The campfire was down to its last embers before Jonas turned to me and asked me to tell my tale. I smiled, but it didn’t reach my eyes.
“It’s not really a ghost story, Jonas,” I replied. Circled around me, the kids of class nine yawned and rubbed their eyes. Billy McAllister was the only one really still awake; the rest struggled and stared vacantly at the fire, eyelids drooping.
They were a little old for campfire ghost stories anyway. What would I tell them? The story of the hitchhikers and hook hand? They’d laugh that one out of the ballpark.
For an answer to my complaint, Jonas only shifted and tossed some more sticks on the fire, shrugging away my denial. “Give it a shot anyway,” he said.
I started at the fire, not seeing it.
“I was about the same age as you kids when it happened. But before we get to that, you need to know what happened before…if that makes sense.”
Billy nodded and the rest turned sleepy eyes towards me. I couldn’t have been much more than a shadow to them against the light of the fire, and that was fine by me. “Before…
…then. My brother had been killed in a car crash a few summers before, and my family was still picking up the pieces and wondering where we all went from here. We all had our ways of dealing with it.
Me? I went for long walks. Twenty five mile, six hour long walks. I was out from nine in the morning to three in the afternoon. Once a week I’d find a day and walk. Solitude was my silent partner, and a welcome one at that.
Through sleeping fields of corn and wheat, I looked for some answers, and tried to come to terms with what happened. It was good to get out of the house and away from it all for a while. On a long walk, I’d slip into a quiet Zen state, my feet moving automatically over what become well-known footpaths and fields. Long walks and silence. It was beautiful.
Except the countryside is rarely silent; there would always be a tractor or a car moving somewhere in earshot. Radios playing, or people moving in the dozing villages and hamlets I passed through without stopping. Always moving, always walking, that was me.
Something you should know about the car crash – there was another car involved. Yes, my brother was racing – new car, hot pair of wheels and a feeling of invulnerability. All it needed was a wet road and the laws of physics took over. Seatbelts don’t help when you roll a car that fast. The other driver – Andy, I think his name was – survived. Death by dangerous driving. Five years in jail.
Anyway, I walked and I walked, and I dropped into a Zen sleep. You walk a footpath often enough, even a twenty mile one, and you don’t even need to look at your feet anymore. Or think anymore.
Except this day was different.
I paused in my story, and the kids shifted and fidgeted. They were all listening now, more awake. Some of them had brothers, after all. I looked away from the fire and up at the night, endless and infinite before I told them…
…I was on my way home that day. A route I’d taken a dozen times before. A narrow road with high hedges, a gate, a farmer’s field. Five miles from home. Nothing I hadn’t seen or experienced before; nothing out of the ordinary in any way. A little quieter than usual, that was all.
I stopped to take a drink of water from my backpack when it started: That feeling on the back of your neck, the one that stretches its way up your spine and down your back. You turn, and there is no one there; but the feeling remains. The footpath and the field you stand beside are empty, the sky a deserted blue apart from the islands of floating clouds. Not a soul in sight.
You tell yourself it’s nothing, but the feeling stays there.
The feeling of being watched. The feeling of being followed.
And it’s a feeling that gets stronger the more you stay and the more times you look back. Whatever it is comes closer, and whatever it is, you don’t want to meet it. Even in broad daylight on a hot summer day, you do not. Want. To. Meet. It.
The silence behind me was thicker than usual, the bird song muted and the trees silent and watching.
So I picked up my pace a little…and the feeling faded again. Until I stopped, and there it was again. Still nothing behind me but emptiness and solitude. Only that solitude felt like a threat now, a danger I never recognised.
I turned my back on that feeling and walked on and on.
Then at about three miles from home, something odd happened. From nowhere the thought popped, complete and relating to nothing:
Maybe I’m needed at home.
But that’s not the extraordinary thing. The instant the thought about being at home came into my head, the feeling of being watched vanished instantly as though it had never existed.
I still didn’t look back though, or pause to rest. I must have made those three miles in record time.
It would be simple now to check something like that…a text message or a phone call, and you’d have such a random thought cleared up in a few minutes. But this was twenty years ago, kids. Nothing so advanced back then. I was alone and no one knew where I was. I was three miles out and an hour away from knowing.
I made it home, of course, with no one following me. There wasn’t anything out there but my imagination. Nothing at all.
When I got home, my mother told me that the other driver in the car crash – Andy – had received an early prison release that day.
Billy was the first to ask, the others turning to him as though they’d forgotten he was there.
“You think it was your brother, sir? Haunting you or something?”
I could have lied to them, I suppose. I could have told them something. “I don’t know, Billy. I really don’t. I only know it scared the life out of me.” I stretched. “I’d been walking twenty miles a week until then…but I didn’t go for a walk the week after.”
Billy nodded, seemingly satisfied. “What was your brother’s name, sir?”
I coughed and cut my eyes to the empty log to my left. “Jonas.”
(Excluding the framing story of the campfire, this did happen to me – all of it. What was following me that silent summer day? I really don’t have a clue…but it was one of the most terrifying experiences of my life.)