Camper Appreciation

Written by Seth Paul

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“Come on, Jim, you know it’s going to suck.”

 

I didn’t nod, though I wanted to.  Mark was right, as usual.  Most of camp had sucked, to be honest.

 

Tom, on the other hand, tried once more to be the voice of reason, even as he tugged up his shorts and kicked at a rock on the ground.  “Guys, we’re going to get in trouble.  Everyone else is going.”

 

Mark sighed and adjusted his glasses.  “Just because everyone’s doing it doesn’t mean it’s a good idea.  Didn’t you see that old movie where everyone on board the airplane eats the fish and they all get sick?”

 

As we looked up at the big “Camper Appreciation Night” banner above the cafeteria door, I decided then and there we would ditch.  Not like we’d miss much.  A couple of songs, some pats on the back, the “Hope-pache Awards,” which everyone was pretty sure were insensitive to somebody, somewhere.

 

In fact, the only good thing about camp at all was the reason we were ditching.  “Yeah, Mark, let’s do it.”

 

“My man!” Mark slapped me on the back, a big wide, stupid grin on his face.  “Even if it turns out to be nothing special, at least we had an adventure.  That’s what camp’s all about, right?”

 

Camp Quiet Ridge had not been an adventure, to say the least.  Oh, sure, me, Mark and Tom had always had fun at our old camp, Camp Bendix Point, but it had closed that year thanks to a lice infestation.  Luckily (that “luckily” in gigantic, sarcastic, hipster air quotes), an old camp, refurbished and under new management, got a hold of the Bendix Point mailing list and suddenly every parent in the tri-county area was thanking their lucky stars that their rug rats had something to do that summer.

 

The director, Barry, seemed like a nice enough guy, but after the first day rained out the archery competition and it was discovered that most of the canoes had been ruined by a squirrel, things went downhill from there.  The nature hikes were slow and nobody saw any cool animals, the crafts weren’t anything to write home about, and the counselors were all bored.  To top it all off, during the week somebody had smashed up the windows in the cafeteria.  They were never caught, but plywood had to be put up.  Thankfully the lights inside worked… most of the time.

 

Seeing how his whole effort was going down the drain, Barry decided to cancel that upcoming Thursday’s wallet making session to invite the whole place down by the lake to hear him tell ghost stories.  It seemed like a long shot, but by that point, pretty much everyone in the place felt so bad for him that we all obliged.

 

We didn’t need to worry.  He was good.  Really good.  Some of his stuff really did make our skin crawl, and a few times I looked out over the lake to the woods on the far side, imagining ghost and goblins lurking out in the woods, watching us.

 

The tale that got to me the most, though, was one he told about a family, which had camped out there many years ago, that had mysteriously disappeared.  A young man, his wife and their two children were warned that there was a murderer that lived out in the woods, but they didn’t listen.  The killer lived in an old house, built by a logger at the turn of the century, and they set up camp far too close to his home.  Then, one night, while they slept, he came upon their tent, and with a few fell swoops of an axe, he killed every last one of them.  He then feasted on the remains and buried them up in his shack.

 

I recall Barry finished his cautionary tale with a totally unnecessary warning: “So don’t go out into the woods alone, because the killer might be out there.  He could be anywhere…even…HERE!”  Then he jumped at a couple of campers, who screamed with delight.

 

The story sounded like total crap.  Ever since the slasher movies of the 80s, every camp has some story about some murderer roaming the woods; at this point they’re practically mascots.  Heck, even Bendix Point had the legend of Ol’ Charley, a hermit who chased bad little kids with a chainsaw in hand and a bag over his head.

 

The thing is…there was a house.  At least, that’s what Mark said.  He had wandered off on Tuesday while our bunkhouse was trying to put together a Papier-mâché totem pole in the activity center up in the hills, and he saw a small little house, barely bigger than a hut, hiding up a little ways in the woods.  He didn’t think much of it at the time; only when he heard the story did he put two and two together.

 

Now, none of us believed for a second that we’d find a bunch of dead bodies up in that house.  But the three of us were the curious type; something like that was just too good a deal to pass up.  It was away from camp, probably abandoned, and we figured we’d have a ton of fun digging through trash to see if we could find anything to take home.  At that point, somebody’s old junk was better than any of the crap we had made that whole week at camp.  My leather wallet, for instance, looked more like a foot than anything I could keep money in.

 

Besides, we wouldn’t be gone all night… we’d be back before anyone called on a search.  And if they did, so what?  Considering our phonebook sized permanent records at school, it’s not like we weren’t used to getting into trouble.  Tom was the best among us, but he still did whatever we told him to do.

