Campfire Stories

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The other kids grew quiet as Johnny returned from the forest. He was getting tired of that. He got along with them all right most of the time, at least as well as he ever did with kids his own age. But every time Miss Tokar’s name even came up, they all started staring like he’d grown a second head.

He sat down near the fire like nothing had happened. “You should have come, Kim,” he said to the girl across from him. “Miss Tokar showed me all kinds of interesting plants. You would have liked it.”

Kim stared at the fire and muttered something about maybe next time.

One of the other volunteers, Mr. Stevens, came by with marshmallows and s’more fixings. As kids argued over the best spots near the fire, burned marshmallows, and generally acted like kids, they forgot all about Miss Tokar’s herb-finding trip and how they should be afraid of Johnny.

“Let’s tell scary stories!” Ryan said.

“Don’t!” Cindy protested. She was easy to frighten. But everyone else agreed it was a great idea.

“I’ll go first,” Ryan announced. “This story happened in this very forest.”

Johnny thought that seemed a bit silly. These stories were all made-up. Some kids made up stories on the spot, and other kids repeated ones they’d heard before, but some kid had made those up, too; none of them were really real. If there’d really been an axe murderer who’s ghost cut the heads off of any kid who got lost, as Ryan insisted, there’d be investigations and stuff. Certainly their parents wouldn’t be letting them on this camping trip if headless bodies kept showing up.

The rest of the kids squealed in delighted terror, though. Well, except for Cindy, who was covering her ears.

Then Eric told his story. It, too, allegedly happened here. Really, Johnny thought, if all these ghosts were all in the same forest, they’d be too busy bickering to actually kill any children. Eric’s story involved a prospector, which was dumb, since they were in Michigan, which never had any gold rush or anything. But Johnny didn’t bother telling Eric that.

Instead he stared into the fire, trying to think of what to do when it was his turn. He’d never heard a scary story worth remembering, so he’d have to make one up. Obviously, he couldn’t claim that it happened “in this very forest”, since he was still the new kid. He could always say it happened where he used to live in Pittsburgh, but what would happen there? Would a ghost haunt a steel mill? Johnny didn’t see why not. It seemed like there was plenty mischief a ghost could cause in a place like that, but he didn’t think that’d go over well. It felt like it didn’t count as a scary story if it didn’t happen in a forest.

He started to see shapes in the fire. A branch on one of the logs stuck up, and it almost looked like there was a woman tied to it, burning. No, he thought, a moment later, she wasn’t tied to it, she was dancing around it. Smaller flames joined in, dancing in a circle around her, almost, but never quite, taking shape.

The woman grew taller and taller, and the crackling wood almost sounded like laughter for a moment. Then the fire leapt up, burning so bright, it hurt Johnny’s eyes.

He blinked the spots from his eyes, and the campfire was just a campfire again.

All the kids were staring at him, their faces pale. He could vaguely hear Mr. Stevens trying to calm down a crying Cindy at the volunteers’ table.

“What?” he asked. “Is it my turn?”

“No!” Eric said, quickly. “I mean, that was… where did you hear that? It didn’t really happen, did it?” He looked around at the dark woods surrounding them nervously.

Johnny frowned. He hadn’t said anything. Were they playing a joke on him? It seemed unlikely. Ryan honestly looked terrified, and Johnny didn’t think he would be willing to swallow his pride like that for a joke, or that he was a good enough actor to pull it off, for that matter.

“All right,” Mr. Stevens said, as the volunteers all swept down on them, “time for bed. Everyone to your tents.”

Johnny was grateful for the distraction and quickly headed towards the tent he was sharing with Eric. As he passed Miss Tokar, she met his eyes with a curious expression, then smiled, her teeth gleaming in the firelight.

“Did that really happen?” Kim asked, falling in beside him.

He shrugged, not wanting to admit he had no idea what was going on. “You’ll have to figure that out for yourself.” And without giving her a chance to reply, he turned down the path to the boys’ tents.

The Witch’s Treats

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What are you supposed to be?” Pete asked.

Johnny sighed. He’d been getting that question a lot today. Nobody had recognized his costume at school, either, not even the teachers. He figured the green clothes weren’t terribly recognizable, but he thought somebody might have noticed the rose and put it together.

Pete was dressed as a scarecrow. He had straw sticking out of his sleeves, and orange paint on his face.

“It doesn’t matter,” Johnny told him. All the kids from the neighborhood were meeting up to go Trick Or Treating together — well, all the ones who were old enough. The little kids still had to go with their parents. From what Johnny understood, this was Pete’s first year with the big kids.

Johnny also understood that several of the teenagers, who just happened to be older brothers and sisters of some of the kids in the group, were conveniently hanging around nearby. He was fairly certain that, when their group set off, the teenagers would, by sheer coincidence, of course, start their own way down the street.

“Let’s go,” Ryan said. Ryan was the leader of the group, by virtue of being the loudest and the most stubborn. He was currently dressed as Batman, which Johnny thought was a little funny. Batman was a loner, but Ryan loved attention.

