They call childhood the happiest time of your life.
This was true for me too, at least until a specific day. After that nightmares, guilt and therapy replaced my happiness.
I grew up in a small rural community. It used to be one of the many small farming communities of the area and consisted of no more than a dozen houses.
As you can imagine there weren’t many kids there either. The few of us though were close. Altogether there was four of us, all between the ages of nine and twelve.
My best friend Jan and I were the oldest, both twelve years of age. Eric was a year younger than us and Sven, the youngest, was nine.
We referred to us by silly names like ‘The Glorious Four’ or other similar ones. They were all taken from or based on Saturday morning cartoons.
We spent most of our free time on either the local soccer field or the playground. Every once in a while we also went exploring the area and the small forests around the village.
In summer and early autumn that changed. During that time it drove us to the local cornfields. The tall and thickly planted stalks of corn were an entirely different world. It was always an adventure to venture into the fields. At times we searched for secrets inside. At others, we’d build small hideouts, to the displeasure of the local farmers.
To clear things up beforehand: Cornfields in Germany are generally not as vast as the American counterpart. The ones around our village measured only a few kilometers in length. Sure, to us kids they seemed huge, but in reality, they were pretty small.
Our chances of getting lost were almost non-existent. We could walk into any random direction and would end up at the edge of the field after no more than an hour.
During the summer holiday’s my friends and I would meet up right after lunch. We left our bikes at Jan’s home and set out for the fields.
On our adventures, we’d find all sorts of things: shiny stones, rusty tools, old newspapers and once in a while, even a coin or an old piece of clothing.
In typical kid’s manner, we’d make up all sorts of stories about these things. Rusty tools were left behind by farmers who ran from scary monsters, coins had been dropped by bank robbers and newspapers belonged to people who were hiding from the police.
In our imagination, we uncovered criminal conspiracies and proved the existence of monsters lurking in the fields.
One day during the second week of the year’s summer vacation we were out in the fields again. That day my friend Jan found something interesting.
It was something shiny on the ground that proved to be a small, heart-shaped necklace. It was laying in the middle of a rough path that cut through the corn.
Now small natural trails through the fields were not uncommon, but this was different. Here, the stalks were either pressed to the ground or ripped apart.
My thoughts turned to treasure in an instant. If there was a necklace here, then a group of thieves might have created this path!
As we followed it along, we noticed that it wasn’t a straight line. Instead, it was a wild zig-zag that tore through the field. It added to the impression of a group of people rushing for their hideout.
I was a bit surprised when the path led us to the edge of the cornfield and not to a hideout in the middle of the field.
What was even stranger though, was where we’d ended up. We’d followed the path in roughly the same direction all this time. This should have made us end up near the neighboring village. Instead, we found ourselves in front of a small vale surrounded by endless meadows. At its end, the vale led to a huge, dark forest.
We should be near the neighboring village, shouldn’t we? How had we ended up here?
I had explored every notch and cranny around the village and never seen this place.
After a while though, I accepted things as they were. Maybe this area was usually cut off by cornfields? Perhaps this vale was in the center of the cornfield? Or the field was larger than it had been during the other years? Who knows, I said to myself, we were here for treasure!
As I started to look around for a bit, I noticed something. The path we’d followed through the field continued down into the vale. Even from where I was I could see something else laying not too far away from us.
It was only a couple meters ahead and turned out to be a small leather pouch. It was empty though. There were no signs of jewelry, coins or diamonds.
Finding this pouch proved to me though, that we had to be on the right track. As I followed the path with my eyes, I saw that it led straight to the forest below.
“There’s no doubt,” I blurted out, “that the hiding place of the treasure must be down there!”
I nodded to myself and set out in the direction of the forest.
Jan and Eric followed me right away, but Sven stayed back.
“That forest looks scary. I wanna go home,” he said with a weak voice.
“That’s because you’re a scaredy cat, Sven!”
I was never the sensitive type, especially with my friends around. Soon I started to laugh and moments later Jan joined in. When both of us were teasing him, he finally kept quiet and agreed to come along. Peer pressure at its finest…
As we made our way through the vale, I noticed how unclaimed the place was. The grass was growing thick and reached almost up to my knees. Small trees and bushes here and there made it seem as if the forest was hard at work extending itself into the vale.
