The next morning, still a little unsettled by his encounter near the woods, Levi researched his Bible for 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 Levi and he believed with the power of God, nothing could shake his courage. If ghosts lived inside, they would have to submit to the power of the Lord.
He found 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 identified. Jesus did not actually confirm the existence of ghosts. A couple of instances suggested a person had returned from the dead but these people did not haunt a place; man brought them forth for consultation. This confused Levi 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 Christian reasons. According to his research, demons might be masquerading as ghosts which Levi found a bit unsettling. He welcomed the idea of garden variety ghosts more so than the confounding possibility of dealing with evil beings. If ghosts were nothing more than the cunning tricks of hellish fiends, what business did they conduct in Old House Woods?
Upon returning home from church with Jules the following day, Levi searched online for information 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, Levi decided to contact the investigators to discover what their research uncovered.
He did not consider this group to be sound experts 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 walked into what you believed to be a haunted forest and wanted to see ghosts, your mind would accommodate you. This paranormal team likely visited the woods lacking objectivity and saw what any rational person considered 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.
Levi 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. Levi 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 wanted to know what you were doing. You don’t usually spend so much time on the web.”
“I found a team of paranormal investigators online who have been to Old House Woods,” he said while still reading their email reply.
“Really? And what’s their take?”
Levi leaned back in his chair. “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 replied.”
“What did he say?” she asked displaying a genuine interest Levi appreciated.
“He said they went a couple of times and on their last trip they saw the ghost ship but it mesmerized him so much he neglected to get it on film.”
“Seriously?” Jules replied frowning. “What are the odds you go 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.
Levi’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 Levi managed to rescue Mistletoe with a pair of tongs. His only confidant since his Father threw his mother from home, Levi ran screaming upstairs with the smoking koala in his arms. His father drunk and satisfied with himself, gave no pursuit. Levi hid his burned buddy until he left home.
Jules patted Mistletoe on the head and thumbed through client files, “Are you going back?”
Levi 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.”
His insinuation dumbfounded her. “Are you kidding?”
“The old woman sounded convincing.”
“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 a while. She saw your interest in the woods and used that to talk with you. I’m sure she is lonely in her old home and 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.”
Levi thought about his kayaking trip and how he panicked when he heard footsteps running through the woods. His wife had a point about permitting the imagination to take over. The explanation was likely more natural than supernatural.
“Honey, do you think you can write a great story about this?” she asked unable to mask the impatience in her voice which put Levi 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 Levi 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 Levi’s mind, provided his wife with numerous reasons about which she could be proud of Levi.
He needed her confidence and her affirmation. He received too little of it growing up and when he noticed how seldom his wife provided any, he grew fearful she searched 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 overheard him talking, boasting to his friends about things he didn’t comprehend as a child. Now 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 providing for them no financial security. Levi, at only 155 pounds, had about as much luck getting drafted into the NFL.
Writing a book provided challenges but having the connections to get it published in a market where hundreds of manuscript submissions overwhelmed agents, proved 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 tired of scraping by while all her friends seemed to have husbands who made much more money. Part of her wanted Levi 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 disliked disappointing him, 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?”
Levi 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 smiled. “Who or what has a problem with you looking at trees?” She continued rifling through her folders determined not to further reveal her lack of patience and faith.
Her lack of concern about the woods put Levi at ease. The woods left him uneasy but they were nothing but a cluster of trees. There lied within, nothing of which to be afraid.
The following weekend Levi drove to Old House Woods and parked in the empty lot where stood the ruins of the house from which the woods derived 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, Levi couldn’t determine.
With birds flying in and out of the ruins, they appeared tame. Levi wondered at what time the woods obtained its name of “Old House” because at one time, the house was young. Later the house must have become ruinous enough for the locals to name all 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. Levi speculated 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. He 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 but saw nothing. It had to be a child. He scanned the ruins.
The whimper grew into crying. He approached with worry someone might jump out from the old foundation and yell “boo!”
The crying burst into an unseen fit of despair. He stepped back and the same uneasiness he felt the day he heard the rustling through the woods, burned in him. It’s just a child playing somewhere. Don’t be so jittery. Where is she though? The crying continued but weakened. 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. 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. This speculation didn’t make sense but he wanted to believe it. He backed away from the ruins, turned and jogged into the woods.
The sun’s rays struggled to pierce the tree’s cover and the gloom added to the apprehension lingering in his heart. He peered over his shoulder hoping to catch a glimpse of the child watching him but saw and heard no one. He stepped behind a tree and watched for a few moments believing whoever hid would soon appear, but nothing happened. Feeling foolish he resumed his exploration.
The woods were more open than he imagined. He maneuvered through the trees without the trouble of climbing over fallen trunks or avoiding thick briars.
The floor held a thick bedding of pine straw littered with the castaways from many large hollys. As he moved further into the woods he came upon a pond which he could not 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 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 appeared unfit for human pleasure.
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 set of wooden steps leading to the door. Given its proximity to the small pond, Levi deducted hunters used the fort.