Things went well. The Masons were giving out full sized candy bars, and the Warwicks had caramel apples. The other houses might not have been quite as good, but their bags quickly filled up with various sweets, even if most of them were “fun-sized” (Johnny always made sure to put mental quotation marks around that, since it seemed clear to anybody that there wasn’t anything fun about having less candy).

“Stop!” one of the girls hissed. It was Cindy, who was wearing a witch costume. “You can’t go there!”

Johnny looked at the next house on the street, then back to Cindy. “It’s lights are on. Why can’t we go?”

“That’s the witch’s house,” she whispered.

“Well, you’re dressed as a witch,” Johnny said, “so I don’t see why that’s suddenly a problem.” Miss Tokar had seemed quite nice to him. Admittedly, he could understand why many of the kids thought she was a witch, but he didn’t see why that made her a bad person.

“She’ll put poison in the candy,” said Eric, also dressed as Batman.

“That’s stupid,” Johnny said. “If a bunch of kids start dying, they’ll check the candy. They’d find her almost immediately.”

“She might put a spell on the candy,” Pete said.

“Then you can give it all to me,” Johnny told them. “She gave me candy when I was in there the other week. If she wanted to put me under a spell, she’d already have done so.”

He figured she might be giving out that flowery candy again. He’d found that after a few days of Halloween candy (he was one of those kids who rationed out his candy, although it still never lasted as long as he planned), you sometimes got a little sick of chocolate, so it was a good idea to have a few non-chocolate candies just in case.

“I’m not going in there,” Eric said.

“Well, I’m not giving up my candy because you’re all too scared,” Johnny said. He looked at Ryan as he did so. Ryan never backed down from a dare, even an implicit one. And he thought they’d better get a move on. The teenagers were going as slow as they could, but if they kept arguing, the two groups would run into each other, and that just seemed like it would be awkward.

Ryan glared at Johnny, then said, “Come on,” and marched down the walkway to Miss Tokar’s front door. The rest fell into line behind him.

The three large pumpkins were in front, now, lining one side of the path. The evil-looking faces seemed to follow them as they walked by.

Miss Tokar was dressed like a witch, but not like Cindy. Cindy had a pointed hat, and green face-paint, and a fake nose. Miss Tokar just wore a black dress with long, sleeves that trailed after her whenever she moved her arms.

“Trick or treat!” they called out, although not nearly as loudly as they usually did.

“What delightful costumes,” she said. She did indeed have small boxes of the strange candy she’d given him before. “A scarecrow, and the Batman, and another Batman…” She named each costume as she dropped a box into each of their bags.

“And Le Petit Prince,” she said, as Johnny stepped up. She winked at him and slipped two boxes into his bag. He was just happy that she had recognized his costume.

“A-all right,” Ryan stammered, “we’ve got more houses. Let’s go.”

“Have fun,” Miss Tokar said as they left. Then, in a wicked voice, she added, “Be careful of the pumpkins. They bite.”

Vampire Vegetables

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“You can’t go in there,” Pete said, his voice barely more than a whisper.

Johnny looked over the fence at Miss Tokar’s house. He’d only been here a week, but all of the kids made it clear that they didn’t go into Miss Tokar’s yard. It didn’t look very scary. On television, the house the kids were all afraid of always looked scary. It would be run down, or a big giant old-fashioned house.

Miss Tokar’s house looked just like Johnny’s house next door, except her walls were painted yellow, while his were red. There were only three kinds of houses in the neighborhood, he had noticed. They might be painted different colors, or have different things in the yard, but all of the buildings fell into one of three shapes. He’d asked his dad about that, and after the usual comment that Johnny was too young to be noticing things like that, he said it was because the neighborhood wasn’t very old. The shape of their house (and Miss Tokar’s) was the most common one on the street.

If it wasn’t the house, then perhaps it was the yard, but there was nothing terribly exciting there, either. The lawn was neatly trimmed and clear of any clutter. The fence wasn’t opposing, either, being only waist-high, with large gaps between each post. A large tree grew in the front yard, but even having shed its leaves for the winter, it didn’t look menacing. Its branches didn’t seem to reach for you, even if you only looked at it from the corner of your eye. They were spaced in a somehow inviting fashion, great for climbing, and the longer he studied it, the more Johnny got the strange impression that climbing the tree would somehow make it very happy.

“If it’s not the house, and it’s not the yard, what could it be?” he muttered to himself.

“What?” Pete asked. Pete was a mousy little boy, who was a full year younger than any of the other kids in the gang. He was the only one willing to approach Johnny at the fence; the others huddled behind a bush on Johnny’s front yard. Pete wasn’t here out of bravery, though. As the youngest, he got most of the jobs no one wanted to do dumped on him. Like making sure the new kid wasn’t going into Miss Tokar’s yard.

