By Jonathan Stark
October, 2013; 2183 words
1985 was the year that Mark went from being the middle child to being the oldest. He was 15 and, looking back, would tell you that no other year in his life had so many changes in it. Joel's death hit him hard, it came suddenly from across the double yellow, but it was also the year that he fell in love with Stephanie. And she fell in love back. It was the year that his parents finally took them to Disney World and the year that his grandparents’ house burned down. It was a year of extremes but the biggest shift, the most important, was what happened to his relationship with the little guy, the brat, the spoiled kid who came along 4 years after he did and made him middle, second. It took the death of their brother to bring Mark and Seth together but together they came, and that first summer after the accident, the summer of 1985, was the greatest of his youth.
For his part, Seth had always looked up to his bigger brother Mark. Joel was too much older, more like an adult who sometimes had time to play but was much too busy with work and his older friends to be reliable. Don't misunderstand, Seth adored his biggest brother and some of his friends - the ones his parents didn't really care for - thought it was totally awesome that Seth had a brother who would be old enough to buy them beer by Thanksgiving.
But that's not what this story is about. In the last week of June that year, Mark and Seth went camping together. They'd set up in the backyard many times, and both Mark and Joel had been camping deep in the woods behind their house for years, off in the State Forest somewhere having adventures that Seth was incredibly jealous of. He would pack his gear while they were packing, always hoping that they'd invite him along, always hoping that this time Mom would say it was okay to go, and then always leaving his rucksack on his bed and getting to walk just to the edge of the field, but no further.
The ruck was a castoff, an old army surplus bag that Mark gave him when he got his real backpack - a pack with pockets and hooks, and a metal frame. The kind with a belt to keep some of the weight off of his shoulders. Seth was very careful about what went into his ruck. A flashlight with extra batteries. A dozen wooden matches snuck from the box in the kitchen were sealed in a small water proof container. He had three emergency candles that his aunt had given him, an old MRE he'd found in his grandfather's garage, and the compass he won in the science contest at school.
When Mom approved the trip, Seth ran to his room and threw on his pack, ready. He stood impatiently in Mark's doorway, watching as his big brother - it hit him for a moment that Joel really was gone - load up. Tent, sleeping bag, sweatshirt, pillowcase, newspaper, food, two canteens, socks. Another pair of socks.
Mark looked at his brother. The contempt was missing. "You have your sleeping bag?" He didn't. "You have warm clothes? It gets cold in the Valley of the Gray Ghost."
A chill ran down Seth's back. "We're going to the Valley?"
Mark smiled. "If we're going to do this, we're going to do it right." He paused. "Unless you're too scared."
Seth was terrified. "I'm not scared." He went back to his room and repacked. Mark came in and helped him. Gave him a canteen.
Mom met them at the front door. "Have fun. Be careful."
"We will." said Mark.
"Where are you going?" she asked.
"Over to the Valley." said Mark.
"Okay. Stay out of the river. And make sure you have plenty of water to put the fire out." She hugged them both. Seth thought maybe a little too hard and long. "I love you."
They were out the door and up the trail. It was a well-worn path through a small bit of woods that opened into a field. A hundred years before someone had surrounded it with a stone wall and planted something, or let animals graze. Today it was full of scrub and tall grasses, milkweed and bugs.
They made their way to the forest on the other side. A real forest climbing up the side of the mountain. "Last chance to go back." said Mark. "Once we're inside, the ghosts can come at any time."
Seth looked at the bright blue sky, felt the summer sun beating down on him. "I hope so. I want to see one."
The hike wasn't difficult except where they made it so, climbing the short steep banks instead of going around the easier way. It was more fun, and Seth's imagination had them escaping from a tribe of cannibals, then on a secret mission to blow up a dam.
Mark was quiet until they reached the top. "The Indians say that the gray ghosts came to chase the white man out of their lands."
"What Indians?" asked Seth.
"The ones that lived here until they died."
"Where did they die?"
Mark pointed. "One of them died right there by that big old tree. Some of them jumped from the cliff over there.
Seth stared at the tree. It was ancient, the bark thick with deep crevices. The soil around it was dark and fragrant. High above the canopy swayed. It had branches thicker than he was. Mark watched him. "I love that tree."
"I've never seen one so big." said Seth.
They sipped from canteens and then started down the other side. Seth wanted to scale the cliff but Mark wouldn't let him. "It's too far down, too dangerous."
"But you could do it, right?" asked Seth. Mark shook his head.
"If we were being chased? If the Russians were coming after us? You could do it then, right?"
"I suppose I could, if the Russians were coming." said Mark. Seth knew he could too, if that happened. "Of course," said Mark, "We'd need to be careful that the Indians didn't push us off."
The Valley opened up at the foot of the hill. It was preserved wilderness and Seth felt that he was in an alien world. There were no roads, or power lines, or houses. A brook ran down through the scattered trees. He saw a flash of white ahead.
"What was that?" asked Seth.
Mark looked. "I didn't see it."
