rested at the lane’s end. He walked for no more than a minute, and checked behind him as he went for a car that might arrive home, before he saw a clearing ahead. A small home stood at its center. He saw no cars in the yard and the long grass suggested no one had stayed at the house for weeks if not months. Barnaby studied the house for several minutes hoping a person would come out so he could put on a smile and strike up a conversation.
White paint curled in patches on the outside but the porch boards appeared flat and firm. Whoever owned it visited. A few outbuildings stood to the right of the house. Judging by the distance of the trees, the home had a small backyard. The house looked a little run down but not altogether uninviting. When the breeze picked up you could smell the salt air from the beach and its close proximity to the water must have made this home a quaint summer getaway.
Barnaby wandered around back to get a look at a patch of woods he had not yet seen to record any varying characteristics. He saw a small open shed with a riding mower sitting underneath. A wind chime clanged together from the small roof covering the rear steps of the house. The woods looked no different from this perspective than any other. Indeed he safely assumed they were the same all throughout.
“May I help you?” asked a firm voice from behind.
Barnaby jumped and gave the appearance he was guilty of an evil deed. He spun around to see a woman staring at him from behind her screen door.
“I’m sorry,” he sputtered, “I didn’t realize anyone was home. That’s not to say I go into people’s yards when I think they aren’t there but I didn’t know anyone lived here,” he said fumbling with the words.
She didn’t respond or make any attempt to ease his anxiety.
Barnaby put on the friendliest face he could muster. “My name is Barnaby Lowe. I’m a writer.” This last statement Barnaby considered a fib since he considered only individuals with published works could call themselves writers and though he had written a great deal, he had yet to sell any of his writings. He knew however this woman would warm faster to the idea of a writer in her yard, than a simple trespasser.
“I’m writing a story on these woods,” he continued pointing to the trees behind her home.
She glanced at them but a moment and returned her attention back to him.
The screen door made it difficult to read her face so he continued speaking, hoping to relax her. “There is an interesting story behind these woods that I’m going to base my new book on and I wanted to get a good description of the area. I saw your lane from the road but didn’t think anyone lived down here.”
She looked again at the woods. “What is so interesting about these woods?” She sounded not angry but bewildered.
Barnaby’s smile faded, concerned he would do little to improve her mood by explaining the trees amongst which she lived might be haunted. He perked up and proceeded as though he were re-telling a merry old legend and decided to start with the most positive, intriguing aspect of the story. “Well they say there is buried treasure in the woods.”
Barnaby of course didn’t believe this to be true but knew the possibility of buried treasure would interest her the most and get her mind onto other things.
“In these woods?” she questioned and pointed to her trees.
“Well, somewhere in Old House Woods. The woods are pretty big. They might not necessarily be here but I suppose it’s possible.”
“How much treasure?”
“Nobody knows. It’s just a theory,” he suggested trying to downplay the story to avoid raising her hopes.
“Based on what?”
Barnaby took a deep breath but proceeded with confidence in his voice. “Based on sightings of a ghost ship that allegedly hovers above the trees and off which pirates supposedly disembark so they can dig in the woods. The story is pretty much the fabricated tales of drunken old men,” he waved off the theory with a reassuring smirk.
“Sounds like it. I’ve stayed here many times but have never seen a ghost ship. I have seen lights in the woods at night but my husband told me it had to be hunters illegally spotlighting deer.”
“Were they flashlights?”
“I don’t know. They didn’t move about like flashlights. They were glowing lights.”
“Perhaps. Anyway other than those lights, I’ve never had much reason to fear coming down here and we’ve stayed here off and on for nearly eight years.”
Barnaby couldn’t help but feel disappointed. This woman and her husband were the best candidates to have seen something. They lived amongst the trees and near the beach. The lights interested Barnaby but they could be explained after the discovery of the hunting bluff he found earlier. If anyone saw a floating pirate ship, or seen ghosts running through the woods, this couple would be them.
“Do you come down every year?” Barnaby asked.
“For a while we came a few weeks every summer. My parents lived here and they left me the home when they passed on and so we pretty much stay here full time now.”
