Please note: this story was provided by the author and published as is.
Deep in the forest on a moonlit night, four friends were gathered around a fire.
Careless Jake was passing time, throwing rocks into the trees, while Matt, a short young man with a natural scowl, managed the flames with a stick. Olivia, or Olive, was curled up in a blanket, with a hoodie pulled over her head, while wearily watching the sputtering blaze.
Timid Miya was there too, pulling at one of her braids, when a distant howl swept over the trees.
“What was that?!” Miya stuttered.
“Eh, just some wolves,” Jake said, slinging another stone. “They won’t come near a fire.” Nervously, Miya sank into her seat, just as Matt was finishing.
“Alright,” Matt huffed triumphantly. “The fire should be good.”
Olive wiggled around stretched. “I’m bored,” she said. “Someone should tell a campfire story!”
Jake jumped into his chair and shrugged. “I could tell the one about the old guy who ate his neighbor.”
“No, please,” Miya groaned. “That one made me sick when I heard it on the news.” “I can start!” Olive cheered, “This is a good one too… because this one’s real.”
The others stared at Olive with a mix of curiosity and doubt. “I know it’s real because it happened to my sister. Do you all remember the mall that closed down like ten-fifteen years ago?”
“Yeah I remember,” Matt chimed, “Hawkins Park Mall right?”
Olive nodded her head, “So I have an older sister, their name’s Abby, and they’re about seven years older than me? Anyway, she used to always tell me a bunch of scary stories. She was like really good at it too, freakishly good. But, you know, they’re just stories so looking back on them they never seemed that scary.
But there was this one story…
So, my sister used to work at C.C. Lilly’s, you know, the one in the old mall? She worked as an assistant manager there for a few years up until the mall got closed down and she was relocated to another store.
A lot of people say the mall closed because of bad business. Some big name stores weren’t getting the profit they wanted, so they packed up and left. Well the more stores that left, the less people visited. And with less people the stores that remained made less and less money. Over time the place became like a ghost town. It got all run down and gross. Eventually, it got so bad that they shut the whole place down entirely. But that’s not the real reason it closed down.
The real reason is because Hawkins Park is haunted.”
There were several furrowed brows and looks of disbelief.
“Hold on,” Matt interrupted, “I used to go by Hawkins Park almost every day when I was a kid. The place was dirty, sure, but I never saw anything paranormal.”
Jake jumped in, “One time, I was walking through Hawkins Park late at night and I saw a homeless woman cleaning a cat with their tongue.” Miya cringed.
“Hold on, this is my story,” Olive said. The others relented, yielding the stage. “Like I was saying, Hawkins Park is haunted. And I know it is, because Abby, my sister, saw a ghost. Except, she didn’t realize it was a ghost at first.
So, one day Abby is heading in to work, like around 8:00 AM, and she’s crossing the parking lot to the front door of C.C. Lilly’s, which is on the outside of the mall. She’s about to head into the store when she sees this guy to her right, all the way down where the mall kind of is at a corner. Now, this guy was off. For one thing, he was totally butt naked! Head to toe, nothing! He was also covered in filth and looked like super sick and skinny. Abby said she did a double take just to make sure her eyes weren’t lying.
So, when she sees this guy she runs into the store and gets the manager. Abby tells her there’s this weird naked guy outside and so they both go take a look. But when they go outside, he’s gone. And I mean like gone, gone. They went around the building looking for this guy but he was nowhere. It probably took Abby less than a minute for her to get her manager and go back outside and somehow this naked guy, with no shoes or nothing, just vanishes.
So that’s weird, right? But not exactly ghost-level weird. I mean, like sure, Hawkins Park is full of strange people.
I mean, my sister always had a story to tell when it came to the weirdos who’d walk into the mall. Like, this one time, a girl on meth broke into one of those cars they’ve got on display. Police had to come get her out after she shattered the windshield. Anyways, my point is, that naked guy Abby saw could have just been a dude on crack or something.
But there was something like, really off about him. Like, he was waaay too skinny. To the point where you could see the outline of his pelvis and ribs.
So when my sister goes home, she does some research. She’s like super into history and stuff. And what she found was unbelievable.
