Everyone says to stay out of the woods. They say that it's dangerous to play in there, especially alone. I don't know why they are so afraid. I find the woods to be quite peaceful, but that doesn't mean I don't get in trouble if my parents catch me coming back from them.
Usually it isn't that difficult to avoid being discovered. I just sneak into my neighbor's yard, a single mom who's gone almost the whole day while her kids go from school to day care, and then hop her fence and I'm free. At least one perk of being homeschooled is that my mother generally leaves me alone, giving me plenty of opportunity to escape there whenever I want. They don't mind me leaving the house; they just wish it wasn't the woods.
Apparently twenty years ago a kid went missing in there, and it hit the national news. They never found the kid, and as often occur with unsolved mysteries; a great deal of superstition was built around the forest. Of course, many of the stories were ridiculous, like the sightings of werewolves or the presence of a satanic cult, but that didn't stop people from believing in them. What people could be convinced of never ceased to amaze me.
My favorite part of the woods is Jacob. I met him one day while I was hiking. He was sitting on a boulder next to the stream, letting his naked feet soak lazily in the water. It seemed as if he was caught in a daydream, a fact which I took advantage of and hid behind a tree. It had startled me to see another person here, and though I didn't put much stock in the stories myself, my spine tingled as a small bit of fear crept into me.
I brushed my hair out of my eyes so I could get a better look at the boy. I could tell by his face that he was probably close to my own fifteen years, though he was shorter and skinnier than I was. His face was smooth and soft, and his chestnut brown hair was just long enough to curl around his ears and frame his face perfectly. He wore a white tank top, revealing arms that were toned but not overly muscular and showing off his sun-browned skin. His legs were also bare from the knee down, and his calves showed the definition of one who did a lot of walking. I couldn't help myself as my eyes trailed up that leg to his khaki shorts and settled on his crotch. As soon as I realized where my eyes were resting I tore my gaze away and made sure I was completely hidden with my back to the tree.
I had closed my eyes for only a second as I caught my breath, but as I opened them he was standing in front of me. As startled as I was I tried to back away when I realized I had put myself in a difficult position to escape. I stumbled and fell as I tried to get around the tree, and I knew I was caught. It surprised me when I felt a hand on my shoulder and saw another hand extended toward my face, offering to help me up.
Sheepishly I took his hand and let him help me. The look on his face was amused, not angry or suspicious as I had thought it would be. He shook my hand as he still had it and introduced himself calmly. “I’m Jacob. It’s strange to meet someone else in the woods, especially my age.”
Nodding slowly as I composed myself I had replied, “Um, sorry about all that. My name is Kurt, I’m from Oak Shadows.”
“Really? I used to live in Oak Shadows!” He replied with enthusiasm, and then he took my hand as he led me away from the tree and to his boulder by the river. He patted the rock for me to sit next to him, which I gladly took the opportunity. I grew comfortable with Jacob very quickly as we exchanged information about our families and friends. He wouldn’t tell me where he lived now, which I thought was quite odd, but I ignored it. He was here, and that was all that mattered to me.
We became fast friends, and met up at that spot in the woods almost every day; we would go hiking along the trails, or simply sit and enjoy each other’s company. On days that it rained I would bring an umbrella and a jacket. Jacob would always be wearing the same thing, his tank top and shorts, but they were always clean so I assumed he just had multiple pairs of the same outfit. Jacob never wore shoes, and when I asked him about that he said it was because he liked to feel the earth beneath his feet. He liked to be one with the forest. That part was a little deep for me. I preferred being separated from the world in exchange for it not stabbing my feet with small sharp rocks.
We had only been friends for a month when he suddenly asked me if I was gay. It came out of nowhere, but that was the way he asked serious questions. He had no tact, but in a sense that almost made it easier to answer. I knew he really wanted to know, plus the look in his eye told me everything I needed to answer him honestly. There was only support in his beautiful green orbs.
I answered him truthfully, and explained that it was probably why I spent so much time in the woods instead of at home. Gay kids didn’t make friends easily in most small towns. I told him that no one in my family knew either, because I didn’t know how they would react. Despite knowing that he was being supportive, I let my insecurity gain control and I assured him that if it was a problem then he wouldn’t have to see me again, and I’d leave him alone.
That was the first time I had ever seen him be truly hurt. He spun me around and looked my straight in the eye as he told me that he never wanted our friendship to end. He proceeded to explain that he had started coming into the woods for the same reason, especially since things weren’t so good at home. Being gay in a family that considers it a sin on par with murder wasn’t a healthy environment for anyone.
It took me a moment to process what he had said, and when I finally realized he had come out to me as well I was so filled with joy I kissed him hard on the lips, which completely wiped the look of hurt and shock from his face. Anything more we had wanted to say that day was said by our bodies. The day I came out was also the day I became a man.
