Title: When the Trees Get Lonely
Summary: Ashford Academy, a private high school, shares a border with a small town with a natural burial cemetery. The students at the school trade ghost stories about the young forest that lines the western boundary of the school. Ben loves to fall asleep listening to the trees moving in the wind. Sometimes, he could swear they were talking.
Notes: This is an excerpt from a current, long-going work in progress. I’ve never considered how difficult it is to maintain the creepy aura of a thrilling horror novel before. Do you have any genres that you find particularly challenging to write?
On his last night, Ben Witt stayed awake listening to the trees.
This had become part of his routine. His roommates’ soft snores filled the room shortly after lights out, but he laid on top of his covers with his eyes open and his hands behind his head. He listened as the wind whistled a greeting through the trees and the branches creaked and groaned in reply. Ben missed the tulip trees in his backyard. If he closed his eyes, he could almost trick himself into thinking he was in his own bedroom and his own bed, listening to the trees he had known his entire life. But he couldn’t hear the trickling water of the shallow creek that ran behind his house.
So he listened to the new trees when he couldn’t sleep. And during the day, he would retreat into the woods even though they were technically out-of-bounds for students. He would spend his free periods pressing his palms against their slender young trunks to steady himself as he stepped over and around their roots. Ben’s friends always declined his invitation to join him in the woods.
“Wimps,” he would tease as he slung his backpack over one shoulder.
“It’s freaking creepy,” his roommate, Yann, insisted. “It’s like… a cemetery.”
It was a cemetery. There had been fields stretching for miles on either side of the Ashford Academy grounds until fifteen years ago, when an alumnus founded Back to Land and convinced the school to offer its western border as a cemetery for Warren, Ashford’s nearest neighbor. It was a small town. Trees had to be purchased and transported to the grounds to make for a more attractive picture for the news. Some mornings, Ben could hear the bagpipes of a funeral. He had never seen a burial, but he knew that instead of a casket they would lower a sapling in a biodegradable planter with the deceased person’s ashes into a shallow hole in the ground.
“You went to a party in there last weekend,” Ben pointed out frequently. But people were always braver at night and in groups, he’d realized, and his friends could only be swayed if there was darkness to protect them from the teachers and fire to protect them from the trees. There were stories of ghosts. The upperclassmen liked to tell them to freshmen and new transfer students. Ben liked to tell them, too, though it probably didn’t improve his odds of companionship during his daytime romps in the woods.
More and more often though, he was okay with that. More people would make too much noise. A careless step might break a branch or bruise a root. It would be harder for him to hear the trees.
At night, he did as he was doing now: He laid in his bed and he listened. And if he listened very carefully he thought he could hear the trees talking to each other. Most nights, there was little more than murmuring that reminded him of the dining hall during meal times. On his last night, though, something was different. The trees seemed agitated. He felt a tightness in his chest as he listened to the caucus of tree branches clattering so loudly that they could have been pressing against the dorm window.
Help me, they seemed to whisper. His mother used to tell him that the wind made the trees sound as though they were howling during thunderstorms. But even on still and sunny days, Ben could hear them. He squeezed his eyes shut.
“Go away,” he whispered. “I can’t help you.”
Help! Help! The voices were no longer whispers, but screams. Ben clamped his hands over his ears, but he could still hear the cries. He rolled over onto his stomach and bit down on his pillow to stifle a cry of his own until his jaw ached. He released the pillow. The cries did not stop.
“I can’t help you,” he whispered again. “I don’t know what you want.”
“How?” Ben asked, his voice a frustrated growl. He lifted his head and glanced at the other beds in the dorm, afraid he was too loud. They slept on. He wondered how they did it. He was so tired. His eyes burned for sleep. Some nights, he fell asleep to the confused whispering of the trees. There would be no sleeping tonight.
“Please,” Ben whispered, choking back a sob as he let his head forward onto the pillow again. “Just leave me alone. I can’t help.”
I’m trapped! I’m stuck! Help me!
Ben lifted his head again. That’s it, he thought. He wondered why he hadn’t thought of that before. Someone’s stuck in the woods. Hurt, probably.
He swung his legs over the edge of the bed and reached for his glasses with one hand and his phone with the other. He pushed his glasses onto his nose and looked around at his roommates, but none of them had woken to the crying. Kam snored once, very loudly, and rolled onto his side. No one else moved.
Meanwhile, the crying continued. Leaving the dorm after lights out was strictly against the rules. It was grounds for expulsion from the school. His phone screen read 3:18. What if no one else could hear it, and by morning it was too late?
He stood, shoved his sockless feet into his sneakers and his ID card into the pocket of his pajama bottoms, and slipped out the door. If it turned out to be nothing but the wind, he told himself, he would be back before anyone was any the wiser. If no one woke to the screaming coming from the woods, who would wake to the sound of his ID letting him back into the dorm? But if someone really was hurt, the fact that he might have saved them would protect him from any trouble he might be in. He hoped.
Ben ignored the door at the bottom of the stairwell; opening it would trigger the fire alarm. He wandered the outer halls of the first floor for what felt like far too long, trying to find a door that would be easy to return through. The halls were silent, but he hugged each corner and walked on his toes. Ben feared even breathing too loudly might alert someone to his location. He strained his ears for the sounds of footsteps that weren’t his own, but the cries for help still echoed in his ears. Ben could hear nothing else.
He pushed through one of the heavy metal double doors that led to the gym, cringing at the sound as the door clanged shut behind him. He waited, heart pounding so hard that his chest ached, ears straining through the sound of the wailing for signs that someone was coming to investigate the sound. If someone came, they would follow him and hear the calls for help too. If they came, they would be able to help, too.
Or they would try to stop him.
He ran, pushing through the outer doors, allowing himself a relieved exhale when no alarm sounded. His last night was a cold one, as March nights in New England often are, and damp. His pajama bottoms dragged in the grass and soon were wet, and he shivered as he ran. He planned to run along the building so he would not be spotted from an upstairs window until he could see the trees, but the sound of the door slamming shut behind him still reverberated in his chest, and his heart was hammering, and the screaming in his ears was getting louder. So Ben ran, sprinting across the dewy lawns and down the hill that leveled out just before he reached the tree line.
As he crossed that line, he thought he heard a gasp, but it could have also been a sob.
“Where are you,” Ben yelled into the trees. He fumbled with his phone, still in his palm now slick with sweat, to turn the flashlight on. He shone the beam into the trees. “I’ll help you! Can you hear me?”
Human, the voice said. I’m human!
The cries became screams, wordless and shrill. Ben cried out and fell to his knees, clapping his hands over his ears. Pain shot through his knee, but he registered it only dimly. It was nothing compared to his ears.
And then Ben didn’t hear anything else.