 

“I still don’t know…”

 

I rolled my eyes.  “Tom, if you don’t come with us, I’m putting a snake in your underwear before we go.”

 

“There’s no snakes in these woods.”

 

“I’ll buy one.”

 

“Geez, all right!”

 

See?  Did whatever we said.

 

Mark led the way.  We had just reached the edge of the camp center when we heard whistling, and saw Barry walking around outside the mess hall.  We ducked low, and watched him as he went over to the main doors, looking around as if to make sure everyone was safely in, and pulled the latches on the doors so they could shut.

 

I did feel a little twinge of guilt.  I really couldn’t help but feel bad for the guy.  He kind of reminded me of what Tom might have looked like when got older…a little chunky, balding a bit under that cap of his, but always smiling and friendly, even if a little gullible and naïve.  Still, the lure of adventure won out, and Mark whispered for us to go.  Barry wasn’t paying attention anyway… he was fumbling in his pocket for keys or something.

 

We skirted up into the hills, back up to the activity center.  It was slow-going, being uphill, and we had to hold up for Tom once or twice, as he wasn’t exactly in the kind of shape required for most summer camps.  Once we’d made it to the top, Mark pointed up into the pine trees.

 

“Up there.  As soon as you break the treeline, you can see it.  Probably take five minutes to get there.”

 

I smiled.  “Awesome.  Let’s go.”

 

We waited a moment.  Mark shifted his weight.  “You go first.”

 

“You brought us here.  You go.”

 

“I told you we shouldn’t have come.”

 

We both turned to Tom.  “Shut up, Tom!”

An owl hooted.  Great.  We hadn’t seen anything other than a few squirrels and songbirds that year up to that point. Of course, the wildlife picked the worst possible time to show up, just as we started to get cold feet.

 

I decided we wouldn’t get anywhere unless someone stepped up, and if that wasn’t going to be Mark, it certainly wasn’t going to be Tom, either.  “All right, fine. I’ll go first.”

 

Up until that point, we had relied on the moonlight to lead us, but once we stepped into the trees it got dark.  Really dark.  Like “locked in the closet by my older brother when I was 6” dark.  I got out my little penlight from the pack of camping accessories my parents got me on my first day of camp and pointed it up the hill, shining it around looking for the house.

 

It took a little while to find it, but once my beam landed on it, there was no mistaking it.  It looked like a place a logger would have built, with mostly wooden walls, but somebody who was clearly not a logger had added a crummy side room onto the place.  At one time or another it appeared to have been painted white, and its windows were busted out; its door hung loosely upon its hinges. I remember thinking at the time that it was way more awesome than “Camper Appreciation Night.”

 

I climbed up, with Mark following closely behind, and Tom stumbling his way after the both of us, until we reached the door, and I pushed it open.

 

Inside, the place was a wreck.  Busted, useless furniture filled nearly every corner.  Old tin cans, rusted and forgotten, covered a large portion of the floor.  The mess continued on through an open doorway to an old kitchen, with a busted gas stove and an on old latching refrigerator, the type mothers always say never to play with.  There’d been no power to them, obviously, but it was still a wonderland of garbage to sift through. And that’s when I saw something metallic gleaming, partially obscured by the dirt and leaves littering the kitchen floor.  I brushed the remaining dirt away and found a handle.

 

“Holy crap.  Guys, look.”

 

Tom came over first, and his eyes widened.  “Is that…”

 

I nodded, and pulled it hard.  A square of the floor rose up, revealing a small, dirty crawlspace, and pure darkness beyond.

 

Tom gasped.  “You think there’s…”

 

“Of course not.  There’s no dead body under here.”  But even I couldn’t believe my own words.  What if some psycho really had been living up in these woods and buried some bodies in here?  It certainly looked possible.

 

“Mark.  Mark, come over here and…”

 

I looked behind me and saw that Mark was still in the main room, bent over and thoroughly examining something.  He was turning it over in his hands.  I left the trap door open and went over to see what he was doing.

 

“What is that?”

 

When Mark looked up at me, his pale, shaken expression was enough to put me ill at ease.  But then I saw the source of his concern for myself.

 

In his hands was a pair of binoculars – modern ones – only slightly scuffed and dirty, where hands had been touching them.

 

“Where did you find those?”

 

Mark pointed below the broken window.  I had overlooked that pile while investigating the kitchen, but it now had our full attention, and it was obvious in an instant that the things we were seeing shouldn’t have been in that house.  We saw cans that were not only in pristine condition, but sealed. Beside a pile of old, tattered blankets was a modern sleeping bag.

