I was born on the first of October in 1996.
Starting as a rising fourth grader, I began going to a weeklong summer camp in rural Alabama. I could go on about the fun things we used to do there, but they are no longer relevant and begin to fade from memory. The beautiful treeline around the lake remains, the green of the underwater gloom, the gravel and grass making up the ground in a way most strange to me.
As we were stratified by year, my friends were other boys of my age. We knew a few of the girls, but most campers were not already friends of ours and remained strangers. Apart from the dance, there was no reason to interact with them, explaining our total uncertainty about them by the time that came around every year.
C'est la vie.
Though we knew little of them, there were three sisters close to our age. We knew they were sisters without even but discussing them, for all dressed the same, down to the dark ribbon around their pretty necks. That told them for sisters if naught else would, those serpentine lengths of flesh that extended from their shoulders. They reminded me of the black and white pictures of those women with gold coils about their necks, the ones from the islands of Southeast Asia. They kept to themselves, though a girl told me she and her friends tried to reach out to them. Their physiology was most likely the result of a genetic disorder, I had seen such people before. It was they who lived the sharpest lives with bent backs and cleft lips, sharper still for the faces that turned ever away.
And so from us they turned.
The oldest among them had the worst balance, or perhaps the worst neck. From time to time it would hang, but she could not allow it in any other position but straight up. She would tighten the ribbon, but it was not rigid. It made me wonder how she slept, or bathed, or lived aught but a tortured existence of keeping her head high. Once or twice that week I'd heard in the distance that she kept her head aloft in the showers, and thus her hair unwashed. I heard one among them guess it was to keep the ribbon out of the water, for never could she remove it.
I never saw her near the waterfront, she had listed for no activities there, likely preferring the less physical things to do. It was her last year, and she had long since learned what she enjoyed, as now I realize. One day, the siren went off three times. We knew this to be the fire alarm, it had been beaten into our squishy brains. Campers in different areas sought refuge in different places, I remember crouching on a slab of concrete for what felt like an hour. Across the camp, a friend of mine remembered it differently.
At the waterfront, he leaped into the lake readily. After all, it was only a drill, or at least that was what he had guessed. Other campers were uncertain, since our adult leaders used common sense and did not announce the fire drill ahead of time, making it an actually usable means of testing preparation. Staff were instructed not to tell us, if they knew. Some did not and, doing the logical thing, assumed there was a real fire. They forced everyone into the water, even those who weren't strong swimmers. My friend never saw it happen, but he heard the scream. The girl had gone under.
Staff on hand reacted quickly, having guessed that some were not fit to swim, and jumped in. Had she been a normal girl, it would have been fine. Had she been a normal girl, they would have been right in making her go into the water. They forced their way through the aquatic crowd of kids, but she had sunk to the bottom by the time they reached where she had been. I remember that lake, the bright green plant life that lives far below, I remember having to strain myself to even get a strand of it, and I knew it went farther down.
The girl surfaced as soon as they arrived.
She had come up without a head.
Children screamed as the young man held that mangled body over his head, trying to get out of the lake. From what my friend saw of his expression, the horror had overtaken him as well. His eyes were aglow with a mad light.
For the rest of the night there were efforts to retrieve the head. It took the bravest and strongest diver among the staff to reach into the depths for it, only just managing to grasp it by the floating hair. That man, boy, really, he was younger than I am- was the counselor for my cabin. He came back late that night and muttered in his sleep. It took no great effort to piece together that in the green filters of light in the underwater gloom, the head seemed to speak to him.
"If only someone had told me- if only if only if only if only..."
The next year was far worse.
I remember speaking to the second girl, if only once. In truth, I thought she was beautiful, the way her long black hair fell down her back. Like her sisters, she stood apart from the others, even more so after the death of her older sister. The other girls, however, seemed to think there was another reason.
She truly took pride in her hair, as one might expect, and went to great lengths to maintain it. Even in blackness it shone, and the boys were not the only ones to notice, nor were we alone in how we saw her, as she turned down every offer to be a date to the annual dance. It surprised only her when she found her hair getting tangled in places. I can still hear someone say 'Well, what did she think, growing it that long. There's only so much products can do to keep it from tangling.' It seemed to be the attitude about camp. Bear in mind, we thought little of it because we thought little of her. Other things occupied our minds from day to day. We spoke of them only in passing. I guess we thought they wanted nothing to do with us, but that was really no excuse.
One morning she woke with her hair tangled in her bedposts. Delicately, she unraveled herself, unwilling to say anything. A friend of mine watched, confused. She wasn't sure how that was possible, unless someone was being mean. It went on. In archery, she found an arrow tangled in the girl's hair, and offered to help her get it out. The girl made a nasty face, but let it go. The wooden missile was out quickly and without protest. My friend decided to follow her, for reasons unknown to me for many years, until at last I could truly call her a friend.
Later in the day she was whispering to herself in an empty cabin when she believed no one else around to hear.