“I don’t suppose they ever mentioned seeing anything unusual.”
She unlatched the hook and eye on her screen door and stepped out onto the brick steps. She looked to be in her mid-forties, in somewhat good shape, but a faint shade of red colored her eyes and she blinked slowly like a child ready for bed. She looked into Barnaby’s eyes the way one does before they contemplate telling a secret. She searched for trust. She sighed after a moment and proceeded.
“Well…..this probably has nothing to do with ghosts or these woods and mind you that I am the youngest child of four so my parents were old when they passed.”
“Meaning that when they told me things a lot of times it would go in one ear and out the other because they sometimes got confused near the end or maybe I wanted to think they were confused.”
She leaned her head against the door frame.
“I found that easier then listening to their conversations about this place. I just nodded my head, said ‘uh huh’ and kept on rolling. I didn’t pay much attention to their story but I guess they told it enough that it subconsciously sunk in.”
“What was it?”
“Again I don’t think this has anything to do with your story but they said it would storm above the woods sometimes.”
Barnaby nodded hoping for more.
“But not anywhere else. Only above the woods.”
“Interesting,” Barnaby said with feigned fascination. The storm could have blown in off the bay and passed over the trees. How would this couple know it wasn’t storming somewhere else?
“Also the storm didn’t make any sound.” She grimaced when she said this expecting that Barnaby wouldn’t believe her.
“What do you mean? It just rained?”
“No…I mean there would be lightning but no sound. And it lasted for no more than a few minutes.” She looked uncomfortable retelling the story because she didn’t know what to make of it and as stated, struggled to believe it when told to her.
“This happened more than once?”
“Several times, but since they lived here at least eleven years, not very often. Honestly I’m not being very fair to them because the first time they told me about it they couldn’t have been older than seventy-five. They weren’t old enough to be seeing things.”
“You’ve never seen anything like that?”
“No but we’ve been here but a few years.”
“That is weird.”
“I know you don’t believe me,” she said smiling.
“No, no, its not that. It really is interesting. I’ve just never heard of such a thing.”
“That’s why it went in one ear and out the other for me. Still I guess it is pretty interesting. Maybe you can throw it into your book somehow.”
Barnaby pondered the idea. “Maybe.”
“Is this going to be fiction or non-fiction?” she asked with a smile.
“It’s going to be fiction. I haven’t thought much about the characters yet. Right now I’m doing research.” He seldom started a story without first getting all his facts in place.
“That sounds very interesting.”
Barnaby smiled and nodded, hoping she wouldn’t ask if he had ever written anything she would have read. He would then be forced to tell the uncomfortable truth.
“I’m afraid I can’t be of much help to you but you are welcome to look around if you want. Perhaps as a trade you can give me an autographed copy of your book when you are done.”
Barnaby grinned. “It’s a deal!”
She pointed towards the water, “We have a dock that runs a hundred feet or so down to the beach. You can take a look if you wish. I don’t much care if you go wandering around the woods either but if you find any treasure I ask that you split it with me. My husband and I could sure use the money!”
Barnaby smiled, “I certainly will.” He knew no treasure existed but he wasn’t a selfish person and would be more than willing to share. “Does your husband hunt?”
“At one time but not anymore. He’s been fighting cancer for a while. It’s in remission right now but he hasn’t felt well since the last run of chemo. That’s why everything around here looks so raggedy. He’s too ill to take care of the property. The doctor said it would be good for him to reduce the stress in his life, so we sold our house to help pay for his medical bills and moved here.”
“I’m terribly sorry to hear that. Is he going to be okay?”
“I think so,” she nodded and her eyelids drooped again. “He’s been better but we’ll get through it. You know the doctors tell you to avoid stress and then they hit you with a $20,000 bill for chemo and other treatments. His prescriptions alone cost seventy-five dollars a pill! Can you believe that? Seventy-five dollars a swallow?”
Barnaby began to realize why the treasure interested her so.
“That is amazing!” he remarked with a distasteful grimace. “Greed can be ugly.”
“Yes it can.”