 

I looked out the window.  Most of the outside was unobservable in the darkness, but there was a small spot where the moonlight made it possible to get a glimpse of our surroundings.  Taking the binoculars from Mark, I looked out at that point.  It wasn’t much, but I could see the center of camp and the cafeteria from there.  It was far off, but clear enough that, in the daytime, I would have been able to see a lot.

 

Then something moved in front of the light.  I lowered the binoculars, and I saw a shape amidst the blackness, its outline visible thanks to a small light it was carrying, which was pointed to the ground. It looked a bit like a flashlight beam, though it was covered, presumably to keep others from seeing it. For several moments I stared trancelike at the wandering stranger, until the sudden sound of approaching footsteps startled me, breaking the silence.

 

“Oh, crap!”  I whispered, dropping the binoculars. I grabbed Mark.  “Someone’s coming!”

 

Mark froze, his earlier resolve to ditch camp seemingly gone.  I grabbed his arm and looked for a rear exit.

 

There wasn’t one.  There was no door out to the back.  And all the windows faced the front. Apparently loggers were not known for following fire escape standards.

 

“Guys!  Here!”

 

Tom waved to the trap door.  I had my second thoughts, to be sure – the crawlspace wasn’t exactly inviting – but I wasn’t weighing many options.  Whoever – or whatever – was coming towards us was definitely not a camp counselor, and my mind conjured up nothing but images of chainsaws, knives, and the thought of us all skinned and hanging from the rooftop flooded my mind.  With those images flashing through my head, we really had no choice.  I pulled Mark towards the trap door and dropped in.  Tom came in after us and pulled it shut.

 

It was quiet upstairs for a few moments.  It was dry and dusty, and I could feel cobwebs all over.  I wasn’t sure if there were spiders still living in them, but I still felt light prickles going up and down my skin.

 

The front door opened.  We held our breath as footsteps trumped back and forth in the next room, followed by a short, sharp yell.  There was a thunk sound, and a can went scurrying across the floor.

 

Oh, no, I thought. He must’ve noticed his stuff was touched.  Through the darkness, Tom reached for me and grabbed me by the shoulder, squeezing tightly.  Normally I would have elbowed him as hard as possible, but right then I didn’t mind in the least.

 

The footsteps shuffled around a little, and we watched in horror as the beam of the covered light danced through the gaps in the floorboards, until at last the intruder stopped in the kitchen… directly over the spot where we were hiding.

 

The light shone over the trap door.  The same trap door we had recently unearthed.

 

As the light passed over the three of us, we tried to duck down as low as we could, moving as little as possible, and holding our breath.  But in a moment, the light caught his face, and I saw who had been living in the house.

 

It was a man, older than my dad, maybe in his 50s, if I could even guess.  He was dirty, with brown streaks smudging his face, but while I normally imagined homeless guys as having long beards, crazy unkempt hair and even crazier eyes, this man only had a few days’ worth of stubble and short hair with a few flecks of gray.  His eyes, though, were constantly moving, as if something was always darting around in front of him.  They were also wide, practically bulging out of his head, like he was genuinely scared that something was in the room with him.

 

And then he shone the light right between the boards.  The brightness of the beam forced me to blink and avert my gaze as my pupils dilated abruptly. And in that moment, his eyes stopped darting around.

 

Tom and Mark didn’t move, didn’t breathe, even.  But none of that helped when I saw the smile slowly start to cross the man’s face.

 

I waited for him to fling open the trap door and yank us all out and tie us up, ready to put us on a spit.  But instead, he went over and grabbed the stove, and with a horrible squealing noise he positioned it over the top of the trap door.  Once the dragging stopped, the man trudged into the other room, leaving us alone in the dark. Tom began whimpering. Meanwhile, I put my eye as close to the floorboards as I could, and I stared in silence.

 

Courtesy of what little light the old man’s dim flashlight offered, I watched him rummage through his pile of things. A moment later he found what he was searching for: a long object with one end larger and fatter than the other.  When he hoisted his light again, I saw it was an axe.

 

My blood stopped circulating.  A darkness greater than that of the crawlspace seemed to envelop me, and the world appeared to swirl.

 

I awoke a short time later, to the sight of Tom before me, slapping me repeatedly.

 

“Jim!  Wake up!  You fainted!”

 

I sat up.  “What?  What happened?”

 

I heard something click, and my penlight came on.  Tom swung it under his face.

 

“He left.  I don’t know where he went, but he’s not here.”

 

I rubbed my face, and noticed my hands were shaking.  We weren’t dead… not yet, anyway.  “Where’s Mark?”