Do you know why Hawkins Park is called Hawkins Park?”
The others exchanged unsure glances. Jake made a guess, “Uhhh, because it’s right next to Hawkins Hill?”
“Well yeah,” Olive said, “but do you know who it’s named after? Like, we have all these memorials and stuff named after people but half the time we don’t even know who those people are.
Hawkins Park is named after Colonel Howard Hawkins, a Confederate officer in the Civil War. Apparently, where Hawkins Park is now, there used to be a Civil War prison camp called Hawkins Point.
There’s not a lot of info on Hawkins Point or on Howard Hawkins himself, but from what my sister could find, neither of them were anything friendly. Apparently, Colonel Hawkins had a bad habit of mistreating his own men, but it was nothing compared to how he treated his prisoners.
According to some written diaries and stuff, Union prisoners brought to Hawkins Point were forced to strip down out of their uniforms and then burn them in a fire. If they didn’t obey, they were tortured either by whipping or metal branding.
Many prisoners weren’t given new clothes, and everyone had to live and sleep outside with nothing more than a few dozen shabby tents. There was nowhere to go to the restroom so a lot of times they just went wherever they could, meaning it was often around where they slept.”
Miya grimaced “That’s horrible,” she said.
Olive nodded, “I know. But that’s not the worst of it. Apparently, Hawkins Point was built to hold a maximum of 500 prisoners. But by the end of the war, it had 2000. Diseases spread like wildfire and rations were so low that many starved to death. Eventually, it got so bad that some of the prisoners resorted to eating their own feces.”
The three listeners looked visibly sick.
“Near the end of the war, Colonel Hawkins died from sickness. When the Union won, they tore down what remained of the camp. Afterwards, locals renamed the hill next to where the camp once stood after its former commander. In total, it’s estimated that over 400 people died at Hawkins Point.
So, my sister was looking up all of this online, right? Well, there was a list of some of the prisoners who went through Hawkins Point. And by looking up a few of the names she found some old timey pictures. This one she found was for a guy named Elmer Burk. And when she looked at it, she like lost her mind because it looked almost exactly like naked guy!”
Olive posed with wide-eyed astonishment. But everyone who had been on the edge of their seat, fell back on the silence. Matt dropped his shoulders, his eyes dimming.
“That’s it?!” he scoffed, “It looked almost like him?! C’mon, like no offense to your sister but I think the “ghost” she saw was just some homeless guy on drugs.”
“Then how did he disappear so fast when Abby went to look for him!?” Olive exclaimed. “I don’t know, maybe he ran?”
“Damn,” echoed Jake, “a Civil War ghost. You know, I wonder if that lady I saw licking a cat was from the Revolutionary War!”
Olive dropped into her chair, crossing her arms. “Whatever. If you’re such a critic, why don’t you give a story then.”
“Fine,” Matt said with a smirk. He cleared his throat and waved out his hands, signaling to the group that he was about to begin.
“Long ago, there once lived a lonely painter. How long ago and who? No one really knows. The story always changes with time. Some say they lived during the great depression. Others say it was around the Black Plague. No one can truly be sure because the paintings are all lost. But even if you had one, you wouldn’t know, because the artist never signed their work.
The lonely painter, as you can guess from their name, was mostly a recluse. They had no family or friends, and they rarely left their home, except to retrieve more art supplies.
Now you might ask, “what did the lonely painter actually paint?”
Well, anything and everything. You see, they possessed all the colors of the world. With blues and greens, they painted lush forests around curving lakes. With yellows and reds, they made ruby sunsets over quiet cities. Upon a canvas, the painter could capture whatever scene they imagined.
But much like the real world, this one was empty without people. So, the painter made them too. Dozens upon dozens of portraits lined the walls of the lonely painter’s home. Each face was unique and crafted purely by the painter’s imagination. Of course, the lonely painter grew attached to them all. The painter named and befriended them, assigned them quirks and hobbies, accents, and personalities. The portraits were given everything a living human had… everything, except of course… life.
For a while, the lonely painter was satisfied with their gallery of friends. But eventually, the framed faces became emotionless and the long, one-sided conversations turned to a drag. The lonely painter longed for something more, they longed… for something real.