As we walked on, I felt cold all of a sudden. A fresh breeze had come up and only as I looked did I noticed how dark it had gotten. Thick, grey clouds that hid the sun filled the sky. Hadn’t it been a perfectly clear sky when we’d walked through the cornfields?
At the edge of the forest, I first thought the path stopped there. My hope was already fading, but Eric pointed at a few broken off branches nearby. Scanning the area revealed some unearthed trees and many scattered leaves.
I pointed in the direction and we continued on. The forest ahead of us started out normal enough, but with each step, it grew darker. As we made our way deeper and deeper inside, I started to become a bit more anxious.
The first thing I noticed was the light. By now it seemed as if we were walking in a sort of twilight. The world had changed from bright green and brown colors to an almost colorless grey unison.
Looking back, I am not sure why I continued deeper into the forest. I guess it was a mixture of curiosity and not wanting to admit how anxious I was in front of my friends.
I heard Sven talking to Eric in a low voice. It sounded like he was out of it and barely held back his tears.
This was enough, I said to myself. I stopped and looked around and then at my friends. I only noticed now how quiet things were around us. I’d lived near forests my whole life and knew that you were supposed to hear birds and the rustling of trees. Here in this grey twilight, there was nothing.
Everything started to feel wrong and for the first time, I felt alone. I knew my friends were there, right next to me, but it didn’t give me the comfort it usually did.
When Eric poked me in the back, I jerked around to yell at him, but I saw that he was pointing at something.
With a strange feeling of premonition, I looked at what he was pointing at. It was a sort of construction nestled between a few trees. It was no more than thirty meters away, but so easy to miss.
For a moment I scanned the area around us in a surge of panic. Was there someone else here? This day had started out as just another little adventure. Pretending to hunt criminals and searching for treasure was one thing. Now though, in this forest, the danger started to feel very real.
I had enough of this whole thing. We should go back, I thought. I was about to suggest it when Jan took the first step in the direction of the weird construction.
“Let’s check it out,” he whispered with a grin on his face.
“What are you…?” I started but then nodded. I didn’t want to admit that I was afraid. So, against my own feelings that things were wrong, I followed him. Eric tagged along after a while, but Sven stayed where he was. I couldn’t blame him.
As we got closer, I saw that it was a sort of hut. It was constructed from nothing but sticks and branches of various size. The roof was covered by leaves, grass, and dirt. Only now did I see how big this whole thing was.
The whole area in front of it was devoid of grass. It looked as if even the forest vegetation was retreating from the place. My skin started to crawl as I followed Jan. This was wrong a voice in my head said over and over again.
This was not a natural thing or some animal den. No, this must be someone’s hiding place. I could even see a fire pit in front of the hut.
What if there was someone out here? What if they were dangerous? What if they were inside right now, waiting for us to get closer?
I stopped, but Jan walked on as if nothing was wrong. I cursed in my mind. Why did that idiot have to go closer?!
I stepped forward, to tell him once and for all that we should all get out of here now. At that moment I noticed something out of the corner of my eye. I looked over at the hut and my heart skipped a beat. There was a large open entrance and there was something right inside of it. My first thought was that it really was a person lurking in there.
I already imagined someone getting up and running over towards me. In fear, I took a step back and bumped into Jan. I almost ran away, but then I saw that nothing over there was moving.
“What are you doing?” he asked in annoyance. My eyes grew wide and raised my hand to motion for him to be quiet.
“What is-” but he broke up when I pointed at the inside of the hut. The two of us both watched. Then we went closer one step at a time. Our eyes were focused on whatever was inside.
After a few steps, I realized that it was way too small to be a person. After some more steps, we saw that it was a tiny heap, covered by a dirty, old blanket.
Jan went forward to the small heap and I reluctantly followed him. Behind us, I heard Eric continue on in the direction of the fire pit.
“G-Guys?” I heard Eric call to us from outside in a shaken voice.
I turned to look and I saw him standing near the fire pit, his mouth was wide agape, looking down at something. I took a step outside, when Jan, still holding onto the blanket, stumbled into me and fell to the ground. His face was white as a sheet and when he started screaming my eyes moved to what he’d revealed.