“Maxine!” a hoarse whisper called from inside.
Maxine shot an anxious glance inside. “Well listen, let me get back inside to my husband.”
“Of course. I hope he feels better.”
“Thank you. I’m sure he’ll be okay. Go ahead and look around if you want. There’s not much to see but I suppose from your point of view as a writer the world is a little more interesting.”
“I hope to write it that way.”
“I’m Maxine. If you need anything or want to come back, let me know.”
“Thank you. I might take you up on that,” he said looking at the woods. “I hope you don’t mind but I think I might like to spend the night in the woods,” he said, jumping at her offer. “Just to get a feel for what it’s like at night. I won’t light a fire or anything.”
“Sure, go ahead. What do I care?” she replied.
Barnaby smiled at how easily she consented. He no longer had a trespassing problem.
“Thank you Maxine.”
“Maxine!” her husband called again sounding much like a man weak with sickness. Barnaby’s college roommates sounded no differently when they hugged the toilet after drinking all night.
“Don’t mention it, honey,” she said with a slight country accent. “Take care now,” she turned and walked back in easing the screen door shut behind her.
He took another glance at the woods but assured himself they were no different than the ones through which he had just tromped, so he decided to leave. Rather than going back through the woods from which he came, he decided to follow Maxine’s lane back out to the road. He would then walk around the woods back to his car.
Along his way he passed the old woman’s house and heard the creaking of the porch as her chair rocked over the boards. Once within speaking distance, she sprang from her chair with speed uncommon to people her age and thrust her finger at him.
“I told you to stay out of those woods!”
Barnaby crossed the road towards her, “I have permission now to walk through them,” he called back, not thrilled with her caustic greeting. “Besides you have no authority to restrict me from entering.”
“You mean to say you were more worried about trespassing than the specters within those trees? Don’t be stupid!”
“I respect the law, yes, but I do fear the unknown more than it.” Barnaby looked up at the clear sky. “It’s a beautiful day. On a day like this, who could fear anything? I can see everything in front of me, behind me and to the side of me on a day like this. I wasn’t afraid. I agree with you that going in will be a little more challenging at night.” He frowned as he pondered this.
“You mustn’t go in there at night! Why would you consider it?”
“Because I am a good man and I should be able to fearlessly enter those woods with God’s protection! I am not after gold; I’m not even after answers. All I want is a story to write about. Why should any ghosts take exception?”
She spun around and returned to her rocking, angry she lacked a sufficient rebuttal. Her dress which appeared as though it were bought at the local dollar store was faded and frayed at the ends. Her chair, almost like she and the house, didn’t look as though it would survive the summer.
“Listen, there is a hunting bluff in the woods so hunters are obviously going in there, plus a couple lives at the end of this lane. They have never seen anything in eight years,” Barnaby explained trying to ease her irritation.
The woman shook her head, “It means nothing. They are a summer couple and a sick one at that. They turn in early.”
Barnaby sighed. He grew more convinced the old woman was no different than the old timers who told haunted tales fifty years ago. “If these woods were haunted as all the old tales and I emphasize “old”, would lead us to believe, then they would be crawling with writers and amateur ghost hunters. Kids go down to the beach at night every weekend. They see nothing!”
“The woods have been dormant for years but I have a nervous feeling inside they are about to erupt.” She increased the pace of her rocking and examined the woods with a paranoid squint in her eyes. The porch boards wobbled as she rocked over them. “My tales are not so old.”
Barnaby frowned. He did not want to hurt the old woman’s feelings by suggesting he did not believe her tale. “You know, I don’t even know your name,” Barnaby said trying to change the subject.
Without removing her gaze from the woods, she said, “Doris Callis.”
“Can I do anything for you Doris before I head on?” He felt easing her pitiful state his obligation as he might be the only one with whom she had contact.
She shook her head and never removed her stare from the trees. She looked like a widow at her husband’s funeral.
“Very well then, I’m sure I will see you again before the summer is out.”
She gazed at him. Her face looked like two, dried hard boiled eggs sticking out of a cracked desert floor. “They’re gonna murder you inside.”