"It looked like..." he trailed off. "Do you think I might have seen one of the ghosts?"
"Maybe. I've seen them here." said his big brother. "Where did you see it? We'll check it out."
They moved along the valley floor, Seth leading. Excitement and pride warred with fear as he chased the flash of white.
Squirrels chattered in the trees and then stopped as they drew near. Birds called from overhead. Mark had rarely been in the woods on such a perfect day. He'd rarely had so much fun with his little brother.
They crossed the brook on stepping stones, Mark going first now and helping Seth with the biggest jump. A ravine cut into the hill on the other side and they decided to follow it. It ended with a steep climb and Mark was concerned Seth couldn't make it.
"I don't have a choice." said Seth.
"The Russians?" asked Mark. Seth nodded. Mark gave him directions on which rocks to trust, which trees to grab, and stayed very close behind. Twice Seth slipped and nearly fell. But they made it.
"Nice job, little bro." Seth almost burst. "Check this out." Mark led him to an opening in the trees. They walked out onto a ledge and had a view of the wilderness that took Seth's breath away. "We'll make camp down there, where that brook runs into the river."
They spent an hour hiking to the spot and Seth began to feel the weight of the pack. Once they arrived he took it off gladly and helped set up the tent. They gathered stones from the river and made a circle for their fire. Mark stopped suddenly while they working and pointed, "There! Did you see it? The flash of white?"
Seth didn't see it, but he did hear the crashing in the undergrowth. "They're watching us, aren't they?"
Mark said they were, "But as long as you respect the forest, they'll leave you be."
They left their gear and hiked around some more. A tree had fallen across the river and Mark jumped up on to it. "Let's cross."
"But Mom said not to."
"No, she said to stay out of it. Don't fall off and you're good." said Mark. He jumped a little, testing how well it rested. Nothing even shook. "Come on. I'll help you." He did. They made it across.
A short time later they found a pile. "What's that?"
Mark poked it with a stick. "Looks like bear scat. We better put the food up."
Bear? Ghosts were scary, but bears were hungry. Seth felt the first twinges of real fear.
They went back and started the fire. "When did you see your first ghost?"
Mark thought about it. "I was about your age. Joel and I were out here, further up a bit I think, and I saw it standing by the water. It watched us for a minute, Joel said to be quiet and not to move. Like I could move - I was scared to death." He stopped talking, trailing off in memory.
Seth realized that Mark must really miss their brother. He put his arm out, rested it awkwardly on his brother's shoulder.
They roasted hotdogs and ate chips. Lots of chips. As it grew dark, Seth insisted on a story. Mark told him the one about the old man sitting outside of the mansion, warning the kids not to go inside. Twice the boys saw what looked like white ghosts running through the scattered trees.
When they were ready to go to sleep, Mark put the food into the ruck, strung a rope over a low branch, and hoisted it into the air. They put out the fire and climbed into the tent. Seth fell asleep quickly and didn't wake up until the dead of night.
He wasn't sure what woke him up. Mark was snoring quietly next to him and the night was still, quiet, and dark. He tried to go back to sleep but couldn't. Then he heard a wail. Or howl. "No big deal." he said to himself. But he couldn't sleep. And it came again. Was he imagining that it was closer?
No, definitely closer. He felt a building pressure and knew he had to get out of the tent to go to the bathroom. But the howling. He woke Mark. "I have to pee."
"Go by the river." said Mark.
"The ghosts are howling."
Mark sat up. Listened. "I don't hear anything."
"Then you'll be fine." Mark went back to sleep.
Seth didn't. He also didn't go out of the tent. But he had to. He got his flashlight. He reached for the zipper. The howl came again.
"Mark, Mark." He woke him again. "I think they're closer." Mark looked at him in the gloom. "And the bear is out there."
"Okay, I'll go with you." They left the tent and while Seth was going, the howl came again.
"Did you hear it that time?" Seth sounded very scared. Mark resisted the urge to tease him, to claim he hadn't.
"Yes. Those are coyotes. They'll leave us alone. I think they're on the other side of the ridge anyway."
Seth wasn't sure about that and hurried back to the tent. He heard crashing nearby and shined his light just in time to catch the dancing white of a ghost. "That one was close." said Mark.
Seth spent the rest of the night with his head buried under his sleeping bag.
The next morning they broke camp and hiked home. It was still an adventure. It was still fun. But they didn't see any more of the ghosts. "Where did they go?" asked Seth.
"They know we're leaving, that they don't have to worry about us."
"That's part of the mystery." said Mark.
"What are they?"
"It's a secret. You'll learn." Mark ruffled his hair. “Some day.”
He did. It was autumn and they were driving home just after dark. Dad swerved suddenly but not in time and there was a sickening thud as something hit the front of the car. Seth looked out the window and saw a flash of white disappearing into the trees.
“Poor thing.” said Mom.
Dad snorted. “It’s just deer. Too many of them this year, it’s going to be a hard winter.” Nobody said anything after that for a long time.