"stopitstopitstopitstopitstopitstopitstopitstopitstopitstopitstopitstopitstopitstopitstopitstopit" The girl who ever had held her head high sank to the floor, tears forming. "Why does this keep happening? I try to be nice." She sat up abruptly and began to talk to no one. "If you do not want to talk, fine, I never wanted to talk to you anyway, but don't do this..." Unsure of what to make of it, the listening girl backed away from the cabin, remembering some other responsibility.
I never blamed her for what happened.
The following morning she was woken by screaming, screaming from all sides. Long black hair was tied tightly to the upper bedposts, the plank between them, even the latch on the window and a nail in the wall. The girl woke and was unable to keep herself from panicking, a wave of momentum passed through her body. A counselor tried to restrain her.
"You! You! It was you, wasn't it?! All of you?!"
"Please, we don't know just-" With hands bound by her own hair, the girl forced her away, grabbing a pair of scissors from the kit that slept with her.
"Is this what you want?!"Swinging wildly, she began to cut her bonds, doing her best to keep others at bay. Climbing up onto the bed, the counselor managed to get a hold of her, but she twisted and writhed as more of her hair fell, loosed. A single, thick strand wrapped around her neck as she twisted. Finally jamming the scissors hard into her captor's leg, she forced herself free and over the edge of the bed.
Her hair was not long enough.
No one knows how long she hung there, motionless, dead. My friend remembers no word spoken above a whisper, but whispers there were, so many of them. She could barely hear them, much less remember them. For a time, she believed them. They worsened as the ambulance arrived. I heard them between blasts of the siren that rang through the trees as they came, as they loaded, as they left, the doctors and the technicians and the rest. The children spoke of spirits and a curse, a work of black magic, their whispers soft and only among the clusters we would form. We were children. To this day there are times I wish that truly excused us of our sins, but I still remember the howling from the woods that would mean the same thing as the sirens.
The following year, a pall of silence fell over the camp and the final girl. I remember we had all been spoken to concerning her, by our parents, by the adults and in the dark was the only time we dared share this experience, the same warning we had received. Put in the nicest terms the girl was trouble, in the worst, a witch. We were cautioned to keep an eye out, and by the word of God we did. We stared from our distant watchposts as she passed by, our clusters that we would form. For years I believed I forgot what cabin in which she slept, or perhaps I never knew. I was wrong.
She had her own cabin in the woods, she had simply found it on the first day and saved everyone the trouble of sending her there. Perhaps she had already known about it, I never found out, I never saw her again after that year. The days passed as they usually did and one by one, we stopped holding our breath, I remember beginning to enjoy myself again, I swore that on this, the last year of camp I would enjoy it the best I could. It was then I decided I would return to the camp as a counselor. Whatever memories would follow me, it was my responsibility to ensure following years were not as ill as my own.
It was then that another player entered the field.
We all knew his name, we all knew his face in the distant trees we swore we could see it. He was the camper who never left, the boy who slept alone in the green light that came down as the trees seemed to glow in the moonlight. We knew not whether he was mangled or born to be cast out, only the oldest among us in earlier years would have known what had happened, but the stories changed between each of them and some simply refused to speak of it, though they knew.
His name was a curse, an unsettling word to all. There were those who knew, believed, or spoke naught of him, but none who spoke ill. If you spoke of him, you were a child and if you were a child you were afraid of that lurking evil in the dark corner of the room, the disembodied green eyes that shone behind your own eyelids. You never forgot his gaze if you saw it.
None of us knew what was happening between them, none of us knew for a long time, none of us, for that matter, could positively say either knew the other existed, but we suspected. How swiftly flew rumor between children, we knew not fact from falsehood until that fateful night. The dance was exactly what we expected, awkward, long winded, and maybe fun here and there, it was the two dancers that had our attention. That night the girl stood not apart from all others, she and the boy danced among us, that night the boy was more than a ghost, and while most of us did not know what we saw, since neither of them wore truly familiar faces, some of us can still remember their eyes locked on each other, finally and totally unconcerned about the world around them.
I was one of those people.
I was also one of the ones who followed them outside as the dance was over and they made to return to the wood, perhaps never to return, but something was off. She was crying. An hour before, I might not have thought it possible and I knew not why for a long time. Calmly he comforted her and as the crowd and clusters would move closer, she looked up for a moment and gestured in our general direction, which I would come to work out eventually. Momentarily taking his arm off her to shoo us away, even though we were going in their direction, the boy looked like he would give us a better reason to fear him. Seeing us come closer all the same, she took off into the woods, looking back only once to see him run after her.
I remember their laughter. It was not nervous, not sympathetic, it was genuine, and once it started there was nothing to stop them from chasing them into the woods, lest the happy experience die. The enemy had not defeated us, our ghost and witch were no more than a boy and a girl, and they would not escape torment. I went as well, I remember deciding that everyone else was going, it would make no difference. I was wrong.
The howling split our ears and most of us ran, getting as far away as possible either from whatever befell the girl or whatever the boy would do to us for bringing it about. I didn't notice the crowd leaving what few of us still pursued, I was paying attention to the ground. When we arrived, I saw her body lying in a ditch, twisted and broken and the boy standing over her. I remember a whisper from behind me asking if she was dead.
"She won't be the only one." As I spoke it was the first and last time that he and I made eye contact.