My heart dropped. My breathing stopped. The world came to a halt. I opened my mouth, but couldn’t find words. After a few more moments my voice returned and I started to scream as well.
Looking back at me were the empty eyes of a little girl. I stood there, in the middle of this dark hut, unable to move or look away.
She was younger than us, dirty and covered in bruises. Her clothes were torn. There was no movement. There wouldn’t be. Somehow, even at my young age, I knew that she was not alive anymore.
Her body was twisted, almost folded together to fit under the blanket. I don’t know how long I was looking at it. Jan was next to me, pulling at me, but I was dazed.
After another second I was able to turn to him and look what he was pointing at now. It was another heap in a corner near the entrance. This one wasn’t covered. It consisted of only one thing: shoes.
There in the corner was an innumerable amount of tiny shoes. It must be hundreds of them, I thought, hundreds of children’s shoes.
As I stumbled outside, I saw Eric still standing next to the fire pit.
He wasn’t moving at all, just staring at something. Only as I came over did I see the real horror of this pit.
In its center, I saw a variety of bones. I saw at least two human skulls in-between the mess and knew what kind of bones they must be.
I touched Eric’s arm, but he wasn’t reacting. I noticed only now that he wasn’t looking down at the bones in the fire pit. He was frozen in place, shaking and look at something between the trees ahead.
At that moment I saw it too. Something was moving over there. Oh shit, I thought, someone must have heard mine and Jan’s scream. It must be the place’s owner. I imagined it was some crazed, haggard serial killer. Or considering the pit, a cannibal.
The reality though proved to be much, much worse. I noticed it right away, the size didn’t match. Whatever was over there was much too tall for a person. Was it some sort of animal?
Then I caught a glance of something. I saw long grey arms, an assortment of legs and what I could only think of as huge bulking bodies.
I thought it was multiple creatures. There were too many arms and legs, but then I realized it was all an entangled, twisted whole. It made its way through the trees a good hundred or so meters ahead of us as if searching for something.
From where I stood I could only watch the horrific nightmare creature in a dazed state. This was not real. It couldn’t be. In wonder and shock, I stood there and watched. For a moment I wondered when I’d wake up from this dream.
Then I saw that the creature was holding something. I told myself it was a small animal, that it was a rabbit or a deer. I said it to myself over and over again. It didn’t help.
I saw the tiny arms, the tiny legs. I saw the empty blue eyes. Finally, I saw the clothes and the little shoes at the end of the legs. What the creature was holding in one of its many arms, was the limp body of a child.
“Oh god no, oh god no,” I heard Eric mutter next to me.
Right at that moment Jan came over to us and saw the thing too.
“What the hell’s that!?” he screamed up.
With that the thing noticed us. It let out a weird, distorted scream of its own, that made my ears ring before it came crashing towards us.
Branches splintered against the grey monstrosity’s bulking body. I saw how it used two of its arms to push tree trunks aside as if they were nothing. Its many legs were moving in a hypnotic, disjointed way.
I was still in shock. For a few moments, I could only watch as the surreal beast came closer and closer with each second.
As I remembered the shoes, the bones in the fire pit and finally the dead girl, I realized this would be me too. I saw the rest of my friends. Jan was tumbling backward, Sven was standing ten meters behind, crying, but turned to run. Only Eric and I were still standing here. Finally, I snapped out of it and pulled him after me.
As we started running the thing screamed once more. With each passing second, I knew it was coming closer. I could feel the ground shaking with each step of its many legs. I turned around, sure to see the thing reach out for me, but no, it had stopped in front of the hut. It must be the things hideout.
It dropped its prey and then it started to move its head around. It looked as if it was… sniffing the air? Was it blind? I had no idea and kept running.
What the hell was that thing? Where were we? My legs ached and my lungs burned. For a short moment, I slowed down to catch my breath. As if to answer this decision the creature screamed once again.
“Oh please no. Just stay there!” I prayed to myself.
I didn’t have that much luck. The noise behind me was enough to know that it was coming after us again. It sounded as if a truck, or better a tank, was crushing through the forest behind us. I heard the splintering of both trees and branches. It was as if nothing could stop the thing.