 

Tom shone the light on Mark, who was balled up and rocking back and forth.  On the one hand, I didn’t blame him for freaking out.  But I did want to crawl over and slap him for getting us into this.

 

I pushed at the trap door, but the stove now blocking our way had to weigh more than the three of us combined; we weren’t getting out that way. 

“So, what now?”

 

Tom shook his head.  “I don’t know.  But there’s got to be something.  Here, take the light and look.”

 

The crawlspace was incredibly gross.  No matter where I directed the beam of my light, I discovered old cobwebs, debris, and even the bones of squirrels and rats that had gotten stuck over the years, a sight that didn’t exactly boost my confidence.  There were no spaces around the edge we could crawl through; where there wasn’t raw earth, there was stone foundation.  If we wanted to dig our way out, we’d have a very hard time doing it.

 

I turned my attention to the floor above us.  In certain places, the dirt was so thick that it completely blocked our view of the house above. Regardless, I tested each and every one of the boards I could reach.

 

It was near the old refrigerator, near the rear of the space, where I found our first and only possible means of escape.  Perhaps the ceiling had a leak at one time, but for whatever reason the wood there was really soft, and when I scraped it with my fingernail, bits of it flaked off.

 

“Get over here!” I called out.

 

Tom came right away, but Mark had to be coaxed.  I told everyone we needed to get on our backs and kick as hard as we could.  Tom and Mark agreed to give it a try, as we had no other options. The first collective kick merely shook the floor, but the second strike elicited a loud crunching noise as part of the floor splintered. I would have jumped for joy if I’d been able to. A third followed, producing more cracks, and then a fourth, fifth, and a sixth…

Ten kicks later, the floorboards were in their death throes, and with a final push outwards and upwards, they finally gave way.  I wasted no time.  I clambered up through the hole, wholly unconcerned about splinters and scrapes.  I didn’t care.  We were free, and cuts were the least of our worries.

 

I helped Tom and Mark out, and we bolted out the front door with abandon. We took off down the hill, yelling and screaming our heads off, hoping someone from camp would hear us.

 

As we entered the campgrounds and ran past the nurse’s station, our collective instincts kicked in and we came to a halt, and stood silently.  Something was wrong.  Looking around, we noticed that the camp was only barely lit.  No one had come to help us, or even stepped out of a building to see what all the noise was about.

The camp was deserted.

 

The only place that was still lit was the cafeteria.  We ran up to it and tried the front door. It didn’t budge, but something on it rattled.  In my haste to try to get in, I had failed to notice the large metal chain, visible in the moonlight, that had been padlocked into place around the handles.

 

We went door to door, and found the exact same thing over and over again: chains and padlocks.  Only the final door was accessible. It had obviously been secured like the others at some point, but someone must have really wanted to get in. What remained of its chains was in pieces on the ground.  I hesitated before I opened the door.

 

We found ourselves in a back hall that led to several different doors.  The closest opened into the kitchen… again, empty, and again, not what we should’ve seen on Camper Appreciation Night.  The lights were on, though, and it felt safer than the back hallway.  The only other exit from the kitchen was through the double doors that led into the cafeteria itself.  We listened intensely for a moment, but heard nothing to suggest we had company.

 

I pushed against the doors.  Something was blocking them, but whatever the obstruction was, it began to give way as I applied more pressure.  I mustered all the strength I had and shoved as hard as I could… and to this day I wish I had left that door shut.

 

The scene before me was one that will stay with me the rest of my life.  The hall was soaked in blood, from top to bottom.  Bodies lay at grotesque angles, covering the entire floor.  We found all of the tables overturned and splintered.  There were deep gashes in the plywood window frames, accompanied by streaks of blood and fragments of broken fingernails.  Limbs dangled from the rafters.

 

It was an absolute slaughterhouse.  The whole camp must have been in there, every last man, woman, child and bored teenage counselor.  All in pieces.  Pieces with the flesh ripped right off their bones.

 

I scrambled backwards and shut the door.  That was when we heard the scream.  The unholy, awful scream.  It came from the back hallway.

 

I ran towards it.  Everything told me to run away, but a small part of me needed an explanation for the carnage I’d just seen. Tom and Mark, wide-eyed and trembling, stood and stared as I sprinted in the direction of the sound.  I thought I heard them calling out to me, demanding I come back.  I didn’t listen.

 

The sound had come from the head office.  I yanked open the door, and there, pushing me back into the hallway, was the hobo.

 

He held me with his right hand, and he looked me right in the eyes.  I looked away… and realized why he wasn’t using his left hand.  His whole left arm was gone, raggedly torn away.

 

His grip loosened, and he collapsed on the floor.

