Camp Minnetonka was like any other summer camp, and this particular trip was to last a week. I sat towards the rear of the bus and quickly joined a conversation between a group of boys about some popular thing or another. It was those four boys I’d spend the next four days with. The campgrounds consisted of seven cabins, six of which were for the campgoers and set up dormitory style, the other for the counselors.
I was in Cabin C, and luckily so were two of the kids I met on the bus. Ben and Luke were as similar to me as anyone could have been. We liked all the same things, did all the same activities together, and most importantly, we thought “lights out” happened far too early. For the first night we just stayed up talking and playing cards, The second night, however, the three of us decided to sneak out of Cabin C and wander around the rest of the campgrounds.
Under the sun, the campgrounds looked inviting, with a baseball field, basketball court, a huge open field for a myriad of activities, horse stables, an archery range and more all surrounded by dense woodlands, but under the moon it took on a more menacing guise. Me and my fellow ten-year-olds snuck into the woods with no real goal in mind; Ben had suggested ghost stories and I’d feigned enthusiasm, even though I didn’t really know any worth telling.
The woods were big and would have been easy enough to get lost in were it not for the single bright light that glowed from the edge of the grounds, which we suspected was put there specifically for kids like us. I was more scared at the time than I would have admitted, but not wanting to seem the coward, I trekked through the trees behind my camp friends, all false eagerness and fervor. It seemed darker than it should have, in retrospect. The tall, full trees did quite a bit to block the moon and stars but even so, without any flashlights, it seemed like the shadows were draped in shadows.
Luke was the de facto leader of our expedition, and though he’d never been there, he led us through the woods as if he’d made the same hike a hundred times before. We eventually came to a clearing, in the center of which was a firepit full of ashes surrounded by a few logs intended for use as seats. We sat there for a short while, with Luke and Ben each telling the scariest story they knew; it’s odd, I remember these events as vividly as if they’d happened yesterday, but I can’t for the life of me remember what their stories were about. If I remember I’ll let you know.
Ben finished his story, and it was that moment I was dreading, because I knew whatever I could come up with would pale in comparison. Just as I was going to give my best effort, which was to be a dramatized version of what I’d imagined had happened to Kayla a couple years prior, Luke spoke up.
”What is that?” Luke said, looking deeper into the woods.
There was a short silence before Ben broke it with a “Ha-ha, very funny.”
”No dude, I’m serious. Look.” Luke stood up and pointed towards where he was looking.
There was something there, something big and still and shrouded in darkness. Luke started walking towards it, with Ben following first, then me, if for no other reason than I didn’t want to be in the darkness of the woods by myself; I would have so much rather have ignored whatever it was and gone back to the cabin. As we got closer, it became clear that it was a building of some kind.
“It’s probably another cabin, man, there’s probably a bunch of counselors in there.” Ben said, suddenly not wanting to go any further. But Luke wouldn’t let up.
“No way, why would they have counselors all the way out here? It looks empty.” he challenged the idea, not getting a response from Ben or myself because neither of us had one.
We stepped past a few trees, two of which were cracked halfway up their trunks, the top halves leaning towards each other making an X, a kind of crude archway. Finally the structure came into clear enough view. My heart skipped a few beats, my legs felt weak, and I felt as if I was going to vomit. There it was. The house I’d spent every day since Kayla went missing trying to convince myself wasn’t real, was real, and stood underneath the trees.
I stood there unable to move, but the rest of the world kept going as Luke and Ben walked towards the house. I was determined to not let what happened almost two years prior happen again.
”Stop!” I yelled out. The two boys turned their heads toward me, ostensibly waiting for a reason why they shouldn’t continue forth. I didn’t want to sound like a complete crazy person and alienate these people another five days left on the camping trip, so I squeaked out the first thing that came to mind. ”We can’t go in there. Just don’t. We need to go back.”
Ben heeded my words and hesitated, but Luke ignored me with a scoff and continued walking towards the house.
”STOP!” I yelled, with an urgency that gave Luke pause. ”Trust me. We need to go back.”
”Yeah…I’m gonna go back, dude.” Ben agreed with me, much to my relief.
Luke let out a sigh and called us both babies for not wanting to check out the house, but he didn’t resist leaving. I was so thankful that night that the house of my nightmares hadn’t claimed another person, even if that person was someone I’d only just met. Despite that, I didn’t get any more sleep that night, knowing that the house was in those woods, just waiting to take someone away. The next day went by without incident, with myself, Luke, Ben, and the other boys I’d spent the bus ride there with all doing the activities offered together; it was the most fun I’d had since Kayla had gone missing. Luke had commented throughout the day that we should’ve gone into the house, how cool it probably was, and urged us that we should go back that night, but Ben and I both declined. I was exhausted by the end of the day, and that night, I fell asleep only moments after my head hit my pillow.