We continued to spend every day together. I no longer cared what my parents said about not going in the woods, and I didn’t even care if they caught me. The woods were my heaven, where I made love to my personal angel who had given my life meaning. Every time I entered the woods it was like I was finally going home.
Until the day everything changed. We were hiking in the woods when we came across a section I had never been to before. Jacob grew silent and stopped walking, and when I asked him why he shook his head and turned around, leaving me to stare open-mouthed at his retreating back. It was completely out of character for him to not answer me, and especially to leave without any word on why. I was confused and hurt, and I was even more hurt by what he said next.
“I don’t think you should come into the woods tomorrow Kurt.”
“What? Why not? Did I do something to offend you?” I replied, starting to get angry.
“Just don’t. It’s not a good idea,” he answered with a dead tone. His eyes were cold, and I could tell that he was serious. My mind was going in every direction as I tried to piece together what was happening. An hour earlier we had been making love by the river, and everything had seemed fine then. Now I didn’t know what to think.
“Are you serious?” I asked incredulously, despite knowing full well that he was. I was too shocked to believe that he could be treating me this way. “Are we not friends anymore?”
“If that’s what it takes to keep you from coming here, no we are not. Don’t come to the woods tomorrow Kurt,” he said with a tone of finality. Suddenly he was running away, and I was so shocked it took me a minute to start after him. He had always been a faster runner they I had, so it was no surprise to me that I lost him quickly in the trees. It certainly didn’t help that I had started crying which was obscuring my vision. I collapsed against a tree and waited until my sobs subsided, and when they finally did I slowly made my way back home.
I entered my house with a bang and my mother’s scolding remark about being careful with the door. I mumbled a “yes mom” and then hurried to my room where I collapsed for another round of sobbing. I was completely heartbroken, and I still could find no basis for what had happened. None of it made any sense. There was no reason for him to act that way, and I was determined to find out why he had.
Nothing was going to keep me out of the woods. I was going to discover why heaven didn’t want me anymore.
When I arose the next morning I was ready. Though I was numb to any emotion except determination, I felt a certain peace that this was the right course of action. As I was leaving my room an object caught my eye. The buck knife my grandfather had given me for my birthday was sitting on my dresser. I had never taken it into the woods before, though the thought seemed to stay with me that I would need it today. I didn’t know why, but that morning was one for following premonitions. I added the knife to my belt and headed out the door, not knowing what would be in store for me.
The first thing I noticed about the woods that day was that they were silent. No birds were chirping, no insects buzzing. There was nothing. It was almost enough to send me back home if I hadn’t been so determined. It was almost as if the tales that everyone else told about the woods were finally coming true. If this was the tone the woods gave to most people, I couldn’t blame them for making up stories. It was downright creepy.
I checked the boulder by the river first. Jacob wasn’t there, and my heart sunk a little. I thought for a moment that he had stayed out of the woods himself just in case I had come looking for him, but then I noticed fresh Jacob-sized foot prints headed down a trail. I didn’t think it would be that easy, but I thanked whatever gods or spirits had been looking out for me and began to follow the tracks.
It quickly became apparent to me that it was the same trail we had taken the day before, and I soon reached the spot where we had parted ways. The tracks stopped here suddenly, right in the middle of the path. The growth to either side of the path remained undisturbed. It didn’t make any sense where he could have gone, and I was about to turn around to see if I had missed something back from where I had come when I heard Jacob screaming.
It was coming from further down the path, though I couldn’t see anything from where I was. I rushed toward the sound as quickly as I could, looking for any sign of my former lover. A short distance away I caught my first sight of him, running perpendicular to what my own path had been. I almost called out to him before I saw what was chasing him. A large man who was surprisingly quick was barreling after him, an evil leer on his face as he gained on my friend. With no hesitation I took off after them, drawing my buck knife as I did so, suddenly glad that I had brought it.
I was making plenty of noise but the large man didn’t seem to pay me any heed. His sights were intent on Jacob, and I used that to my advantage. Whereas Jacob was running from fear, taking the straightest path to get away from his pursuer, I analyzed the ground quickly and found the best path possible to gain ground. Just as the man cornered Jacob at the base of a large oak tree, I caught up and placed myself between him and the predator, the knife glinting in the small bit of sunlight that made it through the leaves.