So, it was one gloomy day, when the painter tested the laws of life.
Now, at this point in the story, I would advise any listener, who’s squeamish or faint of heart, to turn away.”
Matt gave a devilish look at Miya, who curled into a ball.
“You see, as the painter went to work on twelve new portraits- twelve, that would be company, for each hour of the day- they did not take to any traditional medium. That is, the painter used more than paint to complete their work. True life is not made of canvas or oil but of flesh and blood.
And so, with a razor-sharp palette knife, the lonely painter peeled layers of flesh from their skin, they squeezed scores of blood from their veins. They cut themself into pieces and fed each piece to a portrait, nurturing the characters to life. When it was all said and done, and the twelve portraits finished, the lonely painter was but a butchered scrap of their former self.
They could barely stand but basked in awe at their finished work. Astonishingly, the portraits stirred.
The figures rolled their heads and stretched their limbs. In a zombie haze, they stumbled about their backdrop. The painter called, in a weary voice, to the addled spirits and all at once, they turned their bleary eyes.
The painter’s wish came true, for they had created life. But that which is living, is not always human. And the price for profanity is never less than we expect.
The twelve figures slowly shambled forward to frame. A look of blind hunger was drawn in their gaze. The painter inched backwards but fell on weak legs as the creatures climbed out from their canvases. Clambering in vain, the painter was surrounded, trapped! It was then that the portraits, born from the painter’s own flesh and blood, partook in unholy sacrament. The creatures consumed every bit of the painter, leaving, like a painting to fire, no trace of the picture that was…
When the screams subsided and the sinister deed was done, the twelve portraits returned to their still scenes. They stirred, only slightly, before returning to a delicate slumber…
It was some time after when looters and auctioneers learned of the abandoned house. With little investigation into the painter’s disappearance, the entire gallery, including that cursed collection, was dispersed, traded, and stolen among private buyers and petty thieves.
To this day, no one knows where those twelve paintings lie. So beware. That portrait you’ve seen hung on a wall? That one you vaguely remember but forget its name? You’d be wise to keep a closer watch. Because it might be watching you.”
Matt leaned back, somewhat proud of his performance, while Olive merely sat, bored, chin on her hands. “Really?” she said. “You make fun of my story and that’s what you come up with? It’s so cheesy and fake.”
“Please,” Matt brushed her away, “at least it was better than ghost hobos.” “It was kind of short,” Jake said.
Matt frowned, “A short story doesn’t mean it’s a bad one!”
Jake held out his hands, defensively. “I- I didn’t say it was bad! Just… short.”
“Well,” Matt sighed, “since it was so short, does anyone else have a story to fill the time? Miya?”
Miya startled at her mention. Her face flushed red as she twisted one of her braids around a finger.
“Uhhhh- I don’t think I-,” she stammered. “I’m not that good at scary stories.”
“Oh c’mon,” Olive cheered. She leaned over to whisper, “it would be better than anything Jake could come up with.”
Jake shot a look of betrayal, “Hey!”
“Ha uh alright,” Miya took a deep breath. “Well, I don’t know if this one will count as a campfire story. It’s more of a memory I have from when I was a girl um… but here it goes…
Uh so, I grew up in and out of the foster care system. I didn’t meet my adoptive parents until I was twelve. Before that I was in between foster parents. Most of them were nice uh but it was a lot like living with your teacher, if that makes sense? You know, they’re adults, they’re responsible for you, and they set all the rules that you have to follow. I don’t remember if I really became close to any of them. I got along with them fine- well, most of them.
I was adopted… Once before, I mean. This was before I met my current parents. I wasn’t with this family for long, though, and you’ll see why.
I was ten, at the time, and pretty excited. I had been looking forward to adoption since I was- well, since I could remember. But I was also really, really nervous because all through my mind I wondered “what if they don’t like me?” or “what if they have a kid of their own and return me?” stuff like that.
It’s sad but I was always worried about whether or not I was a good enough kid, but I don’t know whether I wondered if they’d be good enough parents, you know? But I guess I wouldn’t have known back then.