Finally, I saw the edge of the forest ahead. Then I reached it and then I rushed outside into the small vale. My friends were all ahead of me, even Sven.
I didn’t get to focus on them. Only seconds after me, I heard something huge explode out of the forest as well. Branches and twigs came raining down all around me.
I looked over my shoulder once more. I saw the sickly, grey and leathery skin of the centauric monstrosity only a dozen or so meters behind me.
This time I was able to make out the deformed head. There were a gorging maw and a weird bony hole above it. Where the thing’s eyes should have been, was only grown together scar tissue.
The things four arms were all reaching out for me. I remember that its hands had too many fingers. I don’t know how many there were. They were almost as thin as twigs but much longer as if they had too many joints.
Right at this moment, I tripped over a hidden stone in the tall grass. For a few more steps I went on before I crashed straight to the ground.
Jan, who must have seen me fall to the ground, turned towards me. Our eyes met, grew wide and he screamed at me:
“Get up! Get up! Get up!”
Right then the creature behind me turned around. It focused its attention on Jan. I saw how it rushed over to him on its many legs. Then, only moments later, the long, thin fingers reached out for him.
The thing let out a triumphant scream as it caught my friend’s squirming body in one of its hands. He screamed up in pain, fear, and confusion. I saw tears streaming from his eyes. He struggled against the grip and then reached out his arms towards me.
“Tom help me! Tom! Tom! Help me!”
He screamed my name over and over and over again, as the fingers closed around him.
I watched, shook my head, and the only thing on my mind was not me.
Oh dear god, the thing has not gotten me! I can’t let it get me! I have to get away!
I jumped back to my feet and started running again, all the while Jan was still screaming after me.
I didn’t look back. I couldn’t. I only ran on. I didn’t stop.
I fought my way up at the end of the vale towards the edge of the cornfields. Finally, in a last ditch of effort, I made it and fell to the ground. My whole body was trembling with pain.
Eric was there, Sven arrived soon after. They were both crying.
For long seconds I lay there shivering. Any moment from now, I thought, the creature would appear to get us too. Then I realized it must have given up.
That’s when I remembered Jan. I turned to look down towards the vale and the forest. It had happened right next to me, but I didn’t want to accept it as a reality. I hoped, no prayed, for my friend Jan to come running up here as well. Instead, I saw only the greyish monstrosity, as it made its way back.
It was almost at the forest now. It wasn’t running anymore. Its many legs moved in a steady trot.
Even from this distance, I could see that it was holding something in one of his overlong hands. It was something small that was now limp.
This was Jan, I realized. Jan who had called out for me to get up. I was unable to take my eyes away from the sight as tears streamed down my face.
It would have been me. I was the one who had tripped and fallen right in front of that thing. If Jan hadn’t called out, it would have dragged me back into this ghastly forest.
He had saved me and I hadn’t done anything. Right as the thing had grabbed him, I ran away and ignored him.
No, I’d abandoned him.
Once we were able to move again, we started on our way back through the cornfield. None of us said a thing. Sven was still crying, even now. Eric was as lethargic as I.
No one said a word. No one mentioned that as soon as we made it out of the vale, the sky was clear once again and the sun was shining down at us.
In our confused state, it took us hours to find our way back. Each sound we heard made us turn around in fear of the creature. When we finally made it home, it was already late in the evening.
At first, no one in the village believed our story. When Jan stayed missing though, the adults couldn’t ignore it anymore.
They talked about criminals and kidnappers hiding in the forest. When we told our story, they all disregard it. They attributed the monster and everything else to our imagination and fear.
A police search was started. They combed the whole area, searched through the forests and the meadows. Finally, they even checked the cornfields.
They found nothing. There was no hint of the tiny vale or the thick, dark forest behind it. It seemed as if this entire area, as well as the monster, had never existed.
It was the same for Jan. They never found a hint of him. No body. No remains. Nothing. He too had all but vanished.
I grew older and finally moved to leave all this behind. There was one thing I couldn’t though, my memories. For years I went to therapy, but it didn’t help.
Many nights I wake up, covered in sweat. In some, I see the monster and its gaping maw again. In others, I hear my friend screaming out for me and see his pleading eyes again.
There are also those nights, on which I lay in bed, wide awake. Wishing my friend would have not called out for me.