“Kurt, no! He’ll kill you! Leave!” I heard from behind me, but I wasn’t filled with fear, but with the same determination. I didn’t know how yet, but I somehow realized that this was what Jacob was trying to keep from me. I stood my ground and faced the man who wanted my Jacob. I finally had a good look at him, and what I saw disgusted me. There was nothing but lust and violence in those dark eyes, and they tried to pierce into my soul and steal the essence of my youth. His hair was dark like his eyes, and hung in a messy tangle around his face which hadn’t been shaved in weeks, guessing by the amount of scruff it bore. He wore an old vinyl jacket that reeked of beer and cigarettes, and his legs were covered in faded blue jeans whose ends were tucked into dirty leather boots.
“You can’t have him!” I said defiantly, my own determined eyes attempting to tear a whole just as wide into his soul as he was trying to do to mine. There was no soul to tear into, and he came on just as strong, laughing wickedly as he advanced on us both. Jacob tried to pull me away again but I just stood there and waited for an opportunity, knowing I wouldn’t last long against the man’s superior bulk and probable strength.
The instant he reached out for me I ducked and stabbed him in the stomach with as much force as I could. He groaned as I hit my mark. I pulled my arm back and shoved the knife in repeatedly until I realized I wasn’t hitting anything but air. I looked down at the body on the ground before me and found it to be slowly dissipating, as if it were made of smoke and embers. In a flash the body was gone, leaving only the trace of what smelled like sulfur in the air. I looked at my hands and the knife, expecting them to be covered in blood, and found them to be instead perfectly clean.
In my bewilderment I had forgotten about Jacob until I heard him whisper, “You did it. . . I can’t believe you actually did it.”
“What did I do? I just killed a man and he disappeared in front of my eyes, and you don’t even seem surprised. Would you mind explaining what’s happening here?” I replied as I slumped against the tree, putting the knife away as I did so, still not believing what had occurred.
“Yes, but not here. This place bears a terrible memory for me. Let’s go to the river,” he answered as he extended his hand to help me up, sending my mind back to the day when we first met by the same spot he was referencing. The difference was that this time we held hands for a lot longer than a handshake.
We walked without speaking, despite my desperate need for answers. It was calming though, to hear the sounds of the birds and insects returning. Nature seemed to be right again, and for that I was pleased. It was also nice to know that we were back to being friends and lovers, from the way he held my hand and kept me close.
It didn’t take too long for us to make it back to the boulder by the river, taking our usual seats next to each other, for a moment just quietly enjoying the tranquility of the scene. I waited for him to begin speaking. I figured that since I had already waited for the entire length of the hike back it wouldn’t hurt to give him the time he needed.
He turned suddenly so that he could sit cross-legged and face me, and then he began speaking in the saddest tone I had ever heard him use. “The first thing you need to know is that you didn’t kill him. You need to put your mind at ease on that, and I can assure you that it was not your fault.”
“But I stabbed him over and over again! I felt the knife stick into his belly, and felt the force of his weight on it, you aren’t going to be able to convince me that that wasn’t real,” I replied with a hint of shock that he would say something so obviously untrue.
“You don’t know the half of it yet my love, so please let me explain before you make such assumptions.”
I have to admit that at that time I was known for letting assumptions rule me. I knew I was at fault, so I nodded guiltily and let him continue.
“You didn’t kill him because he was already dead. He was a ghost,” Jacob continued, and then gave me a look that said if I wanted the full story I had better not interrupt again. I quickly closed my mouth that had opened in protest at his fairy tale monster, and nodded again, letting him know I wouldn’t cause any more trouble.
“That man was a very bad individual. I’m sure I was far from the first person he ever targeted, but I was the last. I told you I’ve been coming here for a long time right? Well one day I came in here, and I wasn’t alone. That man was here, and he was helping himself to one of his victims, a boy around ten I would say.”
The news sent shivers down my spine, to believe that someone would do something like that to a child was revolting beyond anything I had previously conceived of. I was further horrified as I realized that it was what the man had intended to do to Jacob. As I shivered, my lover continued.
“I pulled out my knife, knowing that I had to do what I could to help the kid, regardless of the fact that the man was so much bigger than me. I yelled at him and made sure he realized the knife was in my hands, and then I ordered him to back away from the kid slowly. He complied, probably out of shock of being discovered mixed with the fact that he was faced with a weapon and was unarmed himself. I quickly but cautiously made my way to the boy’s side, watching the man the whole time. I could tell that the boy was already almost dead from the violence of the rape, but I was determined to do the best I could to save him.”
“The man apparently gathered up his courage to take me on, and made a lunge for me while I was looking the boy over. I did the best I could, and I stabbed for his stomach, but at the time I didn’t know if I had actually scored a hit or not, for a split second later he had me on my back and the knife was knocked out of my hand. I did what instinct told me to do and managed to knee him in the balls. He got off really quick, and I made a break for it. I couldn’t help the kid if I couldn’t even help myself.”