Their names were Catherine and George Walker. Mrs. Walker looked thirty, maybe thirty five, blond hair, green eyes, and was as thin as a line. She looked nice, pretty, kind of motherly. Or at least I thought it was motherly. Mr. Walker, on the other hand, was in his forties or fifties and might be what you’d get if you made a living golem out of square bricks. He was more than a little rough around the edges, but he dressed neatly, if not pristine, and acted very serious, like an adult should, I guess.
They adopted me pretty quick, which was weird because they didn’t seem that excited when they got me. I don’t know, I had this idea in my head, this picturesque moment, where I’d meet my adoptive parents and there’d instantly be this like spark! But that didn’t happen. I mean, that doesn’t always happen. I know, personally, it takes time to know someone before you can really accept them as your family. But the walkers didn’t seem interested in learning anything about me.
I remember when we first met, they’d asked me only a few short questions like, “What are your grades?” “What do your teachers think of you?” “How well do you get along with other
adults?” Just very bland questions. They didn’t ask what I liked, disliked, or what I wanted in a family. I guess that didn’t matter, though, because the next day they signed my adoption papers.
And living with them was okay at first. They seemed like normal foster parents, uh but more strict. There were a lot of rules I had to follow like I wasn’t allowed to break anything, of course. I wasn’t allowed to stay up past 10:00- or 9:00 if it was a weekday. I wasn’t allowed to scream or slam any doors. I wasn’t allowed to run around, leave the house alone, lock my door,
oh and I wasn’t allowed to go into the master bedroom.
We ran under a pretty tight schedule. Dinner was always at 5:20 PM and not a minute later. If I was allowed to watch TV, it was only for 30 minutes a day. And I had to brush my teeth for two minute every night and morning.
If I fell out of line, even just a bit, Mr. Walker would ground me on the spot.” “Jeeze,” Jake interrupted. “They sound worse than my parents.”
Olive elbowed him with a motion to “shh” as Miya went on.
“The strict rules weren’t the bad part, though. After a few weeks it became pretty clear that Mr. and Mrs. Walker’s marriage was… rocky.
Mr. Walker was a medical doctor and rarely home most of the day but when he was, he was home to be served. Mrs. Walker stayed at home and made all the food, cleaned the dishes, did the laundry, and was, in almost every way, your stereotypical 1960’s housewife.
Really, for as many rules as I had to follow, Mrs. Walker had more. All of which led to a lot of tension. Though it never got physical, the Walker’s argued… a lot. When they weren’t arguing, they were finding new ways to provoke each other. At least once a month, Mrs. Walker would disturb her husband’s fine routine with some “redecorating”. Moving the furniture or painting a wall was enough to drive Mr. Walker mad. In retaliation, on days when Mrs. Walker prepared a fancy meal, Mr. Walker would buy a week’s worth of fast food, letting Mrs. Walker’s efforts rot with the leftovers.
Their fighting went on like that for a long time. But then one night they had an argument like a really bad argument. I don’t know what it was about, but I could hear them screaming through the walls. That night I couldn’t sleep. And while I was lying awake in my bed, I heard a car pull out of the driveway. When I peeked through the blinds, I saw Mrs. Walker’s car driving away.
The next morning, neither Mrs. Walker nor her car were back.
When I asked Mr. Walker about it, he seemed irritated. Plainly and coldly, he told me she was “seeing family across country.” I asked why she didn’t say goodbye and he only sighed and said her flight was early in the morning, that she didn’t have time for that. Even at ten, I was suspicious. Mr. Walker wouldn’t say it, but I knew his marriage was past its tipping point.
Mrs. Walker didn’t return for the next few weeks. Life at home, and especially dinner, turned awkward- or more awkward. The light bickering that crossed between the Walker was replaced with an uncomfortable silence.
Also, with Mrs. Walker gone, I was mostly left in charge of all the cleaning. And that was hard, especially because Mr. Walker expected everything to be clean. The carpet, the silverware, even the back of the fridge had to be spotless. It was way over the top. But as much as I hated it, I didn’t complain. I knew, firsthand, from Mrs. Walker, how Mr. Walker dealt with complaining.