 

I then heard noises coming from the office, a series of wheezing, gurgling grunts.  I was drawn forward; I couldn’t resist even if I had wanted to.  I felt as if the nightmare wouldn’t end until I knew what was happening, and who was responsible.

 

Something round and pulsating poked up from behind the main desk.  I went around it, and saw the shape was the stretched stomach of some… thing.  I tried to get a good lock at its face, but couldn’t see much due to fact that an axe had been buried deep within it.  It appeared to be… melting.  Puddling like a candle into carpeting, and leaving behind a rotten stench.  Holes began to appear in its impossibly large stomach, and I could see fingers… shoes…

 

It had…eaten everyone.  The whole camp.  Everyone but the three of us.

 

No.  Not it.  Him. 

 

Even without seeing its face, I recognized the worn baseball cap of Barry, still perched on its head.

 

The rest was a blur.  Tom called the police.  They came.  They comforted us as best they could.  What had remained of Barry was gone, leaving behind only the cannibalized remains of the people he’d failed to fully digest.

 

I led the police to the hut where the now dead man with the axe had come from.  They ran prints on his remaining arm.  They blamed him for all the deaths.

Everyone’s parents were informed.  Our own parents hugged us tight, wailing and weeping tears of joy that we had not been among the victims.  The three of us – Tom, Mark and I – never went to camp again… though ironically, I ended up seeing a lot of counselors.

The police did find a match for the fingerprints.  Forty years ago, a 12-year-old boy by the name of Jeremiah had been found in the woods, unable to speak.  No one knew what happened to his family… from what the police could put together, they had all gone camping near Quiet Ridge, but their campsite was found empty.  As the boy wouldn’t speak to anyone, let alone testify, the authorities assumed the worst. However, no bodies or evidence of foul play was ever found.

Jeremiah spent years in halfway homes, never saying a word to anyone.  He wasn’t violent, or mean-spirited, but he had never operated at a level that suggested he could take care of himself, and ultimately he was confined to the Newbridge Retreat Facility.  He’d been there ever since, until, believe it or not, the same Wednesday that my friends and I were at Camp Quiet Ridge. That night, without warning, and to the dismay of his caretakers, he left.  A crumpled flier for the camp, which been hastily torn from a bulletin board in the visitors’ area, was later found in his room.

 

I saw the flier.  It had a picture of Barry’s smiling face on it.  I know because the same one had been sent to our house.  When police showed us other pictures of Barry, they looked nothing like the Barry we knew.  We had never known the real Barry at all, just whatever had pretended to be him all that time.  My guess is that whatever was responsible for the massacre at camp had dealt with Barry just before Camp Quiet Ridge opened, and no one was the wiser.  Suddenly the broken canoes, the broken and boarded-up windows, and the warning urging us to never leave the camp grounds made sense. The events of Camper Appreciation Night hadn’t been done on a whim; they’d been planned for some time.

 

I could only imagine what Jeremiah had gone through, keeping his knowledge of the beast a secret for forty years.  Whatever his reasons for keeping quiet until the end, I now have my own secrets, and I intend to keep mine. The last remaining knowledge of what Barry truly was will be buried with me someday.  But what exactly he was, I still don’t know.  I don’t want to know.  And thanks to Jeremiah, who sacrificed himself in his efforts to destroy it and save our lives, I hope I never will.

 

In the end, the man we had figured for a crazed madman trying to kill us was, in fact, an unlikely hero, keeping us safe in his own strange way.  More ironically, Tom, Mark and I – who as kids couldn’t keep out of trouble – are alive today because we disobeyed camp rules.

 

If there’s a moral in this, I don’t know what it is.  It doesn’t seem like we should’ve survived what became known as the “Massacre at Quiet Ridge.”  I still have nightmares.  Mark’s are the worst. Tom, thankfully, is doing okay.  In fact, ever since then, we let him make most of the decisions now.  Essentially, we’ve all recovered, as much as one can, I suppose, and we’ve moved on, graduated, gotten jobs, settled down and raised families. We should consider ourselves lucky.

 

But there is one lingering thought that still remains.  I always think back to that day, to what Barry really was, and can’t help but wonder if he was the only one of his kind. I hope and pray there were no others.  I’m not about to go on some adventure to find out.  I’m no hero.  These days I try to stay as far away from the woods as possible.  This means that all of you – and your children – are on your own.

If you’re going to camp, or sending your kids to one, and you hear rumor of a “Camper Appreciation Night,” watch out. You may find that the camp director’s idea of appreciation is far, far different than your own.

tombstones

Story © Seth Paul – All Rights Reserved.
No reproduction or use of this content is permitted without the express written consent of the author.