“I was running entirely on fear and instinct, and I probably would have done better if I had stuck to the path, even made it out of the woods where I could have gotten help, but I was scared beyond reason. He finally cornered me at that large oak where you defended me today. I was weaponless and scared, and he was bigger than me and pissed. A second later he had his hands on my throat, strangling the life out of me. I noticed a wet patch on his jacket and on instinct I realized I had actually managed to stab him there. I started kicking it with all the strength I could, but his grip didn’t loosen enough, he was determined to kill me.”
My heart was pounding in my chest as I listened to Jacob, and I wondered how he got out of there alive. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing, but Jacob said it in that same seriousness that he said everything he wanted me to understand. This was very real.
“I remember slipping into unconsciousness. I remember the feeling of falling. I remember the nothingness. It was like being in a dream, except nothing in the dream could interact with me, nothing knew I was there. As I looked down at the man breaking my neck I realized that he had killed me, and I hadn’t been able to stop him at all. It had all been in vain.”
I let the words sink in for a moment, and was about to interrupt at the absurdity of it all when I realized that it was still being relayed in the serious tone, and I knew he was somehow telling the truth. I was about to question him on how that could be when he continued his story.
“My spirit followed him back to where we had left the boy, who I could tell was now dead himself. In my sorrow I almost left the scene until I saw bittersweet justice occur. The man collapsed as he entered the clearing, clutching at the spot where I had stabbed and then kicked him. I watched as the bastard breathed his last and finally became nothing but a corpse. Or so I thought. Every year on the anniversary of our encounter, we replay the scene. His spirit rises and rapes the boy, and I come in and play my part, compelled by the will of whatever made us spirits in the first place. This year was different though. You rescued me, and broke the cycle. We can all move on now.”
I was confused by what he meant, and I was still confused as to how it could be true. I finally took his silence as an opening to speak again, and so I voiced my concerns. “But how can you be a ghost? I can touch you, you have physical form, and we’ve even had sex for crying out loud! Ghosts aren’t supposed to be able to do that!”
Jacob smiled and I could tell he was almost delighted by my reaction. I could tell that it hadn’t been the reaction he was expecting. He did the best he could to explain. “There are many different types of ghosts Kurt, and I happen to belong to one of the types that can do those things. I am a guardian, and I have been given the task to protect those who need that protection in these woods. This means that while I am here I can manifest myself in a very realistic way, even to the point where I can make love to the person who means more than anything to me. The man I killed is a phantom. He only haunts one day of the year, and his purpose is to carry out what his last intention was in life, in his case it is killing me. You interrupted that, so I am not sure how that will affect things next year, he may not come back. Often if our remains are removed from the place that we haunt, we will be put to rest, and finally be able to move on. Now that you know the secret, you can reveal our final resting place to the authorities. There are more than just myself and the phantom lurking around here.”
“I will help you of course, but wouldn’t putting you to rest mean I would never see you again? How can you ask me to do that?” I asked, heartbroken that over only a twenty four hour period I had to face losing him a second time.
A sly smile crept across his face as he moved in to kiss me. I felt the passion in the action as strongly as I had ever felt it from him, and it almost brought me to tears. He gave a little laugh and then explained, “Here I was thinking that you would run away from me because I’m a ghost and you wouldn’t want to remain with me, and then you go off about how I’m going to leave you! There is a way for us to be together still my love. As a guardian I do not haunt my remains, I haunt the object I used to defend the weak. The knife I used to defend the boy is still in that clearing where I abandoned you yesterday. I can show you exactly where it is. If you keep it with you I can go with you anywhere.”
My hopes soared to new heights and I embraced him with every ounce of energy that I had. I practically skipped as he led me back to the clearing, where he showed me the knife, buried under six inches of dirt. I quickly brushed off the rusted blade, and then I took off my shirt so that I could wrap it up and more easily carry it.
I gasped as I felt Jacob’s cool hands on my flesh as he grabbed me from behind and whispered in my ear, “Take me home, my love. I have always wanted to go home with you.”
When I finally made it home with Jacob’s knife in tow, I quickly went to my room and placed the knife gingerly on my nightstand. When I felt Jacob’s hands on my chest this time, it was no longer cold but warm and inviting. We made love that night like we had never made love before.
I still carry that knife with me everywhere, and Jacob and I still go through walks in the woods. He showed me where every lost soul he knew of was buried over the ravages of time, and I alerted the authorities to every single one. When all the others had been revealed, I finally led them to the shade of the large oak tree, where Jacob’s remains were finally taken to be put to rest.
The story ran in the paper the next day of how the twenty year mystery of the disappearance of Jacob Walker had finally been solved. It didn’t stop people from creating rumors and stories about werewolves and cults, but now I knew the truth.
There was only one ghost left in those woods, and he was my guardian.