Anyway, at first Mr. Walker seemed pleased with my behavior. But being just a kid, sometimes I’d slip up. I’d forget to take out the trash or I’d mix the wrong laundry. Stupid stuff which to Mr. Walker was completely unacceptable. He’d call me lazy or worthless. He’d ground me to my room or take away my 30 minutes of TV. Not like I had any time for TV. After school I did nothing but chores and more chores until I went to bed.
And you know, I should have said something sooner. Back then, I never told anyone. I wasn’t happy and it was clearly abuse but… being adopted, I thought I was one of the lucky ones… I didn’t think I had the right to complain.
But I needed to tell someone. And I did…
Thank God I did because I had no idea just how bad things really were…
One day I was cleaning the house. This was after school but just before Mr. Walker got home from work. The place was clean but not clean enough by Mr. Walker’s standards. I was vacuuming around the house when I smelt something horrible. And like if I thought it was bad, I knew it was trouble. So, I check to see if the trash needs to be taken out but it’s empty. So then I check if there are open windows, maybe for a skunk or something. But they were all closed and the smell seemed to be coming from the master bedroom.
Now, I knew I wasn’t allowed to go into the master bedroom, Mr. Walker told me as much. But the smell was so strong I thought if I didn’t get rid of it, I would be in a heap of trouble. So, I tried the door but it was locked. Luckily, I remembered where Mrs. Walker kept a spare skeleton key, just on top of the fridge. I took a stool and grabbed the key and then went back to the door.
I had to wear my jacket like a scarf just to mask the stench. I don’t know why but, as a kid, I thought a racoon had snuck into the room and died. Well, when I opened the door, there was no racoon, but it reeked of something rancid.
The blinds were pulled so it was dark. I felt around for the light switch, but I had never been in this room before. I thought I could make out a table lamp, so I carefully walked over. As I passed along the bed my hand brushed over something grainy like powder. The horrible stench was stinging my nose to the point where I could almost taste it.
I reached the end table and turned on the switch…
That’s when I found Mrs. Walker, decomposing on the bed.”
“Wait, what!?!” Olive exclaimed.
“I thought she left?” Matt said.
Miya nodded quietly. “I did too. But I know now, she never left. Mr. Walker would never let her leave. He had to have her, to control her.
One look at the body and you could tell it was wrong. It was shriveled and gray, like a botched funeral job. He replaced her blond hair with a cheap wig and her emerald eyes with bulging, plastic prosthetics. He even dressed her up in a bright green, flower dress that matched her uneven stare.
The body was covered in powdered lime. But it wasn’t nearly enough to hide that smell.
I ran out of the room, out of the house and straight to my neighbor’s door… They called the police and arrested Mr. Walker as soon as he arrived…
He confessed immediately and told them everything, how he smothered Catherine after she threatened to leave, how he drove her car to a scrap yard and took a late bus back, and how attempted to embalm the body so he could keep it.
I got a lot of apologies and sympathies and the foster system promised to take extra measures to scan potential parents. And you know, that’s great. I’m great. Like, people were worried about what kind of trauma that leaves on a kid but, honestly, my life is better now, and I think I really made it out lucky. And I mean that because when I found Mrs. Walker in that room… I also saw something else…
On the nightstand, where I turned on the lamp? There was a spare wig and a pair of plastic eyes… and they were a perfect match for me…”
The others took in Miya’s silence with wide eyes and tense shoulders. The stillness kept until the fire POPPED! causing everyone to jump.
Matt leaned over his chair and scratched the back of his head, “Wow… okay you win for spooky story.” He cast a side-long look at Miya. “So… was all of that… real?”
Miya glanced around at each terrified face before cracking a smile and dropping her eyes. “I may have… exaggerated some parts.”
A sigh of relief echoed through the group. Jake slapped Matt over the back, “You were really scarred weren’t you!” he laughed.
Matt nearly shot up, “Well what! It almost sounded like a real story, man!”
Olive giggled as Jake continued to parody his friend’s fear. Matt shrugged him off and rolled his eyes.
Twisting one of her braids, Miya smiled faintly. She thought of saying something and nearly did… but then, changed her mind.
Miya returned to the innocent banter, leaving the thought behind…
Afterall, it was easier to pretend that spooky stories are just that.