Levi grew self-conscious of the fact he trespassed 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 saw 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 explained the noises near the woods Levi 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; meaning 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 today’s insecticides and mosquito catching machines the mosquito’s pestilence would have been worse. Fighting a war or even burying a treasure amid 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 leading to the beach. Levi 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 lived 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 explained the blocked entrance.
Emboldened by his courageous trip through the woods, Levi 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. Levi studied the house for several minutes hoping a person would emerge with whom he might strike up a conversation.
White paint curled in patches on the outside but the porch boards appeared flat and firm. 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 he smelled the salt air from the beach Its proximity to the water made this home a quaint summer getaway.
Levi wandered around back to get a look at a patch of woods he had not yet seen to record varying characteristics. He saw a small open shed with a riding mower sitting underneath. A wind chime hanging from the roof covering the rear steps clanged in the bay breeze. The woods appeared no different from this perspective than any other. Indeed, he safely assumed they looked the same all throughout.
“May I help you?” asked a firm voice from behind.
Levi jumped suggesting he was up to no good. 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 attempt to ease his anxiety.
Levi mustered his friendliest face. “My name is Levi Schroeder. I’m a writer.” This last statement Levi considered a fib since he regarded 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 to him.
He struggled to read her face behind the screen door 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 and that’s why I’m here.”
“What is so interesting about these woods?” she asked with a raised eyebrow.
Levi’s smile faded, concerned he would improve her mood little by explaining the trees amongst which she lived might be haunted. He perked up and proceeded as though he re-told a merry old legend and decided to start with the most positive, intriguing aspect of the story. “Well they say treasure is buried in the woods.”
Levi of course didn’t believe this true but knew the possibility of buried treasure would best distract her.
“In these woods?”
“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?”
Levi 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 must 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 here and we’ve stayed here off and on for nearly eight years.”
Levi felt 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 Levi but they could be explained after the discovery of the hunting bluff he found earlier. If anyone saw a floating pirate ship or ghosts running through the woods, this couple would be them.
“Do you come down every year?” Levi 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 had but a few creases in her face, an attractive figure, but a faint shade of red colored her eyes and she blinked slowly like a child ready for bed. She searched Levi’s eyes for trust the way one does before they contemplate telling a secret. She sighed after a moment and proceeded.
“Well…..this probably has nothing to do with ghosts or these woods and mind you I am the youngest child of four so my parents were old when they passed.”
“Meaning when they told me things a lot of times it went in one ear and out the other because they sometimes became confused near the end or maybe I just 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 stormed above the woods sometimes, but not anywhere else. Only above the woods.”
“Interesting,” Levi said with feigned fascination.
“Also, the storm didn’t make any sound.” She grimaced when she said this expecting skepticism.
“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 frowned when 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 for at least eleven years, not often. Honestly, I’m not being fair to them because the first time they told me about it they weren’t yet seventy-five and not old enough to be seeing things.”
“You’ve never seen anything like that?”
“No, but we’ve been here but a few years.”
“I know you don’t believe me,” she said smiling.
“No, no, it’s 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.”
Levi pondered the idea. “Maybe.”
“Is this going to be fiction or non-fiction?”
“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 interesting!”
Levi smiled and nodded, hoping she wouldn’t ask if he had written anything she may have read. He would 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.”
Levi grinned. “Deal!”
She pointed towards the water, “We have a dock that runs a hundred feet or so 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!”
Levi smiled, “I certainly will. Does your husband hunt by chance?”
“At one time. 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 the yard and house look so raggedy. He’s too ill to take care of the property. The doctor he needed to reduce his stress, 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?”
Her interest in the treasure dawned on Levi.
“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 pray 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 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. If 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.”
“Sure, go ahead. What do I care?” she shrugged.
Levi smiled at how easily she consented. He no longer had a trespassing problem.
“Thank you, Maxine.”
“Maxine!” her husband croaked before succumbing to a fit of coughing. Levi’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 inside easing the screen door shut behind her.
He glanced 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 returning through the woods from which he came, he decided to follow Maxine’s lane out to the road and walk around the woods 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 warned you to stay out of those woods!”
Levi 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 trespassing worried you more than the specters within those trees? Don’t be stupid!”
“I respect the law, yes, but I do fear the unknown more than it.” Levi admired the clear sky. “It’s a beautiful day. On a day like this, what is there to fear? 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 consider it?”
“Because I am a good man and I can 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 ghosts take exception?”
She returned to her rocking, angry she lacked a sufficient rebuttal. Her dress which appeared as though 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, plus a couple lives at the end of this lane. They have never seen a ghost in eight years!” Levi 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.”
Levi sighed. He grew more convinced the old woman spun paranoia like the old timers who told haunted tales fifty years ago. “If these woods are haunted as all the old tales and I emphasize “old”, lead us to believe, then writers and amateur ghost hunters would be crawling through them. Kids go 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.”
Levi 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,” Levi said trying to change the subject.
Without removing her gaze from the woods, she answered, “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 sad stare from the trees appearing much 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.”