The Crone’s Wood

Hope makes you dumb. It makes you forgetful and blind and overly eager, especially when you’re a teen girl on the outs with your best, and pretty much only, friend.

It was a tale as old as time; two childhood besties who pinky swore to never, ever stop being friends grew up and grew apart. At least, Claire realized that was happening. I was blissfully (and a bit willfully) ignorant, still believing in those promises made by flashlight during long ago sleepovers. Sure, I noticed that she’d been talking to other, older girls more during class, calling me less, and making excuses not to hang out as much, but we’d gone through lulls before. I didn’t expect this to be any different.

Not until I started receiving the notes.

Written in brightly colored gel pens and folded into overly complex shapes, they began appearing on my desk when I arrived to homeroom, then in my text books, carefully nestled between pages, and then jammed in the slits of my locker.

I read them all, but the message in each was pretty much the same.

You’re ugly! You’re a loser! Nobody likes you!

I didn’t want to admit that I recognized the handwriting in some of them. How could I not? I’d received hundreds of much kinder notes before with the same large, looping letters. She even wrote them using her favorite aqua pen, the one I’d given to her for her fourteenth birthday.

I showed her every single one, and every time, without so much as batting an eye, she’d give me a hug and tell me people are assholes and I shouldn’t listen. I cried into her shoulder and told her honestly how hard it was not to believe everything the notes said and how I was starting to hate myself more and more and she would just nod sympathetically along.

Maybe she was waiting for me to point out the obvious, to ask her why, to yell at her and end our friendship. But I never did.

We were both cowards, in our own ways.

I can’t say what Claire was holding on to; maybe I’d become a source of entertainment for her and her new group of friends, or maybe she genuinely enjoyed tormenting me. For me, though, it was hope. I hoped that it was a phase and that, if I was patient and quiet and went along with it, she’d revert back to being the same girl I’d always been so close to.

Claire continued to feed into it just enough to keep me stringing along and I let her.

Didn’t I say hope makes you dumb?

When she came up to me after trig class one day, I dared to let myself believe that I’d been right all along and I couldn’t stop the wide, desperate smile from crossing my face at the sound of her saying my name.

“Hey, Sally,” she said.

She’d started to dress differently, more like those girls she’d been spending time with, and there were blonde streaks in her hair that hadn’t been there before, but the cheerful greeting sounded just like it always had.

“Are you busy Friday?”

Immediately, I shook my head. “No! Do you want to come over? We could rent a vide-”

Clair cut me off with a little giggle. “I already had something in mind.”

“Yeah?” It was hard not to sound excited when this was the first time she’d invited me to do anything in almost a month.

“You know Patsy and Angela, right?”

I nodded, my enthusiasm dwindling just a bit at the mention of the two junior girls that Claire had started to replace me with.

“There’s a party in the crone’s wood Friday night and I want you to come. We haven’t really spent much time together; I miss you!”

If she hadn’t tacked on those three magic words at the end, I might have turned her down. As much as I wanted our friendship to be back to normal, a party with kids at least two years older than us was not how I pictured it happening.

Especially when that party was supposed to be taking place in the crone’s wood.

Local legend held that it was haunted by the spirit of Ermaline Johns, a spinster who had lived alone, and been murdered, deep in the woods sometime in the early 1900s. All that remained now was the crumbling remnants of a small stone house that was said to have belonged to Ermaline and, supposedly, her restless spirit.

I hated scary things and had always made a point to avoid the crone’s wood before.

But now, Claire had said she’d missed me, and that was all I needed to hear.

We put a plan in place and told our parents we’d be spending the night at each other’s house and I anxiously awaited Friday’s arrival.

It was a cold, gray afternoon and I was growing more unsure of my decision with each passing hour. Lying to my parents, something I’d never really done before, had been hard enough, but the idea of being in the crone’s wood after dark was really starting to get to me. It wasn’t like I really believed the stories about the place, but it still gave me the creeps.

The only thing that kept me from wavering was the thought of Claire and I being friends again.

After the last bell rang, I shoved all of my books into my backpack and hurried out to the quad, where I was supposed to meet the others. Claire was waiting for me right where she said she’d be and, when she saw me, she grinned and hooked her arm through mine.

“Excited?” She asked.

“Yeah,” I said unconvincing.

“It’s going to be tons of fun! Don’t be so nervous, ok?”

She gave my arm a squeeze and practically dragged me to the parking lot, where Patsy and Angela were waiting.

We had a few of hours to kill before the party really got started, so we drove around town for a while, went to the mall to wander and eat at the food court, and stopped by Angela’s house to change into more “appropriate” clothes. They let me borrow an outfit and even helped me put on makeup and do my hair. I was surprised by how much fun I was having and how easily things were falling into place.

We talked about boys and school and told jokes and laughed all the way to the crone’s wood.

It was just after seven when we started to creep up the dirt road that wound through the trees. Night had fallen thickly, cold and black, and I hugged Angela’s borrowed denim jacket tightly around myself. I peered out the car window, trying to catch any sign of other party goers driving up the hill, but all I saw was darkness.

The road ended in a small clearing and Patsy parked the car.

“Where’s everyone else?” I asked, looking over at Claire beside me.

“A lot of people probably walked up; it’s not that far,” she said breezily. “The party’s at the crone’s house just up the way a bit.”

“Oh, ok.”

“Not nervous, are you?” Angela snickered from the front.

“A little,” I admitted.

“Why? Because of the ghost?” Claire asked and I half shrugged.

“Come on, it’s fine,” Patsy said. “Once we get up there, you’ll feel better. Besides, it’s just a stupid urban legend; nothing to be scared of.”

Despite my rattled nerves, I climbed out of the car with the others and followed them towards a footpath that would take us up to the ruined stone structure that had once belonged to Ermaline.