A blaring alarm woke me the next morning. I sprung out of bed disoriented, hearing a voice coming from a loudspeaker.
“…bel, report to the main office immediately. There will be no punishment, but you need to return the grounds now. Come back Luke…”
As soon as I heard his name, I snapped my head around towards his bed, and he indeed wasn’t there, his sheets and blanket a mess atop the mattress. Just then, a counselor rushed into the room and in as calm a voice as she could muster, told us we all needed to line up for count. I stepped outside, like I had each of the other mornings, but this time there were a handful of police cars scattered about the grounds, and I could hear various voices calling out Luke’s name in every direction. I stood against the cabin just next to the door, more nervous than I’d ever been in my entire life. I knew where Luke had gone, but I didn’t want to get in trouble for sneaking out. I tried rationalizing that he was probably just lost in the woods somewhere, which considering, I thought would be a much better scenario.
However, a few moments after the count was completed, I decided I could get through a punishment, and that I needed to do the right thing. I took a few steps toward one of the police officers that was talking to another counselor when a voice came over the officer’s walkie-talkie.
”JL926, this is KS512, we’ve got something, copy?”
The officer quickly snatched the radio from his belt and replied, asking where they were and what they’d found. I listened as intently as I’d ever listened before, and the person on the other end of the radio chimed back in almost immediately.
”We found a shoe…got his initials in the tongue of it. Head northeast about 10 minutes, we’re just past a couple of fallen trees, looks like a big X you can walk under, you can’t miss it, we’re right past that, it’s a little open field in the middle of all the trees.”
I think he kept talking, but after hearing that, my attention drifted away and I knew Luke was gone. I looked at Ben, and he shook his head at me, not wanting me to say anything to the police. Despite that, in any normal scenario I would have, but with this, there was no point. No one had taken me seriously when it happened to Kayla, and no one would take me seriously now. So, knowing it wouldn’t make a difference either way, I never said a word.
That was the last time anyone ever saw Luke.
I had attributed the night before to nothing more than a simple nightmare, however vivid it may have been. The years of therapy I’d had to help me through the “sightings of the of the house” had conditioned my mind to think rationally, and I was grateful for it. There couldn’t be a house that magically moved from place to place, and even if there were, who was I for it to follow me? It all sounded so ridiculous to my adult self, the ramblings of a scared child. But when I picked up the picture of the teenage girl from that box, I was as sure as I’d ever been that the house was real, and that I was in it.
I didn’t want to investigate further. ”We need to leave. Now. Kimmy, now.” I demanded as I dropped the picture back onto the pile of polaroids and stood up. She asked me what was wrong, and I told her it didn’t matter, but that I was leaving, and under no circumstances would I leave without her or Katie. She saw the determination in my eyes and acquiesced. We hastily packed our things and got Katie together, who questioned why we were leaving. Just as we were about to walk out the front door, I stopped. The idea that I was about to live a horror movie cliche indeed crossed my mind, but there was something else I needed to do.
After telling Kimmy to get Katie out to the car and start the vehicle, I went back upstairs and pulled down the attic stairs. I went up until my upper half was over the threshold, intent on pullin the box of photos close to me, but I looked all around the entrance where the box had been, and it was nowhere. I was about to give up and leave when it caught my eye. At the far end of the attic, with the sun shining through the window over it like a spotlight, sat the box that not five minutes earlier I’d left open, almost flush with the attic door.
I hesitated, probably for far too long, but I ultimately decided I needed to look in the box one last time. I went as fast as I could, ducking and racing from the door to the opposite end of the attic, and when I got to the box I tore it open and started rifling through the hundreds of polaroid photos. Despite leaving the one of “Kayla” on top of the rest, it wasn’t there now, although I might have overlooked it in my haste. Instead I found a different one, one of the same girl, only this time a close up of her frightened face.
I kept digging. There were pictures of upwards of 50 people, some happy, some afraid, some laughing, some crying. Eventually I came to a small collection of photos of a boy of maybe 14, and that boy looked like Luke. I took that picture and the one of “Kayla” and hurriedly left the attic, and finally, the house. My wife and daughter were in the car waiting as I’d asked them to be, and I began driving us away from the house.
Kimmy didn’t ask why I’d wanted to leave to suddenly; she knew I would tell her when I was ready. That night we stopped at a motel the next state over, and while Kimmy and Katie slept, I got on my laptop. I went on Google Earth, cursing myself for not thinking to do so when we’d first learned of the house, if for no other reason that to just get an idea of its condition. It wouldn’t have helped anyways.
The house on Google Earth was entirely different from the one we’d just spent the night in.