“I said that the ball’s right there, in the garden. I’d be back already with it if you hadn’t stopped me.” He was embarrassed that he’d been caught talking to himself again, but he tried not to let it show. “And it seems like the entire thing about losing a ball in the scary neighbor’s yard is incredibly cliché, anyway.”

“I don’t know what that means,” Pete said, somehow managing to be unable to tear his eyes away from the unassuming house without ever actually looking directly at it, either.

“It means it’s been done a thousand times on TV, and the whole thing’s stupid,” Johnny told him. Then he hopped over the fence and sauntered towards the garden.

If Johnny had to find something unusual about the house, he supposed the garden might qualify. It was bigger than any other garden in the neighborhood, at least. There were rows of herbs, each with a little sign in front telling what was growing there. He didn’t see anything there that he hadn’t seen written on the little bottles his mother kept in the spice rack, though.

Behind the herbs was where the vegetables were grown, although it looked like most of them had already been collected. More little signs explained that an empty row of dirt had once contained carrots, or zucchini, or potatoes. Three posts had vines wrapped around them, but there were no tomatoes left. The only vegetables left were three giant pumpkins growing in the far corner. The errant baseball had come to a rest next to largest of them.

As he picked up the baseball, Johnny considered the pumpkin. He had never seen one so big before, unless you counted the plastic display pumpkins stores put out for Halloween.

“I’m not plastic,” a voice said in his ear. He looked around, but there was no one there.

“Go ahead, touch me,” it continued. “You’ll see, I’m as real as they come.”

The pumpkin was talking to him. The voice didn’t seem to actually come from the plant itself. It seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere at once, but he was certain it was the pumpkin talking. Some part of him knew that pumpkins couldn’t talk, and the entire situation made no sense, but that thought seemed terribly abstract at the moment.

He took off his glove and placed his hand on the pumpkin. It was surprisingly warm, but other than that it felt pretty much like he’d expect a pumpkin to feel.

“Me, too,” another pumpkin said, excitedly. “Me, too!”

“It’s not fair if you just touch that one,” the third added. “It’s already bigger than us.”

Johnny couldn’t help but smile at the child-like jealousy of the pumpkins (his father had also commented more than once that Johnny shouldn’t use terms like “child-like” while he was still a child himself). Removing his second glove, he put a hand on each of the other pumpkins.

They were just as warm as the first one, and it was a pleasant sensation. He suddenly felt very tired, and considered laying down amongst the talking pumpkins for a quick nap.

“Impressive, aren’t they?” someone said. The voice was decidedly real, compared to the pumpkins’ detached voices. He turned around to see a young woman smiling at him. She had long, curly black hair that fell around her shoulders, and friendly looking brown eyes.

“I am Nadya Tokar. You must be little Johnathan,” Miss Tokar said. She had a very heavy accent. It sounded sort of like the Russian accents he’d heard in the movies, but not quite the same.

“Everybody calls me Johnny,” he said, stifling a yawn. “And I’m sorry about trespassing. I just came here to…” He trailed off, trying to remember why he was there, or why he had felt the need to touch the pumpkins. “They’re very nice pumpkins,” he finally said, when he couldn’t come up with anything else.

She looked at the pumpkins with a small frown. “Yes. Not very well behaved, though. You look peckish. Come inside and I’ll get you a snack. Growing boys like you need to eat.”

The gang had all pressed close to the fence, curiosity overcoming their fear. He waved at them, but they were all staring in horror at Miss Tokar. He couldn’t understand why, though. She seemed nice enough. She wasn’t a scary old hag or anything.

Miss Tokar made him a cup of hot chocolate and a type of sweet he’d never seen before, little pink cubes dusted with sugar. They tasted oddly flowery, but they were good all the same. He thought about asking if they were from her home country, and maybe even where that was, but he didn’t want to sound rude, and trying to figure out the polite way to ask seemed like far too much trouble right now. It was all he could do to keep from falling asleep in his hot chocolate.

“All done?” Miss Tokar asked, as he put down the now empty mug. He nodded, sleepily. “Let’s get you home, then. You’ve had a long day and you look like you could use a nap.”

“’Mfine,” he mumbled, but he took her hand and she walked him back to his house.

“I saw him admiring my pumpkins,” he heard Miss Tokar telling his mother. “And I thought I would be a good neighbor and invite him in for some hot chocolate. When we were done, he just sort of crashed.”

“That’s unusual,” his mother said, kneeling in front of him to examine his face. “He normally never seems to run out of energy.”

“Moving can be hard on children. If you don’t mind the suggestion, some more iron in his diet, and I am sure he’ll be back to his normal self in a day or two.”

“That’s not a bad idea,” Johnny’s mother said. “Thank you.”

Once Miss Tokar had left, she helped Johnny out of his coat, and told him to go to bed. He nodded and stumbled up the stairs to his room. Right before collapsing onto his bed, he glanced out the window into Miss Tokar’s garden.

His last thoughts before sleep took him, was that they were awfully red for pumpkins.