We chatted sporadically while we walked, but the ground was uneven and a bit challenging in the dark, so I focused more on staying upright than keeping up with the conversation. I thought they were having the same trouble because after a few minutes, they went quiet, too.

It wasn’t until we’d gone a good way up that I started to think there should have been music, voices, the sound of high schoolers letting loose away from the watchful eyes of their parents. Instead, all I heard was my own footsteps.

By the time I realized how wrong that was, the other three had already fallen quietly back.

“Guys?” I paused and glanced over my shoulder.

Further down the hill, I heard uproarious laughter and a car engine rumbled to life.

“Guys!” I shrieked that time, but I knew with an icy certainty that it didn’t matter.

They’d left me.

All at once I felt angry, afraid, lost. But most of all, I felt a deep, cutting sorrow and that thin thread of hope that had led me out here in the first place was finally severed. Tears pricked like needles at my eyes.

My pity party was quickly interrupted by the low moan of wind moving through the trees; a stark reminder of where I was. I shivered against the deepening chill and looked around, trying the figure out the best way to get back down the hill. It was almost impossible to see more than a foot or two in front of me and I took a ginger step back in the direction I’d come from. A twig snapped loudly under my foot.

Out of the corner of my eye, a faint light flickered into life far off to to my right.

“Girl,” a voice, whispery and strangled, came from my left.

The light bobbed once, twice, and then started to drift towards me.

I slapped a hand over my mouth to keep from screaming and started to run as quickly as I dared down the path. I didn’t get far before I caught my foot in a dip in the ground and sprawled face first into the underbrush. I pushed myself up and looked over my shoulder, only to see the light had faded into total darkness again.

I scrambled to my feet and limped a few more steps when another light, this one off to my left, started to weave slowly between the trees.

From my right, the voice, raspier and rougher, angrier, repeated the same word as before.

“Girl!”

This time, I couldn’t stop myself from screaming.

With no sense of direction and no real visibility, I dove forward again. I pushed myself onward as fast as I could go despite my ankle’s throbbing protest. I didn’t know if I was still on the path heading down to the clearing or if I’d veered off further into the woods, but I couldn’t stop to try and figure it out.

I stumbled along clumsily, driven by the sound of steady, stomping footsteps that seemed to come from every direction and the cry of, “Girl!” It echoed from both sides, sometimes a harsh whisper, sometimes a near shriek.

Each ragged call was a reminder that it was said Ermaline Johns had had her throat cut before being strangled.

I tripped again and rolled roughly a few times until I was able to get my knees up and stop myself. Lights flashed a few times further up the hill and then all was dark and quiet except for my own whimpers. I pulled myself over to a nearby tree and huddled against its thick trunk.

“Girl,” the voice hissed from somewhere off to my right.

“Girl,” it repeated from my left.

It sounded like she was all around me, closing in on me with her malicious fury. Ermaline had been a loner in life and now, in death, she was vengeful. Leaves rustled and crunched with every slow step she took towards me. The lights flashed again, first from one side and then the other.

“Girl!” She howled in that awful dual voice that surrounded me from just beyond my tree.

I pressed both hands over my mouth to try and quiet the terrified sobs that were burning in my chest. She was so close I could hear her breathing, hard and heavy.

To my left, just next to me, a light appeared.

I couldn’t stop myself. Terror drove me, launching me to my feet, and I barreled unthinkingly away from it in the opposite direction. Almost immediately, another light flickered on just in front of me and I collided with something and shoved it violently away as I fell on to my backside.

There was a short yelp and the light fell away followed by the sound of fast tumbling down the hill and then a thick, heavy thud.

The silence that came after was broken by a voice calling out nervously from behind me. “Claire?”

By the time Patsy and Angela were able to rush into town and get help back up the hill, Claire was dead.

It was just supposed to be a joke, they said in the investigation that followed, one that had all been Claire’s idea.

She had known I was scared of the legend of the crone’s wood and wanted to play a prank on me because I’d been annoying her with how clingy I was. Once they’d worked out the details, they lured me into the woods and then quietly split up behind my back when we were far enough in. Patsy returned to the car and made it sound as if they’d left me while Claire and Angela spread out on either side.

The voices I’d heard had been theirs, the “floating lights” were just their flashlights as they turned them on and off and pursued me, and the flashes I’d seen had been from the disposable cameras they’d brought to document my fear.

They’d never meant for anyone to get hurt, especially not Claire.

She had been standing just off to my side, opposite Angela, waiting to turn on her flashlight to reveal herself and laugh at me, when I’d suddenly bolted right into her and unintentionally pushed her down the hill. The thud we’d heard had been the sound of her head colliding with a tree.

She was buried a week and a half later, after it was concluded that it really was just an unfortunate accident. I couldn’t bring myself to go to her funeral. Her parents didn’t want me there anyway; they blamed me for her death.

That was ok, though, because I did, too.

My family moved away a few months later. I wasn’t coping well and my parents thought it best if we had a change of scenery. They believed that it would help, that I would be able to move on, maybe even forget.

But I knew it would never be the same. I knew I would never forget the sound of Claire hitting that tree and Angela’s frantic run back through the woods to get to the car. I knew I would never forget kneeling beside Claire while she gasped and gaped and stared at me with those wide, panicked eyes, illuminated by the flashlight that had fallen beside her.

I would never forget pinching her nose closed and covering her mouth with my hand.

She didn’t struggle much. She couldn’t. It didn’t take long.

I had hoped that Claire and I could have been friends again, it was all I wanted, but I realized then, after seeing what lengths she was willing to go to hurt me, that that wasn’t possible.

She had changed too much.

I had changed too much.

Hope makes you dumb, and I was just so tired of playing the fool.

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